July 18, 2012
What is Italian country bread?
Italian country bread is known for its very chewy, coarse texture. The texture of this bread makes it ideal for dipping and sandwich making, because it holds moisture very well without becoming soggy. Italian country bread is also referred to as pan bigio, or “gray bread,” in a reference to the unrefined flour which is traditionally used to make it. Many Italian bakeries offer this bread, and it can also be made at home.
By tradition, pan bigio is made from minimally processed flour. Typically, this means that the flour is whole wheat that gives a very rich, nutty flavor to the finished bread. Some bakers prefer to use a mixture of lightly processed white flour and whole wheat flour so that the bread is not as heavy, creating a bread with a flecked texture and a slightly more open crumb. Cornmeal may be added as well to make the texture even more coarse.
Italian country bread is made with a biga, a traditional Italian starter. Breads made with bigas tend to be chewier and they have more complex, savory flavors as a result of the slow fermentation of the yeasts.
A starter usually consists of a simple mixture of flour, water, and a leavening agent (typically yeast). After mixing, it is allowed to ferment for a period of time, and then is added to bread dough as a substitute for, or in addition to, more yeast. So pre-ferments are critical for best tasting bread.
The primary difference, between making bread with a starter and making bread with the direct yeast method, is that starter breads require much more time to prepare, but the flavor and texture of the bread is almost impossible to achieve with other leavening methods. Bread made with starters (biga) also tend to keep better, compared to bread made without a biga. You will not find this type of great tasting bread in your local supermarket.
The bread recipes below are “Old World”, but I have updated them to make use of modern ingredients, techniques and equipment.
“The Breadbasket Of Italy”
Puglia, or Apulia as it is also known, is in Italy’s boot heel in its south eastern most region off the coast of the Adriatic Sea. Puglia produces one-tenth of the wine drunk in Europe and its olive oil is well regarded. Puglia is also the breadbasket of Italy and home to the wonderful hearth breads, now gaining recognition in the rest of Italy and throughout the world. Today you can find these breads in bakeries and supermarkets throughout Italy.
The region is noted for its population density, mostly concentrated in populous centers, while the countryside is occupied by flourishing cultivation. Agriculture, which was very difficult in the past due to the dryness of the land, is now supported by the Aqueduct, so now, the region is among the largest Italian producers of tomatoes, salad, carrots, olives, eggplant, artichokes, almonds and citrus fruit. Also highly developed is sheep raising in the Tavoliere plain and fishing in the Gulf of Taranto. Tourism in the summer is another great resource, thanks to the beautiful beaches along the coast, and the many tourist villages and campsites.
The Pugliese bread is characterized by a moist dough which results in large holes in a well structured crumb, and a well-developed, crunchy crust. Heavier than a Ciabatta, and made with a higher gluten flour, Pugliese bread is typically shaped as a Batard (oval) slashed with a single cut running lengthwise and, sometimes, is shaped as a round loaf with a dimpled top.
Yield : A 6 ½ -by-3-inch-high loaf
Dough Starter (Biga) Ingredients:
- 1/2 cup plus 1/2 tablespoon bread flour or unbleached all purpose flour
- 1/16 teaspoon instant yeast
- 1/4 liquid cup water, at room temperature (70°F to 90°F)
Bread Dough Ingredients:
- 1/2 cup bread flour or unbleached all purpose flour
- 1/2 cup durum flour, (durum flour is finely milled and marketed as “extra-fancy” pasta flour or “farina grade). (Semolina flour is a much coarser grind and will not work for this bread.)
- 1/2 teaspoon instant yeast
- 3/4 teaspoon salt
- 1/2 cup water, at room temperature (70°F to 90°F)
- biga from above
Six hours or up to 3 days ahead, make the starter (biga). In a small bowl, combine all the ingredients for the biga and stir the mixture until it is very smooth and pulls away from the sides of the bowl. The biga should still be sticky enough to cling slightly to your fingers. Cover the bowl tightly with oiled plastic wrap and set aside until tripled and filled with bubbles. At room temperature, this will take about 6 hours. Stir it down and use it, or refrigerate it for up to 3 days before baking. For the best flavor development allow the biga to ferment in a cool area (55°F to 65°F) for 12 to 24 hours.
Biga the next day.
Mix the dough:
In the electric mixer bowl, whisk together the bread flour, durum flour, and yeast. Then whisk in the salt (this keeps the salt from coming into direct contact with the yeast, which would kill it). Add the water and the biga.
Using the electric mixer paddle attachment, mix on low speed for about 1 minute, until the flour is moistened enough to form a rough dough.
Change to the dough hook, raise the speed to medium, and beat for 5 minutes to form a smooth, sticky dough. If the dough does not pull away from the bowl after 5 minutes, beat in more flour 1 teaspoon at a time. The dough should still stick to the bottom of the bowl and cling to your fingers. If it is not sticky, spray it with a little water and knead it in.
Let the dough rise.
Sprinkle durum flour generously onto a counter in a 6-inch square. Using a wet or oiled spatula or dough scraper, turn the dough onto the flour, and dust the top of it with more flour. (The flour will be absorbed into the wet dough.) Allow it to rest for 2 minutes.
With floured hands, pull out two opposite sides of the dough to stretch it to double its length, and give it a business letter turn. Dust it again with flour, cover it with plastic wrap, and allow it to rest for 30 minutes.
Stretching and turning the dough.
Repeat the stretching, folding, and flouring a second time, and again allow the dough to rest for 30 minutes.
Repeat the stretching, folding, and flouring a third time, then round the edges of the dough.
Using an oiled spatula or dough scraper, transfer the dough to a 2-quart bowl, lightly greased with cooking spray or oil. Cover the container with plastic wrap. Allow the dough to rise (ideally at 75°F to 80°F) until tripled, about 2 hours.
Shape the dough and let it rise.
Dust a counter well with durum flour. With floured hands or a floured dough scraper, gently transfer the dough to the counter. Handling the dough very gently; round it into a ball.
Begin by gently pressing down the dough into a round patty, dimpling the dough with your fingertips to deflate any large bubbles. Draw up the edges to the center. Pinch them together and turn the dough over so that the pinched part is at the bottom. With cupped hands, stretch the dough down on all sides to form a tight skin, and pinch it again at the bottom.
Transfer the round ball of dough to an un-floured part of the counter and, with your hands on either side of the dough, push it back and forth while rotating it clockwise. You will feel the dough tighten and take on a rounder shape, with taut skin.
Set dough in a towel lined basket.
Dough ready for the oven.
Gently set the dough seam side up in a colander lined with a floured towel for a round shape or a long bread basket with a floured towel for the oval shape. Pinch together the seam, if necessary. Sprinkle the top lightly with flour, and cover loosely with oiled plastic wrap.
Allow the dough to rise until it has increased by about 1 ½ times, about 1 ½ hours.
Inside crumb of baked bread.
Bake the bread.
Preheat the oven to 500°F 1 hour before baking. Have an oven shelf at the lowest level and place an oven stone on it and a broiler pan on the floor of the oven, before preheating.
Cover a baking sheet with parchment paper. Remove the plastic wrap covering the colander or basket, invert the lined baking sheet on top of the colander, and invert the dough onto the sheet.
Quickly but gently set the sheet on the baking stone. Toss 1/2 cup of ice cubes onto the pan beneath and immediately shut the door. Bake for 5 minutes. Lower the temperature to 450°F and continue baking for 15 to 25 minutes or until the bread is deep golden brown (an instant-read thermometer inserted into the center will read about 205°F).
Halfway through baking, with a heavy pancake turner, lift the bread from the pan, remove the pan with the parchment on it and set it directly on the stone, turning it around for even baking. Remove the bread when done from the oven and transfer it to a wire rack to cool completely.
Rustic Whole Grain Italian-Style Pagnotta
Pagnotta is typically found throughout central Italy, a rustic peasant loaf with a hard, deep brown crust and a soft center. In northern Italy, this bread is made into small round rolls. These make ideal soup bowls. This bread can also be used to hold dips and spreads. The dough is oten used to make pizza crusts or focaccia. This is a three day process but the steps on the first two days are minimal.
Starter Dough (Biga) Ingredients:
- 1/8 teaspoon active dry yeast
- 1/4 cup warm water
- generous 1/4 cup room temperature water plus an extra 2 teaspoons
- 1 1/4 cup bread flour or unbleached all-purpose flour
Starter Dough Directions:
On the night before you are going to make bread, in a small bowl, mix the yeast in the warm water and leave covered on the kitchen counter.
The next morning stir together the yeasted water, room temperature water and bread flour in the electric mixer bowl with a spatula or wooden spoon; be sure all the flour is incorporated.
Cover tightly with plastic wrap and let the Starter Dough rise in a cool room for 6 to 8 hours or overnight in the refrigerator.
Bread Dough Ingredients:
- 1 1/4 teaspoon active dry yeast
- 1/4 cup warm water
- all of Starter Dough
- 2 1/2 cups room temperature water
- scant 2 cups whole wheat (white whole wheat or regular whole wheat) flour
- 3 3/4 cups bread flour or unbleached all-purpose flour
- 1 tablespoon salt
Bread Dough Directions:
If the Starter Dough has been refrigerated, allow it to sit at room temperature for about an hour before starting.
In a small bowl, mix the yeast in 1/4 cup lukewarm water and wait until it bubbles (about 10 minutes).
Add the yeast mixture and the room temperature water to the Starter Doughl and mix well with the mixer paddle attachment. Add all the whole wheat flour and all but 1/2 cup of the bread flour to the mixer bowl.
Beat vigorously until there are no dry bits of flour left and you have created a rough dough. Cover with plastic and allow to rest for 20 to 30 minutes.
Switch to the dough hook and sprinkle the salt over the dough which will be rather slack. (It should look a bit like porridge.)
Knead the dough with the dough hook adding in the remaining flour a little at a time. The dough should be quite moist. Keep kneading until the dough is smooth and pulls away from the bowl.
Place dough in a clean dry lightly floured mixing bowl. Cover with plastic wrap and allow to rise on the counter for 20 minutes. Lightly sprinkle a board with flour and gently turn the dough out, trying not to disturb any bubbles.
Fold the left side into the center, then the top, then the right side, then the bottom. Turn the dough over and fold in half once more. Place it back in the bowl smooth side up. Cover with plastic. Let it ferment at room temperature for 20 minutes again.
Repeat this step twice. (This step is done at 20 minutes, 40 minutes, 60 minutes after the first kneading.) After the final step, let the dough rise undisturbed on the counter until doubled – about 1 to 2 hours depending on the room temperature.
When dough has doubled, gently turn the dough out onto a lightly floured board. Flatten it gently (try not to disturb the bubbles); fold the outer edges to the middle.
Repeat the folding 4 or 5 times until you have formed a tight round loaf. Place on a parchment covered baking sheet – or peel if you have one. Sprinkle flour liberally over the loaf. Cover with plastic and allow to rise for about 1 hour until almost doubled.
To test, flour your finger and press gently on the edge – it should very slowly spring back.
Half an hour before you will be baking the bread, place a baking stone on the second shelf from the bottom of the oven and heat the oven to 500 degrees F. Put water into a broiling pan and place it on the bottom rack of the oven.
If you don’t have a baking stone, it’s still a good idea to preheat the oven for a substantial amount of time. Just before baking, spray the top of the loaf with water.
Slide the bread onto the baking stone using the parchment paper to get the bread in place on the stone. You can also leave the bread on the baking sheet and place the baking sheet on the stone, but the bread will not be as crisp as baking directly on the stone.
Immediately turn the oven down to 450 degrees F; bake the loaf for 45-50 minutes until hollow sounding on the bottom. Turn off the oven and leave with the door ajar for 10 minutes. Remove to cool on cooling rack.