Bread is said to be one of the most important, though often overlooked, components of a good, Italian meal. In this article, we take you through some of the DOs & DON’Ts of bread-making, while giving you some helpful hints that will guide you in the kitchen.
The word “companion” has a particularly touching origin—it derives from the Latin “cum panis”—which means, basically, someone with whom you share bread. Most languages and cultures are filled with expressions, proverbs, allegories and legends about bread—and sharing it. Bread is one of the most universal, ancient, and life-sustaining foods on earth with deeply human associations. Many of us have lasting childhood memories of the unmistakable aroma of freshly baked bread; it warms the body and soul like nothing else in this world. Making bread is certainly an art, but if, just once, you dare to do it yourself, in your own kitchen with your own hands, you’ll quickly realize we really are all artists at heart. It’s an amazing experience that we recommend to everyone.
In Italy, pane (bread) has a sacred aura—it’s still considered a sin to throw bread away here. Yet, for a country world-renowned for its extraordinary cuisine, it may come as a surprise that most Italians still prefer pane bianco (white bread). Some say the neutral flavor of white bread is the best complement for Italian salumi and cheeses, or even for scarpetta; others contend that there’s a cultural bias against pane nero (dark bread) because of ancient associations with war and hardship. But nutritionists everywhere agree on the overwhelming benefits of whole grain breads, and the younger generation Italians are slowly coming around.
Do it yourself
Contrary to what many of us think, it’s not difficult to make your own bread—even on your very first try, without the help of any special appliances, you will probably attain delicious results. In fact, if this is your first try, I recommend the slow, old-fashioned method of kneading the dough by hand. Just relax and get into the soothing rhythm of it: the dough must be hand-kneaded for quite a while to obtain the best results. But, if you do have a dough-kneading electrical appliance or even a large food processor, you can spare yourself quite a bit of time and labor—though the mess is half the fun of making bread!
Here are some simple suggestions for making delicious homemade bread:
- Use natural fresh brewer’s yeast, sold in cubes—or, alternatively, use dry active yeast. The fresh brewer’s yeast, which is used by all Italian bakers, should be about 5% of the flour. If you opt for dry yeast, follow the package instructions.
- Bread flour has high gluten and gives better results, especially for novices, but you can also use plain, all-purpose flour. If you’ve never made bread before, you may want to begin with white flour since it’s the easiest to work with. After a little experience, you can expand your repertoire to the more nutritious whole grain flours—such as whole wheat, rye, spelt, buckwheat, emmer and multigrain. These all require different proportions of yeast or other leavening agents, and the mixing and baking techniques also vary.
- Do not add milk, margarine or salt to the initial yeast mixture.
- However, a pinch of sugar is sometimes added as it helps to increase the leavening; also a few tablespoons of extra virgin olive oil (EVOO) may be added, but neither of these ingredients is necessary. Let’s not forget that in many parts of the world, many forms of bread are still made simply with flour and water—just that!
- If you use a dough-kneading electrical appliance—some food processors have a blade specifically for dough making—just be sure to follow the manufacturer’s instructions. Leavening, of course, and some final work by hand will still be necessary.
- For the leavening process (allow at least five hours), the dough should be covered with a cloth or plastic wrap—placed on a floured board or in a large basin—and kept in a warm place, usually in the kitchen. I like to put it somewhere high on top of some kitchen furniture or over the fridge. Keep the dough away from drafts and sudden changes of temperature. Be aware that as the dough rises, it will swell to double its volume, becoming soft and light.
- If you intend to make bread often, put aside a couple of ounces of the unleavened dough in a well-sealed glass or plastic container and allow it to ferment in a cool place—but not the refrigerator—for a few days. This will be your natural “starter” (called “madre” in Italian) for your next bread loaf—and your bread will taste amazing.
- If you do not have a system of humidification in your oven, a good trick to improve the quality of your pane is to put a small oven-proof ceramic cup, half filled with water, inside the oven.
- Very important: You should always have a little mountain of flour very close to you so that you can dust your work surface, hands and dough continually to avoid sticking.
Basic method for hand-kneaded salted Tuscan bread:
- You need a large, clean and dry surface to work on—a wooden board is best. You’ll need at least 3 pounds of flour to make four small loaves of bread. The amount of water needed varies, but it’s about three cups.
- In a bowl of lukewarm water, crumble about two ounces of fresh yeast—or spread 1 ounce of dry yeast—adding a pinch of sugar and a generous amount of EVOO. Mix with a fork and let it foam for a few minutes; meanwhile, sift about a pound of flour onto your work surface.
- Start by slowly adding the yeast/water/oil mixture to a small portion of the flour, sprinkling in a teaspoon of sea salt. Begin blending this wet mixture with your fingers, then gradually adding more flour, use your entire hands— working with a continuous movement of folding and stretching. The dough needs to take in air and gain volume. Scrape what sticks to the surface with a spatula and remix it into the dough.
- Continue working the dough well, stretching out the dough with the lower part of your palm and then folding it back on itself. Do this repeatedly and continuously, until the mass is homogeneous and little bubbles start to appear on the surface.
- Fold and shape the dough into a round form, cover it with a towel or plastic wrap, and lay it on the wooden board and keep it in a warm spot for at least six hours.
- After this rest, dust your hands in flour and gently cut into four equal parts, depending on your oven space.
- Finally, gently fold and refold the dough—you and the dough should feel like old friends now—and shape into four round or oblong loaves and lay them onto the baking sheet.
- Make three or more diagonal cuts on the top of each loaf and pop them into a 430°F oven for 45 minutes.
A delightful variation of this basic Tuscan bread is made by simply adding good-quality olives—3/4 pound or so, depending on your taste. Pit the olives (by flattening them with the side of a large knife), roughly chop them and incorporate them into the dough at the end—that is, after the dough has risen. We used Calamatas; view the recipe here.
*For another homemade bread recipe, check out our Roasted Tomato Garlic Bread.
Some fun, simpler bread recipes: