This is not so much a new recipe as an experiment in bread making. I made my first foray into crusty breads a few weeks ago. In my experience in bread making, cooking the dough in a dry oven produced a soft crust. I had made a large batch of dough and I thought I would bake half of it in a dry oven and half in a moist oven. Small details make big differences.
Bread is simply a mixture of flour, water and some kind of leaven, but the results can vary widely depending of the differences in handling—both before and during baking. Recently, I was making bread to go with my soup tasting and I wanted both crusty and soft crusted breads to meet the demands of my different diners.
The bread I learned to make from my mother, Claudia, was a fairly standard white bread. Baked in a pan in a moderate (350º f) oven, it produced a fine crumbed, soft bread with a tender crust. Baking a rustic Italian bread, in a hot oven on a baking stone, produces a very different loaf.
The secret to rustic Italian bread is in using a well developed “sponge.” To make a sponge you mix part of the flour, water and yeast into a very wet dough. You then let this dough ferment for 6-24 hours creating a very “spongy” “yeasty” flavorful mass.
This sponge is then used as a starter with the rest of the dough to make the final bread. As well as adding flavor the long resting gives the yeast time to fully develop. This abundance of yeast causes the large gas bubbles that give this bread its distinctive open chewy crumb.
Note: There are many reasons to add salt to bread, but salt slows down the growth of the yeast. If you are using the sponge and dough method, never add the salt to the sponge. The purpose of a sponge is to let the yeast “go wild,” you do not want to add anything that will slow it down.
The first ten minutes of baking is critical to both the crust and the interior crumb of your final loaf. If you put the finished dough into a dry oven the heat will quickly cause the crust to form and stop the “oven spring”—the final rising of the bread before the formation of the crust locks in the shape of the bread. I had thought that this would produce a soft crust and by preventing the gasses inside the bread from expanding to produce a dense tight crumb, like my mothers bread.
I had thought that if you put the same loaf in an oven with a lot of moisture—by adding a pan of hot water and spraying the walls of the oven—the formation of the crust is slowed down. I believed that it would form a crisp crust and an open, “holey,” and chewy crumb. In this experiment, I was trying to find out if my assumptions were correct.
Note: In the moist oven, the starches on surface of the dough also saturate with water and rupture turning into a gel. When the crust finally forms, this starch gel hardens into the distinctive crisp/crunchy crust of these breads. The more moisture there is in the oven, the more of this gel will form and the crisper your crust will be.
To cut to the chase, I was completely backwards. The dry oven bread formed a tough chewy crust and a more open crumb. The crust, having formed early, had time to harden more deeply into the bread as it cooked. The gasses, prevented from expanding, burst the walls of gluten bubbles to form pockets. This bread was very like the ciabatta that I was originally trying to make when I tried to make “rustic” Italian bread.
In the wet oven, the gas bubbles had time to expand, without bursting their balloons. This produced a finer crumbed, softer bread. The late development of the crust produces a crisp texture, but also a very thin crust. This bread came out much closer to a good French bread, crisp and tender.
Note: I made sure not to destroy my sponge this time and I gave it 16 hours to develop, before making my dough. The extra time made a noticeable (positive) difference in the flavor.
Karl’s Rustic Italian Bread II
1 cup warm water
½ tsp. active dry yeast
1 ½ cup bread flour
1½ cup warm water
1 tsp. active dry yeast
3-4 cups bread flour, separate uses
1 tsp. salt
1 Tbs. olive oil
Large baking pan
1. Put one quarter cup of warm water in a medium bowl and stir in the yeast. Let it rest for 15 minutes until foamy.
Tip: This is called “proofing” your yeast, to make sure that it is active—i.e. still alive. A pinch of sugar gives the yeast something to eat and I usually add it just to get the yeast started.
2. Add the rest of the warm water and sift in the flour.
3. Stir the flour into the water until the thin dough is smooth and lump free.
4. Lightly cover the bowl with plastic wrap and set in a warm place for 6-24 hours.
Tip: You do not what to seal the bowl “air tight” with the plastic wrap. This would slow down the formation of the yeast.
Caution!!!: If you set the sponge bowl in your oven overnight, remember to remove it before preheating your oven for scones in the morning! In my first attempt I had to start over—a baked sponge never rises!
5. Put one quarter cup of warm water in a large bowl and stir in the yeast. Let it rest for 15 minutes until foamy.
6. Add the rest of the warm water and sift in two cups of flour.
7. Cover the bowl with a clean, damp, dish towel and let the dough rest for 30-40 minutes.
8. Stir the sponge and salt into the dough, until well mixed.
9. Add one cup of flour, half a cup at a time, until you have a soft dough.
10. Turn the dough out onto a lightly floured board.
11. Using a board scrapper and only as much flour as you need ( ½ -1 cup) to keep it from sticking, knead the dough for five minutes, until smooth.
Tip: Use only as much flour as you need. It is easier to add flour to a wet dough than to add water to a dry dough.
12. Form the dough into a ball and place it in an oiled bowl.
Tip: Wipe the top of the dough ball around in the oil and then turn it over.
13. Cover the bowl and let it rise until double in volume, about one hour.
14. Using a spatula, fold one edge of the dough into the center. Fold the opposite edge of the dough into the center and then fold the resulting packer in half over itself.
15. Let the dough rise for half an hour and repeat step 14.
16. Let the dough rise for a second half hour.
17. Place the baking stone on the top rack of the oven and preheat the oven to 500º F.
18. Turn the dough out on to a bread board and divide it in half.
19. Form the dough into two long loaves and place them on sheets of parchment paper.
Note: This is where I diverged from the original recipe. Before I baked the loaves side by side in a moist oven as described below. Here, I am baking one loaf separately in a dry oven and then baking the second loaf in a wet oven.
20. Slide the parchment paper onto a oven peel and let the bread rise for 20 minutes.
21. With a sharp knife, slash three diagonal slices across the top of the loaf.
22. Slide the first loaf onto the baking stone, parchment paper and all into the dry oven.
23. Reduce the oven temperature to 400º F.
Note: I followed the instructions for baking the bread in a wet oven and did not reduce the temperature for 10 minutes. This caused the top of the loaf to burn a bit, so for a dry oven reduce the temperature immediately.
24. Bake the loaf for 25-30 minutes, until well browned.
25. Remove the loaf to a wire rack to cool.
Note: Return the oven temperature to 500º F.
26. Place a baking pan with one quart of hot water on the lower rack of the oven.
Tip: I found that spritzing the walls of the oven were not an effective way of making the oven moist—most of the steam escaped before you got the oven door closed. I had a shallow lipped baking sheet just over the heating elements. A cup of water poured into this hot tray quickly steamed up the oven quite efficiently.
27. With a sharp knife, slash three diagonal slices across the top of the second loaf.
Note: This second loaf actually had an addition half hour of rising time.
28. Spritz the top of the loaf with water and slide it onto the baking stone, parchment paper and all.
29. Spritz the sides of the oven well and close the oven door.
30. After 10 minutes, reduce the oven temperature to 400º F.
31. Bake the loaf for 25-30 minutes, until well browned.
32. Remove the loaf to a wire rack to cool for ten minutes before slicing or leave them whole for the dinners to tear apart.