Two loaves, rustic Italian bread

A treat I used to enjoy when we lived in the Capital District of New York was to go to Perreca’s Bakery (reviews) in the Little Italy section of Schenectady on Saturday mornings.  Part of the lore surrounding Perreca’s was that Frank Sinatra, in Albany for a concert, had some of their bread – and immediately began having it shipped to his home in California each week.  Taste it and you’d understand whyround loaves with a thick, crunchy crust surrounding the airiest, most delicately textured interior ever, Perreca’s bread was transcendent.   I’d drive down early on Saturdays and buy a couple of  loaves still hot from the oven, drive home like a maniac, and begin enjoying it right away.

Lately I’ve been experimenting with different recipes in an attempt to recreate some of the old Perreca’s magic. The loaves you see here represent a reasonable facsimile – with a crunchy crust and an airy texture, they bring me back to those special Saturday mornings.

Does all this come with a price?  Well, the recipe couldn’t be simpler – it’s basically flour, water and yeast – with a tiny bit of salt.  But making this bread does require an investment in time:  much of its flavor comes from the use of a pre-ferment or “biga” as it’s called in Italian.  The biga is prepared (this part only requires a few minutes) the evening before the bread is baked.  The recipe does call for the dough to rise a total of 4 times – for 4 hours total.  Baking time is about 40 minutes – so Day 2 requires that you have around 5 hours available.  As such, this is a recipe that’s perfect for a cold winter day, a rainy day, or a lazy Sunday afternoon.  Make the investment in time and you’ll be eating some of the best Italian bread you’ve ever had!

Ingredients

Biga (Note:  the entire recipe is available for free on the Downloads page)

  • 2 cups bread flour
  • 1/4 tsp. Instant dry yeast
  • 8 oz. water @ room temperature

Dough

  • 3 cups bread flour
  • 1 tsp. instant dry yeast
  • 1-1/3 cups water @ room temperature

Other

  • Pam spray (I use olive oil Pam for this recipe; regular Pam would be fine too)
  • Cornmeal
  • Large baking sheet

Start the evening before with the biga or pre-ferment

Making the biga couldn’t be much simpler:  combine all ingredients in a medium to large bowl, and knead for a few minutes, forming a shaggy dough. I always coat the inside of the bowl with a generous spray of Pam; this makes things easier later on.  Cover tightly with plastic wrap and leave out for three hours at room temperature, then refrigerate overnight.  Here’s the biga after being kneaded:

Biga

…and this is what it looks like the next morning; it will have risen and bubbled quite a bit as it fermented.  When you’re ready to form the balance of the dough, remove the biga from the refrigerator and let it come to room temperature.

Biga after rising

Mixing the dough

Likewise, the dough itself is simplicity:  flour, water, yeast.  NOTE:  do NOT add the salt at this point.  Combine the 3 ingredients in a medium to large bowl.  Knead for 3-4 minutes and cover dough loosely with plastic wrap; let the dough rest for 20 minutes at room temperature.  (Again, I coat the interior of the bowl with Pam prior to putting the dough back in it.)

After 20 minutes, I sprinkle one of the two teaspoons of table salt over the dough, and then add the biga to the dough by inverting its bowl over that containing the dough.  A spatula will help in removing the biga.

Pull the dough/biga mixture out of the bowl and knead it on a clean surface prepped with some Pam spray for a few minutes, thoroughly mixing the salt into the dough.  Then add the other teaspoon of salt to the dough and continue to knead it for another 3-4 minutes.  Make sure you continue to turn the dough on itself to ensure that the salt is thoroughly mixed throughout the dough and that the biga and new dough are completely blended with one another.

If you’re not comfortable kneading dough, be reassured that it’s not brain surgery; this simple 1′ 30″ video should help:

This is what the biga/dough mixture should look like after being kneaded:

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The next few steps aren’t taxing, they’re just time consuming.  Let the dough mixture (tightly covered with plastic wrap) rise for an hour at room temperature.  Then remove the plastic wrap and gently fold one side of the dough to the other, fold the top to the bottom, and flip it over in the bowl. Having used Pam in the bowl makes this much easier.  You are NOT punching down the dough, but rather gently folding it upon itself.  Recover tightly with plastic wrap – and repeat this process twice for a total of 3 hours’ worth of rising.  After three cycles, it should look something like this:

The dough after rising 3 times

At this juncture you’re going to have to resort to working on a floured surface.  If preparing two loaves, cut the dough in half after turning it from the bowl onto your work surface.  Dust your hands and the top surface of each piece of dough with flour.  Shape the two pieces into rectangles measuring appx. 8″ x 10″ (yes, I should have flunked geometry!) –

Dough cut in half & spread into two rectangles

Fold the two top corners toward the center:

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…and then begin gently rolling the dough into a log shape:

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This is what you should end up with.  Put the seam side down, and tuck the ends underneath.

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Transfer the two loaves onto a baking sheet onto which you previously sprinkled cornmeal:

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Cover the loaves loosely with plastic wrap and let rise one hour; (pre-heat your oven to 500°F at the 45 minute mark) then use a single edge razor blade or very sharp paring or chef’s knife to cut a 1/2″ deep slit lengthwise in each loaf, stopping and starting about 2″ from the ends of the loaf:

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Oven pre-heated?  Great!  Bake for 10 minutes at 500°F; turn loaves 180° (rotate baking sheet one half turn) and lower heat to 400°F.  Bake for another 30 minutes until loaves are a deep golden brown.  Interior temperature should be ~210°F.  When thumped on its bottom, a properly baked loaf should sound hollow.

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Here are the two loaves shown above, in the same orientation as the earlier photo.  These loaves measured about 4½” high and about 11″ long.  Finally, here’s a shot of the interior of one of the loaves (click for a close-up) –

Bread interior

Eat with a little butter, some quality parmigianno-reggiano or of course your favorite pasta dish – it’s wonderful!  Wrap a loaf tightly in aluminum foil and freeze it – it’ll keep for months.  Best of all, there are no preservatives and each slice – assuming a loaf yields about 20 half inch thick slices – should only be worth about 50 calories.

But that’s a secondary issue – it’s all about the taste and texture, both of which are first rate with this bread.

The recipe is originally from Cook’s Illustrated, with a few minor tweaks to make it a bit simpler.  You can view a reproduction of the original recipe at:  www.cookography.com/2008/rustic-italian-bread.  This version at Cookography includes illustrations of how to fold the dough mixture as described above.

Capture a little magic by making your own bakery-style Italian bread – if I can do it, you certainly can!  Enjoy!

March 15/09 update:

Some things come and go, but this isn’t one of them; this bread has become a staple at our home.  My interest in making my own Italian bread stemmed not only from Perreca’s but as well from the bread my wife’s paternal grandmother made decades ago.  The Boss never did get the recipe from her Nana (most weren’t written down anyway) and I’ve longed for similar bread ever since she passed on.

If Pat has asked, “Are you SURE there’s nothing other than flour, water and yeast in this recipe?” once, she’s asked me 50 times.  About a week ago she declared it better than her Nana’s (heresy, I know) and has mentioned how delicious it is numerous times.  It’s good stuff.

A few additional thoughts about the recipe:

  • Use quality bread flour.  I’ve been using King Arthur bread flour after using one of the “major” brands (Gold Medal) and I think it’s a significant part of why the bread is so delicious
  • The recipe may seem rigorous and complicated.  It’s not, really – it just requires some time.  I’ve found it to be forgiving in actual practice:  I’ve started the biga the same day as baking, for instance; I’ve skimped a bit on the 3rd rise, and so forth – the bread always comes out well.  Having said this, recognize:  for best results, follow the instructions as written
  • When you bake it, after the initial 10 minutes rotate the loaves 180°, lower the temp to 400°F, shut the oven door and don’t open it for 30 minutes! Looking at the bread while it’s baking (hard not to admire it, but don’t!) doesn’t help anything
  • If you want an even crunchier crust, when the 30 minutes is up turn the oven off, prop the door open a bit, and leave the loaves in the oven for another 10 minutes or so
  • If you’re using a KitchenAid stand mixer, cut the kneading times in half.  I usually just run the KA on the lowest speed when kneading

Enjoy – and if you try the recipe, let me know how you make out!

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39 Comments on Make bakery-style Italian bread at home: frugal, healthy & utterly delicious!

  1. Jessie says:

    WOW. Well done, sir! :D

    +Jessie
    a.k.a. The Hungry Mouse

    [Reply]

  2. Sasha (Mr C A Clarkson) says:

    Thank you so much for posting this recipe. It really does work, producing the most wonderful bread!! Personally, I have electronic scales and work by weight: so for a strong wheat flour I use 200g flour with 140g water for the biga and 300g flour with 200g water for the main dough.

    I’ve done a tasty variation with white spelt flour too, but you need less water: about 120g for the biga, and 170g for the main dough – also, I allowed only 45 minutes for the intermediate provings. Spelt produces a slightly less substantial lighter bread – but it’s more easily digestible for some people with wheat allergies.

    Instead of using a spray i just use a tissue to spread a very thin layer of olive oil around the mixing bowls.

    One tip for mixing the two doughs: I spread the main dough flat, sprinkle the salt, and spread the biga flat on top of that. Then I roll the dough up and flatten it again: this creates about 6 layers. After this I fold the dough and flatten 10 times (from a different direction each fold). Each time you fold the dough over doubles the number of layers, so after 10 folds you’ve multiplied by 1024. (Yes – I’m a mathematician!) But with about 6000 layers you can be sure that the biga, the salt and the main dough are thoroughly blended!

    My next experiment will be to use a sourdough biga: it works for ciabatta.

    All the best,

    Sasha (Tenby, Pembrokeshire, UK)

    [Reply]

    Kevin Reply:

    Sasha,

    Thanks for a great comment. I do precisely the same thing when I combine the two doughs!

    I too have a (reasonably??) accurate scale; I’ll have to try measuring the ingredients by weight.

    If you do a sourdough biga, please let us know how you make out.

    Kevin

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    Kissmeindec Reply:

    Thanks a million sasha for the part about using spelt, as of now I don’t even eat bread anymore,I don’t know but I think I have a reaction to wheat products so as you can imagine I stay away from breads because of this. But I decided to make my own breads to see if thats it and I stumbled across spelt flour and decided to start using it to substitute for wheat flour when I do start making my own bread. I read some where that some people are sensitive to wheat flour so they make their own bread products using spelt instead.
    Again much thanks!! Can’t wait to try this receipe.

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  3. spice says:

    Hi Kevin,
    Thanks for sharing the recipe & step by step pics, really helpful….I’m new to bread making,I tried this bread last month came out quite good, considering it was my second try to making bread at home. Though I have one question for you, the crust was really hard, is there a way to make it little softer, but inside was really perfect. And whenever you can spare some time do have a look at my blog, I posted the bread in it today only.

    thanks,
    spice

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  4. Lee Simonson says:

    Most Italian bread recipes I see call for baking the bread with a pan of water in the oven. Have you tried that? Does it make a difference?

    [Reply]

    Kevin Reply:

    Lee,

    I’m afraid I haven’t. Perhaps someone else can comment on your question. Thanks; sorry I can’t help!

    Kevin

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    Kathy Reply:

    Hi Kevin,

    I have put water in a pan in the oven with bread and it does make the bread crusty. doing it with this recipe. should work the same. First time doing this type of recipe. will post bread is in the oven now. smells yummy

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  5. Lisa King says:

    Just finished baking! Amazing recipe! Just like bakery italian bread.

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  6. natasa says:

    Hi,
    i made the bread today and it came out ok – not as nice as yours – and i realized i need to adjust the recipe for high altitude. i live at 5000 ft. will try again…

    [Reply]

    Kevin Reply:

    Also, make sure you don’t over-knead it. Good luck – let me know how you make out.

    [Reply]

  7. natasa says:

    ok :) thanks – it looks like i need to raise the oven temperature a bit too (not sure if my oven can do that lol)

    [Reply]

  8. Ken Warne says:

    I made your Bread receipe for the first time, worked on it for the last two days, like the recipe says. It turned out perfect and delicious….it’s almost all gone. It’s time consuming but so worth it. I used All Purpose Flour cause that’s all I had and it still turned out just delicious. We had it again this morning toasted in the toaster…OMG…..just declicious. This receipe is worth trying. I am going to start another batch today.

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  9. Ken Warne says:

    The Biga

    Creating a yeast-based starter is the first step in making artisan-style bread at home

    Full of holes inside, often misshapen outside – you have to know these Italian breads to love them. But rip off a chunk, savor the complex wheat flavor and chewy texture, and you know why the West’s artisan bakeries have created a huge following for the loaves. Breads of this style may be called pane pugliese, pane francese, ciabatta, or other names, but they all have three things in common: a yeast-based starter called a biga, a very wet dough, and a slow rise.

    A biga is just flour, water, and a tiny amount of yeast stirred together several hours or a day before baking and allowed to ferment. Unlike a sourdough starter, which is replenished and kept going indefinitely, a biga is made fresh each time you bake (you can make enough for a couple of loaves and freeze the extra to use within two weeks).

    Though a biga doesn’t create a sour taste, it provides other benefits like those from a sourdough starter: well-developed flavor, moist texture, and good keeping quality.

    The wet dough used to make this bread is responsible for its large, irregular holes and wonderfully chewy texture. The dough is so sticky you can’t knead it on a board – you must use a food processor or a heavy-duty mixer.

    Slowing down the rising process helps develop the bread’s complex flavor and aroma. Professional bakers put dough in temperature-controlled retarders. At home, you use ice water in the dough to keep it cool, and let the dough rise at room temperature rather than in the warm spot recommended in most bread recipes.

    For a classic Italian-style bread, for a nontraditional (and delicious) variation, add olive oil, a generous amount of basil, and tangy feta cheese.

    Italian Biga Bread

    [Reply]

  10. Frank says:

    Im going to make this today but will be rolling it out as a “Filoncino” (baquette). Im sure Ill have to adjust temp and time slighlty. I hope it turns out.

    [Reply]

  11. Dave says:

    Tried this recipe today; must have done something wrong, because the bread was VERY dense and heavy in the interior, not light and airy the way Italian breads typically are.
    During the rise, the dough was sticky, as mentioned above, and rose like crazy – I had high hopes, but not realized.
    Anyone have any idea what it was that caused this?

    [Reply]

  12. Frank says:

    Many factors could have played into it. Did you use bread flour? Also Italian bread is usually more dense in the real tradition. It could be that your experience in Italian breads are different. I go to Italy alot and all the breads there are pretty “meaty”. If you like a more airy bread I would suggest than using an all purpose flour that has less gluten. This will make for a lighter bread. Also use a little more leaving (yeast). remember that baking is like science and its more of a formula than a recipe so you may have to experiment a few times. I made this with semolina flour and it was really dense, but I like it that way.

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  13. matt says:

    need some help here, tried the recipe and come out great. I was a little disappointed with the finished height. The bread did not bake to more than 3 inches if that. Got any suggestions ? Other than that it was wonderful. Great flavor and bite. It was truly artisan shape though, oh, I did use a pan of hot water first the first 30 minutes of the bake.
    thanks for sharing your knowledge and recipe.

    [Reply]

    Kevin Reply:

    matt,

    Not sure. Fresh yeast? Over kneading? Did you use a KitchenAid, or knead by hand?

    [Reply]

  14. Arthur patterson says:

    hi, I tried this ,reduced rise times to 3/4 hr and it really rose like crazy but when I put it on the counter for shaping it was very airy and well developed gluten structure that I couldn,t get it to a flat recangle to shape it into a loaf,, should I have punched it down to flatten it more?

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  15. Jen says:

    I followed all directions for preparing the dough. Then when cooking, I divided the dough into 8 equal portions. Then, I rolled each portion i the same jelly-roll style. Put them on the sheet with cornmeal. Let them rise for an hour (cut slits about 20 mins before cooking). BUT, I placed a pan of water on the bottom of the stove. I also only backed the rolls for 8 minutes on 500, then 10 minutes on 400. Man are these awesome!! What a terrific recipe. I filled the rolls with leftover meatballs, topped them with fresh mozzarella and put them in the broiler, until the cheese was melted. I feed some family members, outside of my home and they were in love the sandwiches. I am making them again and making Italian hoagies out of them. The inside is soft and yummy and the outside is flaky. Not as crispy as your picture; but, for a sandwich I didn’t want something that tough to eat. I will treasure this recipe forever. THANKS for sharing :)

    [Reply]

    Kevin Reply:

    Jen,

    Thanks for your comment – glad you were happy with the results!!

    [Reply]

  16. Ken Warne says:

    I make this bread all the time now and we love it. I let the Biga set out over-night on the kitchen counter. It still works well. I’ve been using a whole package of easy total for both the Biga and the dough mix….I put half in each. The secret to this bread, maybe I should say the “dough” is that the dough must be wet, tacky and sticky, but only sticking some to much to your hands. I think maybe some are using to much flour to get it to the consistency of the bread that they are use to making. I found if you you keep the dough, wet, tacky and somewhat sticky that it turns out great everytime. It has to be a moist dough. The more you make it the easier it gets and the better you get at making it. I’ve used all kinds of flour and it still turns out fine with any flour I’ve used. I shortened the recipe so I can tape it on the inside of one of my kitchen cabinet doors. Here is the shortened receipe in case you want to do the same:

    (If you want a “shorter” version of the recipe, it’s available on 4×6 recipe cards on the Free Downloads page.) -Kevin

    [Reply]

  17. Kathy says:

    this is the second time i am making this bread. it is so good. I put a pan of water in and it does make he crust crusty. works with most artisin breads. tried to do a different recipe, but sticking with this one. Love this bread Time consuming, but well worth the effort

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  18. Darin says:

    I love this recipe. I am working on my 3rd time making it right now. My only problem is that my bread tends to flatten out so instead of a nice tall bread I get a really wide bread. What am I doing wrong?

    [Reply]

    Kevin Reply:

    I don’t know. Perhaps the dough is too moist?? Perhaps another reader has an idea…

    [Reply]

  19. Michelle says:

    I have made this too many times to count and always turns out perfect! I do weigh everything and I think that makes a difference. I have a question though, has anyone tried making it into one large round loaf? Have some dough rising now and was think about trying it.

    [Reply]

    Kevin Reply:

    Michelle,

    Thanks for your comment. I haven’t tried that myself – not certain it would bake properly (i.e., be done in the center). Let us know if you try it!

    [Reply]

    Michelle Reply:

    I did try it and it came out perfectly. Cooked 10 min @ 500 then 30 min @ 425
    I used a thermometer to ensure it was cooked all the way. It was much easier than forming the loaves. I will do it this way from now on.

    [Reply]

    Kevin Reply:

    Glad to hear it! Thanks.

  20. Richard Cook says:

    I have used this recipe many times and it always tastes so Italian. So aromatic ally yummy.

    One little secret that adds a lot to the flavor – as if it could get any better:
    I like to sing to the dough in Italian if possible while I knead it. I have taught my young grandsons to sing ” That’s amore” as they help knead the dough. Try it and see the difference in flavor with the music as part of the yeast!
    It makes it really fun.

    [Reply]

  21. F. Rice says:

    I have active dry yeast not instant, do I use it the same way in the recipe? The directions say to dilute it in water first??

    [Reply]

    Kevin Reply:

    See this article: http://www.thefreshloaf.com/faqs/baking/yeast You just need to “proof” the active dry yeast in warm water for 15 minutes or so.

    [Reply]

  22. F. Rice says:

    Thanks

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  23. F. Rice says:

    Made it, it was beautiful and delicious, thanks for the recipe. It was exactly what I’ve been searching for!

    [Reply]

    Kevin Reply:

    Fantastic! Glad you enjoyed it.

    [Reply]

  24. Fran Rice says:

    Making the bread for a second time. Can I bake four loaves at one time? Same times or increased??

    [Reply]

    Kevin Reply:

    Fran,

    Sorry, I’ve never baked more than two loaves at the same time. I’d definitely try it, though, and would increase the time a bit. Let us know how you make out, if you get a chance.

    [Reply]

  25. Addys Nonna says:

    Thank you, we pulled this bread from the oven, and ate it with olive oil, & pecorino cheese, after rubbing with a garlic clove, and experienced Italy all over again! What joy! A cracker crisp thin crust, and wonderful moist crumb with ample holes (nooks & crannies). Grazie, buon pane!

    [Reply]

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