Making bread gives meaning to my day. It means a beautiful loaf to have with dinner, followed by toast the next morning, then that mouth-watering panino for lunch. If there’s any left over, I let it get stale to give heft to a soup or become croutons in a salad. That cycle goes straight to the essence of the joy I get from feeding my family. It’s a daily activity I wholeheartedly recommend mastering, because there are few household aromas as wonderful as a freshly baked loaf of bread reaching its full potential in your oven.
Deborah and our daughters can tell you how obsessed I became when I decided to master the process of baking bread. I tried every kind of flour, yeast, and dough hydration. Longer rising times, shorter rising times. Wetter dough, drier dough. I knew the taste I wanted: a very lightly salted loaf of rustic goodness, with a dark crust crunch that nicely offsets the pillowy consistency inside. But getting an Italian to spell out a recipe for me wasn’t so easy. I asked our local baker in Italy: “How do you make your bread?” The baker: “Some water, some flour, some yeast.” Me: “Um, proportions?” The baker: “What?” Later, me to my grandmother: “Nonna, how did you make bread when we were little?” Nonna: “Oh, some water, some flour, some yeast.” Me: [Sigh.]
Eventually I found inspiration from other bakers, but it was learning about the use of a heated cast iron pot as a de facto bread oven for the initial baking process that proved revelatory. I also hit upon a way to keep rising dough from temperature inconsistencies in the kitchen, like an open window, or a door that keeps opening and closing. One day I pulled my pizza stone out of the oven—I always keep it there—and noticed that it was slightly warmer than room temperature. I realized the oven light had been on the whole time, and had been gently heating up the oven. Guess where my dough rises now?
In the oven, with the light on. The temperature will eventually reach anywhere between 70Fº and 75Fº (depending on the oven) and there won’t be any drafts to alter the rising time!
When you start making bread, also think about your schedule. When do you want it freshest? In the morning? Afternoon? Right before dinner? Once you have a good idea how long it takes to make your optimum bread, put yourself on a schedule to start the process so it’s ready when you want it. As I mentioned earlier, it helps keep me on schedule. I know when I have time to do all the other things in the day that need to get done: picking up the kids, running errands, arranging a meeting. In some ways, making bread is like having an extra baby in the house you must take care of—it’ll bring out your nurturing side.
As for the finished product, farmers in Tuscany believe good bread needs to rest for a day, so the gluten can relax, the crust can achieve its ideal crunch, and the inside can reach a premium texture. It can be difficult to resist cutting into a warm loaf when that special aroma pervades the kitchen. But if you slide a knife through it, the dough might still be a little sticky inside and start compressing. Then you’ll be changing the shape of your bread before it’s had time to cool, get settled, and release some moisture. If you don’t want to wait until the next day, give it at least an extra 30 to 45 minutes of rest. If you wait overnight though, you can embrace the traditional saying in Tuscany about a farmer’s food calendar: L’uovo di oggi, il pane di ieri, ed il vino dell’anno scorso. “The egg from today, the bread from yesterday, and the wine from last year.”
The starter is a mixture of water, flour, and yeast that, when fermented, allows bread to rise. Though it’s popular to use an active dry yeast to kick start the fermentation process, I like to rely on natural yeast that colonizes the water-flour mixture. It’s that extra poetic touch I like about bread making, in that you’re allowing the environment to create something. Since whole wheat our, less refined than white, attracts more natural bacteria, I recommend using a flour mixture of 50 percent Italian 00 flour and 50 percent whole wheat when making a first starter. Once the starter is ready and healthy, I then use it to start new “cultures” with different flour percentages (70-30 / 80-20).
Remember, when starting from scratch, it takes anywhere from 1 week to 10 days to develop a starter, depending on factors such as the temperature of your kitchen. (The higher the temperature, the faster the fermentation.) Once you have your starter, as long as you keep it fed—and I’ve occasionally assigned starter- babysitting duties to Deborah if work takes me out of town—the ability to make bread will always be at your fingertips. Also, you’ll need a digital kitchen scale for weighing out your ingredients, so buy yourself an inexpensive one.
50 grams water
50 grams flour mix
Twelve hours before you plan to make bread dough—preferably the evening before creating a dough in the morning—discard 80 percent of the starter, replenish with 100 grams water and 100 grams all-purpose flour, and mix well. This will become the starter you use to make Pane. After you master this first important step you can start playing with different flour proportions and different kind of breads. And if eventually you become as obsessed as I am with bread making, you will start traveling with your mother-dough everywhere you go!
- In a 2-cup container, combine the water and whole wheat our and stir well. Let it sit in a cool, shaded area of the kitchen for at least 2 days.
- On the third day, discard 80 percent of the mixture and replenish with equal amounts of all-purpose flour and water. This is called “feeding.” (If beginning with more than 100 grams of our and water, a good discarding rule is to save about 2 tablespoons of starter per 100-gram mixture.)
- Feed the starter every day after that. By the fourth or fifth day, look for small air bubbles on the surface. At the end of each 24-hour cycle after that, the scent of the starter will change from its initial creamy, buttery overtones to distinctly vinegary, once the fermentation process has occurred.
- By the end of the first week, with regular feeding at the same time each day, the starter will have reached an especially lively, predictable rhythm cycle of culture- forming and decay. Your adventures in bread making can begin!
Tuscan bread doesn’t have salt! Origin stories vary: One legend attributes it to how expensive salt became during the economically depressed Middle Ages. Another theory— which appeals to my fighting spirit as a Tuscan—involves the ancient rivalry between coastal Pisa and inland Florence, and how Pisa tried to punish Florentines by halting the transportation of salt from the shore. The Florentines decided that their food was so good, salt was superfluous.
The culinary reality, however, is true, in that Tuscan food is so flavorful already, due to fresh ingredients and wonderful herbs, that the bread really didn’t need salt. If you must have that bread bite before the pasta arrives, a drizzle of high-quality extra virgin olive oil and a pinch of salt—both readily available at any Tuscan tavola (table)—will offer plenty of flavor. But if you wait until you have sauce to soak, that’s when you’ll need the best use for our salt-less bread. To make a pane Pugliese (named after the Puglia region in the boot of Italy, known for their rustic, hearty breads), just add . . . salt!
A quick note to avoid confusion. The term Mother Dough is absolutely more in fashion than Bread Starter, and most of the times (I do it to), the two names get confused… in fact, they are not the same thing. The Starter, as you just learned, lives in its own container; it gets fed, it ferments, it rises, and the cycle never stops…. unless you stop feeding it, in that case it would go sour and die. Mother dough is a piece of your bread dough that is separated right after all ingredients are mixed together, and before the loaf is set to rise. A Mother Dough has to be used every day, as it cannot wait to be mixed to fresh ingredients more than 24 hours. I suggest working with a starter as you might not need to bake a new fresh loaf every day.
This is possibly the more complicated recipe on the site. It requires time, devotion and a good attitude toward failure; it took me about 3 years to learn this process on my own, and at times mistakes still happen. Please use the comment section below for any questions (or requests for help), I will make sure to follow up on all of them.