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Monday, June 22, 2009

Chewy "big holes" Italian Bread

First let me just say, I can't believe this came out of my oven.
Ever wondered how people make chewy Italian breads like ciabatta? With those big holes in the middle, crunchy on the outside, soft and doughy on the inside. The kind of bread you rip a chunk off of and dip in olive oil? Good-enough-to-eat-by-itself bread? I always have.
Since I have quite a bit of time on my hands this summer (side note: I highly recommend teaching as a career) I decided that a good challenge would be to learn how to make good bread. Not dense and crumbly bread, good bread. After a few Google searches I learned the secrets...

Fist: the secret to chewy bread is a "starter" - or biga in Italian.
A biga couldn't be simpler - it's just flour, water, and a tiny amount of yeast that sits around for a few hours and is allowed to ferment. It's not sour like a sourdough starter, it just gives the bread deeper flavor and moister texture.
Secret #2: the thing that gives this dough its characteristic large, irregular holes and chewy texture is the wet dough. It's so sticky that you have to use a food processor to knead it.

Secret #3: Food processors make amazing bread. After making this bread I have new
appreciation for my food processor. It does the work it would take your arms half an hour to do in just 2 minutes. The dough comes out smooth, elastic, and perfectly kneaded.
Secret #4: A slow rise gives the bread time to develop its flavor. Using ice water and letting the dough rise in a cool place lets it rise slowly and develop more flavor. I can't tell you how good this smelled while it was baking.
Secret #5: Ok, this one isn't a secret - Olive oil makes everything taste better.
You will need...
1 packet of yeast, divided
About 3.5 cups of flour, divided
2 teaspoons kosher salt
Water (ice-cold and lukewarm)
Olive oil (for bowl)

Step One: Make the biga
1. In a bowl, combine 1/4 cup lukewarm water and 1/4 teaspoon yeast. Let stand until yeast is dissolved, about 5 minutes.
2. With your hands, mix in 3/4 cup flour until evenly moistened. The dough will be very stiff. Rub the biga and the bowl with olive oil. Cover the bowl tightly with plastic wrap and let stand at room temperature until the biga is bubbly and has tripled in volume, 3 to 5 hours. (It's unseasonably cold, so I left mine overnight.)
Step Two: Mix the dough
1. In a small bowl, combine 1/4 cup lukewarm water and 1 teaspoon yeast. Let stand until yeast is dissolved, about 5 minutes.
2. In the food processor, whirl the biga and 1/4 cup ice-cold water until smooth.
3. Add the yeast mixture, 2 teaspoons salt, and 3/4 cup ice-cold water. Pulse until blended.
4. Add 2 3/4 cups flour. Pulse until incorporated, then whirl until dough is very smooth and elastic, about 2-3 minutes. The dough will be very sticky.

Step Three: First rise
1. Scrape dough into a well-oiled bowl. Wrap tightly with plastic wrap and let stand at room temperature until tripled, about 3 hours.

Step Four: Shaping and final rise
1. Sprinkle counter top with a dusting of flour and scrape dough onto surface.
2. Gently form a smooth log by first folding dough in half, then pinching a seam where halves join.
3. Turn dough seam side down. Lightly sprinkle with flour. Cover loosely with plastic wrap and let stand on board until puffy, about 30 minutes.
4. While dough rises, place a 14 x 16 inch baking stone or 14 x 17 inch baking sheet in oven and set at 425 degrees. Let the stone and oven heat for at least 30 minutes.
Step Five: Baking
1. Ease hands under dough, pick up, and gently transfer it onto the hot stone or baking sheet.
2. Bake bread until deep golden, about 30 minutes. Let the loaf cool on a rack.
3. Serve immediately, store in a paper bag up to 1 day, or freeze it.
* Note: Making ahead? The biga can be made ahead and kept in the fridge or freezer. The kneaded dough can rest in the fridge for up to 24 hours before its first rise.
Adapted from Elaine Johnson's article.


  1. A-ha! Now I know where why the fabulous Boston bakery, Biga, has its name! Love ya!

  2. Haha I never made that connection!
    Thanks, Big Sister!

  3. Thanks for what looks like a great recipe. I do have one question, though. You made a point of mentioning the olive oil but the only place where I can see that it might have been used is the "oiled bowl" in the first rise. Is that actually it? The picture of the biga in the food processor looks like it may have had some oil in it or on it.

    Just checking. Thanks.

  4. Great question about the olive oil!

    It is just for oiling the bowl(s) while the biga and dough are proofing.

    I just went back into the recipe to clarify that but let me know if it's still unclear. Thanks for bringing it to my attention!

    If you try out the recipe we'd love to hear how it went! Thanks for visiting and thanks for your comment!


  5. What kind of flour do you use? Have you tested the difference between bread and AP?

  6. Thanks so much. I've lived off grid for 8 years now and have never had ANY success in baking since we moved to northern Idaho, until now. (Used to be darn OK at it.)

    I'll cut the salt slightly on my next batch (probably down to 1.5 tsp), and not let my poor biga wait quite so long, but it was easy, and divine.

    I think my actual "hands on" time was under 15 minutes! (And I've had acky results from stuff I've spent hours on.)

  7. Kosher salt? Any salt should do, I take it.

  8. Yes, it works with normal salt. I'm surprised that there is no sugar, because it normally feeds the yeast.
    I tried the recipe and it works fine. The dough is however very runny and I see difficulty in getting a decent shape on the bread. I therefore poured the dough into a form and let it raise and bake in that.
    The result is very nice, but not exactly what I am after. The bread does not get the texture I see on the picture in the article, but is rather like one made in a bread machine with a lot of water. I baked it 30 minutes, next time I will give it another 5 minutes.

  9. WOWZAAA!!!! After hours of anticipation, I just took this bread out of the oven. HEA-VEN-LY! By far the most amazing bread I've ever made. Thank you for sharing this!

  10. I've just tried this recipe out and when I get to step four shaping and rise, my dough is sticky and won't hold its shape. Would you be able to put up pictures of the other steps so we xan see what it should be like? I think mine isn't quite right but I'm not sure. Thanks for posting this recipe! :)

  11. I made this bread the other day and It turned out awesome!!! The crust was chewy and it was very airy. I used bread flour instead of all purpose and I did "feed" my yeast on the main bread step with a 1/4 sugar. I live in HI so getting bread to raise is really easy as compared to our last duty station so I hope this recipe works well when we go back to the mainland.

    1. It may surprise you to know that sugar is not "yeast food". No, really!

  12. Hello, one quick question. You mention using an envelope of yeast which is 2 1/4 teaspoons. However, the quantities mentioned in the recipe don't add up to 2 1/4 t. Is that correct? There will be some yeast left over that is not used in the recipe. thanks so much...I'm in progress with the bread and am excited to see how it will turn out. Jo

  13. I understand that as in Tuscan bread, 3 sprays of cold water about 5 minutes apart will make the crust alot more "Crusty".

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  17. So, almost 8 years later, commenting again. This recipe is awesome, though I do reduce the salt. I was without a food processor for a while, so couldn't keep making it, but 5 minutes at night, 10 minutes in the morning = completely awesome bread. Got a new FP today and tracked this down again. Don't hesitate.

    And yes, there is yeast leftover from the package, but once you've tried it, you'll make it repeatedly, so that yeast will also get used up. The slower rise (less yeast) is one of the things that makes it taste so good. And it is sooooo easy.

    And re: the "normal salt" comment, many years too late - 1 tsp of table salt = 1.25 tsp of Morton Kosher Salt = 1.75 tsp of Diamond crystal Kosher salt, approximately. (That's from memory, so may be slightly off.) So no, you can't just sub in table salt in the same amounts. Pretty sure the original recipe was made with Diamond salt, because adjusting table salt down assuming that it was diamond makes the salt content about perfect.

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