Crusty Italian bread from Ottolenghi proves that it’s not always only sourdough that’s the best.
White bread? Yes, please!
Says Ottolenghi, who this recipe is sourced from (Ottolenghi: The Cookbook): sometimes nothing but crusty white bread will do.
I completely agree. There is absolutely nothing wrong with good white bread, though we’ve become used to singing praises of rye, wholemeal, seeded or at least homemade sourdough.
But put a bowl of good soup in front of you, or a plate of old-fashioned stew in fragrant gravy and Pumpernickel simply won’t do to mop up or dunk.
Crusty white bread, warm from the oven, with crackling shards of crust flying off and the crumb squishing then springing back when sliced, is one of life’s greatest pleasures. Salty butter spread on a thick slice, in a layer that the Danish call ‘toothsome’ (tandsmør) – can you really ask for more? I couldn’t.
How to make the best crusty Italian loaf?
And this loaf is a work of art. Ottolenghi, as usual, makes the recipe differ weirdly from what even a seasoned baker like moi is used to.
Biga, the Italian starter dough, is in this case tough as old boots. Hardly hydrated, it doesn’t want to come together and looks like a toddler has been playing dough. When risen, it resembles a mutated cauliflower.
The cauli-biga ferments overnight and the next day it’s supposed to be cut into small pieces, of all things. A miniscule amount of extra flour is added, so small everyone thinks it’s a typo missing a ‘0’.
But after intensive (and mighty laborious, if without a standing mixer) kneading, it finally starts to look like bread dough, quite runny for a change.
Only a couple of stretch and folds later, you can shape the loaf and slide it into a hot humid oven after a short rise. And behold! The way it springs in the heat is quite spectacular. It’s so impressive it has to be cut into wedges rather than slices – it’s a loaf that’s taller than wider.
No sourdough, so it will not keep terribly well going a little dry after a couple of days. But that’s a non-issue: even if there’s only two of you eating, you’ll make short shrift of the loaf, I’m sure.
What is biga?
I usually use the term ‘starter dough’ for the initial portion of the dough, with yeast or sourdough culture, that ferments over a period of time to give the finished bread flavour, texture and nutritional qualities.
But there are various other words to describe that initial dough: sponge, ferment, poolish, levain or biga. Used technically by professional bakers, these terms have precise definitions. If you’re interested, Andrew Whitley’s Bread Matters, my original bread bible is a good place to start.
Worth noting though that poolish is the sponge in French baking while biga – in Italian. The latter is very stiff, containing most of the flour from the recipe, just like you can see below.
How does it taste?
The crust is well deserving of the name and the crumb evenly aerated. It tastes comforting, it’s fluffy and soft as a pillow.
Delicious – and it's really easy to make.
More Italian bread recipes
Ciabatta, the most popular Italian bread roll, is a relatively recent invention, created in 1982 to compete with baguette as a sandwich vehicle.
The other widely known Italian bread is focaccia: here the classic flatbread recipe with salt and rosemary.
And another focaccia recipe, this time featuring grapes and blue cheese – a snack rather than a sandwich then.
More crusty bread recipes
My rustic loaf has low yeast content, heavy crust, open crumb and great flavour.
Crusty cheat’s sourdough is not a bad approximation of the real thing, even though it is made with yeast.
But some will say only proper sourdough is properly crusty – like the French country bread for example.
1. To prepare the biga starter, mix all the biga ingredients together into very firm dough, by hand or in a standing mixer with a dough hook attachment. Place it in a bowl, cover with cling film and leave at room temperature overnight, for 15 – 20 hours. The biga will look like an overgrown cauliflower by the next day.
2. Cut the biga into small pieces with a knife or scissors and place in the bowl of a standing mixer (or on a work surface if kneading by hand) with the flour, polenta, malt extract and water. If kneading by hand, add the water gradually to the mix. Knead or mix for at least 10 minutes until it comes together into a sticky mass. Add the salt and continue kneading or mixing at high speed for another 20 minutes until the dough is smooth and shiny.
3. Place it in a large lightly oiled bowl and cover with cling film. Leave it for 30 minutes in a warm place.
4. After that time stretch and fold the dough with oiled hands from all sides into the centre. Turn the dough over, with the stretched flaps down, and leave for another 30 minutes.
5. Repeat stretching and folding and leave the dough, covered, for 10 minutes.
6. Turn it out onto lightly floured surface. Shape it into a ball and place, seam side down, in a floured banneton or a bowl lined with a generously floured tea towel. Cover and leave to prove in a warm place for 30 minutes.
7. Preheat the oven to 250C (fan if available)/475F/gas 9 with a pizza stone or a heavy baking tray on the middle rack.
8. Taking care, turn the loaf out onto a peel or directly onto the stone or tray. Spray the oven with water and bake the bread for 25 minutes.
9. Cool on a wire rack before slicing or cutting into wedges.