Read on for Italian Bread Recipe instructions...
This is Country Style Italian bread. (also referred to as Rustic Italian Bread) It's a more hearty bread then regular Italian bread. Wonderful texture on the inside and a nice crusty crust! The key to good Country Style Italian Bread is lots of kneading. In the case of this recipe, 25 minutes of hand kneading. You may say, wait a minute... Can't I just get one of those bread machines that do all the kneading for you? That's fine, but will never give you results as good as you will get from hand kneading!!! Trust me, the taste is so much better when it's all done by hand. That said, if your willing to work hard, please read on and EnJoY!
Important note I found out the hard way:
Two things you need to remember.
1.) Salt and Yeast = very unhappy yeast. 2.) Sugar and Yeast = very happy Yeast!
* If you mix the salt in with the yeast too early, you will end up with flat bread.
Pour hot water into a large bowl. The water needs to be between 110 - 115 degrees F. It's very important to make sure this temperature is right. To be sure, you need to have a bakery thermometer like this one here.
Add (2) tsp. of sugar to the hot water and (1) tsp. of honey and mix well until the sugar and honey is completely dissolved in with the water. Then sprinkle (2) packages of Yeast (or 4-1/2 tsp. Yeast from a jar) into the hot water and mix with a fork until the Yeast and water become a creamy brown. Let sit for 2 minutes.
Add 2 cups of bread flour and mix very well with a fork. Let this sit for about 2 minutes. Then mix some more and add 1 tbsp. of salt, mix well.
Then add 4-1/2 cups of all purpose non-bleached flour, adding in 1 cup at a time while your mixing. You will start mixing with a fork and then start using your hands to mix as the dough gets dryer and stiffer. Pour the dough out onto a lightly floured board, form into a tight ball and cover with a towel. Let rest for 15 minutes.
Now comes the important part and real secret to good Italian Bread Recipe! Kneading by hand! You will need the dough for 25 minutes. This is going to be very hard work. You will probably break a sweat by the time your done. I do every time I make the bread. I start out with traditional kneading and then switch to a more unconventional kneading that I learned from Richard Bertinet in his wonderful book simply called "Dough". I highly recommend it! This slightly different method of kneading dough really makes a big difference in regards to getting a more hardy country style bread. So you will knead the dough for 15 - 25 minutes until it is smooth and elastic. You will use another 3/4 - 1 cup of flour during the kneading process. You will use this extra flour as you need it during the kneading as the dough gets too sticky to work with. After about 15 minutes of kneading, pour a little olive oil in the palm of your hand, maybe about 1/2 tsp., then spread it over the dough and knead some more working in the olive oil. I do this about 4 times, probably totaling about 2 tsps. of olive oil. Depends on the texture, it's a little different each time. I pour olive oil in the palm of my hand, work in the oil kneading for a while and then add a little more, knead, a little more and knead until the texture of the dough starts to feel more elastic. Then I knead for another 10 minutes or so after the last addition of olive oil. The last 5-10 minutes of kneading, you should not add any more flour. The final time on the kneading and the amount of extra flour you use will depend on the temperature and humidity of the room your war working in.
The only way I could properly show you how this is done is to show you how I knead this dough with video. The videos I have below will show you exactly how I knead this dough. This really is the most important part of the process. That and being patient to let the bread rise. Be patient, all the rising will seem like a lot of waiting, but it's very important to not make any short cuts with your dough!
How To Make Italian Bread Video
(First dough rising - Fermenting) OK, after you have kneaded the dough for 20 - 25 minutes, you will need to let it rise in a nice warm moist place for 1 to 1-1/2 hours. It's really not a matter of time with rising because of humidity and temperature differences, it's more from look and feel. The dough should be nice and puffy after it rises. You are really only shooting for the dough to rise about twice it's original size, don't let the dough over rise. Check out this page called "How long should my bread rise?" for some good tips on this. When you have finished kneading the dough and you have got it to a point where it is smooth and elastic, you will want to place it in a bowl that you just rubbed down with olive oil. Form the dough into a tight ball. To get the dough in a tight ball you want to keep working with the dough, pushing the dough down to the bottom of the dough ball and up underneath, repeating this until you get a tight ball. You will have to watch the videos above to get a good idea of this.
Place the ball of dough into the bowl upside down and roll it around a bit so you get some oil on the top of the dough. Flip it back over and set in the middle of the bowl. Cover with a damp towel.
What I recommend for the perfect dough rising condition is your oven. What you will need to do is get a baking pan and place it in the bottom rack of your oven. Then fill it up with boiling water so you get a lot of nice steam in the oven. Quickly place your bowl of dough in the oven and shut the door. The baking pan of boiling water will add warmth and moisture to the inside of the oven which will be a perfect environment for your dough to happily rise.
Now at this point you need to relax a bit and clean up your kitchen and just wait for the dough to rise. There is no shortcut. You cannot rush this part. Just let it rise.
OK, after 1 to 1-1/2 hours or so, your dough should have at least doubled in size, don't let it rise too much. Now take it out of the oven and punch it down. You will want to literally punch the center of the dough. You will immediately see the dough fall to a much small amount of dough. The Yeast was busy making a lot of gas bubbles which fluffs up the dough.
After punching down the dough, get a spachala and scrape the side of the dough away from the edge of the bowl to let the dough fall down even more.
(Second dough rising - Proofing) Punch the dough a few more times in different places, you want to get all the air out of the dough at this point. Briefly work with the dough getting it into a ball again. Rub olive oil on the inside of your bowl again. Place the dough ball back in the center of the bowl. Cover the bowl with a warm damp cloth. Pour out the water you had in the baking pan that was in the oven and refill with boiling water again. Place the bowl back in the oven and let it rise for 1 more hour.... What??, I gotta let it rise again you say? What the heck is all this rising for anyway? This second rising will help create gluten. The protein in the flour is what forms the gluten and the gluten is what makes the dough elasticity. This allows the dough to stretch and hold the gas that the yeast gives off. You can read more about Gluten here, interesting stuff!
Now take the dough and pour it out of the bowl onto a lightly floured board. Divide in half. Sprinkle a little bit of flour on top of each section of dough and cover with a towel. Let rest for 10 minutes... Again with the waiting!!! It's all worth it, just be patient.
Now shape the dough into two tight balls and place them on a greased cookie sheets. Sprinkle the greased cookie sheets with a little bit of cornmeal. I use double wall insulated cookie sheets for this. They do a perfect job with baking and help prevent burning the bottoms of the bread.
With a very sharp knife, carefully cut 3 cuts 1/16" deep across the tops of the loaves. You really just need to score the dough. The cuts should be about 2" apart. When you have finished the cuts, sprinkle some cornmeal over the top of the dough balls.
Make an eggwash. To do this you will add to a bowl, (1) egg, using the egg whites only and mix with (1) Tbs. of water. Mix well with a fork. Brush the eggwash on the top and side of the dough balls. Try your best to thinly cover all the dough surface. Just brush the eggwash right over the cornmeal you just sprinkled on. Then sprinkle on some more cornmeal.
(Third dough rising) Place these dough balls back into the oven. This time the dough will be sitting right on the cookie sheets. You will need two cookie sheets with one dough ball on each sheet. Once again, remove the water from the baking pan and fill up with boiling water again to maintain the warm moist rising environment. Let rise for about 1 hour. Yes, it has to rise again!! This requires a LOT of patience with all the rising! But it's all very worth it! Trust me!
After the dough has risen one more time, you are finally ready to bake! YaY!!! It's about time! Geeesh! Now, take the cookie sheets with the dough balls on them out of the oven and be gentle! Carefully place them on a counter somewhere and preheat your oven to 375 degrees F. This time just leave the baking pan of water in the oven. The preheating will warm the water back up to keep the oven moist. After the oven has preheated, put the cookie sheets with dough back in the oven and cook for 20 minutes.
After 20 minutes, take the bread out, brush again with eggwash trying your best to cover all surfaces of the dough and then place back in the oven and cook for another 20 minutes.
Take the bread out and let cool on a cooling rack for 2 hours before cutting into. OK, well, this is nearly impossible, but it's what your supposed to do. However, in most cases I cut into the bread after 30 minutes because I just can't stand it! it smells so good you just have to dig in. if you try to slice the bread to soon, it can rip apart. If you let it cool properly, you can cut nice even slices. Just make sure you have a sharp serrated knife.
Let the bread sit out for about 24 hours before packaging. If you like a softer crust, you can package it in a large Ziploc bag, but if you like a crunchier crust (which I recommend) then you need to package the bread in paper bags. Paper bags allows the bread to breath a bit which will help maintain and nice crunchy crust!
...Honestly, I have to say, I have had a lot of Italian bread in my life and this is the absolute best Italian Bread I have ever had!!
I recommend having this on the side with Anthony's Pasta sauce, Meatballs and Braciole. Now that good eating! Great for dipping into the sauce!!!
Here is a family secret that my grandma used to do that I just found out from my mother. It's incredibly delicious!!!!! Take a fresh slice of this amazing bread you just made. Spread some ricotta cheese on top and sprinkle sugar on top of that. Ooooh my goodness! Marvelous! You gotta try this. I was amazed at how delicious this was. A great snack!
That's it! You're done..... Easy as Pie!