Italian bread dough used for baking rustic loaves of ciabatta, focaccia or even basic pizza is softer than most bread doughs and made with very few ingredients: flour, yeast and olive oil. As such, the quality and temperature of each ingredient plays a vital role in your dough’s ability to rise. If you’re having problems with rising, chances are the culprit lies in one of these three areas: ingredients, temperature or kneading time.
Quality of Yeast
Yeast is a living organism and is the driving force behind your bread’s ability to rise. It metabolizes the simple sugars in your ingredients and releases carbon dioxide, creating the air pockets in your dough. If you have old or expired yeast, your dough won’t rise no matter what you do to it. Check the activity of your yeast before adding the flour. A bit of sugar or molasses helps encourage activity. After mixing with a warm liquid, active yeast will bubble or foam after about five minutes. If it doesn’t, get new yeast.
Type of Flour
In general, white flour is easier to rise than heavy, whole wheat flour. Bread flour, with its high protein content, will yield the most gluten when mixed with liquids. Gluten is crucial to achieving the dough’s elasticity, affecting its ability to stretch and grow as the yeast works to release the air bubbles. Special Italian flours such as “tipo” or “OO” farina have been finely ground and are lighter than typical bread flour, but with the right amount of gluten added back in to give maximum power to your dough’s rising ability.
Temperature of Ingredients
The temperature of your ingredients is also crucial to the proper rising of your bread dough. Bring all ingredients up to room temperature, including your flour. Extreme heat can kill your yeast when combined with warm liquids such as scalded milk. For best results, use a thermometer to ensure your liquid is not hotter than 105 degrees Fahrenheit. The Bread Maker's Guild of America advises that the baker determine the correct temperature of liquid needed to result in a final dough temperature between 73 and 78 F.
Temperature of Kitchen
Your dough will comfortably rise in a kitchen that is at 75 F. Look for a sunny spot or a cupboard near a heating vent. If your kitchen is drafty, preheat the oven to 200 F, turn it off and slide your bread in there for the rising, leaving the door open and using a thermometer if necessary. Avoid cool drafts and metal bowls. If you do use a metal bowl, warm it first by rinsing with hot water.
Skimping on kneading time can hinder your dough’s ability to rise. Kneading your dough does more than just combine the ingredients; it allows the gluten to form in your bread. Without proper formation of the gluten, your dough won’t be able to stretch and rise to its potential. Gluten molecules have formed when your dough has a slight sheen and retracts back into shape when pushed. If you are doubling an Italian bread dough recipe, you will also have to extend the amount of time you spend kneading.