Whether it’s the holes in the bread or the chewy crust you are after, a good Italian bread, such as ciabatta, is soft enough to absorb olive oil, toppings and rich sauces. Good Italian bread begins with a wetter dough, resulting in a more rustic loaf that doesn’t rise as high, with large holes and a moist interior. Factors that affect the texture of Italian bread include the ingredients and fermentation time, with the slackness of the dough being most important.
Making a Starter
The extra flavor in Italian bread begins with a something known in Italy as a “biga,” or a starter sponge. Equal portions of flour and water are mixed together with a small amount of yeast, combing to form a batter with a texture similar to oatmeal. Allowing the starter to ferment, covered, for at least 6 hours gives the yeast bubbles a chance to rise and fall, adding layers of flavor and moistness to your bread. The starter sponge becomes the base of the bread dough to which you add your other ingredients.
Giving the Dough a Rest
Hydration is an important factor when making moist and soft bread. After mixing all of the ingredients listed in your Italian bread recipe, but before adding the salt, give your dough a chance to rest for about 20 minutes before kneading. This rest allows the flour to absorb more of the water, resulting in softer bread. Hydration is especially important when using whole wheat flour because the bran takes longer to soften.
Kneading the Wet Dough
The real secret to good Italian bread is to keep it wet. Adding too much flour when kneading is a natural thing to want to do, but soft bread comes from wet dough. Try mixing your dough in a mixer with a dough-hook attachment or blending in a food processor. Look for dough that sticks to the bottom of the bowl, but not to the sides. Aim for a smooth, elastic consistency.
Shaping and Misting
Italian bread is often recognized by the way the loaves are shaped, slashed and brushed with flavorful toppings. After one or more risings, the dough will be soft enough to press into a square and fold into a loaf. There are many ways to shape Italian bread, but to achieve a chewy crust, all loaves benefit from a bit of olive oil. Dip your fingers in oil to dimple the loaf, marking holes in the top of the bread dough. Alternatively, mist olive oil over the top of the loaf before baking.