mong my happier childhood moments was bundling into my family’s Fiat 500 to fetch a loaf of crusty, oven-fresh bread and a large bag of grissini at a bakery outside Perugia. My mum would break the loaf into morsels and we kids would spend the rest of the day munching. The aroma was intoxicating, like the skin of someone you love.
But at a certain point both bread and bakery goods stopped smelling as good. We started buying cellophane-wrapped supermarket bread, which to me was over-yeasted, undercooked, flavorless — and indigestible.
That’s when I decided to make my own. A decade ago, you couldn’t find the now-common “bread flour” label. I bought all-purpose plain flour assuming all-purpose meant just that. But I struggled with bread and pizza — always thinking I’d made a mistake or the recipe was wrong — until I finally recognized the key was flour quality.
Though stores now offer a bewildering array, good flour — the kind charged with nutrients, fibers, enzymes, and vitamins — is still hard to find. Most flour is dead to start with. The bran, germ, and other nutrient-rich parts of industrial flour (whatever its strength) are milled out early. Commercial whole-wheat (whole meal) flour is rarely whole grain. Mills produce white flour first and then recombine it with bran and germ.
To prolong shelf life, commercial flour is bleached and treated with preservatives and pesticides, including antibiotics. Some bread is so nutritionally poor it doesn’t even rise. That’s because the yeast — a living organism— has lost its appetite.
A few years ago I got lucky and met Patrizia and Gian Piero Lucarelli. They own Granarium, an Umbrian stone granary dedicated to the wheat their family produces, a rare thing in a time when artisan mills have all but vanished. They still grow their own wheat and grind it using revived antique pestles. Their bread is out of this world.
What’s the secret? Stone mills produce real whole grain flour with nothing removed or added: whole grain goes in, and wholegrain flour comes out. If they need finer flour, they sieve out the bran’s larger particles to get “white whole-wheat flour,” great for baking. The stones in a traditional mill are cooler than industrial metal rollers.
Heating up grains hurts its nutrients. Artisan stone ground flour is what I call “alive” because traditional milling preserves flour’s integrity, flavor and nutritional value.
While the food industry has convinced us that bread should be made and cooked quickly, good bread is all about quality flour, a plan, and patience. A busy life is no excuse: you can make good bread at home with simple equipment, so long as you’re careful.
The recipe below is for a rustic loaf of white, low-salt bread with light and airy crumbs and a crunchy crust. It’s ideal for bruschetta or crostini, and as an accompaniment for an Umbrian style appetizer of charcuterie meats and pecorino (or to make toasted garlic croutons for soup).
Even in food artisan-rich, rural Umbria, I can’t always find stone ground flour. But when I do, my bread is flavorful, aromatic and rises beautifully.
If artisan stone ground flour is unavailable, use the best you can find. Compare brands. Not all are the same. Good flour makes even plain bread delicious.
A rustic loaf of white
- 550 g (4 1/2 cups) fine stone ground flour or organic white bread flour.
- 10 g (1 1/2 teaspoon) salt.
- 10 g (2 teaspoons) sugar.
- 2 g (1/2 teaspoon) dried yeast.
- 25 g (1 1/2 tablespoon) of soft butter (room temperature).
- 340 ml (1 1/2 cup) water at room temperature.
Preparing the dough
— Sprinkle the yeast into water and stir until the yeast dissolves. Using a mixer, combine the flour, butter, sugar and salt. Mix briefly. Add the yeast mixture and mix again to obtain fairly wet and soft dough.
— Transfer the dough into an oiled bowl and cover first with plastic wrap, then with a tea towel. Place it in a draft-free area where it can rise and double in bulk (a kitchen cabinet, say).
Shaping the dough
— Transfer the dough onto a cookie sheet lined with parchment paper. Don’t knead it. Oil your hands and shape the dough into a 35 cm long x 10 cm wide (13 x 5 inch) loaf.
— Create a loose tent with foil or with a cotton towel to cover the dough and let it rise again for 30 minutes. The dough will still be soft and may spread a bit. Don’t worry. Just fold it back in shape before baking.
— Place a pizza stone in the oven and preheat at 220C (430F). In a small bowl, create a mixture of oil and milk (approximately 1/2 teaspoon each) and use it to brush the surface of the loaf. Fill an ovenproof pan with boiling water, which you’ll use to steam the oven.
— Place the cookie sheet with the loaf onto the preheated stone in the oven. Quickly place the pan of hot water at the bottom of the oven and close the oven door. Bake the bread for 15 minutes, and then remove the pan with water. Continue baking for 30-35 minutes or until a deep golden color.
— Remove from oven and cool on a wire rack before slicing.
If you breathe in deeply, the aroma will transport you back to fresher times.