It is somewhat emotional to finally get to make the perfect Italian sourdough loaf or, at least, my idea of the perfect one. If you have followed me a bit, you know that it is less than a couple of months since I started to bake bread, that I recently raised my own sourdough starter, and that I have been trying to get the starter to produce a great bread. After a few attempts, some of them pretty successful, some of them less successful, today I finally attained what I wanted. A rustic Italian sourdough with a fluffy, airy, and tall crumb enclosed in a wonderfully crunchy crust.
To get the same result, you can follow my instructions (see below). This is an improvement of my previous adaptation of Nepi Sourdough. The toughest thing in learning to produce a good Italian loaf was to find the right conversion formula from the 50% hydration starter of the original Italian method to a 100% hydration starter, which is what generally people use outside of Italy. In case you do not know what I am talking about, a 50% hydration starter is made with 1:1:2 proportion of, respectively, baseline starter, water, and flour, while a 100% starter is made with a 1:1:1 proportion. Which means the Italian starter has double the amount of flour and about half the amount of water. So one needs to take away an appropriate amount of water from a bread recipe based on a 50% hydration starter. The problem was: how much water? What I have found, by trial and error more than computation, is that the ideal amount of water to take away is: 20 gr (little more than 1 table-spoon) of water for each 100 grams of 100% hydration sourdough starter used in place of a 50% one.
So here is the revised method (for step-by-step pictures, check my previous post).
This method uses autolysis only, which is, the bread ferments itself without need of kneading. Working the dough actually disturbs the process and should be avoided because in this type of loaf you do not want the gluten to develop too much. A large amount of sourdough starter is needed. Very easy: when doing the last feeding of the starter (let’s say in the morning if you are starting the dough in the evening) just double the usual doses (keep 200 gr starter to which you will add 200 gr water and 200 gr flour). You will end up with 500 gr starter plus 100 gr to save until next time. If you do not have a sourdough starter, check how I did mine.
Nepi Sourdough Updated
You need: 500 gr (2 cups) 100% hydration sourdough starter / 300 gr (1 and 1/5 cup) water / 350 gr (3 and 1/8 cups) bread flour (or Manitoba) / 250 gr (2 and 1/4) all-purpose flour / 1 teaspoon sugar or honey / 3 teaspoons marine salt. Suggestion: get a scale!
Mixing. The evening before you are planning to bake, mix the sourdough with the water and the sugar in a large bowl. Add the flours and the salt (last). Work the dough as little as possible, just enough to get all the ingredients mixed together. DO NOT use a machine: mix first with a spoon and then help gently with your hands the flour to get incorporated with the rest. Seal the bowl tightly with plastic foil.
Fermentation. Let rest at room temperature (20 degrees Celsius, 68 Fahrenheit) for 2 hours. Passed this time, place in the fridge until the following day. The morning or the early afternoon after (depending on your schedule), take the dough out. Look at the dough: has it already doubled its size? In that case, let rest outside the fridge for only a half hour and then shape. If instead the dough has not doubled, let it rest at room temperature for 2 hours and then shape.
Shaping. Transfer the dough on a wooden surface covered with some semolina (durum) flour and fold the 4 corners of the ball into a rectangular “package”.
Proofing. Flip the ”package” over a semolina flour covered kitchen towel, making sure that the top of the folds is on the bottom. Close delicately the kitchen towel and let rest at room temperature until the dough has almost doubled (this could take from 1 and a half to 3 hours). When your fingerprint on the dough stays, then the dough is proofed (be careful not to over-proof!).
Baking. Passed the proofing time, place a little pot with water on the bottom of your oven and put in also the oven tray you are going to use to bake the bread. Turn the oven on 275 degrees (Celsius, 525 Fahrenheit) and, when it reach the temperature, flip the dough on the hot baking tray, making sure that the folds are now on the surface again. To do this smoothly, flip the dough over your arm and then place it on a tray covered with baking paper. Finally, gently, place the baking sheet with the dough over the hot baking pan. When you put the dough in, also spray some water on the sides of the oven, to create more steam. Close the oven and lower immediately the temperature to 200 degrees (Celsius, 390 Fahrenheit). Bake for 30-35 minutes in a steady oven. After this time, open the oven and remove the pot with the water. Take away also the baking tray and place the bread directly on the oven grid. Close the oven and lower the temperature to 180 degrees (Celsius, 355 Fahrenheit). Bake for further 20-30 minutes (it depends from the oven). Now turn off the oven, open and let the bread rest there for 10 minutes. Take the loaf out of the oven, cut in half and place on a cooling rack to allow the steam to come out (and keep the crunchy crust). The bread is ready!
CONSIDERATIONS: I can honestly say that this was the best bread I tasted since I left Italy. And what a great satisfaction to know that I was the baker and that it was my home-made sourdough to cause that fluffy crumb to raise so well. This bread making thing is better than yoga. If you haven’t tried it yet, do it. The loaf I just described does not require a machine and not even kneading. It can easily be done on a non-working morning, while performing the usual home chores (or simply relaxing at home). You just have to start the process and then patiently wait. Starting the evening before, by lunch of the day after you will have a fresh rustic Italian loaf which will give you enough bread to accompany your meals for a whole week.
One practical note: to obtain steam, instead of using the pot with the water and the water spray, one can place a few ice cubes in the lower tray of the oven when putting the loaf in for baking. This method works well and is easier, especially for beginners.