Italian Bread [An Easy Recipe for the Perfect Loaf]

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The Perfect Italian Bread Recipe

A good Italian bread recipe seems to be hard to come by. I would know, because, I know good Italian bread. Although our hectic schedule prevented us from having dinner as an immediate family every night of the week, we always made it to Grandma’s house for family dinner on Sunday nights when I was kid. Since our off-the-boat Italian family always had pasta with meatballs and sauce only Grandma could make, we always needed a fresh loaf of Italian bread from the bakery. There’s just something about a perfectly browned, crunchy-crusted, soft and fluffy sponge centered Italian loaf that makes dinner – well, dinner. Nothing works better for sopping up that deliciously sweet, thick sauce. Even if pasta isn’t on the menu, a fresh loaf of Italian bread turns any dish into a meal.

It is in the water! Who knew?

Since we grew up in New York, fantastic bread bakeries could be found just about anywhere. It must be in the water or something, because outside of my birth state, these loaves seem to be scarce. Living in Nevada, I’d given up on this dinnertime staple – until now.

Finally, I’ve learned to bake my own fresh bakery-style Italian bread. And you know what? It is in the water! This recipe calls for pairing a steamy oven with a baking stone (also known as a pizza stone) to create a loaf of light, fluffy, crunchy-crusted Italian bread worthy of my grandma’s sauce.

This is an easy recipe that anyone can make with a few staple ingredients you probably already have.

Follow the recipe and learn how to create the steamy oven. If you get stuck or have questions, leave a comment below and I’ll get back to you as soon as possible.

I’d love to hear from you! So, after trying the recipe, leave a comment below to let me know how your loaf turned out. You can also subscribe to my email list to be notified when new recipes are posted here on the blog. Also, share this recipe with others by posting it to Pinterest or sharing it on Facebook.

What You’ll Need

Get Your Ingredients

2 and ¼ teaspoons of active dry yeast 

1 teaspoon granulated sugar 

¼ cup lukewarm water (95-115 degrees Fahrenheit)

5 cups bread flour 

1 tablespoon light brown sugar 

2 ½ teaspoons salt 

2 tablespoons olive oil 

1 ½  cups water + 1 cup of water for the oven

1 egg white (beaten lightly) 

2 tablespoons sesame seeds 

What You’ll Need

When prepping yeast:
a small bowl 
measuring spoons and cups
liquid thermometer (not necessary, but really helpful!)
2 and ¼ teaspoons of active dry yeast 
1 teaspoon granulated sugar 
¼ cup lukewarm water (95-115 degrees Fahrenheit) 
When Combining Ingredients:
a large mixing bowl or a stand mixers bowl
measuring spoons & cups
5 cups bread flour 
1 tablespoon light brown sugar
2 ½ teaspoons salt 
2 tablespoons olive oil 
1 ½  cups water 
To prepare the oven for baking:
measuring cup
Preheat the oven to 475 Degrees 
Baking stone
Metal baking pan
1 cup of water (to create steam for a crispy, crunchy crust!)
To prepare the topping: 
a small bowl
measuring spoon
1 egg white (beaten lightly) 
2 tablespoons sesame seeds (optional)
Italian Bread Recipe 2

Steps & Directions

Time needed: 3 hours.

How to Bake the Perfect Italian Bread Loaf

  1. Proof the Yeast.

    Add 2 and ¼ teaspoons of  yeast to ¼ cup of lukewarm (95-115 degrees) water, stir. Then stir in 1 teaspoon of sugar. Let sit for 10 minutes. If it proofs correctly,  it will double in size and yield a frothy top. Alternatively, if the water is too hot, or to cool, the yeast won’t proof properly and could even die. So, it’s really helpful to use a liquid thermometer to check for accuracy.

  2. Lightly grease a large bowl with olive oil and set aside.

    This is where the dough will be stored  (covered) while it rises.

  3. Combine the measured ingredients in a large bowl (or your stand mixers bowl).

    First, combine the bread flour, light brown sugar, salt, olive oil, water and yeast mixture in a large mixing bowl. If you’re using a stand mixer, use the dough hook attachment. Next, knead the ingredients at the lowest speed for 6-7 minutes. Eventually the dough will cleanly separate from the sides of the bowl. When that happens, it’s ready. You can sprinkle extra flour as needed to help it along, if needed.

  4. Hand Knead the dough.

    Transfer the dough to a lightly floured surface, then hand knead it for another 2 minutes. When finished, it should have a smooth, firm, and elastic consistency. Knead it into a ball. If you’re finishing your bread today, you’ll be rolling, kneading, and shaping the dough some more, so you’ll be back to this area. Which means, you can leave it messy for now. 🙂

  5. Proof the dough.

    Place the smooth ball into the pre-prepared, olive-oiled bowl. Cover tightly with cling wrap. Then, allow it to set in a dry, warm place for at least an hour and a half (1 ½ hours) or until the dough doubles in size.

  6. Punch the loaf.

    First, take off the plastic wrap, and place the dough ball back on your floured surface. Punch the center of the dough ball to flatten the dough a bit. As a result, the dough will expel any excess air bubbles. You can lightly roll it out or punch it down with the heel of your hand. Whatever floats your boat, as long as those extra air pockets release.

  7. Shape your Italian bread loaf.

    Once you have it longer and flattened, shape it into a loaf. Make it nice and tight. Equally important, tuck the sides under and really seal the seams. To do this effectively, roll the underside of the log shaped ball. You’re forming an Italian bread loaf, so it should be long with rounded, tapered ends.

  8. Let the dough rest.

    Now that you’ve beaten it a bit, the dough needs to rest. After it’s formed, let the loaf sit loosely covered with a floured dish towel for 30 more minutes. Once again, the dough will rise to twice its current size.

  9. Preheat and Create a steamy environment in your oven.

    Now it’s time to heat things up! Fill the baking dish/pan with 2 cups of water, then place it on the bottom rack of your oven. Then, place the baking stone on the upper oven rack. Next, preheat the oven to 425 degrees. While the oven preheats, so will the water pan and stone. Thanks to the pan o’ water, your oven will get nice and steamy, which is crucial for the crispy Italian bread crust we’re looking for. Do this about 30 minutes before you’re ready to bake the loaf. As a result, the the stone is evenly heated and the moist environment is well-cultivated inside your oven before baking begins.

  10. Prep your loaf for baking.

    After the 30 minute rest time, lightly beat the egg white and gently brush it onto the loaf.  If you’re adding sesame seeds for this Italian bread recipe, sprinkle them on now. Then, score your loaf. Use a bread lame or very sharp knife to create a ¼ inch lengthwise slice down the middle of the dough. 

  11. Keep that oven steamy!

    Pour another cup of water into the preheated baking pan and put it back in the oven. Most of the time the initial 2 cups is enough, but you’ll want to make sure your water pan doesn’t run dry. For one, your pan will burn. More importantly, the steam is necessary for a that signature crispy crust expected from any great Italian bread loaf.

  12. Bake the loaf.

    Finally, place the loaf on the preheated baking stone and put it into the oven. Bake for 20-30 minutes. Keep an eye on it! Depending on the climate where you live, the stone you’re using, and your oven, cook times can vary. The end-game is a golden brown, firm crust which makes a hollow “thud” sound when the bottom of the loaf is tapped.

  13. Have patience.

    Now for the hard part: let your beautiful loaf cool off for about an hour before you begin slicing into it! This is important because you don’t want to release the trapped heat and steam, which are working to add the finishing touches of the baking process. In other words, until the loaf has reached room temperature, it’s still baking. Additionally, it’s best to place the loaf on a cooling rack so that the bottom doesn’t retain moisture and become soggy.

Italian Bread Recipe: Helpful Hints & FAQs

Keep the flour out and accessible.

You’ll be needing lots of sprinkles or dustings of flour throughout this process. So, it’s best to just keep the bread dough handy. If the dough ever feels sticky or isn’t rolling clean, add a little four. Start with smaller amounts. Too much flour makes for a denser, less bouncy dough.  So, always start with less and add pinches as needed.

No Stand Mixer?

Mix by Hand. Mixing by hand is absolutely an option. It’ll just take more time and a lot of elbow grease. Remember, you’re working toward a firm, smooth, elastic dough texture when finished. 

No baking stone? Use alternatives.

I have a large stone casserole dish. The first time I made this recipe, that’s what I used because I didn’t have a baking stone. Essentially it works the same since the purpose of the stone is baking on an evenly heated surface.

No stone bakeware? That’s okay.  Alternatively, you can turn a baking sheet upside down, cover it with a sheet of parchment paper and place the loaf on top. Moreover, you won’t need to preheat the baking sheet. Subsequently, you can also use a dutch oven. If you use the dutch oven, you won’t need to create a steamy oven. Just bake the dough with the lid on. However, preheating the dutch oven is necessary.

Creating Moisture : You have Options

Placing the pan with water in the oven creates steam. Steam sets the stage for a perfectly crunchy, light italian bread crust. I find that the placing the baking pan inside the oven is the easiest and most effective way to create a steamy oven. However, you have other options.

  • Misting: Spray the water on the side of the oven and close the door. The heat converts water to steam to increase the moisture level in the oven. Repeat this frequently throughout the baking process for a consistently steamy oven.
  • Ice cubes: Place an oven safe bowl or baking pan filled with ice cubes in the oven and leave it for 10-15 minutes. Remove the bowl when all the ice has melted and add more ice as needed.
  • Dutch Oven Baking: Instead of a baking stone, use a dutch oven with a lid.
Can I use a Dutch Oven instead of a baking stone?

Absolutely! Frist, place the dutch oven in the kitchen oven while it preheats. Then, give it at least 30 minutes to heat before putting in your loaf. Also, use the same 475º temperature. Next, place the dough loaf inside and bake with the lid on for about 30 minutes. Then, remove the lid and bake for another 10 minutes or so. Keep an eye on it. Look for a golden brown crust to form. Once it has, remove the loaf from the oven. Finally, place the delicious loaf on a cooling rack. Additionally, if you’re using a dutch oven, you’ll need to form your loaf to fit inside, so keep this in mind when shaping your loaf.

Keeping Score. Yes, it’s important.

There are 3 main reasons for scoring bread.

  • It improves the overall appearance of the loaf.
  • Different scoring techniques lead to variations in how the bread expands and its final appearance. Some bread-bakers have even created signature scores.
  • Scoring helps to reduce dough density and improve structure. As it bakes, bread releases steam. When this happens, the dough expands. Dense loaves or blown out bottoms occur without space for this expansion. Surface incisions create weak points in the dough skin. As a result, its resistance to expansion is reduced. This is particularly important with the high protein bread flour this Italian bread recipe calls for. Scored doughs expand more during oven spring, creating a fluffier, lighter loaf.
  • Finally, thanks to good yeast, dough continues to rise while baking. This last bit of rise is called oven spring. While this is happening, the pressure inside the dough becomes too high. Scoring creates paths for the carbon dioxide gas to escape.

To score a bread loaf, slash or slice a shallow cut into it before putting it in the oven. For long Italian bread loaf, slice down the middle at a 30º angle using a super sharp knife or a bread lame. Multiple slashes are fine. Just remember to make the cuts parallel lengthwise.

What’s a lame?

A bread lame (pronounced la-may) costs about $10 and is a must-have tool if you plan to make bread regularly. It’s a long handled, razor sharp tool used to score dough for beautiful bread.

The definition according to Wikipedia: “a lame (/lɑːm, læm/) is a double-sided blade that is used to slash the tops of bread loaves in artisan baking. A lame is used to score (also called slashing or docking) bread just before the bread is placed in the oven. … This significantly improves the appearance of baked breads.”

Cooling the loaf.

Proper cooling is imperative. First, the heat contained within the loaf continues to bake the bread until it’s completely cooled off. So, by allowing the loaf to proper cool, it continues to cook the inside of the bread and prevents the center from becoming too doughy.

After removing it from the oven, place the loaf on a raised wire rack. As a result, internal steam will escape through the crust. Thus, allowing the loaf to consistently cool throughout. Additionally, it prevents the bottom part of the bread from getting damp or soggy. A flat surface traps the steam. As a result, it ends up “soaking” into the bottom of the loaf. Not delicious.

Finally, to complete the cooking process for this Italian bread recipe, it’s important to allow the bread to cool all the way, or until it’s just barely warm, before cutting. Also, if you decided to break your dough up to make rolls rather than a loaf, allow for about 20 minutes for cooling. Moreover, bread baked in a loaf pan can take as long as 1 hour and a large free-form loaf can take as long as 1 1/2 hours to cool. Although ours is a free-form recipe, cooling should take about an hour.

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