While living in a small Italian village in Umbria, I was befriended by a wonderful family who was always happy to share their traditions around growing their own food, cooking, and baking. One day, my husband and I were invited to join in the fun of baking loaves of focaccia and other bread in their 100-year-old wood-burning oven. The oven was built as a fundamental part of the house years ago, before there were supermarkets and bakeries.
That day the entire family gathered for the bread baking: Tonino and his mother Signora Giuseppa along with Tonino’s wife Paola and her father Pepe. Since that time, Tonino and Paola have opened their own business, Azienda Agricola Monchini, growing biological grains and selling homemade breads.
Signora Giuseppa, now 93 years old, once told me, “When I was a young girl during and after World War II, we had to make everything. If you wanted to eat pasta, you made it. If you wanted to eat bread, you made it. It’s really very simple. You just need some experience.”
That day of bread baking was certainly an unforgettable experience! We learned the importance of stoking the fire to produce the perfect oven temperature, how to knead the bread correctly, and how much patience is needed to be present during the entire process. But we especially enjoyed learning how delicious fresh focaccia is once taken out of a wood-burning oven and garnished with a slice of home-cured prosciutto or a drizzle of virgin olive oil.
Here are six tips for making great focaccia (even without a wood-burning oven).
1. Use A Mix Of Organic Flours
If you’re like me, you are probably used to measuring out the flour you need. But that day, Signora Giuseppa just poured the flour into the kneading tray. She then made a hole in the center, into which we added the other ingredients. Nothing was measured. Everything was by feel. Signora Giuseppa explained, “You use not too much and not too little. Just enough (‘quanto basta’).”
Naturally, flour is the fundamental ingredient in any bread. Perhaps the best focaccia is a mix of organic flours — two-thirds white and one-third whole wheat. In Italy, the degree the bread is milled is also taken into account — from “type 00” being very fine to “type 2” indicating that the grain is only lightly milled. For focaccia, flour type 0 is recommended.
These days, Tonino and Paola recommend making focaccia with the following blend of five types of organic flour: white flour types 1 and 0, durum wheat, and a bit of rye and barley wheat.
2. Older, Homemade Yeast Works Best
Perhaps the secret to any homemade Italian bread is the yeast, or what they call the pasta madre (“mother yeast”). Of course, you can buy both dry and wet yeast in any supermarket, but Italians don’t consider homemade bread real unless it has been made with homemade yeast. The pasta madre is often passed from mother to daughter. The older it is, the more flavor it renders to the bread and the stronger it acts as a yeast. I have made bread with a pasta madre given to me by my friend’s aunt that, days after the bread came out of the oven, continued to preserve and even sweeten it.
You can make your own pasta madre, but it takes time (10–12 days) and patience. You also have to “feed” it every week, as it is a living organism.
3. Don’t Use Tap Water
When we added the water to the bread that day, Signora Giuseppa was quick to say, “See Cateri? You’re really buying water when you buy bread?” While it might seem trivial, the water or milk added to bread makes a big difference in how it tastes. Water from the tap can be too chlorinated, which can kill the yeast.
Focaccia is made with warm water (best at 77 degrees), yeast, and a bit of sugar, olive oil, and salt. The amount of water is, of course, quanto basta! You first add enough water to about half the flour mixture to make a dough that is smooth and uniform. You then let it rest for at least a half-hour in a warm place before adding the rest of the ingredients and more flour, kneading the dough with strength and energy until it is soft, elastic, and does not stick to the pastry board.
4. Add Salt At The End Of The Kneading Process
The best salt for any bread is marine salt. The secret is not to add the salt until the end of the kneading process because it can slow down the yeast’s action. How much salt should you add? Quanto basta! Too little salt means the focaccia will stale more quickly. Too much, and the crust will become hard.
5. Knead The Dough With Your Hands
You could especially see Pepe’s and Signora Giuseppa’s years of experience when they were kneading the dough. Of course, kneading is something you cannot skip over when making any bread. There are machines to do this work for you, but it is simply not the same. It’s important to remember that the yeast is a living organism, and when your two hands come into contact with it, you are in a relationship together, synthesizing the ingredients into something completely new and delicious.
Signora Giuseppa worked calmly and with joy, chattering away, and yet always attentive to the feel of the dough. Many Italians believe that the flavor of both homemade pasta and bread depends greatly upon the experience held in the hands of their grandmothers!
Pressing the dough with the palms of her broad hands, Signora Giuseppa kneaded the dough until… You guessed it! Quanto basta!
6. Bake At 390 Degrees (And Ideally In A Wood-Burning Oven)
Finally, the focaccia is ready for the oven. But is the oven ready for the focaccia? While the breads were being prepared, the men (including my husband) were attending to the wood-burning oven. Without a doubt, a wood-burning oven bakes the best traditional Italian breads and pizzas that have the most flavor. Bread cooked in a wood-burning oven also lasts longer.
Hardwood is the best for stoking the fire — preferably, walnut, oak, or chestnut wood. They are the best because they burn slowly and guarantee a higher temperature. For focaccia, the oven needs to be 390 degrees Fahrenheit.
To determine if the oven was hot enough, Pepe rolled up a piece of newspaper and placed it inside the oven. Once the newspaper steadily burnt in a matter of seconds, the temperature was just right. To confirm, he then threw in a handful of flour. If the flour turns golden, the oven is ready. If it burns and gives off a burnt smell, then the temperature is too high and the bakers have to wait for the temperature to arrive at… quanto basta!
A Craft Meant To Be Enjoyed
Once the breads and focaccia were baked, we were then invited to enjoy our labors. Tonino brought out special local wines, and Pepe presented us with his home-cured salami and prosciutto. It was a fabulous ending to a great day, and one that I’ll always remember as a highlight of living in Italy.