Bread Baker’s Apprentice Challenge: Italian Bread


The new year is about to begin and I’m determined to get back on track with The Bread Baker’s Apprentice Challenge! I’ve fallen way behind many of my fellow BBA bakers, but the great thing about this challenge is that we each set our own pace, and even though I’ve fallen behind, I can pick right back up where I left off and continue working toward the goal of finishing all the breads in the book.  And since I am behind several of the others, there are plenty of people I can turn to for help or advice!

Today, I’m writing about the 15th bread in the challenge:  Italian Bread.  I actually baked and photographed this bread months ago, so bear with me as I try to remember the details of the process – luckily I took lots of photos.  One thing I do remember is the wonderful flavor of this bread.  I gave a loaf to my friend Caron for her birthday, and she shared a buttered slice of the still-warm bread with me in her kitchen.  There’s nothing like sharing bread and butter with a friend!

Peter Reinhart’s Italian Bread is soft and delicious with a thin crisp crust that softens slightly as the bread cools.  It is wonderful sliced and served with butter, but I think that this bread really shines as a sandwich loaf.  I will definitely be making the Italian Bread again, but next time will form the dough into smaller torpedo rolls for meatball sandwiches.

Just like the French Bread, this formula employs a pre-ferment to extract maximum flavor from the simple ingredients. For the French Bread, the pre-ferment was pâte fermentée, but the Italian version is biga.  The biga is made the day before you want to bake the bread (or up to 3 days earlier).  It’s a simple mixture of flour, a bit of instant yeast, and water.  The biga forms a dough similar in consistency to what the final dough will be.  It’s kneaded, allowed to ferment at room temperature for a few hours, then placed in the refrigerator overnight.

Mixing in the Biga

The following day, you will remove the biga from the refrigerator cut it into small pieces one hour before starting the Italian Bread, so that it can come up to room temperature.  The pieces are then mixed with some flour, salt, sugar, yeast and malt powder.

Adding Water

Next you add the liquid ingredients: olive oil and water.  The instructions are to mix all of the ingredients, adjusting with extra flour or water as needed to achieve a dough that is slightly sticky and soft, but not too sticky.  This is where you just have to reach in and feel the dough, and use your best judgment!

Dough is Forming

The instructions are to mix all of the ingredients, adjusting with extra flour or water as needed to achieve a dough that is slightly sticky and soft, but not too sticky.  This is where you just have to reach in and feel the dough, and use your best judgment!

Checking the Texture

The first time I felt the dough, it seemed too dry and tough.  I decided to add a tiny bit more water.

Wet Dough

Wet Dough

But this dough seemed way too sticky and soft.  Solution?  Add a bit more flour!

Well Kneaded

I finally ended up with a dough that seemed to fit the Mr. Reinhart’s description, so I switched to the dough hook and kneaded it until it was slightly tacky and supple.

Windowpane Test

To check if it had been kneaded enough, I used the windowpane test (which is rather hard to photograph alone, by the way).  It passed with flying colors, so it was ready to ferment.

Ready for Bulk Fermentation

I placed the ball of dough in an oiled bowl, turning it once to cover, then let it ferment at room temperature (covered) for close to 2 hours.

Dough has Doubled

As you can see, the dough definitely doubled in size!

Ready to be Divided

Next, I dumped it out onto a lightly floured surface, to divide and shape the dough into loaves.

Divide in Two Pieces

Normally, I use a scale to weigh the pieces, ensuring that I end up with loaves of equal size.  Apparently, I was feeling lazy this day.  And as you can see, the dough isn’t exactly evenly divided.  Oh well.


Following the instructions and photos in the book, I gently shaped the pieces into bâtards (torpedoes).  It’s important to be gentle with the dough during the shaping process, as you don’t want to degas the dough too much.


Next, I transferred the loaves to a sheet of parchment on my peel.  I’ve had pretty good luck using parchment instead of cornmeal or semolina.  It’s less messy, and the parchment slides right off the peel onto the baking stone.  The problem I did have, was placing the loaves too close together.  I just wasn’t paying attention.

Fully Proofed

As you can see, the loaves are already touching, after proofing for an hour.  But I knew if I tried to move them at this point, I was going to have problems.  I decided to just let them bake together.


The final step before baking, is scoring the tops of the loaves with a knife or razor blade.  I used a razor blade.   The loaves were baked in a preheated 500 degree oven that had been prepared for hearth baking.  This means that a baking stone and an empty pan were placed in the oven before preheating.  When the oven is heated, the loaves are placed directly on the stone, hot water is poured in the hot pan, and the oven door is closed immediately.  The steam from the water and the direct heat from the baking stone help promote oven spring and a crisp crust.

Baked Italian Loaves

As you can see, the loaves were beautiful despite the fact that I let them proof and bake too close together.  This really was some wonderful tasting bread, and I’m so happy to finally share it with you.  I also want to send out a big hug and thank you to the lovely Janice of Round The Table, who sent me part of her stash of diastatic barley malt powder, an ingredient I was lacking for this bread and the next one coming up.

Are you ready to give homemade Italian Bread a try?  The recipe can be found on page 172 of The Bread Baker’s Apprentice. The next bread in the challenge is Kaiser Rolls,  and they are both fun to make and delicious!  I’ve made them once before, but plan on making some more (and taking photos) for our New Year’s Day football gathering.

Want to Join The Bread Baker’s Apprentice Challenge?

There are several ways for you to join in the fun!  First of all, you need a copy of Peter Reinhart’s The Bread Baker’s Apprentice.  Read the first section of the book carefully, as this will prepare you for the bread recipes in the second section of the book.  Then just jump in and bake some Anadama Bread, which is the first recipe in the book.  But first, please visit The BBA Challenge Page for more details on how to participate in the group!

If you haven’t already, you might want to bookmark the BBA Challenge Page.  From there you can see which breads are coming up soon, find answers to Frequently Asked Questions, visit and/or add yourself to our World Map, see the BBA Challenge Blogroll, and check out the continually updated slideshow of BBA Bread photos from our ever-expanding group of bakers!

Italian Bread from other BBA Challenge Members:

  1. Amy

    I don’t know if I’ve ever passed the window pane test… I don’t have a mixer that can handle bread dough so I hand knead it…

    Do you think the window pane test is essential to baking bread? Mine turns out pretty dang good without passing it…

    11:14 am  Dec 30th, 2009
  2. Cathy (breadexperience)

    Beautiful Italian Loaves and beautiful photos! Makes me want to make these again. Yummy!

    11:27 am  Dec 30th, 2009
  3. Margaret

    Baking mine today for Slow and Steady BBA. Yours looks perfect. Hope mine turns out as well….

    12:03 pm  Dec 30th, 2009
  4. pam

    Those are gorgeous! How did you take that windowpane picture alone?!

    12:22 pm  Dec 30th, 2009
  5. AP269

    Beautiful loaves!!!! I wish I had your scoring skills! Here’s my post about the Italian bread, which I think was the BEST bread I’ve ever had:

    1:04 pm  Dec 30th, 2009
  6. Ed Schenk

    The bread looks fabulous. Thank for writing this. Wish I had some yeast in the fridge. I’d be in kitchen kneeding up a loaf (of some king) right now.I enjoyed your post very much.

    1:21 pm  Dec 30th, 2009
  7. Tamara

    Gorgeous! Your photos almost make me want to break my dependency on the bread machine. Almost 😀

    2:02 pm  Dec 30th, 2009
  8. Frieda

    This is one of my favorite breads from this book and I have made it several times. They are fabulous as torpedo rolls as shown in my post:

    3:24 pm  Dec 30th, 2009
  9. Mags

    Your Italian bread looks perfect Nicole. This was one of my favorites too and I’ve also made it more than once already just because it does make such great sandwich bread. Thanks for including me in your links!

    4:24 pm  Dec 30th, 2009
  10. Shelley

    Excellent photos of the process! I haven’t baked this one yet, but you’ve certainly motivated me to get into the kitchen!

    Too funny about photographing the windowpane test by yourself. You must have an extra set of arms!

    5:17 pm  Dec 30th, 2009
  11. janelle

    I can almost smell it! Actually, I am in Italy so this was a particularly fun read. I have found that the peasant bread—most of the bread—here is baked without salt. I actually ask ‘con sale’ when I want a fresh baked loaf to include salt. Interesting, huh? I am actually looking at my almost-finished-raising focaccia as we speak! I am trying to perfect it before I write a post;). Happy baking!

    4:01 am  Dec 31st, 2009
  12. M. Nina Piccini

    Thank you for sharing! I always try to make bread, but I just can’t get the hang of it. My loaves are hard as rocks. You make it look so easy- thanks for the great directions and pictures. How did you take some of these shots?


    5:53 am  Dec 31st, 2009
  13. My Year on the Grill

    I have bread making on my new year’s resolution goals… starting in Feb., I will join the group and see what I can do.

    luckily, i will have your old posts as resources… thanks for this group

    7:22 am  Dec 31st, 2009
  14. Loulou

    I must get back in the swing of the BBA Challenge. I made the first few breads and then our kitchen got too hot to cook in, then I just never picked the book back up. Thanks for the re-inspiration! Those loaves look divine.
    Happy New Year!

    8:30 am  Dec 31st, 2009
  15. SallyBR

    Great to see you back!

    loved the windowpane shot, and your bread peel made me quite jealous… too bad Santa already stopped by this year 🙁


    9:56 am  Dec 31st, 2009
  16. Doris Mullen

    Looks just wonderful, Nicole. Do you know what I might substitute instead of the Diastatic Malt Power. I know I can buy it online but with shipping, tis a “pretty” price for 16 oz of something I won’t use often. I am taking a respite from BBA…gained too many lbs from eating good bread.

    10:22 am  Dec 31st, 2009
  17. Chris

    I found the window pane test easy to achieve with white breads, but I can’t seem to get it with whole wheat breads. I Just mixed his Whole wheat bread p. 271 dough for 20 minutes in my kitchen aid. No where close to the consistency it should be. Sticky and pulls apart right away. I added more flour during mixing to see if that would work. If you can’t get to the window pane test consistency, what does that mean? too little flour, till little water. Wrong temperature?

    12:40 pm  Jan 4th, 2010
  18. Di

    I am so lazy about getting my dough to make a good windowpane… Yours looks fantastic. The Italian bread is one of my favorites. (I’ve made it several times.) For the challenge, I used my newly developed sourdough starter in the biga and it turned out great!

    8:49 pm  Jan 18th, 2010
  19. Ravenlynne

    This was a very delicious bread! I made them into round dinner rolls:

    3:36 pm  Mar 3rd, 2010
  20. Jean nielson

    This recipe is a complete waste of time when you don’t give the recipe for biga.

    6:39 pm  Jul 24th, 2010
  21. Mary

    The place to get malt powder is at a store that caters to people who are brewing beer at home. I get a bag for $6.00 that lasts a year if I share it with my daughter. I use about a tablespoonful a week making pizza dough.

    3:41 pm  Jul 18th, 2016
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