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My Big Fat Italian Bread | Sortachef

My Big Fat Italian Bread

What’s not to love about a big old woodfired loaf of bread? The first time I saw a Pain Poilâne, I wanted to sink my teeth right into its yeasty innards and let the smell of smoke waft into my brain. And that big crusty miche on the cover of Peter Reinhart’s book? Okay, it’s not woodfired, but it’s dark enough to make me drool. Yes, I’ll admit; I’ve got bread love and I’ve got it bad.

So when I saw the Pane de Matera on display at the Pike Place Market’s cheese festival last weekend, I fell in love all over again. Here was a beautiful, crusty loaf with a creamy center, made by Vero Lucano in brick ovens over in Italy. I didn’t get to sample it, but it looked similar to smaller loaves we’ve been making here at Chez Bullhog. I’d have to admit it held the advantage in size – sometimes, bigger really is better!

Here’s how I make my own.

My Big Fat Italian Bread

Makes one 4 1/3 pound (2 Kilo) loaf

Takes 2 or 3 days


For the sponge:

2 ounces each of spelt, semolina and rye flours (1 cup total)

4 ounces of day-old dough

5 ounces (1 1/8 cups) of bread flour

10 ounces (1¼ cups) of cold water

1 teaspoon of salt

½ teaspoon of active dried or instant yeast


For the dough:

All of the sponge from above

4 ounces (5/8 cup) of semolina

16 ounces (3½ cups) of all-purpose unbleached flour

8 ounces (1¾ cups) of bread flour

20 ounces (2½ cups) of water at 100°

2 teaspoons of salt

1 teaspoon of active dried or instant yeast


Make the sponge: Two days before you want to make your bread, combine 2 ounces each of spelt, semolina and rye flours, a cup or so of bread flour, a 4-ounce piece of day-old dough, 10 ounces of cold water and a half teaspoon of dry yeast. Mix thoroughly until your sponge resembles porridge.  Cover lightly and let ferment in a cool place for between 24 and 48 hours.

Giving the bread structure by making a braid

Make the dough: Scrape the sponge into a large mixing bowl. Add 4 ounces (5/8 cup) of semolina, 16 ounces (3½ cups) of all-purpose unbleached flour, 8 ounces (1¾ cups) of bread flour, 20 ounces (2½ cups) of water at 100°, 2 teaspoons of salt and 1 teaspoon of dry yeast. Using the handle of a wooden spoon, mix well, scraping down the sides of the bowl as necessary until you have a large ball of dough. Turn out onto a lightly floured counter and knead for 5 minutes or more.

1st rise: Clean out your bread bowl and return the dough to it. Cover lightly with a lid or plastic wrap and let rise for 3 or 4 hours until double in bulk. Air temperature at this phase should be 65 to 70 degrees.

2nd rise: Turn the dough out onto a lightly floured counter and press most of the air out of it. Pull the edges in to the center, turn the dough over. Return it to the bowl, lightly covered, and let rise for a further 2 to 3 hours. Increase the air temperature to 80° for this phase.

Preheat your woodfired oven: Your fire should be at least 2 hours old, with moderate to high heat. You can keep the fire in the center until the last minute to heat the oven deck where this big guy will sit while baking. Push the mature coals to the back of the oven and brush the ashes off of the floor.  There should be 6 to 8 fist-sized chunks of glowing hardwood coal and a good bed of embers when the bread goes in. A small amount of active flame will give a light char to the crust.

Shaping and last proof: After its second rise, turn the dough onto the counter and cut it into three pieces. Shape each piece to look like a fat baguette and braid the pieces, tucking the ends under. Place the loaf on a wooden peel well-dusted with semolina and let rise at 80° for a further 45 minutes, until the braids are no longer recognizable. Brush lightly with water and slash the top if desired.

Bake for 1 hour 10 minutes, until dark brown. Put the cover in place on the front of the oven, leaving it cocked open by 1” on one side. Turn the bread after 20 minutes, and again several times to ensure even baking.

Once your Big Fat Italian Bread is baked, allow it to cool for at least 2 hours to fully develop its lovely crust. Better would be to give it longer, but I know I can never wait. Enjoy!

Copyright ©2012 by Don Hogeland

Pane di Matera by Vero Lucano at the Pike Place Market cheese festival


11 comments to My Big Fat Italian Bread

  • This looks fabulous! I love making sourdough but I wish I had a wood fired oven like yours! Tasty!

  • Your breads always look fantastic.

  • What a fabulous recipe looks delicious.

  • posy

    I can testify – great crust, creamy center with a tinge of smoke.

  • Wow…that is one great crusty bread. I love artisan bread. I don’t have a woodfired oven so what I normally do to have a nice crust, I will spray water on the surface every now and then while it is baking in the oven. I do get a crusty bread but not one with a tinge of smoke. Thank you for sharing this lovely italian bread recipe. Will try this out when I get some rye flour..kind of hard to get over here in Malaysia. Have a great weekend !


  • Mike

    Your bread looks wonderful. If I could, I’d jump into this screen to get a large chunk and devour it with much gusto.
    Unfortunately, I have “champagne taste and a beer pocketbook” so naturally I don’t have that splendid Brick Oven you built at significant expense. I will attempt to duplicate you efforts using a traditional kitchen gas oven. Toward this end, can you recommend the temperature, I would guess it to be somewhere in the mid 400 degrees for some 45 minutes or so, would I be anywhere in the ballpark?
    Your help and insight would be truly appreciated,
    Thank you,

  • Hi Mike,

    Thanks for your question; I kind of knew somebody would ask it!

    Best bet for baking a loaf like this in a conventional oven is to bake it on quarry tiles or a big pizza stone so that you get the full rise. I’d preheat the oven to 475 for 30 minutes and then drop the temp to 450 when the bread was in. 15 to 20 minutes later, once the loaf had time to expand to its full size, I’d drop the temperature to 375 degrees and bake it for a further 45 or 50 minutes.

    I usually bake a loaf in my conventional oven to back up the recipe, but because of the size of this loaf I have yet to try one inside. Please let me know how it turns out!


  • Wow, that’s one *big* loaf of bread!

  • Thx for connecting with me on foodbuzz. I just subscribed to your blog feed and can’t wait to see what your next post will be!

  • This looks awesome, the smokiness imparted to the crust must be delicious, makes me salivate at the thought! Now all I need to do is build me a brick oven :o )

  • rixcat

    How does one come up with a day old piece of dough and how do you describe and define this dough? Or, how do I make it? We just returned from Matera and loved eating this bread made by the denizens. We want to try to make it at home. I wonder how Mike fared in his conventional gas oven.

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At Woodfiredkitchen.com, Sortachef takes you on adventures in the kitchen and beyond, with tales to suit. Many of his offerings are woodfired - a flaming good recipe for pizza, bread, or something different. All recipes are original and tasty. Enjoy!
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