Nothing beats tearing off a warm hunk of fragrant, crusty, craggy-crumbed rustic Italian bread at the dinner table. The path to a perfect loaf isn’t difficult, but simply takes a tiny bit of patience and some good dough technique—mixing, turning, shaping, baking—which we’ll happily show you, step by step.
Mixing some of the flour, water, and yeast together and letting this mixture (called a sponge) ferment on the counter is an easy way to build flavor in rustic bread. It needs to be covered and left at room temperature for as long as it takes to rise and fall—at least 6 hours or up to 24 hours.
After combining the dough ingredients (except the salt), cover and let sit for 20 minutes before kneading. This resting, known as autolyse, allows the flour more time to fully hydrate and lets the gluten relax, which makes the dough much easier to knead.
Add the sponge and salt and knead the dough in a stand mixer fitted with a dough hook on medium-low speed for about 8 minutes. After about 4 minutes, check the consistency of the dough—it should stick just to the very bottom of the mixing bowl, but not to the sides. If necessary, add more flour, 2 tablespoons at a time, until the consistency is just right. Our doughs are on the wet side—it is easier to add more flour to a wet dough than to add water to dry dough.
After kneading, shape the dough into a tidy round and let it rise in a large lightly oiled bowl or container with straight sides, covered with greased plastic wrap. Greasing the bowl and plastic wrap ensures that the dough won’t stick as it rises.
After the dough has risen for about an hour, it’s time to start turning it. Slide a plastic bench scraper or rubber spatula under one side of the dough; gently lift and fold a third of the dough toward the center.
Repeat the previous step with the opposite side of the dough.
Finally, fold the dough in half, perpendicular to the first folds. The dough shape should be a rough square. Cover, let rise for 30 minutes, then repeat the turning process. Cover and rise about 30 minutes longer, until dough has doubled in size. The easiest way to know when the “doubled in size” point is reached is to let the dough rise in a transparent, straight-sided container and mark its initial height with a rubber band.
After delicately pressing the dough into a 10-inch square, gently dimple it and fold the top corners diagonally to the middle.
Using your fingertips and starting at the top of the dough, pull the underside of the dough up over the top, stretching it considerably, and begin to roll the dough up into a rough log. With each roll, press the seam firmly to seal. Continue to do this, forming the dough into a taut log, 5 to 7 more times.
Roll the dough onto its seam, gently slide your hands underneath each end, and transfer the loaf to the parchment-lined rimless (or inverted) baking sheet.
Finish shaping the loaf into a taut 16-inch-long torpedo-shaped loaf by tucking the edges under with your hands. Mist with oil, cover loosely with plastic wrap, and let rise.
The crisp, dark crust on the bottom of rustic bread is the result of baking it right on a baking stone. A layer of parchment between the bread and the baking stone makes transferring the bread easier.