One of the questions I am frequently asked is, "what is 00 flour and how does it compare to English flour?" This is swiftly followed by, "I am making focaccia/ciabatta/white bread out of the strong, stone ground English bread flour that you suggested I use and it is not turning into the Italian bread of my childhood. What am I doing wrong?"
Let's take these questions in turn.
1. Italians and English do not categorise flour in the same way.
Italian flour is graded by colour (technically called extraction rate - that is the extent to which the bran and the germ are extracted from the flour). It is marked 00 to 04 where 00 is really really white and 04 is rather closer to whole meal. The exception is Durham flour but let's not go there now. English flour, on the other hand is graded by both colour (white, brown, whole meal) and by gluten content, or strength (plain, strong, extra strong or words to that effect) and we believe that the stronger the flour, the better the bread. All else being equal, stronger flour makes bread that rises higher and has a more evenly textured crumb.
2. Different flour bakes different bread.
Bake the same recipe in the same way with 00 flour and with stong white flour and you will see that the 00 loaf is flatter and the crumb has holes that are different sizes and are not evenly distributed. Bake the same recipe in the same way with 00 flour and with strong white flour that has been stone milled and you will see that the 00 loaf is white white white and the stone ground loaf is a bit beige. This is because the stone milling mills for whole meal flour and then seives it to separate out the bran and the germ, thus providing white flour. Industrially milled flour (of whatever strength) has the bran and the germ milled out at a very early stage because industrial millers mill for white flour.
The lesson is that if you want the very white, soft, holey bread from your childhood you need to get the flour from your childhood.
The big difference, in addition to texture and look, is that the stone ground white flour is higher in the naturally found nutrients because the white flour absorbs some of the nutrients from the bran and the germ before they are seived off. Industrially milled flour is rather bereft of these nutrients because the bran and the germ are removed so early in the process. For a more comprehensive discussion about this, please click here.
You can make perfectly lovely Italian bread with English flour. It may not be identical to your Italian experience but it will certainly be better for you. And when it looks like this, why not choose better for you as well.
Focaccia (makes three biggish round ones, two even bigger square ones, or one giant one)
For the dough:
1 kg wite flour (Italian 00 if you have it, strong white or a mixture of 50% strong white and 50% plain white to approximate 00)
600 g warm water
10 g dry yeast (or 20 g fresh yeast or 5 g instant yeast, in which case you may as well use the whole package which is 7 g)
2 tablespoons of olive oil
10 g salt
For the top:
Sea salt (big flakes)
and then options including herbs (rosemary, sage), thinly sliced onions or shallots, sun dried tomatoes.....
Proof the yeast if necessary and then knead all the ingredients together for a good 10-15 minutes.
Place the dough in a bowl and cover it. Let rest until doubled in bulk (1-2 hours depending on heat in the kitchen)
Turn it out and either leave as one blob for a big focaccia or cut it into equal pieces for smaller ones. You will need baking trays/forms with sides at least 2 inches high at this stage.
Give the pieces (or piece) a good knead on a lightly floured board and then flatten into your baking tray (s). Cover witha damp cloth and let rest for 30 minutes.
Take the cloth off and dimple the dough vigorously with your knuckles or fingertips.
Cover and let rise for 60 minutes or until the dough has doubled in size. It should reach the tops of the sides of the pan. It will not, therefore, be 4-6 inches high. Rather 1.5-2 inches high. You get a much better crispy oily top to lucious, smooth dough that way. Not too oily, not too dry, not too high.
Meanwhile pre heat the oven to 230 degrees.
Brush the top of the dough lavishly with olive oil and sprinkle salt, herbs and anything else you want on top just before you put in the oven. Spary a few times with water or even salt water if you like in the first 10 minutes of baking.
Bake for 20-30 minutes. Don't let it burn or go dry but don't let it be doughy either. When it is a deep gold it will be done.
Turn out immediately onto a drying rack so the bottoms don't go all soggy and eat straight away. This really does not keep well.
If you would like to try this among friends with some supervision, why not take a class? Virtuous Bread is offering focaccia classes throughout the summer! Click here for information.