Table to Farm bread episode, featuring Aaron Bobrow-Strain, author of White Bread, and Amy Scherber of Amy’s Bread.

Don’t Punch Your Bread Dough Down—Gently Caress It

Don’t Punch Your Bread Dough Down—Gently Caress It

Where food comes from.
April 15 2013 10:44 AM

Table to Farm: Focaccia Edition

Slate's show about white bread’s strange social history and why you should gently caress your yeast dough.

Listen to Table to Farm No. 7 with L.V. Anderson and Dan Pashman by clicking the arrow on the audio player below

Slate’s coverage of food systems is made possible in part by the W.K. Kellogg Foundation.



On this week’s episode, Laura and Dan talk to Whitman College professor Aaron Bobrow-Strain about the history of bread in the 20th century: in particular, how it became industrialized (and then de-industrialized) and how its cultural and class implications have changed. Then, the hosts interview Amy Scherber, the founder and owner of New York bakery Amy’s Bread, about why professionally baked loaves are so good (especially in France), what amateur bakers should do differently, and whether gluten-free goods are here to stay. Finally, Laura and Dan make Amy’s recipe for focaccia and conclude that, regardless of trends, bread with olive oil is always delicious.

Here’s a lightly edited version of Amy’s recipe:

Focaccia With Fresh Rosemary
Yield: One 12-by-17 inch loaf
Time: 11 to 14 hours, largely unattended

⅛ teaspoon plus ½ teaspoon active dry yeast
1½ cup plus 2 tablespoons unbleached all-purpose flour
4½ cups unbleached bread flour
2 tablespoons plus 2 teaspoons extra-virgin olive oil, plus more for topping the loaf
2 tablespoons plus 2 teaspoons milk
1 tablespoon plus 1¼ teaspoon kosher salt, plus more for greasing and topping the loaf
2 tablespoons plus 1 teaspoon chopped fresh rosemary


1. Combine ⅛ teaspoon of the yeast with ¾ cup plus 2 tablespoons very warm water (105 degrees F to 115 degrees F) in a medium bowl and stir to dissolve the yeast. Add the all-purpose flour and stir vigorously with a wooden spoon for 1 to 2 minutes, until a smooth, somewhat elastic batter has formed. The batter will be fairly thick and stretchy; it gets softer and more elastic after it has risen. Scrape the biga into a clear 2-quart plastic container, mark the height of the starter and the time on the side of the container with tape or a marker, and cover the container with plastic wrap. Let it rise at room temperature for six to eight hours until ready to use. (Or let it rise one hour at room temperature, then chill it in the refrigerator for at least eight hours or overnight. Remove it from the refrigerator and let it sit at room temperature for three to four hours to warm up and become active before using it.) Biga should more than double in volume before it’s ready to use. Use the starter while it is still bubbling up, before it starts to deflate.

2. Put the remaining ½ teaspoon yeast and 1¾ cups plus 2 tablespoons warm water (85 degrees F to 90 degrees F) in a large bowl. Stir with a fork to dissolve the yeast and let sit for about three minutes. (If you are working in a cool kitchen on a cool day, increase the water temperature to 105 degrees F to give the dough a warmer start.)

3. Add 1½ cups of the biga to the yeast mixture and mix with your fingers for one to two minutes to break it up. (If you have leftover biga, discard it.) The mixture should look milky and foamy. Add the bread flour and mix it in with your hands, lifting the wet mixture over the flour to incorporate it. When the dough becomes a shaggy mass, move to a very lightly floured surface and knead until it becomes smooth and somewhat elastic, about five minutes. Place the dough back into the mixing bowl, cover with oiled plastic wrap, and let rest for 20 minutes to smooth out and develop elasticity. After the rest period, add the oil, milk, and salt to the dough in the mixing bowl and knead it in the bowl until it is all incorporated. Move the dough to a lightly floured work surface and knead until it is very smooth, silky, and elastic, about seven to 10 minutes. The dough will be sticky, but don’t use too much flour for kneading. The finished dough should be wet but supple and springy.

4. Put the dough in a lightly oiled bowl, turn it to coat with oil, and cover it tightly with oiled plastic wrap. Let the dough rise at room temperature (75 degrees F to 77 degrees F) for one hour, then turn the dough while it is still in the mixing bowl. Gently deflate the dough in the middle of the bowl with your fingertips, then fold the left side over the middle, and then the right side over the middle. Fold the dough in half, gently pat it down, and then turn it over so the seam is underneath. Let it rise again until nearly doubled in volume, one to 1½ hours.


5. Line a 12-by-17 inch sheet pan with parchment paper and grease it lightly with olive oil. When the dough has risen, loosen it from the bowl and gently pour it onto the center of the oiled baking sheet. Pat it gently with your fingertips to stretch it evenly out to the edges of the pan. Be careful not to tear the dough. If the dough resists stretching, let it rest until it becomes supple enough to stretch again, two to five minutes, and then continue to press it out to the edges of the pan. (If the dough is dry, you may have to repeat the resting/stretching procedure several times.) Brush the top of the dough lightly with olive oil, cover with lightly oiled plastic wrap, and let rise for one to two hours, or until the dough has doubled and fills the pan. (A finger pressed into the dough will leave an indentation.)

6. Thirty minutes before baking, preheat the oven to 425 degrees F and prepare the oven by placing a cast-iron skillet and a smaller pan (a mini loaf pan) on the floor of the oven or on the lowest possible rack in an electric oven. Place an oven rack two rungs above the cast-iron pan. Fill a plastic water sprayer with water. Fill a teakettle with water to be boiled later, and have a metal 1-cup measure with a straight handle available near the kettle. About five to 10 minutes before the focaccia is ready to bake, turn the water on to boil, and carefully place two ice cubes in the small loaf pan in the bottom of the oven. This helps to create moisture in the oven prior to baking.

7. Brush the surface of the dough with olive oil, dimple it in several spots with your fingertips to prevent air pockets from developing underneath, and sprinkle the surface lightly with kosher salt. Sprinkle with the chopped rosemary all the way to the edges.

8. Quickly but carefully fill the metal 1-cup measure with boiling water. Open the oven and place the pan of focaccia on the oven rack; then, using a water sprayer, quickly mist it six to eight times. Quickly but carefully pour the boiling water into the cast-iron skillet and immediately close the oven door.

9. Bake for 15 minutes, then reduce the oven temperature to 350 degrees F and bake until golden brown and crusty but still very soft inside, 15 to 20 minutes longer. Remove the focaccia from the oven and immediately brush it lightly with olive oil. Cool in the pan 10 minutes, then carefully slide it onto a cooling rack. Remove the parchment (to prevent steam from softening the bottom crust) and let cool. Serve warm or at room temperature, cut into squares.

Here are links to some of the things we discussed this week:

This podcast was produced by Dan Pashman.

L.V. Anderson is a former Slate associate editor.

Dan Pashman is the creator and host of WNYC’s food podcast The Sporkful.