Italian baking, and Italian bread in general, tends to be a lot more relaxed than French baking.
Where a Parisian baguette must have a specific number of slashes, and be baked to a certain hue and uniformity, an Italian ciabatta ‘passes’ if it looks vaguely like a slipper. Italian bread is a lot more rustic, and this stirato, the Italian version of the French baguette is a classic example of that.
It lacks the slickness, the sleekness, of its French cousin, but gains an artisan quality and an individuality that’s quite endearing.
I like this.
It means that my ham-fisted attempts to shape baguettes are fine here, where they would be laughed out of any French bakery. A slightly wonky Italian baguette is not a problem, nor should it be.
A stirato is made with a pre-ferment called a biga. This is really a method of boosting the taste and flavour of the finished loaf by developing a starter dough well in advance that will eventually be used as the base of the final dough.
The starter dough, or biga, is a stiff, fairly dry dough made with a small amount of yeast and allowed to ferment slowly in the fridge for anything up to sixteen hours. The result is a very ripe dough that shares some characteristics with a sourdough starter – both give that spine and backbone to a bread that’s generally missing from a loaf made the from a dough that’s simply mixed, risen, knocked back, shaped and proved over the space of a few hours.
A biga is typical of Italian baking, a poolish of French. The main difference is that a poolish has more water and is therefore looser. It does the same job, but doesn’t ‘hold’ as well in its ripe state. More…