In search of perfect…focaccia

I've never had "ok" focaccia. Most of the time it’s just bad - usually a tasteless square of cardboard served up by generic “Mediterranean” restaurants to buy more time to microwave the starters.

Once in a while, though, it can be really good. A light, honeycombed crumb hidden beneath a golden crust, moist with extra virgin olive oil, a hint of sourdough and crunchy flakes of sea salt. The truth is, good focaccia is one of life's simplest joys.

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Of course, there's only one foolproof way to make sure you get the best stuff on your plate - and that's to make it yourself. Afterall, it’s only flour, yeast, olive oil, salt and water, so there's no excuse for eating bad bread - but there are a few things that separate the substandard from the sublime:

  • the dough

Focaccia should have a light, sponge-like texture that can soak up the last remnants of olive oil or pasta sauce from your plate. The only way to achieve this is by making a really "wet" dough - you'll be tempted to add more flour, but don't. To make things more manageable do the majority of the kneading in a bowl to stop the sticky goo finding every nook and cranny of your pristine kitchen, use only one hand to do the kneading (so that you always have a clean hand available - believe me you'll need it), and oil everything that comes into contact with the dough to prevent it sticking.

  • kneading

As well as traditional kneading, repeatedly stretching, folding and turning the dough will add structure to the bread.

  • proving

Good focaccia should have a slight sourdough taste. This means giving the yeast time to do its thing. Allowing it to work slowly is the key to great taste, so proving overnight in a fridge is the only way to go.

  • make olive oil your friend

It's in the dough, it's used to stop things sticking, it’s drizzled on top; and mixed with balsamic it is the perfect accompaniment. This is a good thing - remember, olive oil eating countries have some of the longest life expectancies on the planet...and it makes the bread taste great!

  • the dimples

The traditional dimples you see on focaccia are there for a reason. They reduce the air in the dough and prevent the bread from rising too quickly. After proper kneading and proving there will be plenty of large bubbles in the dough. If you try and bake the loaf at this point, they will expand and burst, causing the bread to collapse. To avoid this, you need to dimple your loaf with wet fingers or an oiled wooden spoon handle. This will also increase the surface area allowing you to drizzle over even more extra virgin olive oil. If you do decide to add extra flavourings you can push these into the dimples so that the bread swallows them up as it bakes.

  • toppings

You can be as creative as you like: cubes of mozzarella, sun-dried tomatoes, chopped olives… you get the idea. However, I wouldn’t look any further than a traditional sprinkling of sea salt, picked rosemary leaves and, of course, a drizzle of olive oil. 

Try my rosemary and sea salt focaccia recipe and you’re guaranteed a gorgeous, light bread every time.