A guide to the versatile Italian Flat Bread Focaccia
Oh, focaccia! How I love thee. Focaccia holds a lot of meaning for me. In the last two years, focaccia has been the one thing that has taught me the most. It has been the one item that I have gone back to time and time again tweaking my recipe, tweaking my procedure, tweaking how I sell it and, in turn, learning a lot about myself as an entrepreneur and who I want to be as a pizzaiola in this world. It has provided a back-to-basics learning lesson and taught me how to manipulate fermentation and the final product. Like pizza, there is bad focaccia, good focaccia, and great focaccia. But even bad focaccia is good and serves a purpose. The versatility of focaccia, like any bread product, is only limited by your creativity.
Depending on where you are and who you ask focaccia changes a bit, but in my experience the “standard” for focaccia is as follows: made in a rectangular pan, mid to high hydration, shorter fermentation times, pillowy in texture with a slight crisp on top and bottom and slathered in olive oil. In terms of the interior crumb structure, I most often find that focaccia is made up of smaller bubbles and many of them as opposed to giant bubbles and fewer of them like you see in ciabatta bread, although this is ever changing as more and more people learn to bend the rules and challenge tradition.
One of the things I love about focaccia is the approachability of it. Having worked in restaurants for almost two decades and taught countless people how to make pizza, one of the common things for beginners is fear of handling dough. Everyone is afraid of tearing dough or mishandling it or making it imperfect, and that fear skyrockets as hydration goes up or the dough gets older and warmer to the touch. By putting dough in pans, this fear tends to lessen. By placing harder-to-work-with doughs in pans, it’s easier for employees and novices to learn how to handle dough since there are distinct borders to contain it and the shape is controlled so “messing it up” happens less. Even holes or small tears can be rectified more easily. Focaccia is thicker and isn’t stretched thin and topped with wet sauce and heavy toppings that compromise any thin areas, so any small hole will be less obvious once it is baked.
The best piece of focaccia to me is one that is covered in great olive oil, but not sopping wet. One that is topped minimally or just lightly dusted with salt so you can taste the dough separately from the olive oil but kissed with salt, so it pops and it melds together beautifully as you chew. Not always is focaccia topped just with olive oil but, with a blend of oil, salt and water called salamoia. This mixture is usually added to the top of the dough when it is time to dimple it as the dimples themselves will trap small quantities of the mixture and yet get pockets of goodness.
Since focaccia is known for its dimples, it’s a great way to showcase flavors without always needing cheese and sauce. It can handle sweet and savory toppings and is always a great way to sop up any sauce from pasta or a roast or just eaten as a snack by itself. If adding flavors, you will want to add these when you dimple before baking. Added ingredients are best when they fall into the crevices and are scattered. Keep in mind that as hydrations go up you will want to make sure that you slow down the cooking times to allow all the steam to cook out. Focaccia should have a certain softness to it, but the thing I encounter most that ruins it is too much oil in the pan combined with wet ingredients, high hydrated doughs and too fast of a cook. It’s just too much moisture compounding with too fast of a bake.
Focaccia holds impeccably well because they are sealed when cooked and can sit just like any other bread product. If sitting at room temperature, be advised your health department might not like certain toppings sitting out for lengths of time. But all focaccias can be popped into the fridge or freezer and reheated when needed. Because of the moisture, they re-steam themselves when heated and bounce back wonderfully. If you forget to save them and they’ve been sitting out for too long and now they’re hard and stale, have no fear. Focaccia croutons are amazing no matter if you cube them, slice them, tear them into random pieces… Just season and toast and they’re ready to go. It’s just as easy to turn toasted and seasoned focaccia into breadcrumbs for chicken or eggplant Parm or even used as a thickener for soups.
Focaccia is also a great item to package and either give away to your loyal regulars as holiday gifts or sold individually packaged and branded. If you are already doing frozen pizzas, freezing and packaging focaccia is just as easy and is a great way to diversify what you have available.
If you’d like to try salamoia on your next batch of focaccia, mix 40 grams of water with five to six grams of salt and 30 grams of olive oil.
LAURA MEYER is owner of Pizzeria da Laura in Berkeley, CA.