At its core, bread is fermented flour that is allowed to rise before it is baked. There are a number of interesting chemical and biological actions at play.
Yeast, the agent that makes this process possible, converts starch contained in the flour into carbon dioxide and alcohol. The alcohol evaporates, imparting flavor in the dough while the carbon dioxide gas is captured by the dough as air bubbles. It takes time for the starch in the flour to break down to where the yeast can extract the maximum flavor from the flour.
Starch is a complex flour molecule that is broken down into more simple sugar molecule that the yeast can use. This process is done by enzymes, which effectively break up the starch. This process takes time and eliminates the need for any type of sugar in your dough.
Gluten, the primary protein in wheat, provides bread with its structure and its flavor. The act of fermenting dough enables the gluten present in the flour to develop and bond together, giving the dough it’s elastic feeling, and the crumb it’s stretchy and chewy texture on the palate. Gluten is also responsible for the random hole pattern that gives artisan bread its character. Again, it takes time for the gluten to develop to where it stretches and does not tear, and results in a superior loaf of bread.
Armed with this knowledge, it is easy to see why supermarket bread, bread baked on the rapid setting on a bread machine, or bread fermented using quick, or rapid yeast does not match the quality of bread fermented slowly and fully.
Luckily for us, bread dough needs time, not attention, to reach its full potential. It is easy to start your bread the night, or even the day before you want it. Depending on your other commitments, it is easy to have a two-day cycle of bread going all the time, where one is fermenting for tomorrow’s meal while the other is proofing for tonight. That way you can have great Pizza Stone bread virtually every day, without a lot of effort.
One easy way to capture all of the flavor and texture from your flour is to create a starter, called a pre-ferment. There are a number of different styles of pre-ferment, but I use on called Poolish (the French call it Poolish because it is said to have originally come from Poland).
It’s simple. Mix 2 cups of flour with 1 1/8 cups of water and 1/2 teaspoon of yeast. Put it in the bread machine and hit the dough button. Your machine will run for about 90 minutes, giving you fermenting dough that looks something like pancake batter. Let it sit for another 90 minutes, or if you have something that will take you away from the machine (such as sleep, work, etc.), put it in the refrigerator. The chill of the refrigerator will slow the yeast down to a crawl, and give your bread the time it needs to develop.
At this point, you have invested less than two minutes in your world-class Pizza Stone Ciabatta.
You are ready for Primary Fermentation.