Most Americans know grissini as those pale breadsticks in the long waxen envelopes that appear on the tables of Italian restaurants, but those bear about as much resemblance to authentic grissini, or Italian breadsticks, as packaged industrial white bread does to true country loaves. Real grissini are made of yeast, flour, water, and either olive oil, lard, or butter. They are shaped between the hands by gently stretching the dough to about the span of the baker’s arms, and are then baked directly on the floor of a wood-burning oven. They are as thick and irregular as knobby fingers and look like cordwood when stacked. They have crunch and an earthy taste. Even when made at home with the methods and recipe that follow, they are still redolent of the countryside and the old ways.
Although there is some dispute about who came up with the first grissini, there is no question that they first appeared in Turin sometime in the 17th century. Some say that a baker in Turin invented them in 1668 in response to inquiries from the doctor of the young duke Vittorio Amedeo II, who had stomach disturbances, for a bread that would be good for the duke’s digestion. The baker stretched out the traditional local bread dough so long that it became a long, thin, crunchy stick that was essentially all crust. Although there is no word on their effect on the patient’s health, it is safe to assume that they met with great success, because grissini were well-known all over Italy by the next century, when Napoleon discovered “les petits bâtons de Turin.” Napoleon was so enthusiastic about the breadsticks that he instituted a fast postal service expressly for transporting them to court every day. The most popular rival story to that of the young duke credits a Florentine abbot on a diplomatic mission near Turin in 1643 with the discovery of a “thin bread as long as an arm and very, very fine.”
Serve grissini with eggs, green salad, prosciutto, and smoked beef, as well as with any kind of antipasti. Some Italians eat them for breakfast with milk or coffee, an old custom that was once widespread.–Carol Field
LC Naming Unconventions Note
Technically speaking, the proper name of these skinny, crunchy, yeasty, moan-inducingly lovely light sabers of bready goodness is grissini Torinesi. Confession: We’ve been referring to them simply as grissini, a word that rolls off the tongue in a way that “Torinesi” does not. Anyone who’s up for the challenge of a little advanced Italian can, of course, pronounce its full name over and over and over again, to his or her heart’s content, along with grissini Siciliani and grissini al papavera, two classic variations on this Italian breadstuff staple. You’ll find the how-tos for these variations beneath the breadsticks recipe that follows.
Special Equipment: Baking stone (optional)
- Quick Glance
- 25 M
- 2 H
- Makes 20
- 1 3/4 teaspoons active dry yeast
- 1 tablespoon malt syrup (you can substitute molasses, honey, or sugar, although the malt syrup gives the crust a nice color)
- 1 1/4 cups warm water (or 1/4 cup warm water plus 1 cup cold water if using a food processor)
- 2 tablespoons extra-virgin olive oil, plus more for brushing and for the pans
- 3 3/4 cups unbleached all-purpose flour, plus more for the work surface
- 1 1/2 teaspoons salt
- 1/2 cup cornmeal or coarse semolina flour, plus more for dusting the baking stone (optional)
- 1. Make the dough by hand: Stir the yeast and malt into the warm water in a large mixing bowl; let stand until foamy, about 10 minutes. Stir in the oil. Add the all-purpose flour and salt and stir until the dough comes together. Knead on a lightly floured surface until smooth, soft, velvety, and elastic, 8 to 10 minutes.
Make the dough with a stand mixer: Stir the yeast and malt into the warm water in a mixer bowl; let stand until foamy, about 10 minutes. Mix in the oil with the paddle. Add the all-purpose flour and salt and mix until the dough comes together. Change to the dough hook and knead at low speed about 3 minutes. Finish kneading briefly by hand on a lightly floured surface.
Make the dough with a food processor: Stir the yeast and malt into the 1/4 cup warm water in a small bowl; let stand until foamy, about 10 minutes. Place the all-purpose flour and salt in a standard food processor fitted with the dough blade or a large (over 7-cup capacity) processor fitted with the steel blade and process with several pulses to sift. Mix the 1 cup cold water and the oil in a small bowl. With the machine running, pour the water mixed with oil and the dissolved yeast through the feed tube and process until the dough comes together. Process 45 seconds longer to knead. Finish kneading briefly by hand on a lightly floured surface.
- 2. Pat the dough with your hand into a 14-by-4-inch rectangle on a well-floured surface. Lightly brush the top with oil. Cover loosely with plastic wrap and let rise until doubled, about 1 hour.
- 3. Preheat the oven to 450ºF (232ºC). If you are using a baking stone (for crunchy breadsticks), turn the oven on 30 minutes before baking. Lightly oil 2 baking sheets.
- 4. Sprinkle the dough with the cornmeal or semolina flour before cutting and stretching. The traditional method of shaping breadsticks is ingenious, simple, and quick, and doesn’t make you roll out individual grissini. Cut the dough crosswise into 4 equal sections and then cut each section crosswise again into 5 strips, each about the width of a fat finger. The dough is so elastic that you can simply pick up each piece, hold each end with your fingers, and pull and stretch to fit the length of a baking sheet. Place the breadsticks several inches apart on the baking sheets (We find it easier to use the backs of the baking sheets, unless you have rimless sheets). There is no need to let them rise.
- 5. Bake the breadsticks for 20 minutes. If you like crunchy breadsticks, transfer the breadsticks directly to the baking stone for the last 5 minutes of the baking time, but only after sprinkling the stone with cornmeal or coarse semolina. Let the breadsticks cool on racks.
Italian Breadstick Variations
- Grissini Siciliani
- Sprinkle the dough with 1/2 cup sesame seeds instead of cornmeal or semolina flour before cutting and shaping the breadsticks.
- Grissini al papavera
- Sprinkle the dough with 1/2 cup poppy seeds instead of cornmeal or semolina flour before cutting and shaping the breadsticks.