So far, I’ve made a lot of enriched bread. Last week was a bit of an intro to more bare-bones bread, but we all saw how that turned out.

Today is for ciabatta. I love ciabatta. Have you tried ciabatta? Well, now you have to try it. I really wanted to show off  today because there have been a couple semi-flubs in a row, so here’s me. Flaunting.

Something new is another of my favorite books: The Bread Baker’s Apprentice: Mastering the Art of Extraordinary Bread by Peter Reinhart, a pretty goofy dude who really knows his bread. He signed this book for me (we must have already established that I’m a bread nerd) and you best believe he didn’t just scrawl his name. The inscription reads “Hi Lauren, may your bread always rise!” He signed a different book that same day in which he not only wished for my bread to always rise, but for my crusts to be crisp. Or something cute like that.

All right, all right, enough about me. Here we go with the recipe for Ciabatta!

As a heads up, this recipe takes at least 4 hours. It’s totally worth it, but I would not suggest depending on it for a quick, easy intro.

 

The first step in making ciabatta with this recipe is throwing together a poolish, which is a kind of pre-ferment. Pre-ferment is kinda like a sourdough starter, it helps develop some flavor and jumpstart the yeast activity. Biga is another variety. Reinhart includes a ciabatta-with-biga as well, but I like the poolish. Creature of habit, plus the directions for the biga look much more complicated. The main difference between the poolish and the biga is hydration, I think, and in a poolish the water percentage is about equal to the flour percentage. Observe:

Poolish Ingredients:

  • 2 ½ cups (11.25 oz) bread flour [100%]
  • ¼ tsp instant yeast [0.27%]
  • 1 ½ cups (12 oz) water, room temperature [107%]
  • Total Percentage: 207.27%

I’m going to start adding in the percentages for recipes as best I can. For a refresher, look back at my post on Baker’s Math.

I love the poolish because all you have to do is mix everything together and wait. So, here is what freshly mixed poolish looks like:

 

 

Next, I had to let it sit for 3-4 hours at room temperature (covered with plastic wrap of course). See how it’s sorta smoothed out and just starting to bubble?

 

 

If you plan on using it same day, which I have done no problem, keep the poolish at room temperature for 2-4 more hours. Otherwise, you should throw that baby in the fridge, and you can forget about it for a while, anywhere from 12 hours to 3 days. Below, you see my super happy, 2.5 day old poolish, bubbling away like it’s got something to prove.

 

 

Gorgeous, amiright? And it totally has something to prove. Itself. Ya know, because it’s proofing? *Insert laugh track*

Ok, you’ve let your poolish proof for a while and now you are ready for some bread, gosh darn it! I feel ya, bro!

Ciabatta Ingredients:

  • All the poolish (22.75 oz) [168.5%] *Take this out of the fridge 1 hour before you start
  • 3 cups (13.5 oz) bread flour [100%]
  • 1 ¾ tsp salt [3.25%]
  • 1 ½ tsp instant yeast [.75%]
  • ¾ cup + 3 tbsp (7.5 oz) water, lukewarm [44.5%]
  • Semolina or cornmeal, to dust your baking surface

Just in case you’re curious, here’s the total percentage of the ingredients, including what is in the poolish:

  • Bread flour – 100%
  • Salt – 1.8%  *makes much more sense than 3.25%, that would be WAY too much.
  • Instant yeast – 1%  *again, makes more sense than .75%, that would be too little.
  • Water – 75%  *Rustic breads tend to have high hydrations, and for ciabatta, I think 75% is actually a little lower than average. I want to try a 100% hydration sometime soon which might require the use of a KitchenAid.

Another note: the lukewarm water will help the yeast activate, and it should come in around 90°F – 100°F. I don’t always pull out my instant-read thermometer, though. If you stick your finger in the water and it feels slightly warm, that should be fine. If it feels slightly hot, add some cool water until it feels more comfortable. Err on the side of caution here; when in doubt, use water that’s a little cool. Water that’s too warm might kill your yeast.

Or just use a thermometer and take out the guesswork.

You’ve gathered your ingredients: poolish that’s been sitting at room temperature for a while (if it was in the fridge), bread flour, salt, yeast, and water that, when you stick your finger in it, makes you go “ok this is warm…I think? Maybe it’s cool?”

Fill a medium-ish bowl with water and a small bowl with extra flour. Keep them close!

Grab a big bowl and a rubber spatula/bowl scraper if you are a rock star. Add the flour, yeast, and salt, and stir them together. Dump in your poolish and water. Off we go!

If you’re using your hands, like me, you’ll first stir everything together with your spatula or bowl scraper for a few seconds. Next, you’ll dunk your hand in your bowl of water, cup your hand so it’s kinda like a dough hook, and stir your dough. Reinhart suggests using your other hand to spin the bowl in the opposite direction of your stirs, and I’ve found this to be really helpful. Keep scooping and spinning and stirring, changing direction a few times to help the gluten develop (this is the kneading step), and dunk your hand in the water a few more times throughout. This process usually takes 5-7 minutes, and by the end, you’ll have a super sticky glob that looks something like this (but hopefully a bit smoother, I didn’t knead for as long as I probably should have).

 

The dough should stick to the bottom of the bowl, but it should pull away from the sides pretty readily. Here’s the pay off for all that gluten development, a lovely, cohesive mass!

If you are using a mixer with a dough hook, use the paddle attachment for the first 3-5 minutes, on medium speed. Switch to a dough hook for the last two minutes of mixing, until the dough looks smooth and pulls away from the sides slightly.

Time to get your work station ready! Grab that extra flour and sprinkle it over your workspace. I overestimated this time, but I also love sprinkling flour from way up high because it makes me feel fancy. Whatever.

 

Plop that mess on your floured surface. It should be super sticky, you haven’t done anything wrong. Try super hard not to add a ton of extra flour in the next few steps. Like, yeah, you’ll be dusting the dough, but try to use only as much as necessary. Ciabatta really benefits from higher hydration.

The process that’s coming up is called the stretch-and-fold method. A bench scraper comes in handy here, but you can also get away with well-floured hands. What you’re going to do, after lightly sprinkling flour on the surface of the dough, is get up under one side, stretch it out gently, and fold it over.

 

Repeat with the other 3 sides until you have a neat package.

Then, you’ll spray the top of the dough with some vegetable oil (or dab with a veggie oil soaked paper towel), dust with more flour, and cover with plastic wrap.

I have had minor frustrations with the dough sticking to the plastic wrap when it expands, particularly the exposed edges that I forget to dust with flour. That’s why this picture is here, just a reminder that the whole lump could use some flour.

You’ll let the dough sit for 30 minutes after this first stretch-and-fold. And if you’re wondering why the stretching is necessary, it’s to help with gluten development, of course. Dough with lower hydration would be more conducive to kneading of a more stereotypical variety, which involves a fair amount of stretching out and folding over. This higher hydration ciabatta would be super difficult to knead like that, so the stretching and folding helps the gluten loosen up and align with the rest of its pals.

Here’s my dough after 30 minutes. It definitely spread out some, but it didn’t poof up which is totally expected.

 

You’ll do another stretch-and-fold, and the dough might be a bit more pliable this time.

 

 

With a bench scraper, I find the dough clings pretty well to the metal, but I also like to lightly place my hand on top to make sure the dough actually stretches out. Don’t be timid about stretching; just try not to break those gluten bonds. If you stretch slowly, you’ll feel that tension in time to stop.

 

 

Spray more vegetable oil, sprinkle more flour, and cover up with plastic wrap again. Let the dough rest for 1.5 – 2 hours until it’s expanded some.

 

 

My dough looked like a beast after an hour and fifteen minutes, so I stopped the rise short. Your dough probably won’t double in size. After 2 hours, if there has been no measurable expansion, you might have cause for worry. Otherwise, you’re fine.

 

 

After this rise, it’s time for shaping. Get your bench scraper out, or a large-ish, sharp knife, and divide the dough up into 2 or 3 pieces, up to you. I went with three loaves this time. And as you’re dividing, move the pieces far away from each other. They like to glob back together which would result in more chopping which would release more gas. Which isn’t the end of the world, but you probably want to hold on to as much gas as possible.

 

 

Flour the tops of the loaves….

 

 

…and fold into rectangles, like you see below. I set up a couche to help my loaves from spreading out too much, but you can just as easily let them proof on a sheet pan (which you will need for baking anyways). For, DIY couche, you’ll just need a light-colored dish towel. You rub flour into the cloth, and pinch up the towel to make walls between your loaves. I’m not always a fan of walls, but when I am, they are used to improve the shape of dough.

 

 

Cover your loaves with plastic wrap and let them rest for 45 – 90 minutes. Again, mine only took like 50 minutes because my house was apparently super warm the day I made this ciabatta.

While those are rising, you can get set up for the baking process. Before you turn your oven on, arrange the shelves (levels? grates?) so that one is on the very bottom rung and another is 2 above. You need some space because you’ll want to create steam in the oven! And that requires extra stuff!

I’m only going to talk about one method today and that’s because it’s my absolute favorite, and I adapted it from a suggestion in Bread Illustrated.

 

 

Lava rocks! Who knew those were a thing. You can buy a big bag of them from Lowes or Home Depot or wherever for like, $5, and what I have done is distribute the bag between two disposable cake pans. When it’s time to make bread, I put both pans in the oven before preheating and let them warm up with the oven. When the bread is ready to go in, I pour hot water over the rocks really quickly and close the door. This creates a nice, steamy environment for the bread when I put it in the oven about 30 seconds later. I add more water to the rocks after the bread is in place, and I’ve started using a spray bottle to direct the water where I want it. Pouring gets tricky when there’s a ton of stuff in the oven, plus steam freaking hurts. Nobody wants burns. And getting water on the oven door glass can cause it to crack.

If you’re thinking “This sounds insane, like, don’t the risks totally outweigh the benefits?” I would not try to correct you. Creating steam in a non-professional oven is tricky and sometimes stressful, but it really makes wonderful bread. The steam helps form a crisp, delicious crust. I’ll write a post on different steam methods next.

Now you have something in the oven, hopefully lava rocks, and you are preheating to 500°F. Grab that cornmeal/semolina flour that you’ve probably forgotten about by now, and dust the bottom of a rimmed sheet pan. You don’t need to grease the pan or anything, the ciabatta will slide right off once it’s finished baking, thanks to your fine dusting skills.

 

 

When the shaping-proof is done, stretch out the pieces until they are 9 inches to 12 inches long. Gently transfer the loaves to your sheet pan, careful to keep the dough as supported as possible, and once you’ve got them settled, use your fingertips to even out the distribution of the dough. Also, the dimples just look good and cute.

 

 

If you’re using the lava rocks method, pour some hot water on the rocks like I mentioned earlier. Then put the dough in, and spray more water on the rocks. Immediately turn the temperature down to 450°. You probably let out a ton of heat just now (I always do), so your oven might even need to preheat some more to get back up to 450.

After 10 minutes, if you feel like it, turn the pan 180° in the oven, and then allow the loaves to back for 5 – 10 more minutes, until the crust is golden (where there isn’t too much flour to tell). If you have a digital thermometer, the loaves should register around 205°F in the center, but another good way to judge doneness is the knock on the bottom of a loaf. If this produces a hollow sound, you’re good, otherwise bake for a few more minutes. Transfer the loaves to a wire rack to cool.

 

 

For the third loaf, I let the oven reheat to 500 and then start everything over.

 

 

Ugh, guys, I cannot tell you how great this recipe is. The kitchen always smells marvelous for a couple hours. To me, it smells like butter, but nobody seems to agree with me. And you should try to let the loaves cool for 45 minutes before serving, buuuuut I won’t judge if you tear into one before then. And eat a whole loaf by yourself.