Ciabatta with Biga

Like the humble baguette, a ciabatta is the model of simplicity when it comes to its ingredients. But also like the baguette, if you don’t bring your A-game to this bake, it’ll bite you in the ass! The dough is so wet that you have to use quick movements when working with it. I can’t tell you how many times I’ve ended up with my hands covered with dough (more like batter). I don’t want to discourage anyone from making this, but just be prepared.

Speaking of preparation, I’ve adapted this recipe from a few sources, but mainly from what I learned from Carol Fields’ book, “The Italian Baker” and her Ciabatta Polesana, which she in turn adapted from former race driver Arnaldo Cavallari who quit racing and started baking the flour from his family’s mill. In her recipe, she recommends using high-gluten flour. I’m not sure just how high of protein content she was talking about, but the high-protein flour I use is 17% protein. At 88% hydration, it’s like working a regular dough. So I upped my hydration to 93% when using this flour to get it to a looser consistency. But I do recommend bread flour or a mix of bread and AP flour at this hydration.

Ms. Fields also recommend using a mixer. I usually use one if I’m making a larger batch of ciabatta. But when I’m just whipping up a couple of loaves, I just mix by hand. But as I often recommend, a Danish dough whisk really comes in handy. That said, let’s get to the formulas!

Overall Formula

Flour100.00%
Water88.00%
Salt1.80%
Yeast0.75%
Total Percentage190.55%

Biga

Make a 75% hydration biga from 35% of the flour you’ll need (we’ll get into that in just a bit). Whatever that weight comes out to, make a bit more than what you calculate. For this particular recipe, our yield will be 2 X 500g loaves and I always add a percent or two for process loss, so about 1010g total dough weight. The biga formula is as follows:

Preferment Flour % of Total35%
Hydration %75%
Preferment Flour Weight185.52
Preferment Water139.14
Preferment Required325

As the table above shows, to make the total dough weight, we need 325g of biga. I made 350g and just measured out what I needed the next day.

To figure out how much total flour you’ll need for ANY recipe, take your target dough weight (this recipe is 1010g) and divide that by the total percentage (in this case 190.55% or 1.9055). That will give you about 530g. So, for the biga, you’ll need about 185g of flour as that is 35% of the total flour.

Final Dough

Flour345
Water327
Salt10
Yeast4
Biga325
Total Yield1,010.00
Total Flour530.04
Total Water466.44

Biga. The night before, mix the flour, yeast, and water you’ll need for the biga. Form into a ball, cover with plastic and let it rest. The next morning, it should be covered with bubbles and slightly domed. For my kitchen, it took about 10 hours to get to this state. It will be shorter in warm weather and longer in cold weather. Carol Fields recommends putting the biga in the fridge after an hour. But be forewarned that it will take 18-24 hours to get to the proper state. This is NOT a bad thing as it will develop the flavors of the organic acids.

Mix. In a large bowl, mix biga, yeast and water. Break up the biga (it will not completely dissolve. Add the flour, then sprinkle the salt over the flour. Mix until well incorporated and get the mixture to be as smooth as possible. Adjust hydration so that the dough is loose, but not quite a batter.

Bulk Fermentation. Approximately 1 to 1 1/2 hour.

Folding. Fold twice at 20 minute intervals for the first 40 minutes. After second fold, let rest for 20 minutes.

Be sure with your folding that you do not tear the dough! However, do plenty of stretch and folds and feel the gluten strands develop. You will not get a lot of resistance at first, but you will feel it build. Also, don’t be afraid of wetting your folding hand often to preven the dough from sticking.

Laminate. Pour the dough out onto a well-floured surface. Using wet or well-floured hands (and I also use my bench scraper), gently tug the dough into a large rectangle about 3/4″ thick. You don’t want to pull it too thin because you want to retain the bubbles as much as possible. Gently stretch out one of the short sides of the dough then fold it 2/3 over the sheet, then repeat with the other side. Do this again with the short sides of the dough, then gently roll it over onto the seams – no need to seal. Move the dough ball to a lightly oiled bowl for the final stage of bulk fermentation. Let the dough almost triple. This will take anywhere from 30 minutes to an hour and a half. At this point, we’re after bubble production!

Do yourself a favor and use really good olive oil. While you can use the standard stuff you can find in a grocery store, I’ve found that even the small amount that’s used with this bread makes a huge difference with the taste. I use Frantoi Cutrera Segreto Degli Iblei cold-extracted extra-virgin olive oil from Sicily.

Dividing and “Shaping.” At this point, you can be pretty generous with the flour you put on your board. Slide your dough out onto a well-floured work surface and tug into a rectangle about 3/4″ to 1″ thick. You’re going to divide it along the length, so try to make the rectangle as even as possible. Placing your fingers under the ends of a piece, quickly bring your hands together to scoop up the dough and transfer it to a very well-floured couche, or well-floured baking pan. Do some final arrangement to evenly distribute the dough across the flat loaf. The loaves will not be of even weight, though you can get pretty close.

You will also notice bubbles just under the surface of the skin. Do not pop them!

Note: If you use a baking pan, use a mixture of flour and course-grind cornmeal or semolina. You won’t be transfering the loaves to a stone.

Final Fermentation. This is a little tricky because all you really want to do is let the dough reset from dividing and shaping. Chef Markus Farbinger only waits 10 minutes for this final stage. I go from 15-30 minutes. The poke test will not work here. What I look for is if the dough has puffed up a bit and the sharp edge of my cut is all but gone.

A good ciabatta will be riddled with holes!

Bake. Transfer the loaves to a transfer board. For added texture, I sprinkle a generous amount of cornmeal on my transfer board to give the bottoms of the loaves a nice crunch. Lightly spray olive oil on the tops of the loaves. Bake with steam at 485°F for 12 minutes. Remove the steaming container, turn the oven down to 435°F and bake for another 20-25 minutes until the crust is a deep golden brown. Cool for 30 minutes before cutting.

Fully baked, a ciabatta will feel a lot lighter than what its size may indicate. My ciabatta are 22″ long, but they feel light as a feather. If your loaves feel a little heavy, bake them for a few more minutes. It’s the water that makes them heavy.

Happy Baking!

What About Using Sourdough?

That is entirely possible, though I’d change the formula a little to use a hybrid starter/commercial yeast method of rising as indigenous yeast tends to make finer holes. You’ll use half the yeast prescribed in the original recipe and cut the starter’s flour percentage to 20%.

Furthermore, I recommend building a levain from AP flour to keep the flavor mild. Or if your starter is based on a whole-grain flour, I’d recommend a grain that has some gluten in it. If you want to use a rye-based starter, then knock the hydration down a couple of percentage points.

Given all that, here’s what the adjusted formula would look like:

Overall Formula

Flour100.00%
Water88.00%
Salt1.80%
Yeast0.30%
Total Percentage190.10%

Starter

Preferment Flour % of Total20%
Hydration %75%

Final Dough (Yield: 2 X 500g loaves)

Flour425
Water388
Salt10
Yeast2
Preferment186

Notes

  1. Though I mentioned using a hybrid rising technique you could still go with using nothing but a levain to raise the dough. But if you do, I highly recommend doing a long, cold bulk fermentation for at least 12-16 hours to ensure good bubble formation. Also, after you remove the dough from the fridge, you’ll need to give it a couple to a few hours to come up to near room temp before proceeding with the rest of the processing.

Same-Day, Straight Dough Ciabatta

One would think that with the bread craze that has swept the world during the pandemic lockdown, that sourdough is the only bread being made, and that the only bread that qualifies as artisan can only be made with a starter. That’s bullshit of course because doing something in an artisan way has little to do with the ingredients or materials and almost everything to do with craftsmanship.

When I make ciabatta, I typically use a biga or a poolish. But sometimes, I just want some bread. So as I do with Baguettes de Tradition, I’ll just whip up a batch of dough in early in the morning, and have fresh, hot bread for breakfast. No, it doesn’t keep, but at the small quantities I make, it’s gone in less than a day.

One might think that a straight dough can be bland and boring. But done right, a bread made from a straight dough can be absolutely wonderous. And I will submit that while a same-day straight dough bread may not have the depth of flavor of one made with a preferment or employing a slow-rise, cold bulk ferment, employing great technique will go a long way toward making up for that.

That said, one way to add a little flavor complexity is to use a flour blend. Though I list using unbleached AP flour in the formula, my flour is actually a blend of 30% high-extraction flour and 70% AP flour. The high-extraction flour lends a nuttiness to the overall flavor of the bread, plus an ever-so-slight grainy texture to it making it seem much more substantial than it actually is.

Especially with ciabatta, the crisp, crackly, and crunchy crust combined with the light and airy crumb, redolent with large holes can create a magical bread. A full bake that activates the Meillard reaction (but not taking it to super-dark) can add flavors that would otherwise not be present on lightly baked loaves.

Overall Formula

Unbleached All-Purpose Flour100.00%
Water75.00%
Salt2.00%
Yeast1.50%
Milk10%
Olive Oil4.00%

Final Dough

Unbleached All-Purpose Flour*525
Water394
Salt10
Yeast8
Milk52
Olive Oil21
Yield2 X 500g loaves
Optimal Dough Temp76°F
*Preferably organic and definitely > 11% protein. You can use Bob’s Red Mill or King Arthur. I use Azure Market AP Flour. d
ddddd
**If you don’t want to use milk, that’s okay, just use all water, but milk will help with the fluffiness of the bread.

If you use a baking stone, preheat your oven to 485°F / 250°C to ensure your stone’s hot by the time you’re ready to bake. Things happen pretty quick with this bread, and you don’t want to get to final fermentation and have to wait for your oven to warm up.

Mixing. I recommend using a stand mixer if you have one, but this can be done by hand as well – it just takes longer. Sift the dry ingredients together then add the water. If using a mixer, mix on slow speed to incorporate all the ingredients then go to the second speed until mixture is smooth and the dough climbs to the top of the dough hook as the gluten is starting to form at this point. Rest for 20 minutes.

Bassinage. Once the dough has rested (you may also notice bubbles forming), fold the milk into the dough until it is fully incorporated. This will get it to 85% hydration. But since the gluten started developing with the thorough mixing, there’s already strength in the dough and it will not feel like a soupy mess. You can actualy feel the gluten strands! Once the milk has been fully incorporated, drizzle the olive oil over the dough, and mix it in well.

Again, I use a stand mixer for this because it’s much more effective at getting the milk and olive oil incorporated.

You want to be gentle with folding and lamination steps. What we’re trying to do is build the gas retention properties of the dough in these steps.

Folding. Once the milk and olive oil have been incorporated, stretch and fold the dough. Flip it over onto the folds, then rest for another 20 minutes. Then do another set of stretch and folds and rest for 20 minutes.

Laminate. Liberally flour your work surface then gently pour the dough onto it. Gently tug it into a rectangular shape that is about 1/2″ to 3/4″ thick. Letterfold the dough 3 times. After the last letterfold, roll the dough onto the seam (no need to seal). Then place the dough into a well-oiled bowl. I just wipe down my bowl then spray it with olive oil. Rest for 20 minutes.

At this point, you can go directly to dividing or shaping, or retard the dough in your fridge for up to 18 hours. With this much commercial yeast though, I recommend that your fridge temp is between 36°-40°F. You really want to slow the yeast, and promote the lacto- and acetobacillus activity. That said, alternatively, you could use a bit less yeast, say 5 grams and retard the dough for an even longer period of time.

Divde and “Shape.” Again, liberally flour your work surface then pour your dough onto it. Gently tug it into a rectangle, then divide it into two equal pieces. I’m kind of anal about things being even, so I actually scale out my pieces to 500 grams apiece. Gently tug each piece into long rectangles, then transfer to a well-floured couche (as shown to the right). Once you transfer them to the couche, flour your fingertips and gently dimple the loaves to promote even rising – and prevent over-rising, believe it or not – for the final ferment.

Final Fermentation. Cover the loaves and allow to ferment for 30 minutes.

Bake. Liberally sprinkle semolina or rice flour over the loaves while they’re on the couche, then flip them onto your transfer board. Bake the loaves with steam at 485°F for 12 minutes. Remove your steaming container, turn your oven down to 435°F, then bake for 20-25 minutes or until the crusts are a deep golden brown. You don’t want to go out to dark brown/black with these as the dough doesn’t have enough complexity in flavor to compensate for a super-dark crust. That’ll be the predominant flavor and the bread will taste like burnt toast. Not good. However, a deep golden-brown crust will also be relatively thicker lending a a nice, textural quality. I realize that this veers from the traditional thin crust of a ciabatta, but I love the textural contrast between the crunchy crust and the soft, pillowy crumb.

These are best eaten warm, so let cool for 30 minutes, then enjoy!

I don’t really think about it when I make ciabatta, but it’s a challenging dough with which to work because of its hydration level. You have to make quick, precise movements with a dough like this. But the handling of the dough is mitigated by the bassinage. I just can’t stress enough how important that step is!

When first mixing the dough, it’s at a workable 75%. This allows us to work it and develop the gluten and thus dough strength early on in the process. Once the milk and olive oil are added, even though dough may appear to be a smooth batter, if you pull on in, you’ll see that it actually transforms into a highly extensible dough with all the wonderful gas-retention properties we expect! (Read: big holes)

And let me re-emphasize that the craftsmanship put into making a bread like this is tantamount to its quality. But be that as it may, as a straight dough, it doesn’t really have a lot of complexity in flavor. That said, done right, it becomes a canvas on which you can build wonderful dishes.

I love using this bread for dipping into a fine olive oil (my preferred brand is Segreto from Italy that I have my daughter bring from New York City) mixed with a well-aged balsamic vinegar. I’ve used this bread for bruschetta as well. And let’s not forget that its very shape lends itself for wonderful sandwiches! Gawd! I’m getting hungry just thinking about these things! 🙂

Happy Baking!

Baking Bread on “Staycation”

Making a biga for ciabattas this afternoon!

So… I’m sitting here in Waimanalo, Oahu, Hawaii where my wife rented a house for a couple of weeks so we could all “work from home” away from our real home for awhile. We arrived in the early evening and went out for dinner last night, but we spent WAY too much on dinner, having dined at one of Guy Fieri’s Triple D restaurants, Uahi Grill in Kailua. It was good, but nothing spectacular.

I had the poké which was pretty good, but to be honest, Fresh Catch in Kaneohe is WAY better; so is the poké at Foodland Supermarket – and they have 10 different varieties that they make fresh every day! But I digress…

Anyway, after getting over the initial shock of spending over $200 on dinner last night (it’s not that we can’t afford it, it’s just a lot to pay for okay food), since we rented a house, I promised my wife I’d go grocery shopping the next day and get provisions so I could cook dinner most of the nights we’re here.

So early this morning, I drove to the local Foodland to pick up groceries and, of course, today’s supply of poké. On the menu, at least for the next couple of days, are some traditional Filipino and Hawaiian dishes like Pork Adobo and Pancit and Spam Musubi.

While I was going down the Rice and Pasta aisle, it just happened to be the baking goods aisle as well. I was not intending to bake on this trip. I was going to take a little break. But the kids wanted to make sandwiches for lunch and I’m sorry, even though Foodland bakes their own bread and it’s pretty good as grocery store bread goes, I just can’t get myself to buy grocery store bread any longer.

As I’m writing this, I looked up at my wife who’s sitting across the kitchen table from me and said, “I ust realized that I haven’t bought a loaf of bread for over a year! There’s just been no need.”

My aversion to grocery store bread was strong enough to overcome my wanting to take a bread from baking. Yeah, I’m pretty obsessed with baking, though not so crazy as to bring a starter with me. But truth be told, baking on this particular trip is purely practical. I’d rather bake my own bread where I know exactly what goes into it, than buy bread that has additives and preservatives in it.

Luckily Foodland had some King Arthur flour and Red Start Active Dry Yeast on hand. Niether were cheap, but I’ll be making ciabattas later today (I’ve got a biga started). Technically, I probably could make baguettes as well, but I’ll see how it goes with the ciabattas first.

The challenge here is that I have no scale, so I’m going to have to pretty much eyeball everything. As I wasn’t planning on baking in the first place, I didn’t even bring my trusty, compact precision scale which I could’ve easily packed. But hey! After watching several shows of people making traditional breads by hand, and owing to the fact that I bake so much that I’ve learned to determine a dough’s consistency by look and feel, this won’t be much of a problem for me. In fact, I’m pretty excited!

Every time I bake, I get this excited feeling. At least for the past year since I’ve put a lot of energy into artisan baking, I get this anxious feeling in the pit of my stomach. But it’s a good anxious; that anxiousness of anticipation, and I just can’t help but smile. I have to admit that I’ve been the happiest I’ve ever been since I picked up baking.

Even when I’m doing my charity projects where I’m baking a bunch of loaves at once, it’s like my brain releases a flood of serotonin into my bloodstream, and my feelings of well-being and happiness go straight through the roof! Is it weird? Maybe. But I’m addicted to the feeling.

Well, I just realized that I forgot to get a small bottle of olive oil, so I need to go out to the grocery store again…

Happy Baking!

P.S. Here’s what the finished product looks like!

Recipe: Sourdough Ciabattas

Besides baguettes, ciabattas are my other favorite loaves to make. Once I learned Master Chef Markus Farbinger’s recipe, I was hooked! Ciabattas are SO easy to make. Whether you use the standard recipe that I linked to above, or use a sourdough starter, it can be a same-day bake! Though if you go the sourdough route, I suggest doing an overnight bulk ferment, which I’ll explain below.

With this particular recipe, I’m going for a much lighter crumb and am using bread and AP flour. I know that I have eschewed using white flours, but the enzymes in the sourdough starter help break down the flour to make it more digestible, so while the flour may not be as nutritious as whole wheat and high-extraction flour, we’ll still get plenty of nutrition from the bread. That said, let’s get started!

Ingredients

Levain

Starter200 grams
Unbleached Flour150 grams
Water (90°-95° F)150 grams
For flour, I use a high-extraction flour from Azure Standard called Ultra Unifine Bread Flour.

Final Dough

Levain500 grams
Unbleached Bread Flour250 grams
Unbleached AP Flour500 grams
Water*550-600 grams
Salt20 grams
Instant Yeast** (optional)2 grams
*With water, you have to gauge it. 550 grams will get you to 80% hydration. But depending on your flour, if the dough is a little stiff, you’ll want to add more water. The initially mixed dough sh9uld be the consistency of a stiff batter.

**Using a bit of instant yeast is purely optional, but I’ve found that it is very helpful on cold days. I wouldn’t use it on hot days where I can rely on the ambient temperature of my kitchen to keep the microbes super-active.

Instead of using separate containers for the levain and the final dough, I just use a 6-quart Cambro tub. When my levain’s ready, I just add all the ingredients to the tub. It’s much more convenient. I’m going to provide some times as guides during the process. By no means are they hard and fast, especially with varying kitchen temps where the bulk and final fermentations can be shorter or longer depending on the ambient temperature of your kitchen.

Make the Levain

  1. Feed your starter so you can produce 200 grams of starter. When the starter’s ready, transfer 200 grams to a large mixing bowl or a large plastic tub. Note that the starter doesn’t have to be active and at its peak. My daily grape starter is maintained at 400 grams total, so I just use 200 grams from my mother culture, then feed her. Works like a charm!
  2. (4:00 pm) To the 200 grams of starter, add 150 grams of unbleached flour (here’s where I use my high-extraction flour, but you can use any unbleached flour that you want) and 150 grams of water. Mix thoroughly until smooth.
  3. (4:15 pm) Place the levain container in a warm place to ferment. It has been cold as of late, so I put my levain container in my oven with the door cracked to get a little heat from the oven light.
  4. (8:30 pm) If you have a fairly active starter, your levain should be actively bubbling by now. If it’s not, I suggest waiting until it’s really active.

Mix the Final Dough

  1. (8:40 pm) There’s no autolyse with a ciabatta, so just add all the final dough ingredients to the levain and mix thoroughly until you’ve incorporated all the dry ingredients and create a shaggy mass (about 5 minutes). Note: If you’re going to do a same-day bake, I suggest turning on your oven to 250° C or ~485° F now.
    1. It’s a bit messy, but I prefer to mix the dough by hand, alternating squeezing the dough through my open fingers, then using a stretch and fold motion to turn the dough. I’ll do this until I feel comfortable that the salt and yeast have been totally incorporated.
  2. Clean off your mixing hand and let the shaggy mass rest for 20 minutes.
  3. (9:05 pm) Using a wet hand, do a series of stretch and folds until you feel the tension in the dough building. When it kind of fights you, then let the dough rest for another 20 minutes.
  4. (9:25 pm) Dump the dough onto your well-floured work surface – it should be really well-floured – making sure you clean and scrape all the excess dough left in the container, then wipe the container with a paper towel.. Using quick motions, pull the dough into a rough rectangle, then do letter folds, front to back, and side to side at least three rounds. Make sure that when you fold, you also pull flap, then fold over. Once you feel that the dough strength has been built up (it will fight you a bit), roll the dough onto its seams, then using your bench scraper, form the dough into a ball.
  5. (9:30 pm) Spray the container with a light coat of olive oil (I use one of those PAM olive oil spritzers) then gently pick up the dough ball (you can form it up a bit more to make it easier), then drop it into the container.
  6. So here we have two alternatives:
    1. Let the dough rest for 5-10 minutes, then put the container in your fridge for an overnight bulk ferment.
    2. Let the dough rest for 20 minutes, and you’ll be ready for shaping.

Dividing and “Shaping”

Again, depending on how you do the bulk ferment there are two routes to take. The steps are similar, but different enough to warrant discussing them in separate sections.

Same-Day Bake

  1. After 20 minutes, again liberally sprinkle flour on your work surface, then slide the dough ball out of the mixing bowl.
  2. Using quick motions, gently tug the ball into a rough rectangle, then divide the dough into equal pieces. If I’m making loaves, I cut the rectangle in half.
  3. Technically, you’re not supposed shape the ciabatta dough. You pull it into a basic form. But I like to make my loaves into little rectangular pillows, so I gently letter fold the divided dough pieces, being extremely careful not to degas them.
  4. Once you’ve formed the loaves, gathering them from the long ends and cupping under the dough, transfer them to a well-floured couche, seam side up.
  5. Sprinkle the loaves with a bit of flour, then cover them and let proof for 10 minutes.
  6. After 10 minutes, check the loaves for springiness using the finger dent test. You want to have some spring. If there’s a bit too much; that is, the dough immediately springs back, let it rest another 10 minutes.

Overnight Ferment

If you did the overnight ferment, check your dough in your fridge. It should have at least doubled in size. If it hasn’t, you’ll have to wait. My retarder is set to 39° F and it takes 10-12 hours for my dough to double. So if you’re dough’s ready, turn on your oven now and set it to 250° C or about 485° F. Do not proceed until your oven is up to temp, then divide. If you’re using a baking stone, wait at least an hour before proceeding.

  1. Gently slide the fully fermented dough out of the bowl or container on a very well-floured surface. It should easily slide out since you oiled it down.
  2. As above, gently tug the ball into a rough rectangle then divide the dough into equal-sized pieces. Personally, the anal-retentive part of me, can’t resist scaling the pieces so they’re all roughly the same weight.
  3. (optional) As I mentioned above, you don’t have to shape the loaves, but I always do a simple letter fold, then place the loaves on seam side up on a well-floured couche.
  4. Sprinkle the loaves with flour, cover them, then let them rest for 20 minutes.
  5. At this point, I transfer the loaves, seam side down to my transfer board, covered with parchment paper. If you’re not going to use a baking stone, you can use a parchment-covered metal baking sheet.
  6. Sprinkle the tops with flour, cover them, then let the loaves rest for 20 minutes.

Bake

  1. Bake the loaves for 20 minutes (250° C/485 F) with steam (I now use a broiler pan on the bottom rack of my oven and pour a cup of scalding water into it).
  2. Remove your steaming tray after 20 min. Turn down the oven to 200° C/400° F) and continue baking for another 15 minutes, though check for doneness at 10 minutes.
  3. If you want a real crunchy crust, turn the oven off, then leave the loaves in the oven with a slightly cracked door for 10-15 minutes to cure the crusts.

As with my other recipes, I realize that I’ve been a bit long-winded. But I want to make sure I cover as much nuance as possible.

Ciabatta Using Levain Discard

I hate to waste anything, especially levain discard. I’m in the middle of creating a new starter so of course I have a daily or twice-daily discard, and rather than just toss it – and I can’t give it away because everyone I know who bakes has gotten a starter – I use it. Yesterday I made baguettes from the discard and today I’m making ciabatta buns.

This is a super-straight-forward recipe that doesn’t require a feeding like you would with a levain. And the great thing with making ciabatta, it’s a same-day bread! No overnight bulk or final fermentation! The challenge, as with any ciabatta, is that it’s a wet dough, so it’s sticky. But as long as you develop the gluten structure in the process, then it’s not too hard to work with.

Note: To help the discard microbes, I use a small amount of instant yeast ~ just 2 grams. No, it’s not cheating. I do this because discard can sometimes be a little unpredictable, and that little bit of yeast helps boost the fermentation activity just enough to keep the process on schedule. That said, the yeast amount is also highly dependent on the temperature of my kitchen that varies wildly. When I made this the other, my kitchen temp was 84° F, and I used just half a gram of yeast! Even with that small amount, the fermentation went a bit crazy and I had to shorten my bulk fermentation to just 10 minutes!

Ingredients

FlourWaterSaltYeastDiscard
Whole Wheat Flour 100 g
Bread Flour 300 g
AP Flour 600 g
800 ml20 g2 g100 g

The Process

  1. Combine the flours and mix thoroughly.
  2. Weigh out 100 grams of discard from your container, then place that directly into the flour.
  3. Add all the water to the flour/discard mix and combine everything until you fully incorporate all the ingredients, and you form a shaggy dough.
  4. Rest for 30 minutes.
  5. Sprinkle the yeast and salt evenly over the surface of the dough then mix thoroughly until smooth. I do all the mixing with a stand mixer. It’s just more efficient.
  6. Preheat your oven to 480° F or 250° C.
  7. From this point on, you can follow the process from step 9 in Chef Markus Farbinger’s Ciabatta Recipe.

Regarding “shaping,” as I mentioned in the process I linked to, I letter fold my divided pieces to shape them into pillows. And especially if I’m making sandwich ciabatta where I want the mini loaves to come together during baking, shaping them ensures that each piece has its own structure. Also, if I’m making sandwich ciabatta, I use parchment paper on my transfer board, and I place the mini loaves about 1/2″ (roughly a 1 cm) apart so they’ll spread out and come together during baking.

Next Stop… Ciabatta Town!

So in my imaginary bakery – well, at least it’ll be imaginary until I make it a reality after I retire – I’m only going to offer a finite set of loaves. I’ve decided on three loaves so far, but I probably won’t offer more than five. It’ll be a small-volume shop where I can sell all my stuff in the morning, so I can go and play in the afternoon.

One type of loaf that I will for sure be making is ciabatta. Now THAT is a loaf I’ve been wanting to make since I started baking, but up until recently, didn’t want to learn until I had baguettes down cold. And now that I finally have my master baguette recipe, it’s time to move on to ciabattas!

I’m SO excited to get this loaf down. To me, learning to bake ciabatta is like baguettes: So easy to learn, but very difficult to get right. But I’ve been doing my research, and now I’m ready to go for it.

What turns me on about a ciabatta is that like a baguette, it’s the perfect medium for a sandwich. Surprise! If you want to know just one thing about me, I love to make sandwiches! Even when I first started out making my early Dutch oven boules, I always had sandwiches in mind.

My first attempts at ciabatta have been well… just okay. They’ve certainly tasted absolutely delicious, but I need to get them a bit more puffy. It’s tough because the hydration rate of the recipe I’ve learned is 85%. It’s almost like a batter! And to create structure, you have to do letter folds. I’m okay at it, but I certainly need more practice doing those folds with a super-high hydration dough.

But as with anything, all it takes is practice! I can’t wait until I’ve fully arrived in Ciabatta Town!

Master Chef Markus Farbinger’s Ciabatta Recipe

No way am I going to take credit for developing this recipe, though I have made my own tweaks to the flour. The recipe comes from master chef Markus Farbinger. I had no idea who he was until I happened to stumble on his baguette shaping video on YouTube. His technique was so incredible that I ended up buying his baguette and ciabatta video series on Vimeo. This ciabatta recipe is from that series.

To be honest, even though I’m documenting the recipe, I’m really only scratching the surface. I highly recommend renting or purchasing the series. Chef Markus the former Dean of Curriculum and Instruction for Baking and Pastry Arts at the Culinary Institute of America, and is co-owner of the Ile de Pain bakery in South Africa where he uses a wood-fired oven to bake his artisan bread. In other words, this dude is totally legit!

Overview

Like traditional baguettes, this ciabatta uses a poolish that you make the night before you bake, then in the morning, you mix the final dough. With this particular recipe, the process is quick! I mean, real quick. Things happen much faster than with your typical artisan loaf. Once you mix the final dough, your loaves are in the oven within an hour-and-a-half!

On top of that, you only manipulate the dough three times before baking and two of those times are devoted to creating structure. So you really only have two opportunities to create structure and strength in your dough before you bake. That third time is just pushing the dough into a loaf shape and transferring it to a couche. There’s no formal shaping and scoring with a ciabatta. So you have to get the structure-building steps down!

Now don’t go thinking that this is a beginner’s bread simply because of the short prep time or the use of commercial yeast. It isn’t. What makes it difficult is the hydration rate which is a whopping 85%! At that level, it’s almost like working with a batter, and even for seasoned bread makers, that kind of hydration rate can be a little daunting. So like making baguettes, making a great ciabatta is less about the ingredients and so much more about the technique.

The Recipe

If you read the recipe table, you won’t see any olive oil. The only time it is used is to coat the mixing bowl after the second fold, just prior to the final fermentation. I’m not sure why this is, but the results are pretty marvelous just the same.

Like baguettes, the process occurs over two days. You create a poolish the night before, then mix the final dough and bake in the morning.

Overall Formula

I’m providing the overall formula because it is possible to do this as a straight dough.

FlourWaterSaltYeast
100%
(10% Whole Wheat)
(90% Bread Flour)
85%2%0.64%

Poolish – Day 1

FlourWaterYeast
100 g Whole Wheat Flour
400 g Bread Flour
500 ml0.4 g
Mix all the dry ingredients together, then add water in batches until you form a smooth, thick batter. Set aside at room temperature for 12-16 hours. I shoot for 14 hours. As an early-riser, I make the poolish at about 4pm then mix the final dough at 6am the next day.

If you’re using yeast packets, simply take a healthy pinch from a packet to use for the poolish, then use the rest for the final dough.

Final Dough – Day 2

FlourWaterSaltYeastPoolish
500 g Bread Flour350 ml20 g6 g1000 g
– If you’re wondering if the amount of yeast listed seems to be a bit much, bear in mind that Chef Markus uses 15 grams fresh yeast. The instant/active yeast equivalents are 30-40% of fresh yeast.

Dough Temp: 75F/24C

Before you start, I recommend using a round-bottom mixing bowl for the fermentation steps. The dough is so wet that it will be difficult to do stretch & folds if you use a vertical-sided container. Also, a couche is very helpful to have, especially for the final proof.

Note that the times listed are approximate! I just baked a batch yesterday and because it was early in the morning and very cool, I had to extend the times to 30 minutes, and I let the final proof go for 20 minutes.

  1. Mix flour, salt and yeast in a separate container until well incorporated (I use a whisk).
  2. Loosen the poolish from its container by slowly pouring around 250-350 ml of around the outer edges of the dough. Then use a scraper to further loosen the sides and get water all the way to the bottom of the container. The poolish will pour right out of the container – it’s cool.
  3. Use the remaining water to rinse poolish container of any leftover dough, then pour that into mixing bowl.
  4. Mix up the poolish so that the water fully incorporates into the dough and you have a smooth batter.
  5. Working in batches, incorporate the dry ingredients. It’s important you take your time with this because you want to avoid creating lumps, which is very easy to do.
    1. You can also do this in a stand mixer, but don’t use the dough hook! I use my KitchenAid’s nifty scraper/mixer attachment at the lowest speed. It keeps the sides of my bowl clean as well as breaking up lumps more effectively than a dough hook.
  6. Mix the dough until smooth. It may be a bit shaggy, but there shouldn’t be any lumps and no dry ingredients.
  7. Scrape down the sides of the mixing bowl and incorporate any stray ingredients into the dough.
  8. Loosely cover with plastic and let ferment for 20 minutes.
  9. At this point, it’s a good idea to preheat your oven to 480F. (~250C)
  10. After 20 minutes, working your way around the bowl, do a series of stretch and folds, picking up about a quarter of the dough, pulling it up to stretch it a bit (but not tear it), then folding it over to the other side.
    1. NOTE: Don’t just do this 4 times! While you’re stretching feel how the resistance in the dough builds. When you first do it, you’ll be able to stretch the dough easily. You’ll know when to stop when you feel resistance in the dough. At that point, you’re good!
  11. Again, scrape down the sides of the bowl, then loosely cover and let ferment for 20 minutes.
    1. Here’s an important point. You should see some bubble production after 20 minutes. If you don’t, let the dough sit for another 20 minutes. I had to do this this morning because my kitchen was still a little cool.
  12. After 20 minutes, liberally sprinkle flour on your board and gently pour the dough onto the surface and scrape out any residual dough from the bottom and sides of your mixing bowl.
  13. Once all the dough has been transferred, try to move the dough to see if it sticks. If it does, use your scraper to lift up the dough and get flour under the dough.
  14. Using quick, but gentle motions, laminate the dough using the letter folding technique. This is a good tutorial. The chef in that video uses oil, but we’re going to use flour as Chef Markus does. Laminate the dough three times, gently pushing out the the dough into a rectangle shape, being careful not to degas the dough too much.
  15. After the last fold, roll the dough onto the seam, and cupping your hands, form the dough into a nice neat ball.
  16. Lightly brush oil around your mixing bowl, then place the dough into the bowl.
  17. Loosely cover with plastic and let ferment for another 20 minutes.
    1. Again, like the previous fermentation step, if you’re not seeing many bubbles, let the dough sit for another 20 minutes.
  18. After 20 minutes, liberally sprinkle flour on your work surface, then slide the dough ball out of the mixing bowl.
  19. Divide the dough into two equal pieces. Technically you could scale the dough, but you don’t want to run the risk of popping any bubbles that have formed in the middle.
  20. “Shape” the dough by gently pushing the sides and forming a rough loaf shape.
    1. I actually veer from Chef Markus’ process here and do a set of letter folds, then nudge the dough into loose loaves to ensure I’ve got at least some structure and forming a “pillow” which is what ciabatta literally means.
    2. Alternatively, you can cut the dough into smaller pieces if you want to create smaller sandwich loaves. Based on experience, 200 gram pieces work great for large subs (note that that’s a lot of bread, so I usually end up cutting the sandwich in half).
  21. Once you’ve formed the loaves, gathering them from the long ends and cupping under the dough, transfer them to a well-floured couche.
  22. Sprinkle the loaves with a bit of flour, then cover them and let proof for 10 minutes.
  23. After 10 minutes, check the loaves for springiness using the finger dent test. You want to have some spring. If there’s a bit too much; that is, the dough immediately springs back, let it rest another 10 minutes.
  24. Transfer the loaves to a well-floured loading board. You can use a peel, but it should have a straight edge, not round. Myself, I use a thin 3/8″ cabinet siding that I’ve cut to size.
    1. If you don’t have a transfer board, the loaves will get a little misshapen. Just prod them back into shape.
  25. If you don’t have a baking stone, instead of putting the loaves on a loading board, you can use a flat baking sheet.
  26. Bake the loaves for 20 minutes on steam at 480° F
  27. After 20 minutes, remove your steaming container, then turn your oven down to 400° F (~200° C). Finish baking for 20 minutes.
  28. Remove from the oven and let cool for at least 45 minutes.
  29. Enjoy!