On baking: ciabatta zen

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I first tasted this bread in college when I was studying abroad.  Regrettably it was something I wouldn’t find again for almost a decade after that, but it’s actually not terribly difficult to make at home.  It, like most baking, requires a nurturing spirit and patience.

I had been a naysayer about baking for a long time, because I’ve been programmed by commercials to want instant gratification.  Baking, though, is a very interesting mixture of chemistry and biology.  You make a living thing (dough) with precise formulas.  Then you heat it (thereby killing it) and eat it.  One of the philosophies of cooking in general is that the better your starting product, the better the end result will be.  That’s not to say that you can take premium products, apply poor technique, and expect a good result.

In the case of baking, sure, there are better flours and yeasts and whatever.  If you ever read the post about the pizza dough instructions, there is one particular comment that stands the test of time.  Your final product will have far more to do with how you mix and ferment the dough than it will with the flour that you started with.  Thus, patience and nurturing are what really alter the final result.  Not Caputo 00 flour flown in overnight from Italy.

I can’t sing the praises of the Bread Baker’s Apprentice enough.  If you really want to learn how to bake bread, this is an excellent source.  While it does get a little complex, and you’re unlikely to find many one-day recipes, I can assure you that with a little practice and effort you will be able to make better bread than most anything you can buy.  The keys are to manipulate the starch in flour to the maximum to extract as much flavor as possible.  This is done by creating starters, taking your time, and using refrigeration to retard the dough to build flavor. For a full description of BBA ciabatta, click on this link.

For ciabatta, I’ll demonstrate a couple of ways to do it.  First off, the characteristics of the dough are that it is extremely rustic.  Cool, sounds like a cabin, right?  A flooded one maybe, because rustic means that it has a higher water concentration than the typical 5:3 ratio Ruhlman gives you.  The hydration in this bread is at least 65% and can go as high as 90% (based on baker’s percentage).

The BBA has you make either a poolish (about a 1:1 flour to water with some yeast) or a biga (more like a dough with salt and yeast) as a starter.  The purpose here seems mostly to get the yeast life cycle started and running in high gear.

Baker’s percentages

When you see these recipes in legit books, they’ll give you baker’s percentages.  Flour is always 100%, salt is usually 3% and water may vary from 60% to higher.  Enrichening agents may be added to dough (fat, milk, eggs) to soften it if needed, but that’s a different type of bread.  This bread is going to have 4 ingredients:  water, flour, yeast, salt.


Flour:  100%
Water:  69.5%
Salt:  3%
Yeast:  0.25%

For every 500 grams of flour, use about 350gm of water, 15 gm of salt, 1.25 gm of yeast.  About the yeast, go for the active dry yeast, and DON’T FORGET TO REFRIGERATE IT.  I use the Fleischmann’s that comes in a round jar.  It says it’s made for bread machines but that’s just marketing.  If you don’t refrigerate it, it will die.  Also, looking at the above formula, the average individual pizza or smallish loaf of bread is about 300 gm.  This recipe will make 3 ciabatta loaves or 3 pizzas.  Yes, you can use the same dough to make either-shaping is what will change it from one to the other.

There’s a trick to using the poolish and getting the correct percentage that I won’t go into.  Just remember that the percentages are not absolutes but they’re pretty close.  They will vary because you won’t know how much hydration is in your flour.

The alternative here is to use a recipe I found on the interwebs on youtube that’s really pretty straightforward.

Flour 500gm
water 450gm
salt 15 gm
yeast 1-2 gm

Regardless of which recipe you use, the mixture will transform itself from a batter to a super wet dough.  You just have to mix it long enough.


I use a KitchenAid stand mixer.  For this one, use the paddle.  Even if it looks really wet to start with, keep mixing.  It takes a while for the gluten to form, but when it does you’ll hear the difference as much as you’ll see it.  About 8-10 minutes of mixing is required for this, and your ultimate goal is to have it pull away from the sides and be a little stuck to the bottom of the mixing bowl.

That was the technical part, the rest is just letting nature take its course.  The dough can be poured out onto a bed of flour as in the video.  BBA calls for stretching it out long, and then folding it over on itself in thirds like folding a letter to stuff in an envelope.  Do this twice, allowing the dough to swell in between.  The video doesn’t show you having to do this so I suppose it’s optional, but I suspect that this is a step that develops holes.  You do want it to go through a primary fermentation stage which is just yeast proliferation where it’s making bubbles of CO2 that will eventually form the crumb.  Once it’s risen about two-fold or so, carefully deflate it, and place in the refrigerator at least overnight.  This is retardation of the rising process and it allows for more flavor development.  It would taste good without it, but it tastes better the longer you let it sit in the fridge, up to about a week or so.


Take it out of the fridge, and cut into even pieces about 300 gm each.  While you can make pizzas with it at this stage (and I did make one, see photo), the shaping and eventual proofing will determine how this thing is going to look.  (What the heck is a ciabatta anyway?  It’s a ballet slipper from a region in Italy.  When you shape the it will be long-ways in thirds and roughly take the shape of a ballet slipper.)

A note on handling the dough.  It’s super wet and sticky, it’s difficult to keep off your hands.  One trick when the hydration is this high is to wet your hands or spatula which works better than using flour.  You do need a fair amount of bench flour as well, but of course you want to minimize this as it can make the dough taste bitter.  A dough scraper works great for this.  If you’re going to be doing any baking, I highly recommend one.

Once you’ve shaped the loaves, place them in a couche, cover, and allow to “proof” for about 20 minutes or so.  A couche is a non-stick channel that allows the bread to grow in length without flattening out.  You can make one out of a well-floured dish towel that is folded into 3-4 inch channels.  Spray the loaves with misted oil and cover with plastic wrap while they “proof.”  If you want big holes in the bread (the mark that you nailed it) you have to perform this step because it gives the yeast time to rev up to max reproduction.  This means more gas which equals more holes.  Although the book doesn’t mention this, I think the wetter the dough, the more steam created, and the larger the holes, as well. Make sure that the couche is as non-stick as possible. Coat well with flour. Traditionally this is done with heavy linen towels that are never washed so as to remain non-stick. Turn them out onto some parchment paper and prepare for the oven.

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“Set up your oven for hearth baking.”  So sayeth the BBA.  What this means is turn it up as hot as it can go and have a system in place to insert steam.  While my oven will go to 550 convection, the recommendation is using 500 degrees for the first ten minutes, followed by 450 for the remainder.  The steam is created by placing the stone on the bottom rack and a cast iron pan on the top one.  As you put the loaves in the oven, pour a cup of hot water into the cast iron pan, and close the door.  They also recommend having a spray bottle of water to spray the sides of the oven every 30 seconds for the first couple of minutes.  The steam allows the bread to expand more because it prevents hardening of the crust during the “oven spring” stage which occurs in the first couple of minutes.  Once they’ve browned and have reached an internal temperature of 200-205 F, they’re ready.  To remove from the oven.  They have to rest for about 20-30 minutes first, and THEN they’re ready to consume.  Simply serve with high quality olive oil and your favorite red wine, and you won’t be disappointed.

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In the shaping stage, make a pizza!

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One thought on “On baking: ciabatta zen

  1. Pingback: “club” bread « Big Dawg Eats

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