Ciabatta bread: this bread, along with bagels, focaccia, and sourdough baguettes tipped me from wondering if I should bake through the entire Bread Baker’s Apprentice to jumping in. I didn’t have to think long with a list of breads like that, but I briefly questioned the decision. Ciabatta, thus named because it is shaped like a slipper, is a favorite of mine and many others for a host of reasons. Usually a lean dough (although mine is enriched with olive oil), there is nothing lean about its flavor. The hard crust, the dense chew through a network of holes– it feels more fierce than regular sandwich bread. At the very least, it’s more interesting. And oh, the plans I had for my homemade ciabatta. A PLT (prosciutto, lettuce, tomato), perhaps? Maybe just a regular sandwich toasted into ciabatta submission and called panini? I could class up our regular Hoagie Night into Panini Night! Or, maybe I would just recline on the back porch with a quart of olive oil flavored with garlic and minced herbs, ripping off chunks of bread and swathing it in so much golden glory before stuffing it in my mouth. Yes, ciabatta would be a fine bread.
Imagine my dismay, then, when I saw that so many of my bread-baking colleagues were reporting dense ciabatta with no holes. My visions of Panini Night and back porch lounging vanished. The bread would still be good, with or without holes. But would it be awesome?
I started, then, by choosing the biga route instead of the poolish for the bread. Lotta people out there going the poolish route and reporting no holes. I know how to take advice. The biga offers more hydration to the dough. More hydration = more holes. I read a few bread baking forums– in particular this one over at The Fresh Loaf— and took Reinhart’s option of using all-purpose flour for the biga instead of bread flour. All purpose flour has a lower protein content than bread flour, and lower protein = more holes. So, I made my biga the day before I wanted to make my ciabatta. After I fermented it and punched it down, I popped it in the fridge to retard overnight.
Monday arrived with the promise of bread. I removed my biga from the fridge and cut it into a dozen pieces. I covered them with a damp towel and left them to slowly come to room temperature. After an hour or so, they were soft and also firmly stuck to the towel. N.B. – next time, oil and flour the towel that goes on top of the biga. I collected my remaining ingredients together. In a large mixing bowl, I stirred together a couple cups of bread flour, some yeast, and some salt. I added the biga. Then, I added both the max amount of room temperature water to the mix – 9 ounces – as well as the full, optional 1/4 cup of olive oil. Hey, they’re wet, right? And, more hydration= more holes. I wanted to go with the maximum amount of hydration that Reinhart specified without deviating from the recipe. I opted not to use milk or buttermilk in place of the water, because I wanted a leaner bread with an olive oil flavor.
I stirred all of this together. It mixed up very easily, and it was wet and soggy. Giant holes, here I come! I made a square bed of flour on my counter and slopped the dough on top of it. I used my well-floured hands to shape the dough into a very rough rectangle. I then stretched the rectangle out to twice its size, then folded the left third across the middle. I brought the right third over the whole, like folding a letter. Then, I sprayed that mess with oil and floured it liberally. I covered the mass with plastic wrap and went about my business. I wondered if flouring the layers acted like the floured and buttered layers in puff pastry, and if this would result in holey bread.
After half an hour passed, I returned to repeat the stretch, fold up, spray down, and flour process. I covered the bread again with the plastic wrap and left it for around 2 hours. Before I touched it again, I set up my couche. Not having the requisite special linen cloth, I grabbed a couple of linen tea towels. Perfect. I laid them on top of each other so they would have more rigidity, then sprayed them with oil and floured them well. Time to shape the ciabatta.
To shape the bread, I dipped my bench scraper in water, then used it to slice my rectangle of dough in half. I was careful not to degas the bread. I liberally doused the dough with flour again, then used my scraper to transport each loaf over to the couche. Once moved, I rolled each loaf around in the flour. Then, I used the same folding method again (less stretching this time) to form rectangles about 6 inches long. I bunched up the cloth to form a wall on each side of and between the two loaves. Another mist of the spray oil and another dusting of flour, then it rested, covered, for about an hour.
After 45 minutes, I returned to the kitchen to ready the oven for this hearth style of baking called for in the recipe. I placed a pan on the bottom rack of the oven and filled it with water. I then preheated the oven to 500º. I chose not to pour hot water into the pan as I put the bread in the oven, because I am klutz and was sure I would burn myself or pour it all over the glass oven door. Instead, the water would heat along with the oven and provide the same effect. I flipped over an old sheet pan, liberally sprinkled it with corn meal and set it next to the couche. This would let me move the bread with minimal handling.
Once the hour had passed, I had a heated oven, a prepared sheet pan, and two proofed loaves. I carefully transferrd the loaves to the sheet pan. Then, I stretched them out until they were between 10 and 11″ long. I dimpled down the middle sections of the loaves very gently so they wouldn’t be rounded and would form the slipper shape. Then, I slid the pan into the oven and let the loaves hang out for 30 seconds. I misted the walls of the the oven with water. When you do this, make sure you aim directly at the walls and wear mitts, because it will release some mighty steam. I did this three times, in 30 second increments, then reduced the oven temperature to 450º. I baked the loaves for 10 minutes, then rotated them 180º and baked them for another 10. At this point, I check the internal temperature of the loaves, which registered a perfect 205º. I nearly died of shock that the loaves didn’t have to bake longer than the time specified, then I removed them from from the oven to a rack to cool.
After 45 minutes of cooling, the moment of truth arrived. Would there be holes? Would the ciabatta be everything I hoped for? Could we actually have a classy sandwich night?
Yes. Yes, indeed.
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This is some more yeasty goodness I’m sending over to Yeastspotting.