Ciabatta is probably my favorite “difficult” bread to make. I say difficult because it’s in that category of artisan-style breads that means it’s harder to make than just knead, rise, bake. Ciabatta takes some attention and technique and precision, and I usually manage to accomplish about two out of those three in any given recipe. So ciabatta is “difficult” only to the extent that I decide to not pay attention to what I’m doing and blunder my way through the process.
But, like I said, ciabatta is my favorite because it’s well worth the work. I think one of the great moments in the journey of bread baking is realizing that you can make bread in all kinds of new textures and shapes beyond the “standard” variety. Ciabatta is one of the most dramatic and satisfying of those new breads; it’s so jumbly and bubbly and strangely velvety in texture that it sets itself clearly apart as a work of art in your baking repertoire. If that seems overly poetic, you need to bake more so you can experience what I’m talking about.
Ciabatta is the king of “slack” doughs; that means that the water-to-flour ratio is too high to easily knead the dough. It’s still very important though to develop the strong gluten structure that normally results from kneading, so with slack doughs there are other strategies to make that happen. One is to use a stand mixer: your kitchenaid doesn’t get as whiny as you do about dough goo on its hands, and has a lot more patience for the time it requires to get the gluten where it needs (kneads? get it?) to be. You can also use a nice large food processor to much the same effect; the spinning blades counterintuitively are able to stich together a really strong dough in a very short time. It only works for small batches and short bursts, but it’s definitely an option.
My favorite technique for a bread like ciabatta is the “stretch and fold” method, alternated with resting the dough. You can see below in the pictures what it looks like, but the results are pretty magical. You scoop the sides of the dough up and stretch it over onto itself, folding like an envelope to form the gluten. The resting helps as well; water and flour make gluten on their own without any help, so 10 minute rests followed by stretching can take a dough that looks like lumpy batter and make it into a rubbery blob fairly quickly. It’s pretty satisfying, too.
The main thing to remember apart from all this is to handle ciabatta gently and with plenty of flour. It’s a pretty resilient bread; once you know what you’re doing it’s hard to wreck it. But it’ll take a little time to get used to messing around with such a slack dough if you never have before.
This is, because it’s me writing it, a pretty vague and imprecise recipe for ciabatta. But don’t worry, it works. If you like how it goes and want to get a little more technical – maybe try a sourdough version, or play around with specific hydration percentages – I always recommend sites like The Fresh Loaf, which have forums filled with the wisdom and recipes of bakers of all varieties.
Okay! Let’s make some ciabatta.
41/2 cups bread flour (all-purpose will not work for this)
2 3/4 cups water
1.5 tsp yeast (see note in recipe)
1.5 tsp salt
2 tb olive oil
Start by mixing a cup or two of the flour and the yeast, salt, and oil into the water and stirring together well.
Note on the Yeast: The amount listed above is for the shortest/easiest possible way of getting your ciabatta done. As with all good breads though, the flavor will be much better if you give the dough a longer time to develop. One way to do this is to decrease the amount of yeast significantly, so the dough takes much longer to rise and in the process develops better flavor. Another way, and my favorite, is to let the dough rise in the refrigerator. After you’re done with the stretch-and-fold phase, cover the dough and place in the fridge overnight or for 24 hours, and then continue from there. You’ll be glad you did.
Next, gradually add the rest of the flour, until you have a lumpy/stretchy batter. It should not be runny and definitely not be dry. Don’t be worried if it seems wetter than you’re used to; it’ll get better as you develop the dough. Let it rest for 10 minutes.
After the 10 minutes, come back and stretch the dough: slide your spoon under one side of the dough and stretch it up and over the middle. Repeat on the other side, then rotate the bowl 90 degrees and do the same thing. Flip the dough over so the “seams” from your stretching are on the bottom, and rest again.
Continue this process of stretching then resting 2 or 3 more times, until you notice the dough can form a fairly smooth surface when stretched (see the pictures). Once you like the texture, cover the bowl and let the dough rise according to your strategy with the yeast from above.
Once the dough is risen, gently scoop/pour it onto a heavily floured counter. And yes, I did say pour– this dough will still be pretty gooey, although it should still hold some kind of shape once it’s laid out.
The dough will be very pillowy and bubbly, which is a good thing. Try as much as you can to not over-work or over-handle the dough, because the weird bubbles give ciabatta its character. Gently stretch the dough into a rough rectangle about 3/4 inch thick. (If you want to make loaves instead of rolls, just divide the dough into large rectangles and don’t stretch it out.)
With a bench knife or pizza roller or something, divide the dough into squares. Gently separate them so they don’t stick back together, and make sure each one is floured enough to not stick to the counter. Cover with oiled plastic (I use grocery bags since they’re free) and leave to rise for 20-30 minutes. They’ll rise again somewhat, but not dramatically. Preheat your oven with a baking stone to one million degrees (or 500°, if that’s as high as it goes).
When your oven is preheated and the ciabatta has risen a little, gently transfer a few to a well-floured pizza peel (make sure they don’t stick, I usually slide them around a little to double check). Try not to deflate them in the process. You can also transfer the rolls to the baking stone directly by hand if you feel confident, or you can rise them on parchment paper and slide the paper in. I find the peel to be easiest in this case.
Slide the ciabatta onto the heated baking stone and close the oven so as little heat escapes as possible. If you’ve done everything right, your little rolls will puff up surprisingly and look a lot more like the ciabatta you’re used to seeing. Bake for 5-10 minutes or until the rolls are browned in spots and golden all over.
Remove to a rack to cool and bake the rest of the dough in batches.
There you go! You just made some awesome artisan bread, and even better — you now get to eat it. I’ve been using ciabatta lately as rolls for burgers and sandwiches, and it’s also great sliced up and toasted as a crouton or crostini. Try it out and ask any questions you have in the comments!
Hasta luego, foodies!