Published March 1, 2009.
This Italian loaf boasts a crisp, flavorful crust and a chewy, open crumb—in the hands of a master. Where does that leave the rest of us?
Unless your source is an artisanal bakery, most of the loaves available just aren’t any good. Some lack flavor, others are too flat, still others have holes so big there’s hardly any bread.
Homemade ciabatta with airy texture, full and tangy flavor, and perfect lift.
Ciabatta follows a basic bread baking formula: Combine flour, water, yeast, and salt; knead the dough; let it rise; and bake. But there are twists. First, instead of mixing all of the ingredients at once, it begins with that inconvenient bread starter, a sponge, known in Italian as a biga. Like stock in soup, the biga provides a strong flavor foundation. The biga is made with a little flour and water along with a scant amount of yeast. The mixture ferments for several hours before being added to more of the same ingredients. Second, unlike most bread dough, ciabatta dough is extremely wet. So much water makes the dough unwieldy, but it’s essential for the final texture. Not only does water reinforce gluten development, it also creates the bread’s signature holes. As the water turns to steam during baking, the moisture rushes out, filling the existing bubbles created by the carbon dioxide and then enlarging them.
The first choice was the flour: bread or all-purpose? We preferred all-purpose, which is made from both hard and soft wheat and has less protein than bread flour, producing loaves with a more open, springy texture. The next step was to build flavor through the biga. As it ferments, the yeast in the biga produces a byproduct of lactic and acetic acids, which give the bread its characteristic sourness. We settled on 30 percent sponge and 70 percent dough as the ideal proportion for nonalcoholic tang. Following standard protocol, we combined the biga ingredients in a bowl, covered it, and left it out on the counter overnight. About 12 hours later, it bubbled and had a pleasant, sour aroma.
The next step was kneading. The dough was simply too wet to knead by hand, so we turned to a stand mixer. Kneading for only a few minutes produced loaves that spread out instead of rising. We needed better gluten development, but anything beyond 10 minutes of kneading and the loaves turned out tough. In a previous dinner roll recipe, we used a gentler approach to coax out gluten: turning, which involves using a rubber spatula or bowl scraper to fold the dough over itself several times—like folding egg whites into batter—and then letting it rest to rise. Ten minutes of kneading augmented by a few turns was the perfect pick-me-up.
Our recipe now yielded ciabatta with good flavor and just the right domed shape, but when we slice it, we got lost in its gigantic holes. Kneading and turning had encouraged strong strands of gluten, which help structure but also support oversized holes. We somehow needed to weaken the gluten strands enough to yield smaller holes. One ingredient mentioned in a few recipes was milk. We initially thought the milk was added solely for flavor, but when we tried it, the results surprised us. Cutting into this ciabatta revealed a uniform crumb pockmarked with medium-sized bubbles. Success at last! Curious about why this addition worked, we learned that milk contains a protein fragment called glutathione, which acts to slightly weaken the gluten strands. A small amount of milk was enough to moderately reduce the size of the bubbles.
With the crumb resolved, we turned to shaping. We shaped a portion of dough into a rectangle, then folded the shorter ends over each other to form a stubby rectangle. To avoid extra handling of the dough, we formed the loaves on parchment paper and then slid the parchment onto the baking surface.
Now it was time to refine the actual baking of the bread. We opted to bake the loaves at a cooler temperature than 500 degrees (as most recipes recommend). A final enhancement was to spray the loaves with water in the first minutes of baking. This produced a crisper crust and loaves that rose a bit higher (steam delays crust formation and promotes a higher spring in the oven).list of recipes