This my be among the most unique breads you’ll ever make. It reflects gluten, the protein in flour, stretched to it’s most extreme point. Chef Kurtis Baguley taught me to make this when I was in culinary school. He was a very type-A person, but in an enthusiastic way. He loved, I mean loved bread, and this bread in particular. This recipe is an adaptation of the the one I learned from him.
The bread begins with a poolish whose job it is to grow a yeast population overnight. The poolish I use is definitely on the wet side. Bakers would say it has a “high rate of hydration.” The relatively large amount of water gives the small amount of yeast an abundance of the medium in which it grows. By letting it develop for at least 12 hours, great character is built into the bread from the very beginning – a character that only develops over time.
Today we’ll scrape our poolish into a mixer bowl, add the balance of ingredients, and turn it into a dough. The dough is going to have a high rate of hydration as well. That water going to serve two purposes:
- It will allow the yeast population from the poolish to continue to grow, as well as that of the yeast we’ll add to the dough;
- Gluten develops in the presence of water, so even though for our flour component we’re going to use 1/3 all-purpose flour and 2/3 bread flour, we’re going to get the maximum gluten formation that each has to offer
Ciabatta dough is a strange hybrid. It has the strengthening element of bread flour (12.5% protein), along with a portion of more tender all-purpose flour (10% protein). It also comprises actual tenderizing contributed by a small amount of milk and some olive oil. Both contain fats which have a tenderizing effect on proteins. We’ll not only mix this dough with the paddle, but will also finish by zinging the mixer up to a higher speed in order to fully develop the gluten.
We need a strong gluten structure in order to literally hold up what will be a heavy dough because of all the water in it. A good portion of the leavening is going to take place in the oven as that water turns to steam and expands. That process will generate an amount of force that will require very strong strands of gluten to contain the air pockets left behind. This dough is going to feel like handling (and baking) water balloons. Seriously. If the gluten is not adequately developed, its strands will break apart under the force of the steam, leaving a flat, uninteresting loaf of bread behind.
To this day, I vividly recall the evening I learned to make ciabatta with Chef Kurtis. He had prepared the poolish the night before, and handed me the recipe from which to mix the dough, saying, “Mix it until it comes together.” I thought I knew what that meant. I’d learned from Chef Peter Reinhart, our Breads Instructor, that bread dough is kneaded on low speed with a dough hook. The end. (There is more to that story, but that’s all I’m going to tell you now.) So there I was kneading a very sloppy mess on low speed with a dough hook, both of which didn’t look as though they would get the dough to “come together” anytime before the end of the week. I asked Chef Kurtis if he would please come take a look at it. He did. He didn’t say a word. He stopped the mixer. He removed the dough hook and attached the paddle (the paddle?!), and threw the mixer into high gear. Yikes. Then he stood back, folded his arms, and stared patiently at the mixer. After about 5 minutes, I heard what I can only describe as a “giant sucking sound.” In the blink of an eye, the dough all sucked itself up around the paddle, as if by magic. There were weblike strands snapping between the sides of the bowl and the mass of dough in the center. My eyes widened and my mouth dropped wordlessly open as Chef Kurtis threw back his head and roared, “That’s gluten, baby!” The dough had come together.
All of the poolish
2 cups bread flour
1 cup all-purpose flour
1 1/2 teaspoons sea or kosher salt
2 teaspoons active dry yeast (or 1 teaspoon instant)
12 ounces room temperature water
2 ounces milk*
2 ounces olive oil
2 ounces honey
A note to my vegan friends: substitute water for the milk and add an extra half ounce of olive oil.
- Scrape the poolish into a mixer bowl. Add the dry ingredients, followed by the liquids.
- Using the paddle, begin mixing on low speed. After about 2 minutes, when all ingredients have been incorporated, raise speed to medium for 5 minutes. Finally, raise speed to high until you hear that “giant sucking sound” as the dough snaps together around the paddle. Be patient. It will happen.
- When it does, turn off the mixer, remove the paddle, and scrape the dough back into the bowl. Remove it from the mixer and cover it tightly with a sheet of plastic. Let proof at room temperature until at least doubled, about 1 to 1 1/2 hours.
- To shape dough, first generously flour your work surface. Scrape the dough out onto it. If you haven’t yet gotten a white plastic scraper and a bench scraper, you’re going to be wishing you had. They’re the only tools that will get you through the shaping process without hurling obscenities about the kitchen. Dip your hands in flour. Press both sides of the the bench scraper’s blade against the dough, then flour it. Divide the dough in half.
- Separate the two halves. Flour your hands again. Flour the bench scraper again. You’re going to give each piece of dough a letter fold. Use the bench scraper to lift one end of one piece of dough, and flip it 1/3 of the way towards the center, as if you were folding a letter. Do the same with the other end. Repeat with the other piece of dough.
- Make sure both pieces of dough are well separated. You don’t want them to grow back together while they rest. Gently lay a kitchen towel over the dough and let it rest for 30 minutes.
- Preheat oven to 450 degrees. If using a stone, and I highly recommend one, place it in the oven to preheat also. If using a baking sheet, prepare the back side of it by sprinkling it with cornmeal or semolina.
- After the rest period, remove towel from dough. Flour your hands. If using a stone, open the oven door. This part goes very fast. Pick up each piece of dough and gently stretch it to about 12″ in length. Don’t aim for perfection here; close enough is close enough. Immediately set it on the stone in the oven. Also immediately, perform the same action with the other piece of dough. If using a baking sheet, set the stretched doughs on the side sprinkled with cornmeal and immediately set in oven. In either case, shut the oven door immediately after both loaves have been set in it.
- Ciabatta, by the way, means slipper in Italian. You’ll see why.
- Set a timer for 20 minutes. Do not open the oven for the first 10 minutes! That is when steam production and dough expansion are taking place. You want to keep all the heat inside the oven. Check dough after 20 minutes. It should be a dark golden brown, not at all pale. If in the slightest doubt, let it go for another 5 minutes or even more. You need to be sure that as much moisture as possible has been driven out of the dough so that the finished bread maintains its shape and does not shrink back when removed from the oven. Too, both the bread and crust will have a much deeper flavor if fully baked.
- When done, remove loaves from oven and allow to cool on a rack. Let cool for at least 30 minutes before slicing.
- I can’t wait to hear of your experiences with ciabatta!