I love everything about baking bread—the way the house smells when the yeasted dough rises over the course of the day, the dried dough and flour that stays on your fingernails despite your best attempts to scrub it off, and the sound of a knife cutting through the crust of bread still warm from the oven. At the risk of sounding eighty years old, it is refreshing to have part of your day controlled by a tiny organism that has been around for millions of years, rather than an endless stream of Snapchats, Facebook notifications, and Amanda Bynes tweets. Homemade bread is a lot of work, but nothing can compare to what the end result tastes like. The best breads, the ones that seem like they came from a bakery, normally require a little more time and dedication than the typical sandwich loaf, as they normally involve an overnight rest, like this Ciabatta. Ciabatta means “slipper” in Italian, in reference to its oblong, flat shape that boasts a bubbly, loose crumb.
The dough starts off with an overnight ferment, which in this case is called a biga, that consists of flour, water, and a dash of yeast. After just 8 hours, the batter is full of carbon dioxide bubbles and is ready to mix with the rest of the dough.
After some time in the standing mixer (don’t try to knead this dough by hand, it’s far too wet), the dough rises, and is gently turned every half hour for an hour. This encourages the gluten to reorganize and provide structure to the rising dough without depleting all the air bubbles that have taken so long to develop.
Once the dough has doubled in size, it gets turned onto a heavily floured work surface and divided into two even pieces. Whatever you do, don’t squash all the air out of it now, because your ciabatta is a loose dough, and due to the lack of structure, can easily come out of the oven looking like a brick.
This ragged half of dough is then folded like a business letter, and placed on parchment to rise until doubled in size.
Once it’s risen, it is almost ready for the oven. But first, you have to press it down to a larger rectangle with your fingers to get the traditional slipper shape.
A hot baking stone and a few mists of water make a crusty loaf that is excellent while warm and drizzled with olive oil and sea salt, or slice lengthwise for pressed paninis. Or as you saw last week, slice it and serve alongside my white bean spread. The loaves will last for a few days at room temperature, but trust me when I say that there is no way that there will be any left after a few short hours.
Makes 2 loaves
Recipe from Cook’s Illustrated
1 cup all-purpose flour
½ cup water, room temperature
1/8 teaspoon instant yeast
2 cups all-purpose flour
½ teaspoon instant yeast
1 ½ teaspoons table salt
¼ cup milk, room temperature
¾ cup water, room temperature
- For the biga: combine all the ingredients together in a medium bowl and stir until smooth. Let sit, covered, for 8-24 hours at room temperature.
- For the dough: place the sponge and all dough ingredients in the bowl of a standing mixer fitted with the paddle attachment and mix on low until roughly combined. Increase speed to medium low and mix for 4-6 minutes until the dough collects on the paddle. (You may think this will never happen, but sure enough, at around 5 minutes, the dough will all glob onto the paddle, be patient!) Change to the dough hook and need on medium speed until the dough is smooth and shiny, about 10 minutes. Transfer dough to a large bowl, and let rise at room temperature for about 1 hour, until doubled in size.
- Turning the dough: Grease a rubber spatula and use it to gently fold the dough from the edge into the middle. Turn the bowl 90 degrees, then turn again. Repeat 6 more times until the dough has been turned a total of 8 times—you should have made 2 full revolutions with the bowl. Cover the dough and let rise for 30 minutes. Repeat the folding and let rise another 30 minutes until doubled in size—the dough will rise for a total of 1 hour in step 3.
- Shaping the dough: 1 hour before baking, place a baking stone on the middle rack of the oven and preheat to 450F. Cut 2, 12″ x 6″ strips of parchment paper and liberally dust them with flour. Turn the risen dough out onto a heavily floured work surface, and resist the urge to punch it down and lose all of the air bubbles. Divide the dough in half and press it into a rough 12″ x 6″ rectangle. Now, take the ends of dough (facing the long way) and fold them in towards the center, just like you would fold a business letter. The loaf should be 7″ x 4″. Repeat with the second loaf. Transfer the loaves to the parchment, orienting them seam side facing down. Cover the loaves and let them sit at room temperature for 30 minutes until bubbly.
- Baking the loaves: Slide the parchment paper and the loaves onto a pizza peel or inverted baking sheet. Flour your fingertips, then use them to press the dough down to 10″ x 6″ rectangles. Slide the parchment and loaves onto the baking stone. Using a mister bottle of water, spray the loaves with water immediately on entry, plus 2 more times while in the first 5 minutes of baking. Bake the loaves until deep golden brown, 22-27 minutes total. Transfer loaves to a wire rack to cool and remove the parchment paper. The bread must cool for at least 1 hour before slicing and serving. It will last a room temperature for up to 3 days.