Ciabatta, the Magic Bread

Do you believe in magic?

I do. I just don’t know if my definition is the same as most other folks.

To me, I live in a magic world, because my definition of magic is anything I don’t fully understand intellectually – and when I bake ciabatta, there’s a whole slew of things happening that I just don’t understand – Magic!

In the world of breads, ciabatta is considered a challenging bread, primarily because it is such a wet dough – this bothers many bakers, because any dough that is more like a batter than a structurally stable dough suggests it will not rise well, and it will likely spread out – and being wet makes it sticky, and therefore hard to handle or knead, even on a machine.

But strangely, I have few problems with ciabatta – especially compared with my other ‘problem’ breads, such as baguettes, English muffins, or pita breads – I suspect my bread fears are a matter of needed practice, but whatever, I seem to have overcome the natural fear associated with ciabatta with a few well placed procedures.

Ciabatta is still a magic bread for me, because I have little intellectual understanding of why such a wet, batter like dough, eventually forms a well risen blob that has lost much of its stickiness, and allows manipulation into the familiar ciabatta shaped loaves – I know it has something to do with the gelatinazation of the flour’s starch content, when moisture is introduced and inter-molecular bonds begin to join, causing the formation of a semi-rigid structure or gel. This of course is occurring at a low room temperature, so the full potential of the gelatinazation process -as in the thickening of a sauce or gravy- is not realized. But it is sufficient enough to assist in giving our dough the needed structure and support to make it manageable.

But also at play here is the role gluten plays in this process – for a long time, I had the mistaken impression that ciabatta, with its stringy dough structure and big holes, had a great deal of strong gluten structure – but the truth is that while moisture is essential to gluten development, excess moisture -as in the 70%+ levels found in ciabatta- help to break down the strength of the gluten cell walls, thereby creating the larger holes typical of good ciabatta. In other words, stronger gluten structure = a closer, tighter crumb – weaker gluten structure = bigger holes.

Even so, gluten still plays a role in the wet ciabatta dough development – the protein strands that gluten create begin to join together when wet, and when manipulated (kneaded), they give bread it’s ‘elastic’ characteristic – even if the dough sits perfectly still, gluten development continues, working together with yeast to raise the loaf, and give the dough structure.

Truly magic.

I believe the reason why ciabatta is relatively easy for me is because I use an oiled plastic bread tub to proof it in, rather than leaving it out on a counter or a board – in this way, I use olive oil instead of flour (which may lower hydration) to keep the wet dough from sticking – and in the tub, it loses no moisture through evaporation, as it may on the counter or board. And when the turns and folds are needed, there is no stickiness of the dough, and folds are done easily.

It’s practically foolproof.

Recently, I made Pierre Nury’s Rye Ciabatta, which I’ve now made several times, and even though it contains another grain which some bakers avoid due to its tendency to be sticky, with the oiled tub, there is no problem. Nury calls this a Light Rye, and with only 10% rye flour in the final dough, there’s only enough rye to give the bread some character and color, but not really enough to create any noticeable stickiness.

It’s a very nice ciabatta, and with the use of the plastic proofing tub, and copious amounts of oil in the tub, ciabatta becomes a trouble-free bread.

Pierre Nury’s Rustic Ciabatta Light Rye
© Daniel Leader, Local Breads
(the source for this recipe is The Fresh Loaf – no apparent adaptations)

Makes 2 long free-form loaves (18 ounces/518 grams each)
8 – 12 hours to prepare the levain
20 minutes to mix and rest the dough
10 to 12 minutes to knead
3 to 4 hours to ferment
12 to 24 hours to retard
20 to 30 minutes to bake

45 grams – stiff dough levain (45%) [if you only have a 100% hydration starter, use that!  Additionally, I will spare you Leader’s tedious detail here.]
50 grams – water (50%)
95 grams – bread flour, preferably high-gluten (95%)
5 grams – stone-ground whole wheat flour (5%)

Prepare levain by kneading and place into a covered container. Let stand at room temperature (70 to 75 degrees F) for 8 to 12 hours until it has risen into a dome and has doubled in volume.

Bread dough:
400 grams – water (80%)
450 grams – bread flour, preferably high-gluten (90%)
50 grams – fine or medium rye flour (10%)
125 grams – levain starter**
10 grams – sea salt
and olive oil for the proofing tub

Pour water into bowl of a stand mixer. Add the bread flour and rye flour and stir until it absorbs all of the water and a dough forms. Cover and let rest for 20 minutes.

Add the levain and salt. By machine, mix on medium speed (4 on a KA mixer) until it is glossy, smooth and very stretchy for 12 to 14 minutes. This dough is very sticky and will not clear the sides of the bowl. Give the dough a windowpane test to judge its readiness by gently stretching a golf-ball sized piece until it is thin enough to see through and not tear. If it tears mix for another 1 to 2 minutes and test again. To get maximum volume in the baked loaf, make sure not to under-knead.

Transfer dough to an oiled plastic tub* and cover. Leave to rise at room temperature (70 to 75 degrees) for 1 hour. It will inflate only slightly.
Turn: (stretch and fold)  Turn the dough twice at 1-hour intervals. After second turn, cover dough and leave to rise until it expands into a dome twice its original size, 1 to 2 hours more. It will feel supple, airy, and less sticky.  (If you are not satisfied with your dough’s expansion, you may leave it in the tub for an additional hour, with an additional stretch and fold.)

Transfer the dough to an oiled plastic bag (grocery bag) and move to the refrigerator – allow the dough to ferment slowly for 12 to 24 hours. It will develop flavor but not rise significantly.

Two to 3 hours before you want to bake, remove from refrigerator and gently move back into the plastic tub – cover and allow to rest. It will not rise much and will feel cool.**

Preheat oven:
About 1 hour before baking, heat oven (with baking stone) to 450°F.

Shape loaves:
Scrape dough onto floured counter and coat the top of the dough with flour. Press the mound of dough into a rough 10-inch square. Cut dough into 2 equal pieces (18 ounces/518 grams each). With floured hands, lift up one piece from the ends and in one smooth motion, gently stretch it to about 12 inches long and let it fall in whatever shape it may onto parchment paper. Repeat with the remaining piece of dough, spacing the two pieces at least 2 inches apart. (No need to score.) ***

Steam oven by preheating a heavy pan (I use an old cast iron skillet) on the bottom of oven and when ready to bake, throw 6-8 ice cubes into the preheated pan. Slide loaves, on pieces of baker’s parchment, onto the baking stone. Spray loaves with a mister before closing oven door – spray again at 5 minutes into baking. Bake until crust underneath the swirls of flour is walnut-colored, 20 to 30 minutes. (I’ve found anything less than 30 minutes will give you a wet crumb!)

Cool on wire rack for about 1 hour before slicing. Don’t be surprised by the long troughs running through the crumb. This is part of the bread’s character.

Store loaves with cut side covered in plastic at room temp for 3 to 4 days. For longer storage, freeze in resealable plastic bags for up to 1 month.

* I’ve included a pic of the type plastic tub I use. Be sure what you use is ‘food grade’ – lots of plastic will leach and is nasty.

** I think Leader’s instructions here are quite short, time wise – I’ve had better experience with leaving the dough at room temperature for a longer time – say, 4-5 hours before shaping and baking. However, what Leader is suggesting is that if the dough is only allowed to come back to room temp, there will be significant oven spring once the loaves hit the hot oven stone – I’d still like to give it a little more proofing time.

*** The use of the proofing tub assists in this step too – when removing your dough from the fridge and returning it to the tub, gently (w/o deflating the dough) move it into the oiled tub and gently massage it into a 10” square – this way you will get maximum rise from this final proof, and your dough is ready to be cut and stretched at the end of this proof. Often, my dough is already 12” long and requires no stretching – just a simple cut down the middle and it’s ready for the oven – don’t forget to dust liberally with flour – the oven spring will give the loaves their characteristic striated look.

Pierre Nury is one of the few recipients of France’s Meilleur Ouvrier de France award (France’s highest award for bread making), and he considers this bread to be his signature loaf. Hope you enjoy.

About drfugawe

I'm a guy with enough time to do as I please, and that my resources allow. The problem(s) are: I have 100s of interests; I have a short attention span; I have instant expectations; I'm lazy; and I'm broke. But I'm OK with all that, 'cause otherwise I'd be so busy, I'd be dead in a year.
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22 Responses to Ciabatta, the Magic Bread

  1. Wow! Bread looks great…never knew how much there was to know about baking until I started reading you. You are truly knowledgeable and amazing.

    • drfugawe says:

      In my career, I took pride in being a generalist – but when I retired, I wanted to learn how to do one thing really well, and I picked bread. But I’m only now realizing just how much there is to learn!

  2. MC says:

    Definitely a beautiful ciabatta and with rye too! Must have been very tasty. I am in awe of the crumb you got. Magic for sure but also a serious pinch of knowledge and skills! I never realized that after a certain level of hydration, the gluten actually got weaker…

    • drfugawe says:

      Yeah, I was surprised at that too – but if you think about it, it does make sense. If the gluten creates strong cell walls, the result is more cells that compete with each other for available space – but if the cell walls begin to break down, they begin to join together and the available space gets larger. I’m sorry I didn’t make note of where I came on that, but I think I remember it being part of a discussion among academics that for the most part was beyond my comprehension – but that much I did get.

      Are you still adventuring? If so, at least the weather is cooperating.

  3. Glenda says:

    Doc, that bread looks fantastic. I am going to give it a go. One question first though, you seem to have made more levain than you are using in the bread dough. Is that correct? BTW what are the dimensions of your proofing tub, please?

    • drfugawe says:

      Hi Glenda,
      Yeah, one of the irritating things about these baker/authors is that they ALL seem to create far more levain than they actually use! I can only assume that it’s because in a real bakery, they tend to make more because it’s better to have too much than too little. But that’s a guess. Anyhoo, I’ve actually ‘shielded’ readers from Leader’s rather obtuse instructions re the levain – it was much worse! In practice, I ALWAYS adapt a recipe’s directions re levain to my own practices, and I think I do fine – I suggest you do the same.

      The tub I use is about 9″ x 11″ (probably smaller than it appears) I find that a perfect size.

      • Glenda says:

        Doc, I made the recipe. Not much magic was happening in my oven:(

        • drfugawe says:

          Ooow, not good news – what seemed not to have gone well? (as I recall, my first ciabatta was more like a big long cracker.)

          • Glenda says:

            It’s hard to say. There was not much oven spring – to say the least. They look the part on the outside even if they are not very high but the crumb is very sad. Lots of small even holes and virtually no large holes. Overall quite dense (but yummy nonetheless). Do you think the oven was not hot enough?

  4. Joanna says:

    Beautiful! You have given a really good explanation of what is going on in the dough. I haven’t made ciabatta for a while, but it is great fun to do once one gets over the anxiety of the flowing dough – and you are so right – it’s a kind of magic 🙂

    • drfugawe says:

      I do have fun with this stuff. My next effort with it will be to make some rolls – I envision taking the risen ‘blob’ out of the tub, plopping it onto the flour covered board, and chopping it into roll sized hunks with the bench scrapper – I’m eager to see how the pointed corners will bake out!

  5. Doc, we make ciabatta all the time, it’s our standard house bread, but only because it’s the easiest loaf I can make, and I’m a lazy baker.

    I always use half bread flour and half superfine remilled semolina flour, I use the semolina cold out of the fridge, squish the dough together in a big tub and then leave it for an hour or so. Then I give it a quick knead (literally, about 15 seconds) in the container, cover it again and leave it then until it’s well risen (often about 6 – 8 hours). When it’s ready, the oven is heated to blazing hot, the dough it scraped onto the rye flour dusted bench, cut into pieces and shoveled unceremoniously into the oven (no second prove).. 🙂

    • drfugawe says:

      You got it, Celia! Beautiful bread, and easy to boot. I’m going to try some semolina in my next batch – but I’ll have to put it in the blender for awhile (my last semolina is a very course grind) I have no idea what the course semolina is used for, but over here you have to be careful or you’ll get the course kind – but the blender fixes it up.

  6. drfugawe says:

    Glenda, I apologize for this response not being immediately underneath your last message – WP failed to provide me with an active Reply button on the bottom of your message – so this is my reply to your last message.

    My suspicion is that your dough was too dry (dry dough = small holes / wet dough = large holes). If your dough was wet enough, it should have been difficult to handle and to stretch and turn in the tub until the last turn. Did you use a well oiled tub? And ciabatta does not give a big oven spring, so that part is OK. And yes, this one requires a very hot oven – do you have an oven temp gauge?

    You know, Glenda, I’ve come to realize that the most important thing about bread baking is whether it tastes good. And if it does taste good, all the rest is much less important. So, if your ciabatta tasted good, you’re almost home.

    • drfugawe says:

      PS Glenda, Maybe your starter was not very active ?? And did you leave your dough in the tub long enough for it to rise well?

      • Glenda says:

        Di Doc, I will try again.

        My dough was extremely wet, so it wasn’t that. If you are not supposed to get much oven spring then I am guessing I didn’t leave it long enough after I took it out of the fridge and before I put it in the oven. I left it 4 hours, though… It is getting cooler here, so maybe … Should I have left it as long as I would leave any other loaf, ie until nearly doubled in bulk? It certainly wasn’t that. Daniel Leader in his book says (about the 2-3 hours rest he recomends after taking it out of the fridge) ‘It will not rise and will feel cool’ so that sounded to me like I would be getting most of my rise in the oven.

        The dough was still sticking to the bottom of the container even until the very end. I will use more oil next time. It was horrid getting it out onto the baking paper. Can it be too wet?

        I will check my oven temperature. I preheated it 250 degrees C for an hour but, it is an old oven.

        • drfugawe says:

          Please forgive, Glenda – yes, this is a bread that has a good oven spring, so ignore my comments re no oven spring. I do think Leader is not giving enough time for the dough to go through a full proof at room temp – I remember mine getting quite light and easy to handle during that time. And I doubt it was too wet, especially if you used his percentages – did you let it go a long time on your mixer? that’s an important part.

          Yeah, give it another go – I swear, this is one of those breads that just keeps getting better, even if you just keep doing the very same thing over and over!

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