Sourdough Ciabatta (And some bread theory)

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First off, I have to ask forgiveness for the lack of pictures for this post.

This was my second attempt at the recipe, and I wasn’t sure it was going to work as I had made a lot of changes to the first round. But, I found myself pleasantly surprised and without pictures of the process (And sometimes you just wanna eat what you make and not have to worry about getting the camera out!).

What is Ciabatta?

Ciabatta, to me, is classified by two things: Big Crumb and a crispy crust. I’m talking big, open holes, chewy (but NICE chewy) dough and a crust that’s still got a bit of the flour left over from the proofing time on the couche.

OK, maybe I said a couple things there that left you wondering WTH I meant. I’ll get back to that. First, just because I hate scrolling and you probably do too, I’ll give you a little recipe!

Here’s my Sourdough Ciabatta recipe. I’ve made an option if you don’t have a sourdough starter but want to try this out. The result won’t be AS sour tasting, but it will still be workable.


Sourdough Ciabatta Bread

  • Servings: one large baguette or several buns
  • Difficulty: intermediate
  • Print

A classic bread made a bit more wholesome with the addition of Whole Wheat flour and some Olive Oil


Ingredients

  • 610g starter, recently fed and bubbling (100% hydration)
  • 431g Bread Flour
  • 200g Whole Wheat flour
  • 395g Water, room temperature
  • 17g Salt
  • 26g Extra Virgin Olive Oil (optional)

*note* If you don’t have an active starter, start 4-6 hours earlier by making a Poolish, a shortcut to a starter. Do this by mixing:

  • 10g Yeast
  • 305g luke warm water
  • 150g Bread Flour
  • 150 Whole Wheat flour

Let this sit until bubbling, and use in place of the starter above.

Directions

This recipe takes time, and it’s best to start it in the late afternoon or early evening (depending on how late you stay up), however it isn’t a lot of hands-on work as it follows a no-knead method, so don’t let it intimidate you. If you need to make a poolish, allow it several hours to become bubbly and ferment a little bit. 

Begin by mixing your active starter into the water to break it up. Then add your Flours and Olive oil (This is optional in the dough. If you want a crustier crumb, leave it out). Mix this well with a spatula and wooden spoon. It’ll be a bit of a sloppy dough, and that’s good! Once all the flour has gotten wet, let it sit for half an hour or so. This is called Autolyse, and allows the flour to fully absorb the water.

Once the autolyse period is done, sprinkle the salt overtop of the dough, and give it a quick mix in with your hands. Once that’s done, you start the turn and fold process, which is what kneads your bread. This process will take a few hours, but only involving you every 45 minutes, or whenever you remember. Start by tucking your hand underneath the far side of the dough and grabbing it. Pull this bottom piece of dough up and towards you, bringing it over the dough. Drop the piece you’re holding, turn the bowl 90 degrees in any direction, and repeat. Do this until you’ve gone around the whole dough, then cover and let sit for a while (45 minutes, half an hour, one hour, whichever works best for your day). See pictures in the notes below for more help.

Every so often (see times above), repeat this process. Don’t be too hard with the dough, but don’t worry about ruining it either. As this process moves along, you’ll notice it becomes easier to stretch, the dough will get more subtle and smooth, and your gluten will develop, allowing the dough to trap those magical air pockets. You will see it grow slowly in body.

When this process is done, cover the bowl and stick it into the fridge overnight.

In the morning, take out your bowl of dough. You’ll see it’s risen a little bit, and is just as subtle as it was while you were stretching the folding it the day before. For this next step, you will need a Couche, but if you don’t have one, grab a lint-free tea towel and flour it VERY WELL (rub the flour in, even) and use it. See notes below for more information.

Flour your counter top and dump your dough out. If you’re making buns, this is easy: Cut off pieces of the dough that are just a bit smaller than the bun size you want. If you want a large loaf or baguette, skip the cutting (obviously).

To shape your loaf (or buns), it’s a similar method to the folding you did before. Much like wrapping a present, grab the undersides of the dough and pull them up and over the dough. Do this a couple times, gently enough so as not to knock out too much of the air in the bread. Don’t handle the dough too much, or you will lose body!

Move the dough to the couche by forming walls in the towel (just allow folds to form in the towel that stick up into the air) and placing the dough within the walls, “bottoms up” (this is the side where you can see where all those stretched pieces are, after you brought them over the dough). If you have one loaf, it’ll just be two walls. If you’re making buns, it’ll be several little containments.

Now, you proof. This may take some time as the dough is cold from the fridge, but that’s fine. Go do something else for a little while, checking back in an hour or two. When your dough is proofed enough (do a poke test: Poke the loaf, and if the hole bounces back quickly, it’s not done. If it barely starts to jump back, it’s ready), heat your oven as high as you’re comfortable. Hearth breads bake at high temperatures, but at home our ovens may have limits. I’m comfortable using mine at 450, and I wouldn’t recommend going below this. Let the oven preheat for a while before transferring your doughs to your preferred baking platform (see note below).

In my cloche, I baked my loaf with the lid on for 15 minutes before removing it and baking another 15. This worked for my small loaf, but you may need longer for larger loaves. Aim for an internal temperature of about 92C (or 200-205 F).

let cool before slicing and enjoying!


Some notes.

First off, this dough includes Whole Wheat flour. That means the crumb is just a tad different from white bread. It doesn’t have quite as many big holes as a classic ciabatta, but the essence is still there, and in a slightly nuttier (and in my opinion, healthier) form.

The term Crumb refers to the inside of the bread. In ciabatta, that means lots of large holes in the midst. In many breads, it has smaller holes, some even having almost none. It’s all about internal texture, and the way the gluten has developed (some doughs are very stretchy once baked, so you can tear the inside up and the bread will actually stretch a bit before breaking. Others simply crumble apart).

Second, let’s talk about the tools and techniques.

Ciabatta is a pretty sloppy dough. It’s messy, and when you leave it too long to sit unattended, it will spread out and flatten. Because of this, you need something to proof it in. There are many options here. In my recipe, I used a Couche, which is a special towel used to help keep the ciabatta in it’s form while it’s proofing. It can be made of many materials, but mine is plain old canvas from the art store (untreated, of course) with a LOT of flour. Couches need flour to impregnate the fibres well enough to become “non-stick) for dough. This can take some time and use, so if yours is still sticking to the dough a bit, it just needs to be worked in. If you don’t have a proper couche or canvas, a tea towel can suffice, but beware that it may stick to your dough (I used one for a while, and eventually became so frustrated I dug out my canvas to replace it). If you don’t want to take this risk, try working with wax paper instead.

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A Couche. Image from King Arthur Flour, found at http://www.kingarthurflour.com/shop/items/cloche-bread-baker

Another option to the couche is a proofing basket. These come in all shapes and sizes, including baguette shapes, and they lend themselves well to playing with shapes and patterns (thanks to their wicker design). However, if you want buns, this may be harder to make work, since you would need many small baskets. I’ve tried lining muffin tins, small bowls, anything, but when you start getting into bread as much as I have, you eventually just start buying the proper gear.

When it comes to actually baking bread, there are even MORE techniques. Hearth breads, made in proper bakeries, often utilize a wonder of the kitchen: Steam. Steam injected ovens are expensive and rarely seen in home kitchens, so as home cooks, we need to work with what we’ve got. There are countless resources available online for this, but I’ve found great luck in two tools: the Cloche, and a baking stone.

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A bread cloche. Image from King Arthur Flour, found at http://www.kingarthurflour.com/shop/items/cloche-bread-baker

The Cloche is a handy tool, if only slightly limiting. It won’t work for numerous buns or baguettes, but for a loaf of bread, it will easily trap steam inside of itself to help get that crust that we all fall in love with in bread making. You bake with the lid on for the first portion of the bake (15-20 minutes, depending on the loaf), and then with the lid off to finish. It easily fits into most ovens, comes in many designs and sizes, and has it’s own set of care guidelines that you MUST follow to make it last (Mine, for instance, cannot get wet at any point). I love my cloche, and used it in this recipe with success.

An alternative to the cloche is a cast iron pot. I lucked out and found one at value village that was just the right size and already seasoned. These heavy-duty tools can take a beating, and work the same way as the cloche (And you can use them for other things!). They’ll also get you working out your arms. The danger, however, is the design. Most cast-iron devices that work well in baking bread involve dumping your loaf into the pot, potentially knocking out a lot of air, or having it end up lop-sided. Not only that, but when you’ve preheated iron to 450F, you can get a hell of a burn if you try carefully placing your dough into the bottom of it and just brush your hands or arms against the edge. They work wonders, but are dangerous to work with.

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One of my lop-sided loaves of bread, having fallen into the cast iron pot the wrong way

Another option is the baking stone, but this also requires another tool. The baking stone, which can be found easily as a pizza stone (or if you’re like me, a massive cast-iron flat top, which I recommend since it can take a beating), emulates the bottom of the steam oven, the hearth. This especially needs preheating (some people suggest an hour!) to get it piping hot and just right. However, it won’t trap steam to get your crust. Here enters the dilemma. To get steam when using a stone, I recommend one of two options: A spray bottle, or a hotel pan with boiling water. Both some with caveats.

With a spray bottle, it’s a simple task of opening the door and spraying the walls the oven, doing this every 30 seconds for the first five minutes or so of baking. However, every time you open the door, you let out the heat, and frankly, some of the steam. You also stand the risk of spraying water onto the glass of your oven, and having a very expensive repair in your future.

With a hotel pan (or any pan), you simple place this pan into the oven (some say the top, some say the bottom) and pour boiling water into it when you put your loaf in. You don’t need a lot of boiling water in there, as you DO want it to eventually evaporate and stop steaming your bread. But this runs the same risk of spilling onto your oven glass. It can also be tricky to get the water into the pan (for me, at least) without spilling. For this reason, when I haven’t used my Cloche, I’ve often resorted to my spray bottle instead.

But what if you have NONE of this?

Get out your sheet pan. Just like that. You may not get the exact crust as others, but a sheet pan still works. You could even plop this particular loaf into a loaf pan if you want. It’ll still bake. Just treat your pans first, with parchment, semolina or oil (if you use the loaf pan and it isn’t a non-stick)

Now how about that whole Folding and Stretching technique?

You’ll find this technique in many No-Knead recipes, and I really recommend using it. It’s just as good at developing gluten in your breads as a dough hook in a mixer, and if you don’t have one of those, it’ll save you some elbow grease from hand kneading.

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Stretching and Folding, care of “The Wood Fired Enthusiast”, found at http://thewoodfiredenthusiast.com/easy-no-knead-bread-dough-recipe/

Hopefully the images above help you out if my explanation doesn’t. The goal is to get some of the bottom of the dough up and over the top, creating some surface tension to trap in the air. This happens when you shape your dough as well, and is why gluten development is so important in bread making. When it comes time to shape ciabatta, or other loose doughs, this same technique can be used to shape before your final proof, as looser doughs are more prone to losing their rise, thus not being able to handle other shaping techniques.

Finally, let’s talk about the recipe a bit more.

This recipe has some Olive Oil in it, and it’s optional. Olive oil, or any fat, is a shortening agent in baking. It makes bread (and other things like biscuits, pie crusts and such) more tender and soft. In bread baking, it can be completely omitted in a recipe, depending on what end result you want. Ciabatta doesn’t often have Oil in it, as it has a crustier texture. This recipe I used it and enjoyed how soft the dough was coming out of the oven, but it can easily be left out.

The starter is also an option, but one that you MUST replace with a poolish if you omit. A Poolish is essentially a pre-ferment, or another starter- It just hasn’t aged and gotten sour the way a proper sourdough starter does. If you don’t have a starter in your home because you don’t make sourdough often enough, the poolish is the answer to this dilemma. Making the poolish will add time to this recipe, as you need it before anything else. However, it can be done in a pinch very quickly. Just mix all the ingredients together, cover, and let sit in a warm space until it’s nice a bubbly and even risen a little. You could even do this the night before and let it really ferment, but if you plan on letting it sit longer than 12 hours, stick it in the fridge to slow down the process a bit.

The starter in this has a note beside it, “100% Hydration”. This hydration note has to do with how thick, or dry, your starter is. Most sourdough lovers begin with a 100% hydration starter, so many sourdough recipes found online will use this. It’s simple. 100% hydration means that, according to weight, there are equal amounts of water and flour. This is when Baker’s Math becomes a useful tool.

In baker’s math, flour is god. Everything is measured against flour, and flour in a recipe is always stated as being 100%. Nothing compares to Flour this way. You will never see flour as 70% in a bread recipe. It is 100%, end of story. You will see, however, that this recipe has more starter than flour in it. That’s because in baking, you can go over 100% (but not with flour). It may be tricky, but just remember flour is 100%, and this: Everything is measured against the flour. For example, let’s look at the starter in this recipe. It calls for 610g of starter, while the total flour weight (both bread flour and whole wheat) adds up to just 541g. Math tells us that dividing 610 by 541 gives us 1.12, or 112%. If you look at that closely, it makes sense. There is obviously more mass in the starter than the flour, so of course it’s worth 112% of the weight of the flour.

Bring the same concept to the water content. This recipe calls for 395g of water. When you divide 395 by 541 (the flour weight), you get .73, or 73%. The water is worth 73% of the mass of the flour.

This is Baker’s math, and it’s useful when it comes to both scaling, and understanding how one type of bread is different from another. This Ciabatta has a decently high hydration and starter compared to a firmer dough that may only have 55-60% water in it and 70% starter (which also adds moisture, since it too has water). When it comes to scaling a recipe, you can use the baker’s math to make sure your proportions are correct and you don’t end up with a different kind of bread than you intended.

 

Working with bread is a tricky business, and takes a long learning curve that changes every time you alter anything from flour to temperature and tools. Describing it to a young girl working with us at the bakery right now, I told her that bread requires praise and sucking up. If you don’t treat it properly, it will refuse to cooperate with you. Treat it right, listen to what the dough is telling you, and you will be rewarded. But it takes time to get the feel of it and understand it’s language. Fortunately for those starting out, flour can be pretty cheap, so don’t be afraid to try something over and over again to get it right.

 

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