February hasn’t been a particularly good month for my oven and me. Early in the month, I had made a batch of beautifully shaped Rugelach and just as they were about to go into the oven, it did a bunk on me. After a rather eventful four weeks of at the service centre, my oven’s finally back home in one piece and working again.
Some travel in late January, recovering from a mild but depressing bout of cold and headaches and then the oven on the blink meant that I had no bread to present for the February edition of We Knead To Bake. So following a suggestion by one of the members some time back, it was decided that this month the group members would each bake a bread from a recipe of their own choice.
I chose to bake Ciabatta Rolls. Ciabatta is something I have been meaning to bake for a long time and it was this now that I got down to it. Ciabatta is an Italian white bread made with the basic bread ingredients of flour, yeast, water and salt. The word “Ciabatta” means slipper in Italian characterised by its somewhat flat and elongated shape, supposedly like a worn out slipper. The other characteristics of a Ciabatta are a hard, crackly crust, an open crumb(“hole-y” texture in the bread) typical of artisan breads and a chewy texture.
There are stories about the origin of the Ciabatta that may be true or not. One version is that the Ciabatta was first created in a small town called Adria (near Venice) by an Italian baker named Arnaldo Cavallari sometime in the 1890s. It seems that the locals were very fond of sandwiches made from imported French baguettes around this time in history. Arnaldo and his fellow bakers were worried because this imported bread was bad for their local bread business. So he decided to create an acceptable locally made bread for these sandwiches and the Ciabatta was born!
Different versions of Ciabatta can be found across the various regions of Italy, all a little different from each other. The Ciabatta made in Tuscany, Umbria, and Marche regions can have a firm crust and dense crumb or a crisper crust and more open crumb. Around the region near Lake Como, Ciabatta tends to have a crisp crust, a somewhat soft and really open crumb and is light to the touch.
In the US, the Ciabatta tends to have an open crumb (really big holes in the bread) and is quite popular as sandwich bread. Ciabatta can be made as larger loaves of bread or as small loaves. A toasted sandwich made from small loaves of Ciabatta is known as a “Panino” and the plural of which is “Panini”
The Ciabatta recipe asks for very little in terms of ingredients and looks deceptively easy to make. It’s a good idea to understand the basic science behind the techniques involved in the making of this bread and then it truly becomes a very easy bread to make. The process is simple enough but making Ciabatta needs patience because the dough is a hydrated dough and so sticky. It also requires a gentle hand while shaping to ensure that the dough does not get deflated.
Most Ciabatta recipes, like this one, use a “Biga” which is a pre-ferment that is made the previous evening and needs to sit for at least 8 to 12 hours. The pre-ferment plays an important part in the taste and texture of Ciabatta. As I understand it, a “Biga” is usually thick like bread dough, and a “Poolish” is more “paste-like in texture” but the “Biga” in this recipe was more “Poolish”-like, not that that makes any difference and just me getting technical.
Ciabatta is best eaten fresh but it can be wrapped well in plastic wrap and refrigerated for a few days. To refresh day old or stale Ciabatta, lightly sprinkle it with water and re-heat t in the oven before serving. Stale Ciabatta makes excellent croutons.
What I Learnt About Making Ciabatta
It is rustic bread, which means that its beauty is in the imperfections in its appearance. I don’t know who said that “Once you’ve tasted it [Ciabatta], you’ll never think of white bread in the same way again”, but whoever it was, that person knew what he/ she was talking about!
This is one of the wettest bread doughs I worked with (and I haven’t worked with many wet doughs so far). Be prepared for messy fingers and countertops, flour everywhere and a lot of cleaning and washing up afterwards!
Ciabatta dough is a hydrated dough, typically upwards of 70%. This means that over 70% of your dough is water and your bread dough is almost “soupy”! The texture of the dough reminds me of those slow lava flows from active volcanoes. The wetter or softer the dough, the more gas builds up in your dough and the more “open” or “hole-y” your Ciabatta crumb will be.
The one best friend or kitchen tool that makes all the difference while working with a dough like this is the simple scraper, after the stand mixer (if you have one)
Mixing this dough by hand is not the easiest of tasks, and any help in the form of friend or machine is alwys welcome. A stand mixer would be ideal but I don’t have one and I rarely use the dough hooks that come with my hand held mixer because wet dough always rises up the hooks and creates a mess that’s a pain to clean.
So I initially mixed the dough in the food processor on slow speed until the dough was moving away from the sides of the bow, looking “stretchy” and all wrapped around the column of the blade!
Don’t over-run the processor as it can get heated and increase the temperature of your dough, which you don’t want. I then “poured” out the Ciabatta dough onto a well-floured counter and stretched and folded it 3 times with a ten minute rest for the dough after each stretching and folding to develop the gluten further.
Obviously, it’s difficult to knead such a sticky dough, but you must work the dough to develop the gluten. A simple “stretching and folding” technique is the way to go. See this video to see how that’s done.
A slightly stronger flour seems to produce a better textured Ciabatta, from what I have read, so it might be a good idea to use bread flour, or add a little Vital Wheat Gluten to one’s all-purpose flour. That’s what I’m trying the next time I make Ciabatta.
No matter how tempted you are, never add flour to the dough. The dough will stick to your hands at some point and that’s fine. Wash it off if it bothers you, and come back to the dough.
Dusting your working surface and your palms with loads of it is fine, but you do not want to change the amount of water in the dough by incorporating more flour into it, and if you want to achieve the characteristic texture/ open crumb that the Ciabatta is known for.
As for shaping your loaves/ rolls, use the scraper to do this. If you have two scrapers, then you can use them both to help you lift the shaped Ciabatta onto the parchment. Less than perfect looking bread is just fine, because that’s the beauty
of the Ciabatta. Loads of practise will eventually lead to a good looking bread.
If you’re lucky enough to have a couche, a baking stone, or can pour hot water into your oven to create steam, then use them all to make your Ciabatta. The couche will give your proofing loaves/ rolls better shape/ form, while the stone will produce a crips bottomed bread. Using hot water to create steam in your oven will give you a softer crust to your bread. I don’t have a couche or a stone so my parchment lined baking sheet worked just fine. As for creating steam in my oven, that’s next to impossible without burning myself as my oven is quite small. It’s just great that I also happen to like crisp crusts on my Ciabatta.
Homemade Ciabatta Rolls
(Adapted from the Kitchn)