Normally ciabatta is made using a homemade yeast sponge which has to be made hours to days ahead and really smells up the refrigerator. However, there are easier, faster, and less smelly (although I rather like the earthy, sour-ish, fermented scent — just not particularly well in my refrigerator) shortcuts or “cheats” to getting truly authentic — if not exactly traditionally made — ciabatta bread loaves. These same “cheats” will also help even a kitchen novice to produce high quality, perfectly sized and shaped loaves. Furthermore, these methods create far less mess in the kitchen as well as taking far less time and effort — and less chance for errors to occur.
About ciabatta bread:
There seems to be a common mistake of thinking that it contains olive oil. Perhaps, it is because it is being mistaken for another type of Italian bread which is made with olive oil as an added ingredient to its dough — but ciabatta bread contains no olive oil, no eggs, no baking powder or soda, and no dairy. It never has!
The only olive oil is that which is used to lightly grease the proofing container so the dough can be allowed to slip out without deflating.
Ciabatta is an Italian bread that is crispy, chewy, and has lots of irregular sized holes in its center. It is normally baked on a stone (same as used for pizza) — or on untreated, unsealed terracotta tiles — but with this method that I’ll be sharing, you can also just use a regular baking sheet.
It has a slipper shape. It is called “slipper” because it not only has a sort of cigar or French baguette — or elongated slipper shape — but primarily because it has a slight but very distinctive sort of split on the top center representative of the opening in which to slide one’s foot inside of a slipper.
This slipper’s split is not cut and never sliced into the bread purposefully with a knife, nor is it deep, but is instead a very shallow split (just barely) created on the upper most surface of the crust or skin of the bread when the raw proofed (risen) dough is separated into individual loaves in a very specific way — technical — but extremely easy to do. Then as the bread bakes, this area spreads open ever so slightly and even appears different in color than the rest of the crust.
I’m going to include a lot of detail and tips here so that even a kitchen novice can turn out four absolutely perfect loaves of ciabatta bread. Please, read all the way through the instructions carefully before starting.
It is actually very easy to make and doesn’t take very much time — other than the hour or so of rising time — to mix or bake.
If you follow these directions exactly, you will have absolutely perfect ciabatta bread every single time — as well as perfectly sized and shaped.
You do NOT want to work any extra flour nor olive oil into the dough while it is being mixed and kneaded. However, the dough is extremely wet and sticky.
Therefore, it is most easily mixed and kneaded using the dough hook attachment on an electric stand mixer.
Do not use the paddle or any other attachment because they will not bind the proteins properly and you will find it difficult to get the dough unstuck from them. Also, the paddle tends to stretch it out creating thin sheets repeatedly — which results in over drying — as well as making for a very tough bread rather than simply being an appropriately chewy bread.
Otherwise, it will have to be mixed and kneaded — inside of the bowl — by hand — without benefit of flour or oil to keep it from sticking to the hands.
Do not work it enough — or introduce oil into/inside the dough — and you will end up having a very unsightly, thin, flat bread — no matter how well it rises when proofed.
Over work it — or use very much additional flour at all — and it will become too tough and like shoe leather.
Really over work it — or add lots more flour — and you’ll have a brick — that can be used as a door stop or even with which to hit any intruders over the head to render them unconscious until the police arrive.
All the same can be said also about the results of under or over proofing (rising) the bread.
However, using an electric stand mixer with the dough hook attachment makes it very easy to tell exactly when the dough has been properly kneaded — for absolutely perfect results each and every time.
You also want to handle the raw dough very carefully after proofing (rising) to avoid deflating it. This is where the use of a properly sized container and flat pastry cutter comes into play. This also helps ensure four equally sized loaves. More about all that later.
You will also need:
measuring cups and spoons
a watch or other sort of timer (especially if new to this)
a couple of cooling racks (or one large one) is helpful, but not absolutely necessary
one or two clean, lint free, light weight kitchen towels
a roll of paper towels (if not using kitchen towels or only using only one kitchen towel)
a 13 x 9.5 inch baking sheet — which is large enough to accommodate the four loaves of bread with appropriate spacing to ensure they are all baked at the same time, on the center rack, etc.
an electric stand mixer — with the dough hook attachment
a straight flat stainless steel pastry dough cutter/chopper
I haven’t tried using other materials except stainless steel to cut and separate the dough into loaves — but I do know that a rubber spatula was the worst idea ever to try to scrape the dough out of the bowl and into the proofing container — it was like a dough magnet and didn’t want to let go! And, you really want a thin but sturdy blade that will cut straight and true the first time — and that cut is very important for the formation of the “slipper’s foot opening”.
and, finally, you need a proofing container in which let the dough rise:
You will want a clear or see through, tall, square, box shaped plastic container in which proof (rise) the bread dough — that will result in a large enough square of the raw dough to be easily cut into four equally sized loaves.
This also cuts down on the amount of manipulation and handling of the proofed dough afterwards which results in deflation (a loss of all those air pockets the yeast worked so hard to create so perfectly) and a very sad, flat loaf.
It also needs to be tall enough to allow for a potentially large rise of up to six or even eight inches (or more) depending upon total size of box– with enough head room left over to prevent dough from touching the covered top. If the dough touches the top lid or covering then it could cause the dough to deflate.
The lid or cover should be airtight to prevent the dough from drying out which will ruin the proofing (rise).
A container size of approximately 8 x 8 inches square and about 8 or more inches tall works really well.
However, the dough will also spread out a just bit more to become slightly larger after it is removed. Therefore, if unable to find an exact size match, simply get as close as you possibly can — just keeping in mind that you want a square of raw dough that can be cut into four relatively equal sized loaves. The smaller it is square, the taller it will need to be.
The loaves will need to be just long enough to fit side ways — across the shortest length — of the baking sheet. They will also need to have plenty of space between them so that they don’t touch before, during, or after baking.
Fewer than four loaves will result in larger loaves that could not bake enough inside while the crust over bakes (unless so large the loaves touch in which case you won’t get a very good crust, if any, on the sides of the loaves at all — as well as risk the creation of surface tension that could deflate your loaves) while more than four loaves will result in smaller loaves that could over bake inside while the crust is not going to be browned well enough.
If the loaves are a bit short, they can be gently and carefully stretched as long as it is done without squeezing the loaves. Slide the flat pastry cutter underneath and lift the end up, then, place hand with palm open underneath and sort of slide the end of the bread over to stretch it out longer. The ends of the loaves should be within about 1/4 to 1/2 inches away — to 1 inch at the very most — from the sides of the baking sheet pan.
3-3/4 cups plus 2 Tablespoons plus 1-1/2 teaspoons of heavy white bread flour, unsifted (do not “pack” nor “bang/tap” the measuring devices; give a slight side to side shake if needed to ensure even filling)
2-1/2 teaspoons rapid acting yeast
2 teaspoons salt
2 cups water (room temperature), divided into a 1-1/2 cup and a 1/2 cup portions
Mixing and Kneading:
Place the flour into the mixing bowl.
On one side or edge of the bowl, create a small well, place the salt into it.
Then on the completely opposite side or edge of the bowl, make another well and place the yeast into this well — a protective well of its very own.
Keeping the salt and yeast on opposite sides in this fashion prevents the salt from slowing down the yeast too much before it has a chance to bloom as the water is being added. Do not try bury or cover them over with flour; leave the wells open.
Measure out 1-1/2 cups of the room temperature water. Pour a small quantity slowly into the yeast well saturating the yeast and some of the surrounding flour. Wait 15 to 20 seconds.
Now pour in the rest of the 1-1/2 cups of water into the mixing bowl and turn on mixer to blend well with dough hook.
When it is well mixed and a very wet gooey looking dough forms, slowly pour in the remaining 1/2 cup portion of water — in a slow but continuous stream.
Continue to mix and knead.
It will start to form a sort of ball after the final addition of water begins to become incorporated, then it will become wetter and start slapping around in the bowl, then it will begin to become more sticky, and then it will eventually again form into a sort of lump or ball and start crawling up the dough hook. The time it takes for these various stages to be reached varies according to temperature, humidity, and altitude.
Once it has again formed into a sort of lump or ball for the final time, let it knead for an additional 30 to 45 seconds only.
Turn off the mixer and remove the bowl.
If kneading by hand, you will need to test the dough as follows:
The dough will be wet, sticky, but very elastic. You should be able to grab a small amount pinched between the thumb and forefinger of each hand spaced about four to six inches apart and pull up a thin sheet of stretchy dough. Gravity will cause the dough to want to ooze downward but it will still remain a thin stretchy sheet.
If it most or all of it just oozes like glue or the blob right back into the bowl without forming a sheet as described, it hasn’t kneaded long enough. Knead some more.
If it is difficult to pull upwards and tries to spring back into the bowl while pulling out of your fingers then it is over kneaded. Likely, your bread is going to turn out tough instead of chewy.
Let the dough rest briefly in its mixing bowl while you apply a thin coating of olive oil to the bottoms, creases, and all the way up the sides of your proofing container.
Put the dough into the container, seal with lid or tightly with plastic wrap. No air should be able to get to the dough which could dry it out and ruin the proofing or rising of the dough.
Note: The dough can be quickly lifted as a somewhat oozy mass by hand or simply turned out of the bowl into the proofing container.
Leave it to rise at room temperature (not warm) away from cool drafts for about an hour to an hour and a half. The dough should be allowed to increase in size at a slow to average rate of time to at least double or to just very slightly more than double.
Tip: If necessary, mark where your dough is at — prior to rising — with a piece of tape or a wax pencil on the outside of the container — especially if remembering where it started and/or judging the amount of rise is problematic for you.
Note: If using a stone or tile, place in cool oven, preheat oven (thus stone or tile) at 425 F degrees for one hour before using. Therefore, you want to start heating your stone or tile and oven as soon as your dough has been prepared and set up to proof (rise).
If using a baking sheet, you may wait to preheat the oven.
The exact time the proofing actually takes depends upon altitude, temperature, and humidity. However, do not try to speed up the rise by placing it in a warm area but also avoid cool drafty areas. The yeast needs to be given the proper amount of time to work its magic on the consistency of the dough as well as form the appropriate quantity of air pockets.
A room temperature of 74 F to 76 F degrees is optimal — although it can be as low as 64 F to as high as 78 F degrees to get a good rise while still giving the yeast ample time to work its magic.
Do not cover it with a towel or warm wet towel. Seal it with airtight lid or tightly with plastic wrap. You do not want to alter the temperature, create too much humidity, nor allow the dough to dry out which would adversely (badly) effect the proofing.
Removing the proofed (risen) dough:
Once the dough has doubled (or very slightly more) you will want to tip the container — not dump it up side down — so that the dough slides out slowly.
If the container is upturned completely and it falls out then it will hit the counter and deflate into a near if not total pancake — or at the very least result in a very sad, flat bread.
Attempting to let it rise again will only result in over proofed bread that will still deflate during the baking.
First, lightly flour work surface. Then coat the top of the flour with your yellow cornmeal. Make sure this covers a square of work space at least 3 to 4 inches (or more) larger than your proofing container to allow for potential spreading of the dough.
Position the proofing container so that the bread will slide out into the center (be positioned in the center) of your cornmeal. Tip it gently and wait for the dough to gradually loosen from the bottom and sides of the container. Be patient! Then move the container back as the dough slowly slides out.
Creating your “Slippers”:
Note: If using a stone or tile, it had to be placed in a cool oven and then preheat oven (thus stone or tile) at 425 F degrees for one hour before using. Therefore, you should have started doing this as soon as your dough was prepared and set up to proof (rise). If you failed to do so, then it is too late to do so now. Use a baking sheet instead. Your bread will over proof horribly before it is ready at this stage.
Once the dough is out of the container and onto the cornmeal you are ready to make your “slipper” loaves. They will then need to rest for 30 to 45 minutes prior to actually baking.
Tip: If you are not good with even spacing, you can use a ruler to figure out where to cut so that dough is cut into four equal loaves. Just don’t touch, mash, or deflate the bread with the ruler. Make your markings in the flour on the counter top near the bread. If needed, you can even spread flour for this purpose.
Using the straight, flat pastry cutter:
Press pastry blade straight down (do not “saw” back and forth) to slice the dough, lift it straight back up and out, move forward and repeat as needed until reaching the end.
Once the cut is made, carefully slip your blade back into the cut and move it toward the freshly cut loaf of bread dough. Using the side of the blade lift upward and outward in order to roll the dough 1/4 turn so that the cut side faces up and is located on top of the bread. This will create the effect of the opening on the “slipper” that foot slips into.
If using a baking sheet instead of a stone or tile, sprinkle the baking sheet with flour to prevent the loaves from sticking — and to create a really nice bottom crust effect similar to if it had been baked on a stone or tile.
If using a stone or tile, you will want a larger floured and cornmeal surface area as loaves will have to remain there to proof first, then use the pastry cutter as stated before to transfer each loaf into the oven onto the preheated stone or tile.
If the stone is too small you may only be able to bake two loaves at time. Your remaining loaves could potentially over proof especially if the area is overly warm.
Tip: If using a smaller stone that requires batch baking, instead of cutting on counter top close to hot stove, use a large baking or cookie sheet without sides, cover it in parchment paper, flour then corn meal the surface, and use that. This way you have a portable work station and can move them to a counter closer to the oven to transfer them to the stone and then move them away and into a cooler area. When moving portable work station, be sure to sit it down gently and not to jar the dough.
Now repeat until you have four loaves. The fourth and final remaining slipper will only need to be turned a 1/4 turn — in the opposite direction from the others — for its opening to be on top.
Space loaves apart evenly on the baking sheet. The loaves should be laid across the shortest length of the pan with the ends about 1/4 to 1/2 inch from the edges of the pan.
Again, if the loaves are a bit short, they can be gently and carefully stretched as long as it is done without squeezing the loaves.
Slide the flat pastry cutter underneath and lift the end up, then, place hand with palm open underneath and sort of slide the end of the bread over to stretch it out longer.
The ends of the loaves should be within about 1/4 to 1/2 inches away — to 1 inch at the very most — from the sides of the baking sheet pan.
Now allow your loaves to rest UNCOVERED on the pan for 30 to 45 minutes in a room temperature area without exposure to the heat from the oven nor to cool drafts.
This will allow for a “baby” proofing — and for the skin or crust to dry ever so slightly — yet not noticeably — which helps the slipper’s foot opening to develop better during baking.
While the loaves are resting, those using a baking sheet, should now preheat the oven to 425 F degrees.
When the loaves have rested for no less than 30 minutes and no more than 45 minutes, place them into the oven to bake on the center rack.
Bake in the preheated 425 F degree oven for 20 to 25 minutes.
Removing (any excess) Flour and Cooling:
Remove from oven and use one clean lint free towel or paper towels to brush away any excess flour from the bottom of the loaves.
Some flour bakes into or partially into the crust but depending upon how much flour was used on the baking pan there may some excess loose flour — not very tasty. Bleh! So if you have excess flour left behind dust it off!
It is better to have too much than not enough flour on your baking sheet, however, as you gain more experience, you will be able to gradually scale back to a more appropriate quantity.
Remove the loaves from the sheet pan as soon as they are out of the oven — to prevent them from cooking further — especially on bottom.
Place the loaves on either a cooling rack, on top of a second clean, lint free kitchen towel, or on top of a double layer of paper towels to cool completely.
This will help prevent moisture from condensation (particularly if humid climate or if its raining) from collecting on the bottoms of the loaves making them soggy.
You may create roll sized “slippers” also by using a more appropriately sized container or containers. If you have to cut anywhere but on the side — as the individual loaves are being separated — it will mess up the “slipper” effect — as well as the overall appearance of your bread. So to make roll sized “slippers” you will need to use a proofing container with the appropriate roll sized dimensions.
High Altitude (3,500 feet and up) Adjustments: