It really is remarkable stuff, that ciabatta. I had no idea, being up until this point a ciabatta-eater but not a ciabatta-baker. I am, from this point forward however, a ciabatta-baker.
The dough starts with a poolish -- a fragrant pre-ferment of flour, yeast and water that I made three nights earlier and allowed to chill in the fridge, where it became wonderfully bubbly, vibrant and stretchy.
Though ciabatta dough can be enriched with olive oil and/or milk, I chose to make the original lean version of the dough, which consists of nothing more than the poolish, additional flour, yeast, salt and water. Bread baking really is alchemy.
After it is kneaded, the soft ciabatta dough is shaped into a rectangle then stretched and folded over itself a few times, with a rest in between folding sessions. Reinhart tells us to flour liberally the dough at each step, as it's a very wet and sticky product. It's also very silky and lovely, and you can see -- if you look closely -- the big characteristic air bubbles forming just below the surface of the dough.
Ciabatta is a hearth bread; it should be baked on a baking stone in a fiery 500-degree oven, which is a totally fabulous thing to do in the middle of summer let me tell you. No matter; good bread is worth a little sweat. The ciabatta also needs a blast of steam at the onset of baking to allow the bread to benefit from a "spring" -- that is, a last-minute, in-oven, rapid rise before the crust sets. Reinhart suggests placing a cast iron skillet on the floor of the oven, then adding a cup of simmering water to the pan when the bread goes in, then spraying the sides of the oven with water at 30-second intervals during the first minute and a half of baking. Which is all well and good, but man alive, does that water spit and jump and hiss all over the place. One would be wise to use an elbow-length oven mitt so as to avoid burns on one's forearms. I'm just saying.
Once all the drama with the steam was over, the ciabatta baked quietly and peacefully and perfectly, achieving a gorgeous flour-streaked crust that made the loaves look like they came from an actual bakery. And after the mandated 45 minutes of cooling, cutting into the ciabatta was a great thrill indeed. I wasn't sure what to expect: Would I have achieved the storied ciabatta holes? (Yes, to a degree that pleases me as a beginner ciabatta baker.) Would the bread be evenly baked? (Yes!) Would I be able to control myself and only eat a few slices? (Not on your life.)
The ciabatta tasted marvelous -- yeasty and chewy and ciabatta-y. I am looking forward to trying the recipe again, however, as there is definitely room for improvement. Namely, I'd like to work on those holes, make them even larger and more pervasive throughout the crumb. (I'm going to create an even wetter dough next time to achieve this.) And due to all that folding and liberal flouring of the dough during the shaping phase, I did end up with a little bit of raw flour on the inside of my bread. Next time I'll use a little less flour, confident that the sticky dough will be manageable without an excessive amount of the stuff. Finally, I'll need to determine a better way to handle that steam -- you know, without causing quite so much injury.
But the prevention of bodily harm takes a back seat to those holes. I need to work on those holes. They need to be magnificent. I am a woman on a mission.
The Bread Baker's Apprentice challenge asks that we do not post the recipes for Reinhart's breads. But if you, too, care little for the skin on your forearms and wish to create a bread that you might not believe you baked in your own oven, turn your copy of the book to page 135.
Also, please do enjoy a few of my fellow Bread Bakers' ciabatta loaves:
- You Eat Now makes a version of ciabatta that begins with the biga pre-ferment (as opposed to the poolish, which I used). Biga is more hydrated and provides for a looser crumb and bigger holes.
- Paula at Bell'alimento has hole issues, too, but loves the flavor of her loaves. I can relate.
- A Chef's Daughter achieves enviable holes, and adds mushrooms to her bread.
- Haley at Appoggiatura uses the biga pre-ferment and works those holes like they're going out of style.