An adventure in working with wet doughs – Phase 1: Ciabatta

Two rather large ciabatta loaves

Two rather substantial ciabatta loaves

IMG_3728

Large and irregular holes with a crisp crust

Large and irregular holes with a crisp crust

So I’ve recently started making bread. Rather a lot of it actually, especially considering there’s only two of us in the household and the Chief Tasting Officer isn’t as big of a bread fan as I am. My freezer is now stuffed with remnants of loaves that are ready to be pulled out at a moments notice. This new hobby has reduced the amount of bread that I buy and that suits me just fine really – being unemployed at the moment means tightening our belts a little bit so every little helps.

Ciabatta is something that I’ve been wanting to try for awhile now as we have it quite regularly for lunch on weekends and it seemed fairly challenging to make, certainly for someone who’s relatively new to bread-making like me. The recipe that I used is from Leith’s Baking Bible – a large collection of recipes with very helpful notes on techniques and troubleshooting. The book is not fancy and if you’re expecting beautifully styled photos of every recipe then this is not the book for you. What it is though is highly educational and very good for learning the basics.

Now on to the actual recipe. For a change I thought that I would document most of the steps as I sometimes find that visual aids can help when you’re unfamiliar with a recipe or technique. The steps are pretty simple and now that I’ve actually made it, it’s not really that difficult especially if you have a stand mixer. I’m pretty sure that if I can turn out a couple of decent loaves you can too!

Simple ciabatta recipe - from Leith's Baking Bible

For the wet biga/starter
3 tsps (7.5g) dried active yeast
340ml (12 fluid ounces, or 340g) water, at room temperature
225g strong white flour

For the dough
2 tbsps olive oil
2 tsps fine sea salt
225g strong white flour

Plus 2 tbsps semolina, rice flour or ground rice for shaping
  1. For the biga or starter, place the yeast in a large bowl (I used the bowl of my stand mixer) and whisk in the water. Stir in the flour and cover with clingfilm. Leave to stand at a cool room temperature (ideally between 12-14ºC) for at least 1 hour, or overnight. If you find that the temperature is too warm in your house, place the starter in the fridge. I started mine at about 6pm and left it until about 8am the following day. The longer you leave it, the more complex the flavour will develop in your finished loaf. This is what the starter looked like at the beginning and at the end. I should have taken a photo after about 4 hours as you can see that the yeast was working quite hard and there were a lot of bubbles.
    Starter at 6pm

    Starter at 6pm

    Starter at 8am the following day - Definitely signs of activity there

    Starter at 8am the following day – Definitely signs of activity there

  2. For the dough, mix the oil, salt and flour into the starter. The dough will be wet, so I would recommend kneading it using a stand mixer with the dough hook fitted. You could also knead by hand but this is likely to take quite awhile and be quite messy. For kneading by hand I would suggest the stretch and fold method. Knead until the dough is soft and elastic, and passes the window pane test. This is what my dough looked liked before and after the kneading process.
    Wet dough at about 76% hydration before kneading

    Wet dough at about 76% hydration before kneading

    Smooth, soft and elastic dough after kneading.

    Smooth, soft and elastic dough after kneading.

  3. Cover the dough with oiled clingfilm and leave at a cool room temperature until doubled in size. This could take anywhere from 1 – 2 hours, so check on it regularly. It’s easier to check on the dough through a clear container so I transferred it into a lightly oiled clear glass bowl.
  4. To turn the dough, oil your hands (this step is important as it will prevent the dough from sticking to you!) and scoop the dough from underneath on to a lightly oiled work surface. Fold the top third into the centre then fold the bottom third over it – similar to how you would fold a business letter, next carefully return the dough into the bowl and cover again with clingfilm. Leave for 30 minutes.

    The dough after turning - plenty of air bubbles running through the dough.

    The dough after turning – plenty of air bubbles running through the dough.

  5. Meanwhile, preheat the oven to 220ºC/200ºC fan/425ºF/gas mark 7. If using a baking stone, place it in the oven at the same time. Place an empty roasting tin in the bottom third of the oven.
  6. Sprinkle a peel or baking sheet with the semolina, rice flour or ground rice in a thick and even layer.
  7. Carefully pour the dough on to the peel or baking sheet – you want to retain as many of the air bubbles as possible. Stretch the dough into a rectangle about 16 x 32cm (7″ x 14″) in size, then cut the dough in half lengthways using an oiled knife or dough scraper and separate the two pieces giving them sufficient room to expand without touching. Cover with oiled clingfilm or place in a clean plastic bag then leave for 15 minutes to rest.
    Carefully tip the dough onto a prepared baking sheet.

    Carefully tip the dough onto a prepared baking sheet.

    Stretch and halve the dough then separate the loaves.

    Stretch and halve the dough then separate the loaves.

  8. Remove the clingfilm or from the bag. If using a baking stone, carefully tip the loaves on to the stone; otherwise leave the loaves on the baking sheet.
  9. Toss a cupful of iced water into the roasting tin to generate steam, then bake the loaves for 25-30 minutes or until golden brown. After the first 15 minutes of baking, briefly open the oven door to allow the moisture to escape as you don’t want to end up with soggy bread. You may also need to turn the bread over for the last 5 minutes of baking to crisp up the base. When the bread is done it will feel light and should sound hollow when tapped on the underside. Leave to cool on a wire rack.
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