I can’t think of a way to describe the fabulous and unusual taste of ciabatta, except to say that once you’ve eaten it, you’ll never think of white bread in the same way again. Everyone who tries this homemade Italian bread loves it. “Ciabatta” means “slipper” in Italian. One glance at the short, stubby bread will make it clear how it was named. Ciabatta bread is a remarkable combination of rustic, country texture and elegant, tantalizing taste. It’s much lighter than its homely shape would indicate, and the porous, chewy interior is enclosed in a slightly crunchy crust. Eat it for breakfast or slice an entire loaf horizontally and stuff it with salami and cheese.
When I was working on this recipe for the first publication of the book, I learned firsthand how hard it is to make correctly. This was in the early 1980s, when ciabatta was an unfamiliar word and a bread unknown in America. I had tested the bread to my satisfaction and sent the recipe for testing to a friend who was a good cook and an able baker. When I got back her notes, they were scorching! She said she couldn’t possibly make the dough as I had written it. It stuck to her hands, it stuck to her work surface, and it was impossible to shape. Ooops. I swallowed hard and then went back to rewrite the headnote and recipe as it is now, trying to be really specific about how wet the dough is. You should not add extra flour or you will get discouraging results.
Please believe me when I say this recipe works. It’s my husband’s favorite out of all the breads in the book, and I have probably made it for him 100 times. If anyone has seen my appearance on Julia Child’s show, Cooking with Master Chefs, [Editor’s Note: Fast-forward the video below to 9:54, which is when Field makes this rustic country bread with Julia] he or she would have seen how I handle wet dough. Or if someone has a copy of the original book with its series of drawings, as opposed to the finished photograph, the process will be even clearer. I love this bread and want everyone to enjoy it.
My advice is first, please weigh the ingredients. If you measure the ingredients by volume, know that if you pack the flour into the measuring cup, it can come out weighing substantially more than if you pour it into a bowl, stir to aerate it, and then scoop it lightly into the cup. Secondly, have a bowl of water nearby when you are preparing to shape the dough. Yes, the dough is wet, but wet dough won’t stick to wet hands, so dip your hands in the water and then scoop up the dough. It’s fine to have a well-floured work surface, as I instruct, and then scoop out the dough onto it. If the dough seems too sticky for your hands, dip your dough scraper into the water and then use it to cut it into 4 pieces. Moisten your hands before you roll the dough into a cylinder so it won’t stick as much. And then, with those wet hands, pull it into the rectangular shape. Do NOT worry if the four little loaves look flat and unpromising. Trust me when I say they will rise on the floured pieces of parchment paper, even though they certainly don’t look as if they will. Let them rise until they’re puffy but not doubled. They still won’t look as if they will be anything you could believe in. If the thought of turning the little loaves over onto the baking stone is too daunting, you can put them still on their parchment paper straight onto the stone without turning them over. You’ll miss the veining of flour that makes the loaves look so attractive, but you might gain confidence this time and then be bold enough to try turning them over the next time.
This recipe should be made in a stand mixer, although it can be made in a food processor. I have made it by hand, but I wouldn’t recommend it. (You can’t really put the dough on the table for the entire duration of kneading because the natural inclination is to add lots of flour to this very sticky dough, and pretty soon you wouldn’t have ciabatta.) Just follow the instructions. The dough will feel utterly unfamiliar and probably a bit scary. And that’s not the only unusual feature: the shaped loaves are flat and look definitely unpromising. Even when they are puffed after the second rise, you may feel certain you’ve done it all wrong. Don’t give up. The bread rises nicely in the oven.–Carol Field
LC A Few Last Words Of Advice Note
If you haven’t already read, pondered, studied, and committed to memory the words of wisdom above from Carol Field on making this ciabatta recipe, kindly do so. Her substantial experience and considerable advice are unparalleled in terms of seeing you through the inevitable learning curve that comes with handling Italian bread dough (which, trust us, is much different and wetter to work with than the standard American bread dough). We assure you that when you heed her words, you’ll make it through this recipe with ease and grace—or as close to grace as you can manage when you’ve got flour smudges on your nose and bread dough clinging to your fingers. We also encourage you to take a gander at the video of Carol below [Editor’s Note: The ciabatta instructions follow the grissini lesson beginning at 9:54] as well as the comments beneath the recipe from others who, like you, were curious about trying their hand at this bread. There are untold tactics and techniques to be learned.
Special Equipment: Two baking stones
- Quick Glance
- 30 M
- 4 H, 20 M
- Makes 4 loaves
- 1 teaspoon (0.1 ounce or 3 grams) active dry yeast
- 5 tablespoons (2.7 ounces or 76 grams) warm milk
- 1 cup plus 3 tablespoons (10 ounces or 285 grams) water, at room temperature (if using a food processor, use cold water)
- 1 tablespoon (0.5 ounces or 15 grams) olive oil, plus more for the bowl
- 2 very full cups (17.5 ounces or 500 grams) biga, rested for 12 hours
- 3 3/4 cups (17.5 ounces or 500 grams) unbleached all-purpose flour, plus more for the work surface
- 1 tablespoon (0.5 ounces or 15 grams) salt
- 1. If making the bread in a stand mixer: Stir the yeast into the milk in a mixer bowl; let stand until creamy, about 10 minutes. Add the water, oil, and biga (be sure to weigh the biga, don’t just measure it by volume) and mix with the paddle until blended. Mix the flour (be sure to weigh the flour, don’t just measure it by volume) and salt, add to the bowl, and mix for 2 to 3 minutes. Change to the dough hook and knead for 2 minutes at low speed, then 2 minutes at medium speed. The dough will be very sticky. Knead briefly on a well-floured surface, adding as little flour as possible, until the dough is still sticky but beginning to show evidence of being velvety, supple, springy, and moist. (If the dough seems almost impossibly sticky to work with, reread the headnote above from author Carol Field.)
If making the bread in a food processor: Stir the yeast into the milk in a large bowl; let stand until creamy, about 10 minutes. Add 1 cup plus 3 tablespoons of cold water, the oil, and the biga (be sure to weigh the biga, don’t just measure it by volume) and mix, squeezing the biga between your fingers to break it up. Place the flour (be sure to weigh the flour, don’t just measure it by volume) and salt in the food processor fitted with the dough blade and pulse several times to sift the ingredients. With the machine running, pour the biga mixture through the feed tube and process until the dough comes together. The dough will be very sticky. Process about 45 seconds longer to knead. Finish kneading on a well-floured surface until the dough is still sticky but beginning to show signs of being velvety, supple, moist, and springy. (If the dough seems almost impossibly sticky to work with, reread the headnote above from author Carol Field.)
- 2. Place the dough in an oiled bowl, cover with plastic wrap, and let rise until doubled, about 1 1/4 hours. The dough should be full of air bubbles, very supple, elastic, and sticky.
- 3. Cut the dough into 4 equal pieces on a well-floured surface. Roll each piece into a cylinder, then stretch each cylinder into a rectangle, pulling with your fingers to get each piece long and wide enough. It should be approximately 10 by 4 inches.
- 4. Generously flour 4 pieces of parchment paper placed on peels or upside-down baking sheets. Place each loaf, seam side up, on a piece of parchment. Dimple the loaves vigorously with your fingertips or knuckles so that they won’t rise too much. The dough will look heavily pockmarked, but it is very resilient, so don’t be concerned. Cover the loaves loosely with damp towels and let rise until puffy but not doubled, 1 1/2 to 2 hours. The loaves will look flat and definitely unpromising, but don’t give up; they will rise more in the oven.
- 5. Approximately 30 minutes before baking, preheat the oven to 425ºF (218ºC) and slide 2 baking stones on the center rack to heat. [Editor’s Note: If like us, you haven’t yet brought yourself to ante up for a baking stone, let alone two of them, flip some large cast-iron skillets upside down and bake the bread on their bottoms. It ought to do the trick. It has for us.)
- 6. Just before baking the bread, sprinkle the stones with cornmeal. Carefully invert each loaf onto a stone. If the dough sticks a bit to the parchment, just gently work it free from the paper. If you need to, you can leave the paper and remove it 10 minutes later. Bake for a total of 20 to 25 minutes, spraying the oven three times with water in the first 10 minutes. Transfer the loaves to wire racks to cool.
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Ciabatta Recipe © 2011 Carol Field. Photo © 2011 Ed Anderson. All rights reserved.