16 March, 2009


Italian bread. Kind of like a squashed batard (wider than a baguette). Can't be that hard, right?


The traditional Ciabatta is made with a biga (a kind of sour-dough culture that you start the night before) and contains much more water than you might be used to in your bread making (unless you've been making baguettes). Overall, it seemed like the kind of challenge that I enjoy.

A few notes about my baking methods:

1 - I weigh my ingredients in metric (grams - the cheap-ass scale that I have does English measurements in *fractions*. Not a favorite part of math for me). Metric also seems to be to be more granular in that I can tweak my percentages to a greater degree than I can by guessing at fractions. Overall, working by weight also allows me deal with the percentages more accurately. Mass, especially when working with things like flour (which is compressible) or water (which can change volumes due to temperature), is a more accurate measurement.

2 - I build my recipes on "baker's percentages". Essentially, all of the ingredients other than flour, are expressed as a ratio of the weight of the flour (eg: if you're working with a recipe that features 100g of flour, the 50g of water that you use can be written as 50%. 50g/100g = .50 or 50%). With a spreadsheet and a few simple formulas, this allows you to easily scale your recipes to any size (useful for dinner parties or holidays - if you want to use 200g of flour, your formula will tell you to use 100g of water). The flour is always expressed as 100%. (For an excellent primer on baker's percentages go here)

3 - I like to test a recipe out several times before I put it in front of people. Especially if I'm converting a recipe from English measurements. I'll start by weighing the called for volume, then tweaking it as needed over several iterations of the recipe.

A couple of weeks ago, I got the urge to make bread. I had been baking regularly throughout 2007 but, for one reason and another, 2008 didn't lend itself to much baking. It's a pastime I really enjoy; it involves science (the way I approach it anyway), a deft touch and the strength of my hands to produce. Even though I often use a mixer, I still like to get my hands into the dough and give it a really good knead. There's a special moment when you knead by hand where the sticky mess turns into a smooth, silky ball and sucks the dough right off your hands. The first time it happened properly, I danced around the house congratulating myself on my success (it's also really important in making home-made pasta too). Overall, baking bread is very rewarding on an emotional and physical level.

Since I had decided to bake, I started casting around for a recipe. I had gotten pretty good at a whole wheat sandwich loaf and pizza. I had messed around with baguettes a bit - which I dearly love. I got hooked on them when I worked next door to the Blue Moon Bakery in Asheville. The City Bakery's baguettes - also in Asheville - were simply wonderful and are my watermark for making them. But half the fun of baguettes lies in the shaping and presentation of the wet, loose dough - something I'm still working on. Then it occurred to me: ciabatta. This is another highly hydrated dough that gets relatively little in the way of shaping, so it has a very rustic look. Those of you who know me, know that "rustic" is a mode of presentation that fits very well with my sometimes reckless approach to cooking. I figured it would be a good place to re-start my baking habit and would give me some valuable experience before I moved back into the baguette fight.

Now for the bread itself. What I am looking for is a crackly, hard crust with a tender, elastic and pearlescent crumb. It should have plenty of elaioladophilic* holes to capture other ingredients and condiments at the table. The ciabatta itself should be a relatively flat bread (but not a pizza - that's a whole 'nother article) and should lend itself well to toasting and the production of bruschetta.

So with that in mind, I toddled off to the King Arthur Flour website and looked up their recipes. King Arthur Flour, by the way, is a great company that is employee-owned and produce a very high-quality range of products. Plus it has a picture of a knight on the front (always a selling point for me). They also offer a tremendous amount of information on their website. That's where I learned about baker's percentages and a host of other things that have definitely improved my baking. If you haven't been to the website, it is worth a trip. I'll wait.

Ok, now that you're back. I started with this recipe mainly because I couldn't immediately find the "professional" section which has a bunch of baker's formulas. The website had been re-arranged and I was impatient. The document that I refer to above is very good and I read it pretty thoroughly. The main thing that I think threw me off was that it presented measurement in volume, although they did note English measure weights, but in fractions. So I went through the process of measuring volumes and weighing in metric.

From Good Eats.

Then I made the biga (or starter sponge) and let that sit overnight. The next day, it looked nice and bubbly, so I carefully weighed out the other ingredients and blended the final dough. After a 2 hour rise (with a fold over after one hour), I plopped the dough onto the baking sheet, divided it and let it rise for another hour. Dipping my fingers into water, I carefully prodded at the dough until it was dimpled. After a spray of water from my mister and a cup of ice cubes thrown into the bottom of the oven, I slid the bread into the 425 degree oven to bake for 30 minutes.

I have a layer of terra cotta tiles just above the element in my oven to even out the heat. Sometimes, when I'm not baking a dough that is this loose, I bake right on the tiles.

Somewhere along the line, ciabatta V0, ended up with too much water (almost 90% hydration!) and I ended up with some very flat bread indeed. Because of the various aspects of ciabatta, the beautiful crust was separated by a very thin layer of crumb. It was quite hard, but the flavor was wonderful. The holes in the bread, while fairly small, were irregular and looked quite nice. Well, it wasn't a bad start.

So I wrote up my notes in a spreadsheet and converted to baker's percentages to see where I went wrong - I had kind of figured it out already as the dough had basically pooled on the baking sheet. I didn't bother to take a picture.

Next came ciabatta V0.1. This version did all right, although I didn't get quite the sour-dough zip that the first one had. I forgot to spray the loaves with water just before baking and I didn't steam the oven with ice. They definitely looked rustic.

From Good Eats.

After that came the beautiful looking, but bland ciabatta V0.2.

From Good Eats.

I left out the salt (by accident) and left out the NFDM (non-fat dry milk) on purpose. I also try to use filtered tap water but, for one reason and another, my filter wasn't working. This led to an important lesson: a sour-dough starter made with noticeably chlorinated water doesn't get that sour. I guess the chlorine is there to kill off bacteria whether you want it to or not.

I did try shaping the dough in a fashion similar to baguettes (but looser), by gently folding them over into a packet and placing them seam-side down on the baking sheet. However, at 80% hydration, they were just barely too loose, but it showed that it would work well enough.

Finally, here is ciabatta V0.3. I thought it was going to make the cut to V1.0β, but I want to tinker with the recipe just one more time and I want to work with shaping a bit more (the dough was lively enough that I didn't do much this time around).

From Good Eats.

The inside:

From Good Eats.

*Elaioladophilic: GR: "olive oil loving." I made this one up, but it is a quality that I look for in my breads. This one definitely has it:

From Good Eats.

For those of you who are interested, here is a link to my spreadsheet with the formula.

By the way:

NFDM = non-fat dry milk
UAPF = unbleached, all-purpose flour

Even though this is all still a rough draft, it will give you an idea of my process. It's all about getting it right and the fun of precision measurement. Ok. I'm a little odd maybe. Hope you enjoyed it.

Maybe I'll have pan bagna tonight...

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