How to make Ciabatta Bread, the Slow Food Way

“And don’t stand in front of the train doors,” said Jon, the first time I hopped off the metro at Grand Central. “People will just push you away. People are in a rush here, they won’t mind elbowing you out of their way.”
That was it: The rules of the Gospel According to New York, which fell upon me like a baptism as soon as I was reborn out of the train.
My city was a city of prey. Hunting time constantly, yet running as fast as they could to try and get away from it, in a constant loop of neverending madness.
The Italians are naturally more idle. That one guy standing in front of the Starbucks door, or that one family standing in front of the train doors checking their maps – well, they are Italians. No doubt about it.

I am not entirely sure our innate idleness is something to be called a good thing. If Newyorkers scamper from train to office to home to bar with no peace to be found, the average Italian can often underestimate the significance of being prompt.
But New Yorkers, who often cannot even make space for their weekends, when they do – oh, how they savor it! Our lives should be, ideally, like this loaf of bread:

As bread is all about patiently waiting for life to grow within it, we should look for no shortcuts, as good and genuine things take method, effort and a little time to achieve. Nature has its inflexible rythms. Imagine if it didn’t;

As there is a perfect time for taking your dough out of the bowl and folding it, we should recognize our cues, and embrace all the pivots in our life, in those brief moment when they present themselves to our face;

As it takes method to achieve a perfect loaf – because every step is important, we should not skip important details, and, at the same time, never lose sight of the bigger pictures, as envisioning them both can keep us walking fearless towards our goal;

And, as bread is just water, flour and yeast after all, in order to produce great things out of humble foods we need to respect their very nature. We should always remember that there is a right time and a ripe time for every step. With the right timing, the simplest things can turn to gold.

And what is bread, if not the simplest ingredients in this world, plus method and patience? Bread is a bit like a metaphor of life, and I like to think this is one of the reasons why it always flavored the life of many populations around the world.
This is a simple, delicious Ciabatta bread. There are many shortcuts around the web, but mine takes its time to produce those wonderful large holes and deep flavor. It takes very little work, and just a little patience.
So, Italians, do not change steps just because ‘Oh well, it will probably work all the same, right?” (this seems to be the attitude amongst most Italians I know).
And Newyorkers, don’t try and look for a shortcut for a pleasurable activity you can fully enjoy on a winter weekend. Take your time, and savor it. The bread, and the time it took to make it, as well.

This recipe was inspired by the method used by two very famous post-war bakers from Bologna, the Simili sisters. And, even though I used white flour here, this flour comes from a local mill and was not very refined at all. It was a small batch, entirely hand-milled by a local farmer, who handed this precious, incredibly tasty rough flour to us in a brown paper bag. I could have not put it to better use.

ciabatta bread homemade

ciabatta bread sliced

How to make Ciabatta Bread

The interesting part in this bread is that it starts with a large Biga (a less hydrated poolish) and is re-kneaded with very little ingredients the day after. It can be made into one loaf, or into smaller ciabatta rolls. The high hydration level will produce an airy crumb. For more info on bread making, read my first post about bread.

For the Biga
100g Strong bread flour
400g Coarse flour, like Italian 0, or a high gluten AP
250 to 270ml water
3g Fresh yeast*

*If you do not have fresh yeast (though I recommend oing out of your way and go look fo it) substitute a pinch of active dry yeast.

Mix all the ingredients together just until well blended; you won’t need to knead long. You will obtain a dough that is too loose to knead, but not liquid enough to be considered a Poolish. Put the dough in an oiled bowl and leave it to rest at room temperature (20C˚ ~ 25C˚) for 18 to 20 hours.

For the Dough
The Biga
25g Flour
1 scant teaspoon Barley Malt
1 and a half teaspoon Salt (not table)
80ml Water

  • Take the biga, and gently detach  it from the bowl. Dig a little hole in the center, and add the water. Add the malt and salt, and dissolve them in the water with your fingers. Dig into the dough with your fingers, and start kneading to incorporate all the water. It will look like a lquid mess, but keep at it. The water will absorb eventually, after about 10 minutes.
  • What we need to do is ‘beating’ the dough: once it starts incorporating the water, take it all in your hand and slap it back into the bowl. Use your strenght! This helps water absorption, therefore, gluten development. You should end up with a loose, sticky dough.

NOTE: if you wish to add flavorings – for example, olives would be gorgeous in this bread, this is the right time to do it.

ciabatta loose dough

The dough, at first, will be quite watery. Then, it will start to develop consistency and elasticity.

  • Transfer again to an oiled bowl, and leave it to rest for 30 minutes. The dough will stick to the bowl regardless, but that is ok.

 

  • Heavily flour a baking tray, and turn your dough onto it. Sprinkle abundant flour on top as well. Using a spatula, shape the dough into the classic rectangular ciabatta shape. It will look rather flat. Do not use your hands for this process! A floured spatula or two will do. Fold each edge upon itself. The dough will be elastic at this point, so it will turn flat again soon. Cover with a plastic bag, and leave to proof for an hour in a warm place (about 25C˚).

NOTE: If you wish to make smaller loaves or rolls, this is the time. Cut the dough with a floured spatula. It will make 4 individual sandwich rolls, or two smaller loaves.

  • Preheat the oven to 220C˚ (430F˚), and, if you do not have a baking stone, put a black baking tray into the oven and wait for both to be hot.

 

  • Detach the ciabatta from the tray with a spatula, and turn it onto the hot tray. Adjust the shape if you please, and bake at 220C˚ for 10 minutes. Then, lower the temperature to 180C˚ (360F˚) and keep baking for 20-25 minutes, depending on your oven. The ciabatta should be golden, but it should not brown.

ciabatta dough baked

Wait for it to cool if you can, and enjoy!

This bread really begs to be stuffed. My suggestion is to turn it into a sandwich. Whatever you put into it, it will be delicious! It really has nothing to do with the store bought kind. I would go so far as to say that this is the perfect recipient for your thanksgiving leftovers – no matter what those leftovers are.

The name of this bread means ‘slipper’, like the kind of slippers guys wear around the house. That’s the shape, right?

ciabatta bread cutting

ciabatta slice airy crumb

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