Sunday 18 January 2015

Ciabatta: The Next Experiment

It has been a while since I made ciabatta.

There were lots of experiments with other types of bread, some more successful than others. I also made friends with the small gas ovens on several sailing yachts. These are a law unto themselves and one needs to be very careful to allow for free air flow around your baking, lest your food turns into burnt offerings.

My experiments with yeast and flour have been a growing success. At least, this is what I think. I specifically try to keep the process simple in order for the recipe to be accessible to the normal yachtie and amateur baker. The process needs to simple and not require any special tools or fermenting equipment. Like a refrigerator, for example. Most yachts do not have sufficient refrigeration space to allow overnight slow fermentation of your dough. Perhaps it is in these endeavours that I am struggling with an appropriate process to achieve the special results that I am searching for.

Talk about pioneering in a new field!

I have made several experiments in baking a proper ciabatta. Most have been successful, but the elusive big, shiny fermentation holes have always escaped me.

Very soft dough, second rise using
 a plastic bags and a place mat
 to keep the shape
So this time around I decided to go to a softer dough with higher hydration. In addition, I used a finer flour. All of the loaves I baked previously were quite tasty, but somewhat on the heavy side. After some consultation and interpretive reading of various recipes and methods, I decided on a mix of cake flour and white bread flour. Here in South Africa we don't get the 00- and 000-classification of flours. The list consists of cake flour, white bread flour, brown bread flour and whole wheat flour.
You may get sifted and unsifted variations, stone ground and non GM. That's about it.

For this experiment I used whole wheat unsifted stone ground non GM flour. Long words for decent flour. Four cups of cake flour and two cups of white bread flour made up the mix. That is enough for two large loaves or three to four smaller ones.

After perusing my copy of Peter Reinhardt's books “Crust and Crumb” as well as “The Bread baker's Apprentice,” I decided on a modified version. The recipes use a biga or a poolish. Both pre-ferments require overnight fermentation in a cool environment. This is difficult to achieve on a small yacht, so I settled for a direct method.

The ingredients are flour, water, salt, yeast. Some butter or other animal fat. That's it. Very primitive. Simple ingredients, focussing on the method and the relative quantities.

Making ciabatta requires a very soft dough. So this time I made a dough by measuring out the required amount of flour using a cup. Then I added salt and the yeast. After mixing these dry ingredients thoroughly, I added the soft butter and rubbed it in thoroughly by hand. Then I added water a little at a time, mixing it through every time until the dough had some even consistency. This I kept up until the dough was almost runny.

Very soft loaves, very hot bricks in the oven
I left the dough to rest for a few minutes while gathering my wits. This dough is not kneadable at all. You fold it using a wet ladle or a wet hand. Clean an appropriate area on your work surface and keep a jug of water ready. This is for wetting your mixing utensil and your hand.

At the start of kneading it is almost runny, getting somewhat stiffer during the folding process as the gluten develops. Eventually I transferred the dough to the well floured kneading board. By this time the dough was not really picking up much more flour from the kneading board and I was able to continue folding the dough for another five odd minutes. The test for the readiness is to take a small piece of dough and do a stretch test. Stretch it and see if you can get it to keep an almost translucent  film. If you can, the dough is ready for the rise.

I sprayed some spray-and-cook stuff on the dough ball to limit drying out before covering the dough and putting it aside to rise.
After the rise you need to form the loaves. This is where you may get into more trouble by losing the fermentation holes already formed. Handle the dough with care, it is still very soft. After this rise you may need a peel to transfer the loaves to the oven. They will be very tender and you will not be able to manhandle them.

Perhaps this is where the biggest problem lies. Dividing, forming and handling the soft dough may lose the gas in the dough. So there is a caveat.

The oven may be set to quite hot. I baked these loaves at 230ºC/450ºF for fifteen minutes, then set the oven temperature lower to about 180ºC/350ºF for another twenty minutes. And I used paving bricks in the oven as heat capacity to get the required oven spring.

Check the loaves towards the end. If they echo with a solid sound when tapped, they are ready. Remove them from the oven and allow them to cool for about twenty minutes to half an hour. They are still cooking and are filled with steam. This makes them very brittle. The steam needs to evaporate for the crumb to develop into something elastic.

These loaves came out the best I ever achieved. Very nice crisp crust, very soft, sweet crumb. But the elusive large fermentation holes have yet again escaped me.

So now I sit here and ponder my next experiment with a cup of coffee and a generous slice of fresh bread covered in real butter.

Remember, always use real butter.

This post also linked to YeastSpotting!

All images taken with a Samsung S4 smart phone, Snapseed and ViewNX2 edits.

Authored by Johan Zietsman

Last updated on 2015-01-18


  1. Finally a post about Ciabatta that acknowledges that not everybody owns expensive and space consuming equipment! Haha. Fantastic blog, look forward to reading more.

  2. Thanks Kelly!
    I favour simplistic tools and recipes. This enables me to prepare proper food on board small sailing vessels at sea.
    Thanks for reading, hope to hear more of you.