Flour. Water. Yeast. Salt. Sounds pretty simple, doesn’t it? In fact, when you’re talking bread, it doesn’t get any simpler (unless you’re in Tuscany, of course).
But ingredient lists can be deceiving.
So it was with not fear, but a healthy dose of respect that I approached my seventh Bread Baker’s Apprentice Challenge bread: ciabatta. This is one of the wettest doughs out there – it has to be because that’s where the beautiful, big shiny holes come from. I know from experience that working with a rustic dough like this is a challenge. I’m not saying it isn’t fun – sticky, wet, messy fun – but it takes a certain amount of patience and an understanding of what you’re getting yourself into. Even then, I’d never worked with a dough quite this wet. I came in with high hopes yet a full understanding that I probably wouldn’t end up with cookbook-worthy holes the first time I tangoed with ciabatta.
In this recipe we’re given the option to use either a biga or a poolish as a starter. The poolish seemed lower maintenance since it’s essentially a dough the consistency of pancake batter so I mixed up my poolish two nights before. I hadn’t realized that it would take 3 or 4 hours to ferment at room temperature so I got started a little later than I would have liked. After a couple of hours, nothing had happened in the dough so I heated up the oven and put the poolish on top, hoping that the heat coming off the oven would help the starter along. I checked it on a regular basis, hoping to catch it right as it was foaming and bubbling so I could put it in the fridge in time. Unfortunately, I think it went from totally asleep to POOLISHZILLA in the span of about thirty seconds because the final time I checked it it was trying to push the lid off its bowl. But even worse, I thought I detected some boozy off-aromas. However it was too late to fix it and I had wanted to be in bed for the last two and a half hours so it went into the fridge until I was ready to use it.
Now, the day of: the instructions call for mixing the dough without using your hands (i.e. a spoon or stand mixer). However, as I’ve said, I have experience handling these kinds of doughs and I was eager to try the technique out again. I figured that if stuff starting going to hell in a handbasket I could always dump it into the mixer. I’ll admit it: my mixer and I are on the rocks. More on that later. I just wanted to say that yes, there are reasons beside my foolish pride that are spurring me on down the hand-kneading path. So I pulled out and measured the flour, water, salt, and yeast, poured in my bubbly intoxicated poolish, and mixed for a couple of minutes, adding several more tablespoons of water as I went. After it was fairly well incorporated into a ball, I let it sit for a 20 minute autolyze (pronounced ow-toe-lease) and then started to knead it in the gravity-assisted method that’s so well suited for very wet, sticky doughs.
I think that the biggest secret of hand-kneading these slack rustic doughs is acceptance. There are other important things like learning that flick of the wrist as you fold the dough or grabbing your dough with quick confidence off the countertop so that it comes off cleanly, but none of these things will be learned if you haven’t just accepted that this is going to be a sticky mess, that there will be dough all over the place, including your hands, and that this is ok, it is the way it is supposed to be. Just work with the dough and before long the dough will be working with you too.
After working for the dough for about 25 minutes the dough had lost its shaggy disorganized appearance and looked quite smooth (I really wanted pictures of all of this but I was flying solo while The Hubs was at work and my hands were completely sticky – it just wasn’t gonna happen). When I picked it up to let gravity stretch it out the aligned gluten strands were easy to see in the dough. It was still very sticky so I decided to let it rest for about half an hour before doing the first stretching and folding step prescribed in the Bread Baker’s Apprentice. The dough ended up not stretching out quite as prettily as shown in handling artisan bread dough article I’ve already linked a couple of times, but I was still able to get some good stretches and folds in. So I let it rise for the full time suggested in the book, preparing my stiff baker’s linen (a couche, pronounced koosh with a the oo sounding more like boo than wood) towards the end of the fermentation period.
Now that the dough was fermented, it was much smoother. It helped that my hands and the countertop were now clean of sticky, sticky dough that had been marring the surface of the dough when I was kneading it.
I had decided to make two loaves because frankly the idea of moving just one proofed ciabatta to a baking peel was causing my blood pressure to spike – why would I want to do it three times??? So, using a bench scraper and the least-aggravating touch possible, I divided the dough and rolled it around in the flour a little bit before shaping it and putting it on the couche to proof, arranging the stiff fabric walls around the dough to act as walls to prevent it from spreading during this pre-baking stage.
Forty-five minutes later when I peeked under the towel cover I was so excited to see that the dough had swelled beautifully and, after a nail-biting session of transferring the dough to the peel while attempting to leave every precious air bubble intact, was ready to go in the oven. (I really tried to get pictures of this but I was racing the clock at this point and the camera wasn’t cooperating, even though The Hubs was home by then. To transfer the dough, slide the bench scraper under the dough and tilt it up. Slide the baking peel in under the bench scraper and then pull/nudge the dough onto the prepared peel.)
This time I remembered to prep my oven ahead of time, so my implements of Steam Making were ready to go. Good thing, too – it’s so important with breads like ciabatta because if the crust stiffens while the yeast is still alive it will impede the rise and you won’t get the holes in the crumb that we are all so desperately striving for. This day the baking stone did its job of slamming a lot of hot hot heat into the bottom of the dough and the boiling water that I poured into the lava rock-filled cast iron skillet (preheated with the oven) produced so much steam that the bread rose like crazy during its oven spring! That combined with the intoxicating smell had me jumping up and down around the kitchen, so excited, happy, and grateful to have gotten my ciabatta so far on my first attempt.
I kept the bread in the oven perhaps a bit longer than suggested in the book, but I was holding out for the rich dark golden red-brown that is so appetizing on a good artisan bread. Thanks to Mr. Reinhart, I had learned that you really don’t have to worry about the bread drying out in the oven, so when you’re working with a lean rustic dough that relies entirely on the starch in the flour for caramelization (instead of any sugars or fats that are added to the dough), just leave it in the oven until it’s the color you desire.
Once it got to the point I pulled it out of oven and began one of the most impatient 90-minute periods of my life. I wanted that bread to cool down now so I could slice into it! To distract myself, I took about a million pictures of the bread while I waited for it to become totally cool to the touch. I also ruminated on my loaves: I decided one looked like a slipper, the bread’s namesake (pictured on the left in the couche and above once baked) while the other looked more homey (pictures on the right in the couche and below once baked). I also had plenty of time to think about what the interior of the bread looked like. After all, that’s the whole point of the ciabatta: getting fantastic flavor is easy (thanks to the poolish), but getting big shiny pretty holes is much less so. I had great hopes for the interior of my bread because it had swelled so nicely on the countertop and it had risen so spectacularly in the oven, but again, I was trying to temper the enthusiasm by remembering that this was my first attempt, it probably wouldn’t be perfect, and that I would have lots of fun perfecting my technique down the road.
Finally the moment arrived: my slipper-shaped loaf was cool! Without wasting even a moment I sliced into it and was only very slightly disappointed with the state of the holes. But whatever the crumb looked like, the bread was delicious. It had all the tangy complexity that a good artisan bread should have and was fantastically complemented by a good fruity olive oil (try Lucini, my favorite supermarket EVOO) or an almost room temperature eggplant caponata (recipe coming soon!). As The Hubs and I ate our way into the loaf I was happy to see that, even though they weren’t completely consistent, there were bubbles scattered throughout the loaf, bearing at least a few those trademark ciabatta holes.
So imagine my excitement when I sliced into the second, more homey loaf last night and saw honest-to-god big holes!!! It goes without saying that they weren’t as spectacular as the ones pictured in the Bread Baker’s Apprentice, but they were there!!!
I was so excited that I grabbed the slice, ran into the other room where The Hubs was, and started jumping up and down, brandishing the bread, and squeeing about how this bread was a totally success! It was a good moment. I took several of those slices and put them away (going so far as to literally save one of them from The Hubs’ jaws) to save for photographing today when there was some natural light to do the bread justice. As we sliced our way through the second loaf, we again found that the bubbling was a bit inconsistent, but I was very encouraged by what I had accomplished so far on my first try.
But Stacey, you might be asking, what about the drunken poolish? It’s true, I was worried when after its initial fermentation I smelled boozy aromas – aromas that strongly intensified during its 36-hour nap in the fridge – but I detected no trace of off-flavors in the finished bread, even when it had aged one or three days. I’m not sure why I got off scott-free, flavor-wise, but I’ll take it. I will be more careful in the future with my pre-ferments though.
So, now the moment of truth: will I make this again? Absolutely. There’s something great about a slack rustic dough like this: it feels very elemental because you’re working with a stripped-down ingredient list and it’s all about you and the flour, doing a dance with time to extract every last bit of flavor out of the grain. These types of bread are, in my opinion, some of the most beautiful. I love the rich color of a caramelized crust and the contrast it makes with the flour that’s clinging to it. Let’s not forget that it’s also super-fun to have an excuse to get sticky and dirty like you do when you’re kneading this dough. And it’s so exciting to see how much oven spring you can get out of a super-hydrated dough like this! Plus, if you’re a bread nerd like me, you get to really use your toys to full effect in a recipe like this. Finally, practice makes perfect: I can’t wait to see how much air I can trap in the crumb of this bread after I have a couple more batches under my belt!
See also: Heather’s ciabatta.
Up next: cinnamon rolls, a holiday treat.