Where are the f*cking holes?![This post contains affiliate links, which are notated with *]
I romanticize the hell out of Italy and, to a slightly lesser extent, France. Movies like Chocolat* and Julie & Julia* do something magical for me (especially if vino is involved), and I find myself living vicariously at times through them and my collection of Italian and French cookbooks.
More than anything, though, I romanticize European-style artisan breads. The ciabatta and the baguette are the two that I’ve really taken time to master, and producing the perfect loaf is literally more exciting to me than the thought that I might possess the winning Powerball ticket. During my early days of bread baking, though, the signature holes that every great ciabatta has were elusive to me. I studied the hell out of the fermentation process, bought every artisan bread baking “bible” I could find – many of which were authored by culinary school professors, and scoured the web in an effort to troubleshoot. Nothing helped. Wtf?!
Then, it occurred to me that the friendly owner/bakers of my favorite local artisan bakery – Park Avenue Bakery – in Helena, Montana, may be able to offer some guidance. Hell, I was determined to get the damn holes in my my ciabatta! So, I meandered on in and asked to speak with a bread baker. Jeff – one of the owners – came out, and when he saw my passion and determination, he lit up inside. Big time.
He dramatically hoisted a baguette from one of the wicker baskets and with great gusto, broke it in half. Then, he handed me one half as he described the beauty of a well-crafted loaf. I swear, the man was giddy! And, so was I.
I walked out of there with a textbook recommendation, my half of a perfect baguette (the fermentation process is similar for both baguettes and ciabatta loaves, after all), and the feeling of euphoria. I’m not exaggerating.
Eventually, I mastered the holes. Seriously, I still don’t understand why I couldn’t get them right to begin with, but whatever. The fact that it was such a struggle for me and that I finally nailed it made that eventual success all the sweeter.
Mastering the ciabatta: it’s all about fermentation.
Great artisan bread baking differs from other types of bread baking in that it relies on an extensive fermentation process. First, you make a preferment that’s often referred to as a biga or poolish. I typically go the poolish route as it’s wetter than a biga and, in my opinion, easier to work with. A poolish is made with flour, water, and a tiny bit of yeast. Depending on the recipe, it’s usually left out at room temperature anywhere from four to 18 hours, and is then combined with more flour, water, yeast, and salt to make the final dough. Said dough will then go through a total of at least three additional hours of fermentation – often more – before it makes its way into an oven broaching upwards or even in excess of 500 °F.
Clearly, this requires some planning.
When I bake ciabatta, I usually whip up the poolish around dinner time on a Saturday and leave it on the counter overnight. When I roll out of bed on Sunday morning, I check it to see if it’s bubbly and has a pleasant yeasty aroma (bad news if it smells like the latter – toss it and start over next weekend). Assuming it smells the way it should, I pull a shot of espresso and take a moment to fantasize about the pending kneading and shaping that await as I sip away. Once the caffeine begins coursing through my veins, I’ll mix up the dough in my KitchenAid* (because the dough is extremely wet, it’s very difficult to knead by hand). While it’s fermenting, I’ll take care of random things, folding the dough over after each hour interval, and prepping the oven for high-temperature baking. By early afternoon, I’m enjoying the yummiest ciabatta I’ve ever tasted – sometimes smeared with European-style cultured butter and a sprinkling of salt, and sometimes dipped in a buttery olive oil. Because I don’t eat much bread, I’ll wrap two of the three loaves in plastic wrap (after they have completely cooled down) and freeze them for another day.
It’s not rocket science, but it does involve tiny Italian grandmama pixies.
The fermentation process isn’t rocket science, but it is nevertheless important. The recipe I’ll be providing is the one that now works for me, but in all honesty, it didn’t at first. Why, I don’t know. I’m inclined to believe that there is this little Italian grandmama pixie buzzing around and dropping magic dust onto those loaves she deems worthy of the honor. #notkidding
If you don’t manage to snag the elusive holes, never fear. This loaf will surely taste phenomenal! Keep trying. Enjoy the successes, and learn from your failures. Become hungry for that perfectly holey loaf. Be like Thomas Edison, who discovered a bazillion correct ways to not make a light bulb. Above all else, enjoy the process!
One last thing before I share the recipe with you. I snapped a bazillion pics of the whole ciabatta-making process, as it’s often more intuitive to grasp a concept via pictures than through a wordy explanation. While I’ve included a few critical images within this post, I’ve created a FREE pdf for those of you who would like to see the process in detail. You can access it here.
Here’s the recipe.
Ciabatta BreadPrint Recipe
- For the poolish:
- 9.6 oz. all-purpose flour
- 1 1/4 c. warm water
- 1/8 t. instant yeast
- For the dough:
- 22.4 oz. all-purpose flour
- 1 3/4 c. warm water
- 1 T. sea salt
- 1 1/4 t. instant yeast
For the poolish;
Combine all of the ingredients in a medium-size bowl (or your KitchenAid bowl), cover with plastic wrap, and let sit at room temperature for at least 12 hours. If your room runs on the cooler side, you'll likely have to let it sit for several more hours; if your room runs on the warmer side, the reverse applies. Do NOT try to hasten the initial fermentation process by intentionally setting the poolish in an extra-warm spot.
For the dough:
Once the poolish looks bubbly and smells yeasty but NOT like ammonia (see image), you are ready to make the final dough. Combine all ingredients in the bowl of a stand mixer (I use a KitchenAid) and mix on low using the paddle attachment for 3 minutes. During this time, make sure that the hydration level is correct (see images) - the dough should stick to the sides of the bowl and look quite wet, but it should not look like soup - and make any corrections in very small increments.
Increase speed by one level and continue to mix for another 3 1/2 to 4 minutes. During this time, some gluten development has occurred. To test for this, stick your (clean!) fingers into the dough and pull them out, along with some dough. Spread your fingers apart - if the dough has spring and stretches and isn't entirely shaggy, you're golden. If it's not quite there, continue mixing for brief intervals until it is. You do not want to over-mix this dough. Transfer this dough to a lightly oiled large bowl and cover with plastic wrap. Set aside for an hour.
Folding and fermentation:
Transfer the dough to a well-floured surface. You will be facing down a large blog of dough that won't hold much of a shape. This ain't your mom's bread dough!
With both hands, clasp the dough on the left side, stretch it out and up slightly, and fold it onto itself as though you were folding a letter into thirds (see image). Brush off any raw flour you notice, and gently press your fingers into the dough a couple of times to LIGHTLY degas it (alternatively, you can do this prior to folding the dough. In fact, it's probably slightly better that you do). Do not "punch" the dough or go ape shit with this step. You want to retain most of the trapped gases, after all. Now, repeat this on the right. Repeat this on the top, and then again on the bottom. You just created a cute little dough square that has probably already oozed into a dough blob. Place this dough square/blob thingy back into the oiled bowl, cover with plastic wrap, and let rest for another hour. After the hour is up, repeat the folding process and let rest for a third hour.
Shaping and final fermentation:
In preparation for the final fermentation, you will need to prepare couches or bread boards for keeping your soon-to-be-cut dough in the desired shape. Perhaps the easiest way to do this if you do not have any special equipment is to coat a clean, heavy dish towel with flour, and create 3 "pockets" - one for each loaf - by crunching up the towel. You can hold the towel in place at the ends by getting creative with pans, books, etc. (see image).
Place your dough on a well-floured surface and generously sprinkle flour all over it. Carefully press into the dough with your fingers to remove large gas bubbles, but in general, the goal is to keep most of the trapped gases intact. Take a knife or bench scraper and cut off 1/3 of the dough. Don't worry if it's not super precise. Gently but swiftly pick up this oblong piece of dough and transfer it into one of the floured dish towel "pockets" you created. Adjust the dough so that it's of uniform thickness and is resting comfortably. Repeat with the remaining dough so that you now have three loaves prepped.
Sprinkle with flour and cover first with a clean dish towel, and then with plastic wrap. Let rest for about 1 1/2 hours.
About 45 minutes into the final fermentation, adjust your oven racks so that they are positioned in the lower and upper thirds of your oven. Place a heavy oven-proof pan (like a cast iron skillet) on the floor, away from any heating or gas elements. If you have baking stones, place them on the oven racks. If you don't, place baking sheets onto the oven racks instead. Crank up the oven to 460 °F.
If you have a pizza peel, by all means use it to transfer the proofed loaves. If you don't, you can transfer the loaves to the hot pans/baking stones by means of an inverted baking sheet. Cut a piece of parchment paper (preferred) and place onto the inverted sheet, or just heavily flour or "cornmeal" said sheet. Transfer 2 of the loaves to this peel or prepared sheet, and transfer to the lower sheet/stone. Quickly transfer the final loaf to the top sheet/stone. Now, CAREFULLY dump a cup of water into the hot pan on the oven floor - do this immediately! - and quickly shut the oven door.
Set the timer for 10 minutes. Take a peek at the ciabatta to ensure that it's not at risk of burning. If it is, reduce the oven temperature by 20 °F. Set the timer for 10 more minutes and check again. Adjust the temperature if necessary (hopefully it won't be) and rotate the loaves if your oven bakes at all uneven. Minimize the amount of time that the oven door is open, as you don't want the heat to drop. Set the timer for 14 minutes. Temp one loaf through the bottom of the loaf. If the center is around 205 °F, your ciabatta is perfectly baked! If it's not ready, bake a few more minutes and temp again.
Remove your loaves once they've reached this temperature and let cool on a wire rack completely. Resist the urge to eat them at this stage! I know that this surmounts to a torture, but try really hard to exercise restraint because the bread will continue to develop its flavor and texture as it cools.
If you intend to eat the ciabatta within a day, store unwrapped on the counter. For ciabatta that won't be eaten within this window of time, you can wrap it in plastic and store on the counter for a couple of days, or in the freezer for a while. The downside to storing the ciabatta in plastic is that its crust will lose its characteristic crispness. Enjoy!
If you'd like, you can swap out a bit of the all-purpose flour for whole wheat flour. This may require additional water, so pay close attention to how your dough is coming together during the early stages of mixing, and add additional water as early in the mixing process as possible. Please do not substitute more than about 1/4 of the all-purpose flour for whole wheat flour, though, unless you are an experienced baker.
So, there you have it! The pictures above provide a brief overview of the process, but if you’d like a visual guide that walks you through the entire ciabatta-making process, I’ve created a 100% FREE guide just for you (no opt-in required)! Just click here to snag the download. Also, please share your experiences with bread baking. Have you every tried making homemade ciabatta or any other artisan bread? Were you successful? I’d love to hear from you!