Ciabatta - Crusty Italian-Style Bread
I love good bread and I've been baking my own my whole adult life – although living in Portland one gets spoiled by the excellent breads available from local artisanal bakeries like Standard Baking, Big Sky and Scratch Baking. But two years ago, when I was diagnosed with type 2 diabetes and set out to learn how to modify my diet to minimize the effects of the disease, I thought my relationship with good bread had come to an end.
"Avoid the white stuff" was a rule I gleaned early on. White flour, white sugar, potatoes, pasta, all supposedly bad. What about whole wheat bread, one of my favorites? Too high in carbs, it seemed, at a time when I was working on keeping my carb intake under 100 grams per day.
But over these last two years I've been successful at getting my blood glucose numbers into the healthy range (A1c = 5.9% at last check) by losing weight, keeping up my exercise routine and keeping fairly tight control over my carbohydrate intake. For the first year I recorded everything I ate – including the quantity, calories, fiber, carbohydrates and protein – and did a blood glucose test 4 times a day so I could monitor how my diet and exercise choices affected my glucose levels. I also got a kitchen scale and started portioning my food more accurately.
Along the way I learned that the only rule that's important for my success is to be consistent about my daily intake of carbs and calories and to stay on my exercise routine no matter what. And I learned that bread, in moderation, has an important place in my diet after all.
Gone are the days when I succumbed to the seductive taste and aroma of bread fresh from the oven, slathered with butter, to the tune of several slices at a between-meal sitting. But do I start the day with a farm-fresh egg scrambled and spread over a piece of toast, and lunch is often an open-faced sandwich of some sort. On balance, the quantity of bread in my diet has clearly declined so I've been feeling, especially this spring, the need to ramp up the quality as much as possible by getting back into bread-baking. I've especially been focusing on learning to make versions of my favorite breads and this is the first of a series of reports on my progress.
Ciabatta as we know it in the U.S. (a small, flat loaf with a pronounced collapsed-in-the-middle look, a heavy crunch to the crust and more air than bread on the inside) is apparently a faux-rustic bread. It was "invented" less than twenty years ago by an Italian flour-industry expert looking for a way to compete with imported French baguettes (according to an article in The Guardian). He placed a copyright on the name.
But there are other claimants to the ciabatta throne, including a Northern Italian version that has a thick crust but a moist, less airy crumb than the familiar version. Since I wanted a bread for sandwiches and toast, instead of for dunking in olive oil (which seems to be the predominant way to enjoy the flat ciabattas), I went looking for recipes along the lines of the Northern version. (If you were hoping for the familiar airy-crusty-flat ciabatta recipe, try this one, which is apparently based on a recipe from Peter Reinhart's "The Bread Baker's Apprentice'.)
I read a lot of recipes and took a lot of notes and then closed the books and went into the kitchen to test, record, and test again. The result: I can't claim Italian authenticity but this bread is extremely satisfying. Crunchy crust, with a smooth, slightly moist crumb, and, surprisingly, it has a fairly good shelf life (in other words, it's still edible the next day.) It makes excellent toast and perfect sandwiches.
The total time to make it (30 hours) seems daunting, I admit, but it's really easy: just flour, water, yeast and salt, mixed, kneaded and risen according to a schedule, with no more than half an hour of active time required. It definitely takes some planning but after making several attempts and refinements along the way I'm extremely happy with the result and confident to recommend it to bread lovers everywhere.
Ciabatta - Crusty Italian-Style Bread
Makes 1 large loaf.
Active time: about 30 minutes.
Elapsed time from start to table: about 30 hours.
Equipment: heavy duty mixer with paddle and dough hook attachments; baking stone; baking peel. (See notes for alternatives.)
For the biga:
- 3/4 cup bread flour (see note)
- 6 tablespoons warm water (about 110º)
- 3/8 teaspoon instant yeast (such as SAF - see note)
For the dough:
- 1 1/2 cups + 3 tablespoons warm water (around 110º), divided
- 3 3/4 cups bread flour, divided
- 1 1/2 teaspoons salt
- 3/4 teaspoon instant yeast (such as SAF)
1. Combine the ingredients for the biga and allow to ferment at room temperature, covered with plastic wrap, about 24 hours (see note).
2. Cut the biga into 6 or so smaller pieces and place in the bowl of a heavy-duty mixer with paddle attachment in place. Add 3 tablespoons of the warm water and 3/4 teaspoon yeast. Mix on medium speed for 2 minutes.
3. Add 1 1/2 cups warm water to the bowl and 2 cups of the flour. Mix for 2 minutes on medium speed.
4. Replace the paddle attachment with the dough hook. Add the rest of the flour (1 3/4 cups) and knead for 2 minutes at minimum speed. (Scrape any unmixed dough from the sides of the bowl into the dough after 1 minute.)
5. Cover the bowl and allow to rest for 30 minutes.
6. Add the salt to the bowl and knead with the dough hook on medium speed 8 minutes.
7. Turn the dough into a large oiled bowl. Set in a draft-free place, covered tightly with plastic wrap, and allow to rise for 3 hours.
8. Turn the dough out onto a floured board. With floured hands, gently pat the dough into a rectangle about 12" by 8". Gently roll lift the long side of the dough and turn it towards the rest of the dough, then continue rolling it like a jelly roll into a loaf shape.
9. Spread a half cup of cornmeal over the peel. Place the formed loaf on the peel and set it aside, covered with a clean towel, to rise for 1 hour.
10. Place an ovenproof skillet or baking dish on a lower rack in the oven, filled with 1 1/2 - 2" water. Preheat the oven, with baking stone on middle rack, to 450º.
11. With a long sharp knife, make a deep longitudinal cut in the top of the loaf.
12. Slide the loaf onto the baking stone and bake 30 - 40 minutes, until browned. (See note.) The loaf should have a distinctly hollow sound when thumped on the bottom.
13. Cool on a rack about 20 minutes before slicing.
Ideally this bread is served the day it's made. If the bread is to be stored, allow it to cool on the rack several hours before sealing in a container -- otherwise condensed moisture will modify the bread characteristics.
1. Heavy duty mixer. If you don't have a machine to knead the bread it may be possible to do it by hand. However, the dough is initially quite wet so kneading by hand might lead to a signifiant addition of flour to the mix to keep it from sticking to board and hands. (I did not test a version where the kneading was done by hand.)
2. Baking peel and baking stone. This method simulates traditional brick oven conditions and insures a good crunch to the crust. The standard replacement recommendation for a stone and peel is a dark-colored metal baking sheet, spread with corn meal or lined with parchment paper but this might affect the crust quality. I haven't tested these alternatives with this recipe so if you do, let me know the results.
3. Ingredients. Flours vary so I try to always use the same brand for consistent results. (For bread flour I use King Arthur.) If you use a different type or brand of flour your results may vary. Regarding the yeast, active dry yeast is said to be equivalent to the instant variety in terms of quantity but I haven't tested the recipe with a active dry yeast. Follow the manufacturer's proofing instructions if you substitute active dry yeast.
4. Biga. If you want, the biga can be refrigerated up to 2 days after its initial fermentation. Allow it to come to room temperature for an hour when you're ready to use it.
5. Baking time. Ovens vary widely, so it's best to check the baking progress the first time at 25 minutes and then again at 5 minute intervals. My loaf was baked 35 minutes at a verified 450º temperature on the middle rack of a conventional oven.
6. Nutritional estimate. If you are looking to control calorie or carbohydrate intake you need to use a scale to portion bread. Because of irregularity of loaves (both size and density) and inaccuracy of hand-sliced portions there's really no other way to be sure you have an accurate calorie and carb count. My finished loaf weighed 34 ounces and for the Nutritional Estimate I used 1.1 ounce per slice, which is the weight used in the both the Calorie King and USDA nutritional databases for a "large" slice of Italian bread.