I’ve been making bread for a few years now and recently I was in the local supermarket when they announced over the audio system that we ought to try their inhouse ciabatta because “unlike our standard bread that we rise for 15 minutes, our ciabatta take two hours!”.
The rising process (called “proving”) is where the yeast eats some of the sugars in the flour and, in so doing, produces the gas that puffs the bread up. This fermentation process also adds flavour and the longer you leave it fermenting the richer the flavour.
I don’t want to sound like a bread snob here but I’ve tried supermarket ciabatta before and it’s really not ciabatta at all. Which is a crying shame really because ciabatta is one of my favourites and it’s remarkably simple to make. It is very time consuming though (the first of three provings takes 12-15 hours) which is why supermarkets can’t afford to make a proper loaf.
Ciabatta gets its name from the Italian word for ‘slipper’. Not as romantic-sounding eh? Still, it’s a wonderful bread.
If you’ve never made it before, please, give it a go; you’ll never be able to eat supermarket ciabatta again. Here’s how you make it:
For the biga (starter):
4g yeast (half a sachet)
200ml lukewarm water
350g standard flour
For the dough:
8g yeast (one sachet)
400ml lukewarm water
60ml lukewarm milk
500g high grade flour
2 tsp salt
60ml extra virgin olive oil
Making the biga
The biga is a small amount of dough that is left to ferment for a long time. This forms the base of the bread and gives it much of its flavour.
Add 200ml lukewarm water to a small, warm bowl and sprinkle 4g of yeast on its surface. When it has frothed up a bit, pour it in to the standard flour in a large bowl. Mix it together with a wooden spoon until it is crumbly. Then turn it out onto the bench and kneed it until the dough is silky and resilient when you poke it.
Clean out your big bowl, lightly oil it, place the biga in with a little oil rubbed on its surface to stop it drying out, cover the bowl with cling film (I use shower caps stolen from various hotels) and put it to bed in a mildly warm place with constant temperatures (I use the hot water cupboard) for 12-15 hours.
Making the dough
When you take the covering off the biga, plant your face in the bowl and take a deep breath! There’s no smell quite like it. Leave it be for the meantime as we’ll be gradually adding stuff to it soon.
Once again, using a small bowl, sprinkle a whole sachet of yeast over 400ml lukewarm water and wait until it goes frothy.
Now, pour the yeast mixture into the big bowl with the biga in it. The biga will probably pop to the surface after a while – totally unnecessary step but I like to watch it. Pour in the lukewarm milk as well. Get your hand in there and squidge it all together. It will remain lumpy and stringy but mix it as best you can.
Start gradually adding the high grade flour as you mix/beat it in with your hand. Take your time – I usually spend 10-15 minutes on this stage. After you have mixed in the flour, add the extra virgin olive oil and the salt. The dough will lose some of its stickiness and become glossy. Cover the bowl again and put it back in the warm place to prove for 1-2 hours or until doubled in size.
Prepare two baking sheets by dusting them with flour. Pour the dough out onto the first sheet and, being careful not to knock the air out of it much, cut it off with a sharp knife when you think it’s halfway. Gently use a spatula to tip the rest onto the other tray. Dust the loaves and your hands with flour and gently pat and ‘tuck’ them into shape. Put them back in your warm place for another 30 minutes to rise again and crank the oven up to 200 deg c in the meantime. Place your loaves in the oven.
After 25-30 minutes, take the loaves out, turn them upside down and tap their bases. If they sound hollow they’re done. Put them on a rack and cover them with a tea towel while they cool. Eat and enjoy!
Firstly, please excuse the dreadful quality of the photos. I took no consideration for lighting.
When I can get it, I like to use fresh yeast as it seems to give the bread a better flavour. If you have access to it you will need 7g for the biga and 15g for the bread. You need to gently cream the yeast (which is a bit like clay) by gradually mixing the lukewarm water to it.
Don’t stress if the yeast doesn’t froth properly and sinks to the bottom; it’ll do its job once you kneed it into the dough later.
You don’t need to worry about sifting flour unless you are measuring it by volume. I like to weigh mine.
I like to use heavy ceramic bowls that I warm up a bit before use.
I tend to start my biga for the ciabatta in the early evening and make the rest first thing in the morning. That way it’s usually out of the oven by 10ish and perfect for lunch.
You can add other ingredients like sundried tomatoes or herbs when you add the olive oil and the salt. Play around.
If you don’t have a large bowl the second proving may cause the dough to overflow. Allow room for it to double in size.
If you like your ciabatta to be crusty on the outside you can place a cup of water spray water occasionally in the oven to increase the humidity.