Wild Ciabatta (ish)

summary: wild ciabatta (ish); yeast schmeast; proof that an electric mixer is unnecessary for slack dough; BIG slippers!

Ciabatta dough is a bit tricky to work with because of all the extra water, especially when mixing by hand.

Bread on the Table | Ciabatta

We’ve had a copy of David Norman’s excellent book “Bread on the Table” on the telephone table in the kitchen since early March, when the library was officially closed “to support efforts to curb the spread of COVID-19“.

I had just finished reading the thoughtful and well written book, cover to cover, when the library closed. I have to admit that I liked that I could keep leafing through the book again and again from time to time, knowing that the new due date was 31 August. (The library has just announced that we can return our books again. Considering that so many people are interested in bread-making, I returned the book yesterday. Initially, we were going to put it off until today because it was pouring. It wouldn’t do for the book to get drenched as I walk to the library, would it? But the sun came out and the clouds didn’t come rolling in again until we were on our way home, with about half a block to go. :-) :-) )

When I was a college student at the University of Munich, I took advantage of our month long winter break to see more of Europe […] Armed with a student train pass that allowed me to travel for free outside of Germany, I headed south on an overnight train to Verona. […] For several hours, I wandered the ancient streets, drank cappuccino, and ate some gelato before continuing on to Milan and then on a overnight train to Paris.
      I do not remember if I ate any bread during that short stop in Italy, years later, when I began to think of baking as a creative and fulfilling career rather than just a stepping-stone to something else, I borrowed a copy of Carol Field’s seminal book The Italian Baker. In it, I recognized something different from the breads I had been making up to that point, what with the use of starters and longer fermentation.
– David Norman, Bread on the Table | Ciabbatta, p.181

Ha. “The Italian Baker” by Carol Field was my first serious bread baking book too. And I failed miserably when making her recipe for ciabatta. So I was really looking forward to trying David Norman’s idea to add the water in stages.

Ciabbatta is typically made with a lot of water, but I like to add the water in stages in order to first develop the gluten properly. I then introduce more water into the gluten structure, which turns to steam in the heat of the oven, helping create the extremely open crumb structure typical for that loaf.
In the bakery, we use a double hydration technique known in French as a bassinage. First you develop the gluten using a normal range of hydration, then you add extra water in an extended mix. I tried several ways of mixing this dough by hand and found this to be the easiest and to give the best results.
– David Norman, Bread on the Table | Ciabatta, p.181 and 189

Alas, Norman does not include instructional photos of how to stretch and fold (or how to score, even though there are good text descriptions about scoring and stretching and folding).

Especially handy would have been a couple of photos of Norman stretching and folding slack dough….

As a result of having Norman’s book for so long, I couldn’t stop gazing at Johnny Autry’s photographs of all the delicious looking breads. Particularly attractive are the photos of Ciabatta.

And suddenly, we had an urge for ciabatta. As well as looking closely at Norman’s recipe, I looked in our various books.

I can’t think of a way to describe the fabulous and unusual taste of ciabatta except to say that once you’ve eaten it, you’ll never think of white bread in the same way again. […] I’ve made it by hand but wouldn’t recommend it unless you are willing to knead the wet, sticky mass between your hands—in mid-air—turning, folding, and twisting it rather like taffy, your hand covered with dough.
– Carol Field, The Italian Baker | Ciabatta, p.106
Craig used some unusual techniques when he made this bread for me. He hardly mixes the dough at all, bragging that his dough is actually lumpy when it comes out of the mixer (not really). But he does mix his doughs very little, and turns or folds the dough as it is fermenting to develop the gluten.
– Maggie Glezer, Artisan Baking Across America | Craig Ponford’s Ciabatta, p.104
Ciabatta dough is stunning. It starts off the mix almost a better, then gradually comes together, gaining most of its strength during the first rise. After a couple of turns it has morphed from wet, sticky dough into one with a shiny elastic surface rippled with voluminous gas bubbles. […] A mixer is necessary to make ciabatta, as the dough is too wet to work by hand.
– Susan McKenna Grant, Piano Piano Pieno | Ciabatta (Using a Biga Starter), p.34
Ciabatta (the name means “slipper” in Italian) is a relatively flat, shapeless bread with a fine crisp crust, wrinkled by a special shaping technique (taught to me by master baker David Norman when he was an instructor at the French Culinary Institute), and boasting large holes in the interior. […] I had always kneaded bread by hand. But [Brinna Sands, of King Arthur Flour] explained that in order to achieve this very sticky dough, it is best to use a mixer or bread machine, or one will be tempted to add too much flour.
– Rose Levy Beranbaum, The Bread Bible | Ciabatta, p.355

How cool is that, that Rose Levy Beranbaum studied ciabatta-making with David Norman?

However. All of our books call for commercial yeast in their ciabatta recipes! All of them!

Commercial yeast?! Ha. Even if we could get it, who needs it?

I looked on the internet and found a handful of sourdough ciabatta recipes; they all called for enormous amounts of starter. Enormous. I nixed them.

Then, I WAS going to adapt Rose Levy Beranbaum’s recipe for Ciabatta in The Bread Bible, by using Jane Mason’s formula for converting a recipe for yeasted bread into one that uses wild yeast.

But it all began to feel too daunting. Instead, I decided to simply add more water to our take on Chad Robertson’s Tartine bread. Instead of adding 350grams of water to 500grams of flour, I added 390grams of water to push up the hydration. Because ciabatta seems to be white bread, I also used just unbleached all-purpose flour to mix the actual dough for ciabatta. (I still added wheat germ and malted wheat chops though.)

Making this bread was dead easy! And the resulting bread was fantastic.

Oh yes, one more thing. I forgot to add the water, dribble by dribble, in stages. After a few folds, the dough was beautifully smooth and insanely bubbly.

ciabatta dough
ciabatta dough
just before “shaping”

Sure, shaping that wet mass was a little tricky. Shaping?! As if.

The dough was so sloppy that we had a discussion who should do the shaping. T “won” the coin toss….

'shaping' ciabatta dough
'shaping' ciabatta dough

Instead of making slippers for dainty narrow feet, we made two really really big slippers – slippers for Big Foot. Here’s one of the slippers:


Here’s the other slipper cut up into chunks:


The holes weren’t quite as dramatic as in the photo of David Norman’s ciabatta either. Maybe next time!

But I do feel as though we’re in good company:

All my many ciabattas looked the same on the outside but it wasn’t until the ninth one that I found was what I was looking for after cutting it open—big beautiful holes.
– Rose Levy Beranbaum, The Bread Bible | Ciabatta, p.355

Look! The holes are shiny!! :-) :-)

In the end though, who cares how wide or holey the bread was? It was wonderful!

In fact it was so wonderful, as well as being pretty easy to mix in spite of the slack slack slack dough, that I’m almost ready to try tackling the Croc again. Almost….

Next time we make ciabatta (it will be soon), we’ll make sure to shape it in long rectangles. Maybe we’ll bake it on the barbecue! I’ll try to remember to report back.

Bread on the Table | Ciabatta
Bread on the Table: Recipes for Making and Enjoying Europe’s Most Beloved Breads
by David Norman with photography by Johnny Autry
published by Ten Speed Press, 2019

With lots of extra water and very little shaping, a well-made ciabatta should have very large, irregular holes—it’s really mostly crust and air. Sliced in half horizontally, it is the perfect sandwich bread.
– David Norman, Bread on the Table | Ciabbatta, p.181

This entry was posted in baking, bread - yeasted & unyeasted, food & drink, wild yeast (sourdough) on by .

* Thank you for visiting. Even though I may not get a chance to reply to you directly, I love seeing your responses and/or questions and read each and every one of them. Please note that your e-mail address will never be displayed on this site, nor will it ever be shared.

"Moderation" is in use. It may take a little time before your response appears. Responses containing unsolicited advertising will be deleted as spam (which means any subsequent attempts will be automatically relegated to the spam section and unlikely to be retrieved). For further information, please read the Discussion Policy.

3 responses to “Wild Ciabatta (ish)

  1. barbara

    Mmmm! Ciabatta! It’s true, once you’ve had ciabatta you’ll never think about white bread the same. The first time I ever had it, we had bought some at Tre Mari on St Clair. We each tore off a little chunk after we left the store, “it smells so good – let’s just try one little bite”. We had eaten about a quarter of it by the time we got to the car, and half of it by the time we got home.

    edit 13 June 2020, 09:44: I’d forgotton about that bakery! Great bread!! And suddenly, I need more ciabatta…. – Elizabeth

  2. Tanna (MyKitchenInHalfCups)

    WOW what a gorgeous loaf you got. I’ve been looking at a recipe (I think from KAF for ciabatta rolls), this makes it harder for me to put it off.

    1. ejm Post author

      I think you neeeeeeed to stop putting it off, Tanna. As Barbara reiterated “you’ll never think about white bread the same”. But, you still might consider making a few alterations…. I keep thinking of the sandwich, by which all sandwiches are measured, that I had in Tuscany. It was made on a ciabatta-like bread that had lots of whole grains in the otherwise white bread – wheat berries, sunflower seeds, flax seeds, millet(?) etc. etc. (more about that sandwich here: etherwork.net/blog/say-it-aint-so/) The bread was just as deeply holey as white ciabatta. It was the best of all worlds. – Elizabeth


Post a Response

You must fill in the "response", "name", and "email" fields. Please rest assured that your email address will never be posted or shared. This site uses Akismet to reduce spam; learn how your discussion data is processed. Please note that the optional fields that point to your website URL and website name may be removed without notice. For more information about what can (or cannot) be included, please read the Discussion Policy.