Ciabatta: no cigar, but closer.

Last weekend I decided to try making Ciabatta again, once more using the recipe in the incredible The Bread Baker’s Apprentice by Peter Reinhart.  The last time I made it I used my stand mixer (as I worry I’ll never have a chance to finish kneading with little E on the prowl.  Not that it would hurt anything–bread dough actually does well left to rest between kneading).  I don’t know if I over-kneaded or what happened, but the dough barely stretched into that long slipper-like shape for which ciabatta is made.  It was like trying to stretch out, and then fold, a rubber band.  I decided to go with the old-fashioned way this time, kneading by hand.
You start the day before by making a “poolish” which is (apparently) a French term for a pre-fermented dough.  You mix a bit of flour, yeast and water and let it rise–it’s more like batter than dough at this point.  It will puff up and then goes in the refrigerator overnight, leaving you with this the next day:
Poolish for Ciabatta

Poolish for Ciabatta

 You mix the poolish into the rest of the flour, yeast, salt and a small amount of water.  Here’s the strands of gluten that have formed during the pre-ferment phase, as I pour the poolish into the main mixing bowl.  (As you can see it doesn’t really “pour” all that well).

Finished poolish--see how stretchy it is!

Finished poolish--see how stretchy it is!

 Peter Reinhart has an interesting kneading method for ciabatta:  you use one hand to mix, in the bowl, and the other hand to rotate the bowl.  (You feel quite professional doing this until your arm gives out and reminds you that you are a mere mortal home chef).  You do this for about 5-7 minutes, but as my arm was getting so tired I went a bit longer–I’m sure that my kneading was not nearly as vigorous as he was imagining when he wrote the recipe.  You then lay the dough flat, let it rest a few minutes, then stretch out each end and fold it over itself like an envelope.  I knew things were going better as I actually managed to do this rather easily.  You then let it rise:

Ciabatta--first rise

Ciabatta--first rise

 After it rises, you cut it into two or three pieces (gently–unlike many bread recipes, you don’t want to deflate the dough here.  I don’t know why, but that’s what Reinhart says to do, and I obey).

 You then let them rise again and bake.  They only bake for about 25 minutes or so, which is surprising.  I didn’t prepare the oven by misting or putting a pan of boiling water in (this replicates the hearth of a professional oven–really there’s no way to truly replicate it at home) but I did use a baking stone (my valentine’s day present to myself).

Ciabattas ready for the oven

Ciabattas ready for the oven

I was very pleased with how my loaves looked coming out of the oven.  The final test would be slicing and seeing if it was that high airy texture full of swiss-cheese like holes.  But even before I got to this final step, I knew it had gone a lot better this time, as it actually resembled what I imagine ciabatta to look like!

Ciabattas cooling

Ciabattas cooling

Well, not perfect it turns out–the bread was rather dense when sliced as you can see by this photo.  I think it probably didn’t have enough water.  As I looked through the instructions again, I noticed that Peter Reinhart says that as you get more proficient with the process you can add more water.  Indeed I had learned this before in my bread baking class back in London that the greater the hydration, the more holes in the bread (as the water evaporates within the dough, I presume).  Usually recipes caution you so heavily against adding too much water I didn’t even think about that and tried to keep to the lowest range of recommended water in the ciabatta recipe.  So next time, I will be a little more generous with the H2O and hopefully it will be just right both inside and out!

Ciabatta sliced

Ciabatta sliced

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