This is a super-hydrated dough, almost bordering on a liquid state, and it takes gentle handling to keep in the large air bubbles characteristic of a classic Ciabatta. Follow the steps carefully and you’ll have cracking Ciabatta loaves.
150g (5½oz) strong white bread flour
180ml/180g (6¼fl oz/6¼oz) water, cold
¼tspfast action yeast
Mix together the ingredients for the pre-ferment in a bowl. Cover it with cling film (plastic wrap) and allow to develop either in a cool kitchen or in the fridge for at least 4 hours; preferably overnight. Once developed the pre-ferment should be bubbly and will have increased in volume.
Combine the pre-ferment with the additional flour, water, salt and yeast and work together into a fairly even dough in the bowl. Instead of turning out onto the surface and kneading this is best done in the bowl. Work the dough for 5 minutes.
Add 1 tablespoon of the olive oil to a clean bowl and add the dough. Take the outside edge of the dough, still in the bowl, and fold it in to the centre. Repeat this all the way around the bowl and then go round a second time folding in to the middle. This will start to work in the olive oil from the bowl. Pretty quickly the dough won’t let you fold it in to the middle but will slip about as you try to do so. At this point cover it with cling film (plastic wrap) and set aside to rest for 1 hour.
After resting, add the second tablespoon of olive oil to the bowl on top of the dough and repeat the folding in to the middle. Cover again and rest for a further hour.
Fold in the rested dough once more, this time without adding any oil. Cover again and leave to rest this time for 15 minutes.
Prepare the work surface by dusting with a coating of flour: ciabatta dough requires a minimum of handling to retain the big air bubbles that will have started to form. You will also need three pieces of baking (parchment) paper cut into rectangles approximately 15 x 25cm (6 x 10in).
Gently turn the dough out onto the flour and carefully stretch it out from the corners to form a large rectangle. Fold the left hand third into the middle, then the right hand third on top so that the sheet of dough is in 3 layers; this will create some strength in the finished loaves.
Using a sharp knife or dough blade split the folded rectangle into three equal pieces – these will form the finished loaves. Stretch them out gently and encourage each loaf to measure roughly 20 x 12cm (8 x 4¾in). Scoop up each loaf in turn and set one on each of the prepared pieces of baking paper. Set the loaves on their papers onto a flat baking sheet, cover and allow to rise for 1 hour in a warm spot.
Preheat the oven and a baking sheet to 210°C (fan)/230°C/450°F/Gas Mark 8. The preheated tray will create a big hit of heat for the loaves when they first go into the oven. When the loaves are ready to go in they should be blistered in places with large air bubbles. You need to treat them gently, no sharp knocks or those bubbles may burst!
Now prepare yourself for getting the loaves into the oven – you will need to slide each piece of paper and loaf onto the preheated tray in the oven in a quick movement. Ready? Let’s go!
Bake the ciabatta for 20 minutes at the higher heat before reducing the temperature to 190°C (fan)/210°C/425°F/Gas Mark 7 and baking for a further 18 minutes. The high amount of moisture in the loaves mean that they need the full baking time otherwise they will soon soften on cooling – good Ciabatta have a crisp crust. Turning down the oven after the first 20 minutes will stop them from taking on too much colour while they finish baking. Transfer to a wire rack to cool.