Ciabatta with Stiff Biga

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Preparation info

  • Difficulty

    Medium

  • Dough Yield: About

    31

    loaves at 1 lb , 2 oz

Appears in

Bread

By Jeffrey Hamelman

Published 2004

  • About

Ciabatta is a Bread that America has Learned to love dearly. Its domestic popularity rose quickly after it was chosen as one of the five breads that were baked in 1996 in Paris, at the Coupe du Monde de la Boulangerie, the World Cup of Baking. The exceptional quality of the ciabatta helped earn the United States first prize for breads at that memorable competition.

Ciabatta dough is unique in many ways: First, it is a very wet and sticky dough, with often upwards of 80 percent or even higher hydration. This requires some special handling (like locking all the doors so the bakers can’t run for the exits). Further, there is no preshaping or final shaping—once divided, the dough is simply placed onto a floured work surface for its final proofing. And last of all, ciabatta dough is left unscored when loaded into the oven. The ciabatta formulas printed here all have a deep, suffusing wheaty aroma; large air holes due to both the high hydration and lack of degassing that occurs when breads are shaped; and a thin, blistered crust. When well made, it yields splintered crumbs when cut, and a long and memorable flavor, as the bread vanishes into happy bellies.

In the formulas, the ciabatta dough is scaled at 18 ounces. Other possibilities are little rolls—ciabattini—weighing 2 or 3 ounces each, large round loaves of a few pounds (these are sometimes called pugliese), or slender loaves weighing a few pounds that are 4 or 5 feet long. I call these impressive sights “Vermont cordwood.”

Pre-Fermented Flour: 20%

Ingredients

Overall Formula

U.S. Metric Home Baker’s %
Bread Flour 20 lb 10 kg 2 lb 100 %
Water 14.6 lb 7.3 kg 1 lb, 7.4 oz 73 %
Salt .4 lb .2 kg .6 oz 2 %
Yeast .24 lb, fresh .12 kg, fresh .13 oz, instant dry 1.2 %
Total Yield 35.24 lb 17.62 kg 3 lb, 8.1 oz 176.2 %

Biga

Bread Flour 4 lb 2 kg 6.4 oz ( cups) 100 %
Water 2.4 lb 1.2 kg 3.8 oz (½ cup) 60 %
Yeast .008 lb, fresh .004 kg, fresh ( tsp, instant dry) .2%
Total 6.408 lb 3.204 kg 10.2 oz

Final Dough

Bread Flour 16 lb 8 kg 1 lb, 9.6 oz ( cups)
Water 12.2 lb 6.1 kg 1 lb, 3.6 oz ( cups)
Salt .4 lb .2 kg .6 oz (1 T)
Yeast .232 lb, fresh .116 kg, fresh .13 oz, instant dry ( tsp)
Biga 6.408 lb 3.204 kg 10.2 oz (all of above)
Total 35.24 lb 17.62 kg 3 lb, 8.1 oz

Method

  1. Biga: Disperse the yeast in the water, add the flour, and mix until just smooth. The biga should be stiff and dense, but add a few drops of water if it is so stiff that it can’t “breathe.” Cover the bowl with plastic and leave for 12 to 16 hours at about 70°F. When ripe, the biga will be domed and just beginning to recede in the center.
  2. Mixing: Add all the ingredients to the mixing bowl except the biga. In a spiral mixer, mix on first speed for 3 minutes in order to incorporate the ingredients. As the dough is coming together, add the biga in chunks. If necessary, correct the hydration by adding water or flour in small amounts. The dough will be quite sticky and slack at this point. Finish mixing on second speed for 4 to 5 minutes. Wetter doughs develop more slowly in the bowl than dry ones, and the extra mixing helps to develop the dough structure a little more. The dough will be rather loose and sticky, but when tugged on, some definite dough strength will be noted—there should be some “muscle” to the dough. The dough can also be mixed using the bassinage technique (see the sidebar). Desired dough temperature: 75°F.
  3. Bulk Fermentation: 3 hours.
  4. Folding: Folding the ciabatta dough has an enormous impact on strengthening it. Fold the dough twice, after 1 hour of bulk fermentation and again after 2 hours. Spread a considerable amount of flour on the work surface for the folds, and fold quickly and assertively. Be sure no extra flour is incorporated into the dough as it is folded. Good folding is essential to eventual bread volume, and since there will be no final shaping to the dough, the folding represents the baker’s last chance to increase dough strength.
  5. Dividing and Shaping: Flour the work surface copiously. Invert the dough onto the work surface and gently pat out the larger air bubbles—but remember that for the most part the fermentation gases and the associated interior holes and pockets in the dough should remain intact. Lightly flour the top surface of the dough. Have ready a sufficient number of bread boards that are thoroughly (but not too thickly) covered with sifted bread flour. Cut a narrow strip, about 4 inches wide, down the length of the dough. Then cut the strip into rectangles weighing 18 ounces. If the dough is too light, place the additional bits of dough needed to correct the weight onto the top of the main dough piece. Place the dough piece onto the floured bread board, with the scrap on top. If it is more square than rectangular, give a gentle stretch, but be careful not to tear the dough. When all the dough has been scaled, cover the boards with baker’s linen and then plastic.
  6. Final Fermentation: Approximately 1½ hours at 75°F.
  7. Baking: The dough will be very light and fragile when risen (don’t sneeze in its vicinity—it may collapse). To transfer the proofed ciabatta dough to the loading conveyor or baker’s peel, spread the fingers of both your hands wide. Bring them alongside the long length of the dough and, with a quick, deft stroke, invert the dough piece so that the side that was touching the bread board is now on top. Now, place one hand at each end of the dough piece, bring your fingers underneath, and pick it up. Here you will slightly bunch the dough for easier transport; there should be wrinkles in the center of the loaf as you transfer it to the conveyor or peel. Carefully place the loaf onto the conveyor and, as you do so, unbunch your hands so the loaf is again at its full length. Take care to place the loaf exactly where you want it on the conveyor or peel—it is so fragile that you must minimize any excess moving of the loaves. Fill the oven with steam, load the trembling ciabattas, steam again, and bake at 460°F for 34 to 38 minutes. An important note: One of the greatest attributes of ciabatta is its crisp crust. As hydration increases, so too does baking time. If the ciabatta is taking on too much color in the oven too soon, lower the oven temperature by 10° or 20°F. But by all means give a full bake—if taken out too soon, the considerable internal moisture in the bread will soften the crust, greatly impairing eating quality.