How do I make better ciabatta?
The secret to that open structure and light, chewy crumb is moisture and time
I’ve tried two different recipes for ciabatta, and while both of them made good enough bread, neither of them made ciabatta: my bread didn’t have the big holes or the wonderful chewy texture. Am I over-kneading the dough, or should I be looking in another direction for the problem?
Ellen, Crackington Haven, Cornwall
Ciabatta’s greatest attribute can also be its downfall: that open structure and light, chewy crumb comes from a dough that can be difficult to handle. “The key is hydration,” says Ben Mackinnon, founder of e5 Bakehouse in Hackney, east London. This just refers to how wet the dough is – and it needs to be very wet. Bath-based baker and writer Richard Bertinet agrees: “Don’t be scared to add water. For 500g of flour, you want 350-380ml of water.” It’s this higher hydration that will let those bubbles expand and (hopefully) hold your dough together.
While many cookbooks will tell you to use a strong bread flour, Mackinnon opts for something “quite finely ground”, favouring an organic, British stoneground flour. Aside from the obvious food miles saved, it also has more flavour (“the germ of the grain is still in there”), and going organic means you can ferment the dough naturally without adding yeast, using a natural levain, or starter, instead. Whichever way you go, don’t play fast and loose with the quantity of flour as stated in the recipe, as this will change the dynamic of the dough.
As in life, time is also a factor: You need to be sure you’re giving the dough long enough to ferment – preferably overnight and in a draught-free spot, according to Bertinet. Mackinnon takes a slightly less lengthy approach: “Once you’ve mixed the dough, it needs a minimum of three-and-a-half hours at room temperature, being lightly kneaded every 45 minutes.” This, he says, will allow the gluten structure to form: “When it feels tight, leave it to rest again.” Doing so in a bowl oiled with extra-virgin olive oil and covered with a tea towel will help it slide around with ease; alternatively, you could work the dough on an oiled surface, if you don’t mind the clean-up operation afterwards. Either way, if you’re struggling to keep the wet dough in check, have a bowl of water nearby, and dip your hands in before touching.
Next, shaping. When your dough is ready, flop it out on to some flour and gently divide into those rustic rectangles – don’t worry if they don’t look perfect, the name of the game is to handle the dough as little as possible, to keep in as much air as you can. At this point, Mackinnon leaves the dough to rest again for around 20 minutes before baking.
Bertinet finds a baking stone to be an essential part of his ciabatta-making arsenal, as it retains heat and gives the dough that lift, though he says an oven tray turned upside down will also do the job nicely. Matteo Aloe, chef-founder of London’s Radio Alice and Berberè pizzerias in Bologna, pops a cast-iron pan filled with water inside the oven to create steam (Bertinet uses a spray), removing it in the last 10 minutes of baking.
Even failures warrant a Dear Dough moment: “It’s important to write down what you change and the progress you see,” says Aloe. Alternatively, an outing to Bath could be on the cards: “If it’s still not working, come and see me for a class,” says Bertinet.