The art of ciabatta

Ciabatta is a delicate bread that can be difficult to master.

Perhaps more than any other bread, ciabatta is truly spectacular when done right, and particularly awful when done wrong. To compare it to the wine world, you might call ciabatta the Pinot Noir of artisan breads. It is delicate and finicky. It must be handled with care. Above all, it requires a lot of love.

Sadly, according to some expert bakers, a few bakeries are known to take baguette dough, bake it and cut it into squares, passing it off to unknowing consumers as ciabatta.

“To me, ciabatta is like a baguette. A baguette can be very good or very bad,” says acclaimed artisan baker Didier Rosada. “To make it the proper way, it can be really good.”

The literal meaning of ciabatta in Italian is slipper, which identifies its shape. At least one type of ciabatta can be found in nearly every region of Italy.

The secret to making great ciabatta, according to Rosada, is all in the mixing and fermentation.

The short mix method produces dough that is very wet. All ingredients (flour, water, fresh yeast, salt and polish) are mixed in first for 5 minutes. This is followed by a long first fermentation (3-4 hours with at least three folds). A long fermentation time aids the formation of aromas, improves the final product flavor and leads to longer shelf life.

For great ciabatta, there are two other options for mixing: improved and intensive.

Improved mix

  • All the ingredients are mixed in first until well incorporated.
  • The dough is mixed in second speed until the gluten is halfway developed.
  • Mixing time depends on type of mixer.
  • Medium length of first fermentation.
  • Punch and fold necessary to achieve gluten development.

Intensive mix

  • All the ingredients are mixed in first until well incorporated.
  • The dough is mixed in second speed until the gluten is fully developed.
  • Mixing time depends on type of mixer.
  • But very long mixing time due to the “free” water.
  • Gluten structure fully developed.
  • Shorter first fermentation.
  • No need of punch and fold.

Bakeries should decide on their preferred mixing method based on overall needs and production scheduling.

In one of the most important steps for all, Rosada recommends using a double hydration technique when making ciabatta. Flour, preferment, yeast, salt and a portion of the water are incorporated in first speed, and enough water is used to achieve a medium soft dough consistency. The dough is mixed in second speed until medium gluten development.

The rest of the water is added little by little in first speed until final dough consistency is obtained. Sometimes second speed can also be used to speed up the water incorporation.

Advantages:

  • Very wet dough can be mixed in shorter period of time
  • Limit dough oxidation
  • Dough with sufficient strength
  • Gluten structure developed enough
  • Machine work possible
  • Ideal for mechanized process 

“You’re going to have dough that is wet and strong enough to be properly developed,” Rosada says of using the double hydration technique. “Some people mix all of the water at once and mix 20 minutes. I don’t recommend that.”
Not everyone uses preferments to make ciabatta, but Rosada recommends it. “To me, a preferment is crucial to a good quality ciabatta. I really like ciabatta made with poolish (very wet). It produces a nutty flavor. To have something a touch more on the acidic side, you might prefer biga (very stiff preferment).”

Depending on the characteristics of the preferment and on the fermentation process, different aromas will develop. Poolish produces a nutty/sweet flavor in the final product. Biga generates a more acid flavor with some hints of sweetness.

To produce the characteristic thin and crispy crust of ciabatta, steam during the baking process is another key element. “If you want to make the best ciabatta possible, steam is definitely a plus,” Rosada says. “The crust should be a lighter crust in color, and it should be thin and crispy because of the high water content.”