Ciabatta bread is also called Italian slipper bread, which refers to its elongated, flat shape. Thicker than foccacia or pizza dough, but shorter than a loaf of sandwich bread, ciabatta bread is distinctive in its shape and flavour. The best ciabatta breads have large holes inside, ideal for soaking up olive oil or soups. A crunchy crust and rustic dimpling on the outside finish the loaf of ciabatta. You can create a perfect loaf of ciabatta bread even if you are not an expert baker.
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Ciabatta bread uses a starter like sourdough breads. This starter, called a biga, consists of yeast and flour and jumpstarts the yeast activity in the bread. It also gives the bread extra flavour, a longer shelf life and more chewy texture. Prepare the biga the day before you intend to bake your ciabatta bread. After rising, it should be elastic with a sticky texture and many holes. Bigas differ in the amounts of ingredients, but most require water, flour and yeast to be mixed and allowed to rise for 12 to 24 hours.
After mixing the ciabatta ingredients into the risen biga, the dough will be must stickier and more moist than other bread doughs. Adding too much flour to the dough will make the bread tough. For mixing this sticky dough, avoid using your hands and opt for a food processor or mixer with a bread dough attachment instead. The bread dough should be thicker than pancake batter but more viscous than traditional bread dough. When poured out onto a work surface, it should be a large, slow-moving mass.
Time is critical in all steps of making the ciabatta bread. This is not a bread to make in a single afternoon. The biga requires at least 12 hours to rise, and the bread dough must rise twice. This develops flavour and the signature large holes inside the loaf. Do not get into a rush when making ciabatta bread. The first rising of the dough should take place in the mixing bowl and it will last about 90 minutes, or until the dough doubles in bulk. The dough is poured onto a flat, parchment-lined baking tray and shaped into a flattened, elongated loaf shape. The second rise will last another 90 to 120 minutes. One hour into the second rise, lightly press the tips of your fingers into the top of the loaf several times to create dimples. After this rise the dough should have a jiggly texture, like a gelatin dessert.
Baking requires a hot oven and a baking stone or unglazed quarry tile. Never use glazed tiles to cook on, and never put a cold stone or tile into a hot oven. Preheat the oven with the baking stone or tile already inside. This will protect your stone from breaking due to a flux in temperature. Spray water over the ciabatta before baking to keep it from drying out too quickly in the oven. The ciabatta bread bakes at 218 degrees Celsius for 20 to 30 minutes, depending on the size of the loaf. Remove the warm ciabatta loaf from the baking stone or tile and place it on an oven rack with the oven turned off. Prop open the oven door with a potholder. Cooling the bread in the warm oven will create the dense, crispy crust ciabatta is known for.
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