How to shape the perfect ciabatta

How to shape the perfect ciabatta

Posted on 14. May, 2013 by in Bread and conversation

Before you look closely at the photos, there is a health warning here:  These ciabattas are made with rubbish, industrially milled, bleached, all purpose white flour, the likes of which is all too readily available in Mexico City where I happened to be when I baked them.  They are not made with gorgeous Italian or UK or any other country's gorgeous, strong, stretchy, stone ground, non bleached flour.  The result is that these loaves are as white as snow (eek) and have a very close crumb texture because the flour simply is not strong enough to support large bubbles.

Phew, that is off my chest and like all good (bad) workmen and women I have blamed my tools for the failure of my craft.  Thankfully I wanted to show crumb comparison and not show off the crumb per se. 

The truth is that there are plenty of ways to shape ciabatta and so I thought I would do four different ways and then compare the crumbs of all four to demonstrate categorically that one is not that much better than the other and that you can shape (or not) a ciabatta in any old way and it will come out the same.  In an ideal world, gloriously flat and holey (FLAT and holey - flat, being the operative word).

4 ways of shaping ciabatta

I kneaded a big batch of ciabatta dough (recipe later) and let it rise for 2 hours (it had yeast) stretching and folding the dough in the bowl twice in that time.  Then I pulled the dough from the bowl on to a floured surface and divided it into four equal pieces before shaping them.  Shaping, with floury hands and a floury scraper (VERY sticky dough) from left to right:

1.  Stretch the dough gently into a square about 15 x 15 cm.  Pick up one side and stretch it gently out, away from the dough.  Fold it about 2/3 of the way back over the dough and lay it down.  Pick up the opposite side and gently stretch it out away from the dough.  Fold it about 2/3 of the way over the dough and gently lay it down so you can see a clear seam.  Flour your hands, pick it up and lay it on a VERY floury tea towel, flour the top and cover with another tea towel.  Let it rest for 2 more hours and pre heat the oven to 250 (or as high as you can get it).  Just before baking, pick it up and stretch it out to about 20-25 cm long, lengthening and flattening it, elongating any bubbles that have formed and thinning the membranes of the dough.  Pop it on a baking tray you have covered with polenta to prevent sticking and place in the oven.  Reduce the heat to 220 and bake for 20-25 minutes.

How to shape a ciabatta

Crumb from the stretch, fold, and then stretch out before baking method

2.  Stretch out the dough into a rectangle about 10 cm x 25 cm (to the size you would like your ciabatta to be).  Do no other shaping.  Lay it on a VERY floury tea towel, flour the top and cover with another tea towel.  Let it rest for 2 more hours and pre heat the oven to 250 (or as high as you can get it).  Pop it on a baking tray you have covered with polenta to prevent sticking and place in the oven.  Reduce the heat to 220 and bake for 20-25 minutes.

How to shape a ciabatta
Crumb from the stretch and do not shape any more method

3.  Stretch the dough gently into a rectangle about 15 x 20 cm.  Roll it up as best you can from the shorter side - stretching it out a bit before each roll and lay it on a VERY floury tea towel, dimple it down well, so it becomes about 10 cm wide and 25 cm long (to the size you want your ciabatta to be), flour the top and cover with another tea towel.  Let it rest for 2 more hours and pre heat the oven to 250 (or as high as you can get it).  Pop it on a baking tray you have covered with polenta to prevent sticking and place in the oven.  Reduce the heat to 220 and bake for 20-25 minutes.

Crumb from the roll and dimple method

4.  Stretch gently the piece into a big rectangle about 20 x 25 cm.  Pick up one of the shorter sides and stretch it out gently before folding it about 2/3 of the way back over the dough and laying it down.  Pick up the opposite side and stretch it out gently before folding it about 2/3 of the way over the dough and laying it down.  You can see a clear seam in the dough.  Lay it on a VERY floury tea towel, dimple it down well with your finger tips, flour the top and cover with another tea towel.  Let it rest for 2 more hours and pre heat the oven to 250 (or as high as you can get it).  Pop it on a baking tray you have covered with polenta to prevent sticking and place in the oven.  Reduce the heat to 220 and bake for 20-25 minutes.

This one got eaten by Enrique before I could photograph it.  I assure you, however, that the crumb looked a lot like the others.  Sorry about that.  He has been banned from the kitchen now when bread comes out of the oven.  Unless it has coffee in it, then it is safe.

Ciabatta is made of flour, water, salt and yeast.  Traditionally, it does not have olive oil in the dough. It is one of the small handful of ancient Italian breads, and in the ancient world, olive oil was expensive (it still is).  It was not used to make the daily bread although it may have been eaten with the daily bread if you were lucky enough to have it.  There is only one ancient Italian breads that contains olive oil and it is called....Olive Oil Bread.  Enough said.

What gives ciabatta its slightly acidic flavour and chewy texture is not oil, but "biga" - old dough.  Starting a day or two before, the baker stirs flour, water, and a tiny bit of yeast (or sourdough culture) together and leaves it for 1-2 days and then adds that to some new flour, water, salt (and yeast if using it).  That and lots of kneading, lots of water and lots of rising are the keys to great ciabatta.

Bake as hot as you can.  I personally think a baking stone for a normal domestic oven is a waste of time and energy because it will take your oven at least an hour to heat up to 250 degrees C (or 230 or however high you can get it) with 2.5 cm piece of slate in there.  Better to heat up an ordinary baking tray (without the polenta on it), take it out, quickly cover it with polenta, put the dough on it by hand, and pop it back in the oven.

Italians recommend spraying the oven 3 times in the first 10 minutes of baking - opposite advice to the French (who spray before baking and do not open the oven for the first 10 minutes so as to not disturb the formation of the crust) and to Andrew Whitely (who does not think that spraying in a domestic oven makes any difference at all) - so that is up to you. Do some experiments and let us know.

The shaping?  Well, that's up to you!

To take a course on learning how to bake basic Italian bread, click here.

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2 Responses to “How to shape the perfect ciabatta”

  1. Marc

    19. Jun, 2013

    Looking good! Thanks for sharing.

  2. virtuousbread

    19. Jun, 2013

    approved because it's you! but: huh?!

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