How to bake the perfect ciabatta – first place in the great ciabatta bake off

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Sorry for the delay, dear readers, in announcing the winner of the great ciabatta bake off.  Life had kind of gotten on top of us here at the Global HQ of Virtuousbread.  Now, we are back and raring to go, write, bake, do the new cook book and maybe rest a bit in the summer!  All that for the future and for now…drum roll…the winner of the ciabatta bake off.

Remember the rule:  only four ingredients (flour, water, salt, and yeast).  Remember the technique:  “no knead”  – stretch and fold only.  Remember the judges:  they like a chewy texture, an acidic flavour and a somewhat open texture.  These judges don’t want more air than bread.  So moderate holes won the day when all else was equal.  However, all else was not equal and this recipe won by a mile.  It is very loosely adapted by the ciabatta recipe in Carol Field’s book, The Italian Baker which is one of our favourite books and probably the only comprehensive book on Italian baking that is published in any language, and an excellent contribution to your cook book library.  And now, a simple recipe for delicious ciabatta…

Ciabatta - first place winner adapted from the recipe by Carol Field

Ciabatta – first place winner adapted from the recipe by Carol Field

First Place in the Great Ciabatta Bake Off

Ingredients (makes four)

For the biga:

330 g flour
260 g water
pinch of yeast (whatever kind you have)
6 g salt

For the dough:

The biga
500 g flour
360 g water
pinch instant yeast or 3 g dry yeast or 6 g fresh yeast
10 g salt

Dough stats:

biga:  71%
biga hydration:  79%
total dough hydration:  75%
total dry active yeast:  0.36%
total salt:  2%


12 – 24 hours before you want to bake, mix up the ingredients for the biga.  If you are using dry active yeast, measure the water into a big bowl and measure in the yeast.  Let it sit for 15 minutes for the yeast to dissolve and then add the flour and the salt.  Stir it up and cover it with cling film until you want to use it.  If you are using instant or fresh yeast, simply measure everything into a big bowl and stir it up.  Cover until you want to use it.

Biga - 24 hour old

Biga – 24 hour old

Measure  out the water and pour it over the biga.  Add the yeast and let it sit for 15 minutes.  Then, squish everything together with your hands to form a milky paste. Add the flour and the salt. Mix everything up with your hands for a minute or two until it is blended and you cannot feel any big lumps of flour. Cover with cling film or a shower hat and let rest for 30 minutes.

After 30 minutes stretch and fold the dough, working around dough ball a few times until you find it a little difficult to stretch the dough out.  Then cover it and let it rest.  Do this four times in total (so, three more times).  Once you have done the fourth “stretch and fold”, cover the dough and let it rest for 1-2 hours (depends on how warm your kitchen it) or until the dough is blistered.  Click here (scroll down a bit) to see a video on how to stretch and fold.

Blistery ciabatta dough ready to shape

Blistery ciabatta dough ready to shape

To shape the ciabatta, heavily flour two tea towels and the counter top.  So you need a bit of space!  Scrape the dough out on to the floury counter top and you will see that it spreads out like a doughy puddle.

Puddle of ciabatta dough on the counter

Puddle of ciabatta dough on the counter

Using a scraper and/or very floury hands, get under the dough at the edges and gently stretch it out into a square.  Just tug at the edges because you don’t want the dough any thinner, you just want it more regular in shape.  Cut a “+ ” into the the dough to get 4 smaller squares, rather than cutting it into four strips.  Move them apart from each other on to separate floury islands as you cut them.  The dough is going to stick to the scraper so you may want to flour the scraper and use another scraper to scrape the dough off the first one. Avoid flouring the top of the dough.

With each square of dough, do the following:

– with floury hands, pick up the top edge, stretch it out gently and fold it into the middle of the square and gently lay it down.  Don’t press on it.
– take the bottom edge and stretch it out gently and fold it right over the dough to the top edge as if you were folding up a piece of A4 paper for an envelope
– now flour the top of the dough and, with floury hands, gently squeeze the dough all along its length to “de-gas” it.  You will hear some air bubbles popping and the dough will become much thinner and longer. You want it to double in length.  To do this, literally cup your hand over the top of the dough and squeeze it – gently of course – don’t just press down on it.  You want it to turn into a “rope”, not a paddle
– pick the dough up with two hands and place it up-side-down in one corner of the floury tea towel.

Repeat with the other three pieces of dough.  Place two pieces on one half of each of the towels and then fold the towels over to cover the dough.  Let it rest for 30-45 minutes until it is visibly airier.

Preheat the oven to 230 degrees celsius.

Line one or two (depends on how big they are) baking sheet (s) with non stick baking parchment or scatter semolina or polenta over them.  Pick up the dough and place it right side up (ie, turn it over again) on the baking tray.  You do this for two reasons.  The first is to even out the bubbles on the inside of the dough.  The second is that the bottom of the dough has a really pretty pattern.

Make sure there is about 10 cm of space between the individual pieces of dough.  If you need two trays and you only have room for one in your oven, bake them one tray at a time, leaving the unbaked ciabattas to continue resting on their towel. The dough looks very unpromising at this stage – kind of flat and sad but worry not!  It puffs up in the oven.  If you want to try spraying the oven, the Italians spray three times in the first 10 minutes of baking (set a time) and then not at all.  You do not have to spray – I did not spray for any of the test recipes.

Bake the dough for around 20 minutes.  When you tap the bottom of the bread it will sound hollow.  If you have a probe thermometer the inside temperature will be 98 degrees celsius when the bread is done.  Remove from the tray and allow to cool completely on a wire rack.

The winning ciabatta with lovely holes  - not too big, not too small

The winning ciabatta with lovely holes – not too big, not too small

Don’t cut it open until it’s cool or you will not see a perfect crumb.  Bread is still baking as it cools and if you cut it too early it’s still a bit gummy.  Exclaim in delight!

Want to learn more?  We frequently run an Italian bread course – click here to book a course today!




5 Replies to “How to bake the perfect ciabatta – first place in the great ciabatta bake off”

    1. Hey Doll, I just used a strong bread flour. 00 is not an indication of strength (see here: so you can have a strong 00 or a weak 00. Pasta is made from strong (durum) 00 whereas most bread in Italy is made with plain flour 00 because all the strong flour goes for pasta! If you want a really authentic ciabatta you must buy Italian flour for bread. It will be 00 and it will probably not be durum. Italian flour has more enzymes than English flour. All else being equal, more enzymes = more holes, bigger holes, more easily.

  1. Im off to italy in september, so i think Ill leave some room in my case to bring some back. I suspect sainsburys 00 is not italian but i have not checked the packet. Off to sort my biga out now….

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