The great ciabatta bake off – search for the perfect ciabatta recipe

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Hard on the heels of the great baguette bake off, comes the great ciabatta bake off.

Ciabatta is the bread EVERYONE wants to be able to bake.  I am not sure why that is, but it is what it is so we, here at the global HQ of Virtuous Bread, have dusted off four different ciabatta recipes and have worked our way through them using nothing more fancy than a tea towel, a home oven and a baking tray.

Folded ciabatta rising
Folded ciabatta rising

SO….what is ciabatta?  Ciabatta is one of the ancient breads of Italy.  It comes from the North of the country, around Lake Como, and is said to be slipper shaped (hence the name).  It is quite highly hydrated (lots of water) but not as highly hydrated, for example, as crocodile bread.  There are some things to understand about bread in Italy:

1.  There are ancient kinds of bread and modern kinds of bread.  With the exception of “olive oil bread” (one of the ancient kinds of bread) ancient Italian bread does not contain olive oil.  Olive oil was expensive – certainly not for every day dumping  into a vat of dough.  The oily, chewy, and somewhat acidic texture and taste of a good ciabatta, therefore, does not come traditionally from the addition of olive oil in the dough.  It comes from the addition of a “biga” which is a rather stiff predough (flour, water, yeast and sometimes salt) left for 12-48 hours before it is added to new dough.  There are various ways to prepare a biga and that, plus the “biga to new dough” ratio plus the new dough recipe, makes a huge difference between the flavour and texture of the final ciabatta.  We tested four recipes and if any of them called for olive oil, we ignored the call.  All the ciabattas baked on the bake off are 100% oil free.  It’s not that we are following a low fat diet, we are just trying to be authentically and traditionally Italian.

A biga, 24 hours old
A biga, 24 hours old

2.  Italian bread, once upon a time, would have all been made with durum flour because that is what was grown in Italy.  Durum is a hard wheat and these days it is almost all milled to 00 and used to make pasta.  00 flour is very fine and very white.  00 does not indicate the strength (gluten content) of the grain.  For more, read here.  Today, most bread in Italy is made with softer (plain) flour that is also milled to 00 making the bread very very white.   All of the flour used for the ciabatta bake off, however, was 12% gluten, white flour, stone milled but not to 00.  Not being in the UK, I cannot get my hands on really good 00 flour – the best source of which in the UK is available from Gilchesters.  Although it is finely milled, it is not very very white because the millers at Gilchesters choose to retain some bran and germ in the flour, making it more beige in colour and much more nutritious and flavourful than an industrially milled 00 flour.  I did use a very nice flour, though, from Oak Manor Farms in Ontario.

3.  As ever, there is no one way to put together, shape and bake any of the types of Italian bread.  All bakers have their own recipe and their own style.  If Italians can argue about how to fry garlic you know they can argue about how to bake ciabatta.  Hence, the bake off! I have elected to knead and shape the ciabatta in a consistent way and leave the proofing times consistent too so at least there is some consistency in the process, even though the recipes are very different.

And with those pointers, on we go to the great ciabatta bake off!  Stay tuned…and if you cannot wait a moment longer, come and learn how to bake ciabatta and other kinds of Italian bread on one of our great courses.

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