12 – 48 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.
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 or a spoon 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.
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.
Using a scraper 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. Try to avoid flouring the top of the dough at this point. Try using two scrapers – one to cut and one to get the dough off the scraper – if that helps.
With each square of dough, do the following:
With floury hands, pick up the top edge, fold it into the middle of the square and gently lay it down. Don’t press on it.
Take the bottom edge and fold it right over the dough to the top edge
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 bubble 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.
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 one hour.
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. 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!