Tuesday, October 19, 2010

Ciabatta 2.0 (no biga)

I have finally debigafied (is that a verb?  I think it should be) Rose Beranbaum's ciabatta from the Bread Bible with no ill effects. First let me explain what I mean by debigafied. Most serious bread bakers agree that to coax more flavor out of wheat, you can't use the direct method of bread making: make dough, rise, shape, proof, bake. What you need is an indirect method: make preferment, rise, make dough, rise, shape, proof, bake. Preferments come in many shapes and sizes and go by names of biga, poolish, pate fermente, and preferment to name a few. Their flour to water ratios vary, but they all have the same idea -- mix part of the total amount of flour, yeast, and water before making the main dough and let it rise. Then add the remaining flour, yeast, water, salt, and whatever other ingredients in your bread and make the main dough. From there on, it's the usual rise, shape, proof, bake. Every bread book I know of swears by preferments. The only time I've encountered an alternative method was in Julia Child's Mastering the Art of French Cooking, Volume 2. Instead of a preferment, she gives her baguette dough 2 long rises, then shape, proof, bake.

As much as I love Beranbaum's book, I find Julia's method to be more convenient without sacrificing the final result. You measure and mix only once and then you can spread out your baking project over 1-3 days to make it more convenient.  If you don't think you'll get to it today just put the dough in the fridge.  Of course, you can put a preferment in the fridge and use later, but you need to let it come to room temperature for about an hour before using it in the dough (or so the baking books say). It just imposes a bit more scheduling than I am willing to deal with.

I am yet to see a reasonable explanation of why a preferment plus one rise is better than no preferment and 2 rises. I'll try to e-mail Kenji Alt. If anyone would question this assumption he would. But here is my hypothesis. The reason preferments are so convenient in a professional bakery is that they take up less space and fewer large containers. The downside of measuring twice and mixing twice is not a big deal in a bakery. They have all ingredients and equipment out at all times and people there 24/7 to deal with making dough. At home, it's a totally different story. I don't mind if my big bowl is occupied for 1-3 days, but I am not around at any hour of the day to measure and mix.

So, here is my version of Beranbaum's ciabatta. It differs from the original in the following ways:
  • I mix all ingredients from the start instead of making a biga first
  • I use 4.5g salt (about 3/4 tsp table salt or slightly more than 1.5 tsp Diamond Crystal Kosher) instead of 3.3g in the original recipe (about 1/2 tsp table salt or 1.25 tsp DCK)
  • I shape and bake on parchment paper instead of on a baking sheet
The bad news is that you need a stand up mixer. I am a huge advocate of mixing by hand, but this dough is so insanely wet, I think it would be tricky.  The good news is that this recipe is very easy to master once you learn a few bread baking basics: please read "Notes about Ingredients and How to Measure them" from the focaccia post if you decide to try it. This is crucial to the success of your bread.

Make the dough (at least 8 hours before baking or several days ahead)

211 g unbleached all-purpose flour (7.35 oz)
1 g SAF instant yeast (about 1/4 tsp)
4.5 g salt (about 3/4 tsp table salt or slightly more than 1.5 tsp Diamond Crystal Kosher)
177 g water at 70-90F degrees (3/4 cup)

Spray a 1 quart glass measuring cup (or an equivalent container) with cooking spray or grease with oil.

Combine flour, yeast, and salt in a bowl of a stand up mixer. Mix on low for about 30 seconds to combine using a paddle attachment. Add the water and continue mixing until all the flour is moistened. Scrape down the bowl with a rubber spatula and raise the speed to medium-high (#6 on KitchenAid). Mix for 3 minutes. At first the dough will be almost soupy, but by the end of the 3 minutes it should wrap itself around the paddle and clear the sides and bottom of the bowl (if it doesn't, beat another 2 minutes on medium-high). Lower the speed to medium (#4 on KitchenAid) and beat for 2 minutes.

First rise (2-4 hours)
Using an oiled spatula or dough scraper, scrape the dough into the oiled container. The easiest way to do it is to detach the paddle attachment as soon as you stop mixing and lift out the dough with it (if you wait, the dough will pour back into the bowl).  Lightly spray or oil the top and push down the dough.  You should have about 1 cup of it. Cover the container with a lid or plastic wrap and let the dough rise until tripled (about 3 cups). This will be very easy to tell if you are using a glass measuring cup as your rising container. This rise can take as short as 2 hours at about 80F or as long as 4 hours at about 65F.

Second rise (2-4 hours)
Knead the dough briefly (about 20 folds and turns) right in the bowl using a plastic bowl scraper or an oiled hand. Try to pop as many bubbles as possible. Cover the bowl and let the dough rise until almost quadrupled the original volume (about 4 cups). This can take 2-4 hours depending on the temperature.

Shaping and proofing (1-2 hours)
Lay a large piece of parchment paper (about 17x22 inches) on a rimless cookie sheet. Sift a generous amount of flour on one side of it into a 10x8 inch rectangle. Turn the dough out onto the flour and sprinkle the top generously with flour. Using the palms of your hands against the sides of the dough, push it together slightly. Using your fingertips, make large deep dimples in the dough about 1 inch apart, elongating it.  Push the sides together a second time. This process wrinkles the bottom of the dough, which will become the top when inverted, and creates the classic lines in the crust. Brush off excess flour of the top with a pastry brush.  

Flip the empty half of the parchment over the dough and carefully flip the dough over onto it. The dough should be 10-11 inches in length. Push in the sides so that the dough is about 4.5 inches wide. It will be 1/2 -1 inches high.  Cover the dough loosely with plastic wrap. Allow it to rise in a warm spot for 1.5 - 2 hours or until it's about 1 - 1.5 inches high.

Preheat the oven (1 hour before baking)
Preheat the oven to 475F 1 hour before baking. Have an oven shelf at the lowest level and place a baking stone or baking sheet on it (position it short side to front and back of the oven and move it over to one side slightly to make space for your steaming contraption). Set a small cast iron skillet to the side of the stone (I find it easier to put ice cubes into it when it's not underneath the stone as most books suggest). Or use whatever steaming method you are used to.

Bake the bread
Remove the plastic wrap and trim the parchment paper with scissors to leave a 2 inch border around the dough. Slide the bread with the parchment paper right onto the stone and quickly add 1/2 cup of ice cubes to the pan and shut the door. Or use whatever steaming method you are used to. Bake for 5 minutes. Lower the temperature to 450F and bake for 10 minutes. Turn the bread around for even baking, remove the pan with remaining water from ice-cubes, and bake for 10 more minutes or until the bread is deep golden brown and an instant-read thermometer inserted in the center will read about 214F. Turn off the oven, prop the door open with a wooden spoon wrapped in foil, and allow the bread to sit for 5 minutes. Cool completely on a wire rack and brush off the flour from the surface.


Julio said...

After baking a poolish (adding just salt) for the sake of it I found it lead to ciabatta style bread without color.

I thought the reason could be the sugars were transformed during the fermentation; I remember reading something about that in Bread (by Jeffrey Hamelman but I don't have it here). That's why you don't put more than 50% of preferment in a dough.

Of course, your bread has a nice color, so maybe I'm wrong or maybe you found a way to get the most of a long fermentation without the loss of all the sugar.

Helen said...

Hi Julio,

Thanks for describing your experience. What I am baking is very far from poolish. The ratios in the poolish are not the same as in the final dough (poolish usually has way less yeast and way more water). From what I remember from Beranbaum's book, you need salt in the dough for the crust to brown. NOt sure if adding salt later doesn't produce the same browning effect as adding it up front.


SteveB said...

"Most serious bread bakers agree that to coax more flavor out of wheat, you can't use the direct method of bread making..."

Helen, I have to respectfully disagree with the above statement. One can produce an incredibly flavorful bread from the direct method as long as the method incorporates a slow, extended fermentation step. The use of a preferment is a time-saving and scheduling convenience but it is not a necessity.

Helen said...

Hi SteveB,

It seems like we are in violent agreement. That's exactly what I do with ciabatta and all my rustic breads and it works great. I do a 6-8 hour rise with a deflating about half way through. Have you seen any bread baking books that advocate this method. All of mine seems to be obsessed with preferments.


SteveB said...


How dare you agree with me! :)

Bread baking books do tend to focus more on doughs containing preferments and devote relatively little attention to direct dough methods with long, slow fermentations. However, descriptions of such methods abound on-line. A great example is a description of the method used by Anis Bouabsa to create baguettes that won La Meilleure Baguette de Paris for 2008. Bouabsa's method makes use of a first fermentation time of 22 total hours. Details of the method were described by my friend Jane, author of the blog ...Au Levain, and can be found here.

Helen said...

Hi there again Steve,

I just realized that you are not just any Steve, but Steve from Bread Cetera -- one of my favorite bread blogs! Thank you so much for the link to Anis's formula. I am trying it as we speak (in about 20 minutes my dough will go in the fridge). Though I'll shape it into a round loaf instead of baguette so that I can see how this method compares to the bread I usually make.

I'll let you know how it goes.


SteveB said...


Thank you for your kind words. You have me electronically blushing! =^_^=

I'll be very interested to hear your thoughts on the flavor profile of your boule.

Lucy said...

Hi Helen. I like your method here. Is there a reason why you use all purpose flour instead of strong bread flour? Many thanks.

Helen said...

Bread flour makes shaping more difficult. It behaves like a strong rubber and shrinks back.

Lucy said...

Thank you so much for getting back to me Helen. That's really helpful and I will follow your advice and use all purpose. I look forward to trying your recipe out at the weekend.