Of all the items I enjoy baking, artisan bread is far and above the top of the list! The culinary program where I was enrolled offered many, wonderful courses and I learned a great deal from each one. But Artisan bread baking was my favorite. We used 20-quart mixers and rotating shelf ovens with a stone platform and the ovens had steam injection options. My home oven is, well, normal and does not have any of those features that produce a crackling crust and the wonderful chewy internal texture that are synonymous with artisan bread. I have spent many hours (and more than a few dollars) to turn my normal oven into the best artisan bread production center possible. I am pretty happy with the results so far, but am always on the lookout for a better upgrade.
Now that the craziness of the holidays is dying down I wanted to get back to baking some of my favorites. The first on the list is Ciabatta, Italy’s answer to the French Baguette. This bread, like many other artisan bread begins with a preferment (more later).
I want to take a moment to talk about lean bread dough. A lean dough is when a recipe only calls for flour, yeast, salt and water. Since there are so few ingredients each is vital to the finished product, as is the ratio in which they are combined. I am rather picky about my bread flour and often order it on the internet. One of my best go to product is King Arthur Flour, which is found in many grocery stores. The specialty flours I have to order, for this ciabatta I am using this blend.
This has 11.7% protein content, a good medium strength flour for this recipe.
This stores for long periods of time, does not require dissolving and I use it interchangeably when recipes call for active yeast, I have found no need to convert measurements. For the salt, I like to use Kosher and, unless stated in the recipe, use temperature controlled water.
Back to the preferment!
If you have made french baguettes than you may be familiar with the poolish, which is made from equal parts flour and water and used within a short time frame, generally 2-3 hours. A biga is only 30% water to flour and requires a much longer fermentation time, generally 18 to 24 hours, depending on the ambient temperature. I started my biga at 6:00pm the night before by mixing 737g (13oz) bread flour, 199ml (6.6fl. oz.) 80°F water and a pinch (~1/8 t) instant yeast in my 6 quart stand mixer.
Once combined, the biga was left covered at room temperature until 2pm the next day.
By the end of fermentation the biga should have risen and begun to recede, and appear bubbly and airy. This took 20 hours in my rather cool kitchen!
Now you are ready to mix the dough. You will need the rest of the flour, water, instant yeast and salt. The full recipe is at the end of the post.
I combined the biga, water and salt with the dough hook attachment on my 6 quart kitchen aid set on low to begin mixing, then added the flour and yeast to form this wet, slack dough. Artisan dough is wet by definition, you do not want to add more flour at this point, resist the temptation! After the dough is combined, transfer to a large bowl to bulk ferment until doubled, ~ 30 min.
I sprinkled a little flour around the outer edge of the bowl, to help with the transfer to the counter later and a little on the top to help prevent drying out. I covered the bowl with plastic and a tea towel and placed it in a draft free area.
Everything up to this point has been fairly standard bread making, until now. This is where traditional bread and artisan bread become quite different. If you were making a standard loaf you would add enough flour so you could pull out the dough and knead it until it held your final shape. The key to artisan bread is to retain as much hydration (water content) as possible. You will not be able to knead this dough, instead you will be doing a series of stretch and fold techniques.
First transfer the dough to a floured surface. I find that my plastic bowl scraper works best for this process.
The dough will feel like jelly and be quite sticky. Using floured hands, lift one end and stretch the dough as you fold it back over the midline.
Repeat with the other side.
Now you have completed 1 fold. Rotate the dough 90° and begin fold #2
Then return the dough to the bowl for the second fermentation (another 30 minutes). You need to do one more stretch and fold after the second fermentation. Now it is time to shape your bread.
The bread is still too fragile for a rolling pin and you need to take care to avoid tearing it with your fingers. Working with the palms, stretch the dough into a rectangle.
I decided to make two full loaves and six buns.
Using a bench scraper, I divided the dough through the middle, into two halves. I set one half aside for the buns, and split the other half, longitudinally, reshaped into rectangles and placed on a couche. A couche is a floured, cloth that allows the dough to proof and will be useful in transferring to the oven later.
The other half of the dough was also split longitudinally, then sectioned into three rolls each, yielding 6 rolls total and placed in the couche.
The bread was covered with a tea towel and allowed to proof for another 45 min.
While the bread proofed, I turned my attention to the oven. In order to mimic the oven found in a professional bakery I had to purchase a home oven baking stone. I bought mine from Breadtopia.com another one of my favorite websites!
I leave my stone in at all times to help it cure, but only use the surface directly for my bread baking. To mimic the steam environment, I purchased a smoker box from Home Depot and filled it with volcanic rock. I load the stone with my bread and pour a cup of cold water into the smoker box, then quickly close the oven door to keep the steam inside. Resist the urge to open the door in the first 10 to 15 minutes of baking to prevent the humidity from escaping!
Now it is finally time to transfer the bread to the oven. A few key tips and tools for this process! A baguette flipping board will come in handy, and again, I bought mine from Breadtopia.
Transfer the bread to the baguette board that has been dusted with flour.
Flip the bread onto a pizza peel or a sheet pan for loading on the pizza stone. Dusting the surface with semolina flour or cornmeal will allow the bread to slide off the surface onto the baking stone.
The bread needs to bake for about 30 minutes or until desired color is achieved. I like my bread on the darker side.
I hope you are inspired to try some artisan bread baking at home!
Ciabatta Makes 4 1/2 lbs of dough (2.02 kg)
Bread flour 13 oz 368.5 g
water (60°F/16°C) 6.6 fl.oz. 199ml
Instant yeast pinch pinch
Bread flour 1 lb 10.8oz 0.76kg
Instant yeast 1/4oz 3.5 g
water 22.6 fl. oz 680ml
salt 1 oz 28.5g
Prepare Biga the night before. combine flour, water and yeast and mix on low speed with the dough hook attachment for 3 minutes, or until combined thoroughly. Transfer to a container, cover and ferment at 75°F/24°C for 18 to 24 hours, until bigs has begun to recede; it should be airy and bubbly.
Prepare the final dough. combine the flour and yeast and set aside. place the biga, water and salt in the mixer and mix on low speed for 2 minutes. Then add the flour and yeast and continue to mix on low for 4 minutes and then medium speed for 1 minute. Dough should be combined by still slack and very wet.
Bulk ferment in a tub or bowl until nearly doubled, about 30 minutes. Begin the stretch and folds by folding gently in half four times (it should feel like jelly). Ferment for another 30 minutes. Fold in half again, gently, two times. Allow to ferment for another 15 minutes.
Place the dough onto a floured surface and, using the palms of your hands, gently stretch the dough into a rectangle. Be careful to avoid tearing the dough with your fingertips. Divide the dough into desired shapes and place onto a floured lined couche. Gently reshape as needed.
Proof, covered, until the dough spring back slowly to the touch but does not collapse, 30-45 minutes. While the bread proofs, preheat the oven to 460°F/238°C. Lightly flour the top of the dough, flip each ciabatta over onto a floured transfer board and slide each one onto the floured peel.
Load the ciabatta into the oven and add steam. Bake until the crust is golden brown and the ciabatta sounds hollow when tapped on the bottom, 25 to 30 minutes.