Crusty, chewy ciabatta is the perfect companion to a bowl of soup or plate of pasta.
Who doesn't love a good ciabatta roll? There's the crust that is first crisp, then chewy. And then that soft spongy crumb with all its beautiful holes, perfect for mopping up the last bits of sauce from the plate. Or if you prefer, smearing with jam and eating while still warm from the oven.
Ciabatta is a funny kind of bread. Far from the golden domed boules or slender baguettes, this Italian bread is lumpy, rather flat, and most definitely rustic. Baker's lore says that the loaves are meant to resemble comfy old house slippers.
The dough is unusual too. It's extremely wet, with a near equal amount of water and flour. This makes it impossible to knead in the traditional way and difficult to shape into loaves. Traditionally, the dough was kneaded by either slapping it repeatedly against the counter (like brioche) or giving it a series of folds during its long rising time.
It is much easier to knead this wet, sticky dough in a modern standing mixer. This dough requires you to bump the speed above the recommended level for kneading dough, but don't fret. The dough is so wet that it's almost more of a batter than a bread dough. Keep an eye on the mixer during kneading as it has a tendency to bobble itself along the counter. And if your mixer's motor does start to heat up, it's fine to give it rest for a few minutes before completing the kneading.
Once the dough is kneaded and has risen, the key to shaping the loaves from this very loose and sticky dough is lots of flour and handling the dough with velvet gloves. The flour will help prevent the dough from sticking to everything and a gentle touch will keep its network of bubbles from collapsing.
All this fussy work is well worth it when those loaves come out of the oven. The crust is crackling and deeply toasted. The interior is glossy and honeycombed with holes.
No two loaves or rolls of ciabatta ever turn out quite the same. This is something I love about this bread and that keeps me making it again and again. Whether I'm baking loaves for a dinner party or a batch of rolls for my own lunches during the week, ciabatta never fails to deliver.
Makes 2 loaves or 16 rolls
Note: Weighing all the ingredients in this recipe is highly recommended. The biga, or pre-ferment, needs to be made the night before baking and allowed to sit for several hours. Don't skip this little step as it's the biga that helps give ciabatta its complex flavor, chewy crumb, and extra-crispy crust
Dissolve the yeast in the water. Add the flour and stir to form a thick, gloppy paste. Give it a good fifty or so brisk stirs to build up the gluten. Cover and let sit at room temperature eight hours or overnight.
By the next day, the biga will look soupy with many big bubbles dotting the surface.
Dissolve the yeast in the water in the bowl of a standing mixer. Scrape the biga into the water and break it up with your spatula or squeeze it between your hands. You don't need to completely dissolve the biga; just loosen it up and break it into stringy blobs.
Add all of the flour and the salt. Stir to form a thick, very wet dough. Let this rest for 10-20 minutes to give the flour time to absorb the water.
Fit your standing mixer with a dough hook and knead at medium speed for 15-18 minutes (Level 5 or 6 on a KitchnAid). Keep a close eye on your mixer as it has a tendency to "walk" on the counter at this speed.
The dough will start off sticking to the bottom and sides of the bowl. Around the 7-minute mark, it will start to pull away from the sides of the bowl, collect around the dough hook, and regularly slap the sides of the bowl. If it doesn't, nudge your mixer speed up a notch. Also, if the dough starts climbing the dough hook, stop the mixer and scrape it down again. By the end of kneading, the dough will look smooth and creamy with a glossy shine. It will puddle back into the bowl once you turn off the mixer, and this is fine.
Cover the bowl and let the dough rise at 70° - 75° for 2-3 hours, until tripled in bulk.
Dust your work surface heavily with flour. Set two sheets of parchment near your work surface. Scrape the dough out of the bowl onto the flour, taking care not to deflate it too much. Dust the top of the dough with more flour. Using a pastry scraper or pizza wheel, cut the dough in two pieces for loaves or into 16 pieces for rolls.
Brush your hands with flour. Working gently but swiftly, scoop the the loaves (or the rolls) one at a time from the work surface to the parchment. Press your fingertips about halfway into the dough to dimple the surface and slightly flatten the loaves (or rolls). Let the loaves (or rolls) rise, uncovered, for 30-40 minutes. When ready to bake, they should look pillowy with many big bubbles just beneath the surface.
Preheat the oven to 475°F while the loaves are rising. If you have a baking stone, put it in the oven now.
When ready to bake, slide the loaves, still on the parchment, onto a pizza peel or baking sheet. Transfer them to the oven to cook, either on the baking stone or directly on the baking sheet if you don't have a stone. Bake for 20-30 minutes, until puffed and golden brown. Slip the parchment out from under the loaves and cool completely before eating.