Ciabatta is my daughter’s favorite bread. I like it for the same reasons she does: the attractive taste and chewy crumb. Additionally, as the family baker, I enjoy ciabatta because it’s a forgiving bread to make. As is the case with many Italian dishes, ciabatta has a memorable flavor produced through a recipe that’s both structured and extemporaneous. It’s an ideal bread to make during the holidays, because the recipe makeup is flexible. If something comes up and you don’t have time to complete the baking as planned, you can delay the starter or dough by placing it in the refrigerator for a day. Or, less drastically, you can increase or decrease the total preparation time by speeding up or slowing down the timing of the stretch-and-fold process.
Ciabatta is sometimes baked as one large, roughly shaped loaf, but it’s more often found as either a long, wide loaf with a gentle dome, or as somewhat square rolls typically used for sandwiches at cafés and bakeries. Italian bakers developed ciabatta in the 1980s to compete with the ubiquitous French baguette as a sandwich bread. Against all odds, ciabatta quickly established itself as an internationally recognized bread, known for its flavor and ease of baking.
When you cut ciabatta on the cross section, you’ll see large air holes. This is ciabatta’s trademark look. The large air holes are achieved by baking with a wet dough. This recipe has a high percentage of water by weight, meaning the dough remains sticky from start to finish. To make the dough manageable, the final shaping takes place on a well-floured work surface. In addition, the top of the bread is dusted with flour, so the baked loaf always looks a little dusty.
While the large holes, gentle dome, and flour-dusted surface give ciabatta its signature look, what makes it one of the world’s great breads is its taste. Ciabatta picks up its flavor from a simple trick: Rather than putting all the yeast into the flour in one step to produce a quick-rising, neutral-tasting bread with a soft crumb, ciabatta is made with a yeast starter known as a “pre-ferment” that’s ideally given 18 to 20 hours to mature. Pre-ferments start out with tiny amounts of yeast and cool water to promote slow fermentation. In its slowness, the starter develops flavor in the finished bread, as well as promotes the chewy texture. This recipe uses a poolish, which is a starter made with equal weights of flour and water, along with 2 to 3 pinches of yeast.
Chomping on Ciabatta
Ciabatta is a bread with character. As such, it’s a bread of many uses. When freshly baked, it’s a favorite with butter and jam for breakfast, or served with coffee or tea in the morning or afternoon. When stale, I take secret pleasure in eating it like a breakfast cereal by breaking it up into small pieces and soaking them in a bowl of strong coffee with milk.
Ciabatta is my daughter’s choice for garlic bread, and my choice for croutons. I also like the firm texture of this bread in stuffing, so I usually make a loaf for the holiday turkey. In addition, I use thin slices dried out in the oven as crackers for cheese and salami, and thin slices fried in butter are good in soup.
When grilled and rubbed with garlic and tomato, ciabatta makes perfect bruschetta. You can also grate dried pieces for a supply of bread crumbs. And, of course, it’s the bread of choice for many sandwich styles.
William Rubel has been baking bread since he was 11 years old, and he enjoys an improvisational approach to baking, often using his outdoor oven to test traditional recipes. He’s the author of Bread: A Global History, and is one of the world’s preeminent bread historians.