Baking crispy and crunchy hearth style breads in your own kitchen is not only possible, but reasonably simple, inexpensive and truly a gratifying experience. To capture the essence of artisan breads will involve a bit of time, a few tools and a well tested recipe. Watching an experienced baker demonstrate the process will increase your chances of success, but if you are willing to thoroughly read the instructions that follow and expect that you may need some practice before you’ll be able to say that baking bread at home is ‘easy’, I think you’ll eventually agree that the process is worth the effort.
The recipe that follows was discovered in a trade magazine for the foods industry: The National Culinary Review
1 tsp instant yeast, divided
6 cups (or more) unbleached bread flour, divided
2 3/4 cups warm water, divided
1 tsp fine sea salt
coarse corn meal
fresh herbs, salt, pepper and garlic
Tools needed: Large bowl, wooden spoon, bench knife (optional), pizza peel or rimless baking sheet, and a pizza stone or stoneware baking pan
Combine 1/4 tsp yeast with 2 cups flour in a large bowl. Add 1 cup warm water and stir until thoroughly mixed (about 2 minutes) with a wooden spoon. Cover with plastic wrap and allow to remain at room temperature for at least 6 or up to 24 hours. This process is the Biga – a sort of sponge or starter in Italian breads.
After the wait time (the Biga should be wet and covered with small holes), add the remaining water (1 3/4 cups), the flour (4 cups), the remaining 3/4 tsp of yeast and salt. Stir again with a wooden spoon until the mixture is blended thoroughly and can be turned out onto a pastry board or counter top. The dough will be very moist and a bit difficult to handle initially. Be patient! Using a bench knife will really help. You can also mix this dough in a heavy duty stand mixer with a dough hook. You’ll want to keep enough flour on your hands to keep the dough from sticking, but don’t think that this dough will look or feel like a sandwich type of bread dough. You want to add just enough flour to make the dough manageable, but it will remain sticky and very moist on the interior.
Knead the dough, keeping especially the heels of your hands floured. After about 5 minutes of kneading, place the dough in a lightly oiled bowl and cover with plastic wrap. Allow to rise until doubled, about 1 hour. The resulting dough should be velvety soft and bouncy. Gently punch the dough down and divide the dough into fourths. Allow it to bench rest for about 15 minutes, or refrigerate, well covered, for up to 3 days.
To bake the Ciabatta, pre-heat the oven and a pizza stone to 425 degrees. While the oven is heating, shape one of the dough portions into a traditional Ciabatta (slipper) shape, about 4″x9″ and place on a pizza peel that has been dusted with about a tablespoon of coarse corn meal.
Drizzle the dough with olive oil that has been infused with fresh garlic, and using your fingertips, pock the top of the dough with holes. These indentations will hold the olive oil and the fresh herbs. Sprinkle the top of your bread dough with herbs such as rosemary and thyme and add coarse salt and freshly ground pepper.
When the oven is at temperature, slide the dough onto the pizza stone. (It’s a good idea to shake the peel to be sure the dough slides freely before you attempt to transfer the dough to the stone. Run a long icing spatula under the dough to release it if necessary.) Bake until golden brown and puffed, about 15-20 minutes, depending on your oven. Allow to cool a bit before slicing or tearing apart. Delicious with butter, but more traditionally served with an infused olive oil.
This picture of one of my students, the lovely and delightful Linda Campbell, shows the Ciabatta baking in a crowd pleasing round shape. Doesn’t she look happy? I’m told that her family loved the Ciabatta