Ciabatta is probably one of the hottest Italian-style rustic country breads made in this country today in artisan bakeries. It is totally delicious and has a very characteristic open moist crumb and appearance. You can even say in bread terms it is a craze. As a bread maker, it is one of those breads you want to master.
It has become a beloved homemade bread as well due to the ease of making it in the bread machine. If you love good bread, you will love this recipe. For good reason–it has a superb flavor that is just a bit different than other Italian breads. It is the old-fashioned, no chemicals, nothing fake bread and it suits our times characterized by the eating of real food.
It was designed to be a premier sandwich bread due to its shape and internal texture, but not by slicing like a regular loaf of bread, but cut horizontally, which gives you lots more of the crust to munch. Remember making a poor boy sandwich with a baguette and having to pull out some of the insides to make room for the filling? With ciabatta, you can skip that step. It also makes great open-faced crostini.
The German word ciabatta describes the look of the white flour loaf, like a flat carpet slipper or old shoe, hence the regional nickname, “slipper bread”. It is a relatively new addition to the Italian bread family, having been invented in 1982 in the Veneto (think a dash south of Venice) in northern Italy’s rich agricultural lands of the Po River valley. At he time, surprisingly, Italy was importing ready-to-bake baguettes from France for their sandwich empire. An enterprising miller named Arnaldo Cavallari tinkered around recipe after recipe until he got a sandwich bread that would speak of Italy, from technique to the local mineral rich, high gluten flour he was milling. He used a bread from Lake Como area as his inspiration. It is the most fabulous Italian bread of modern times and it kicked off the artisan bread renaissance. He named it Ciabatta Polesano, after his home locale, and he trademarked it by 1989 as Ciabatta Italiana. It quickly spread across the northern Italian tourist areas, throughout Italy, and abroad. Molini Adriesi Cavallari’s baking company owns the licensing rights for distribution abroad. You want it. You have to go learn from the source.
Ciabatta bread was brought to Britain in 1985 by Marks and Spencer, quickly becoming part of the British baking genre with their long love of Mediterranean flavors. It surfaced in America in 1987 via the Orlando Bakery of Cleveland, Ohio, of all places. The Midwest loves their Old World breads.
Orlando Baking Company is a family organization founded in Castel di Sangro, Abruzzo, Italy, in 1872. The baker had 6 sons, 2 of whom came to Cleveland and started the bakery in 1904, which is still today family owned and run. They brought over 3 bakers from Cavallari’s bakery to develop the ciabatta and streamline an industrial mass production process. They successfully introduced a fresh bread, then later, a frozen version for large scale retailers to bake on the premises. Their ciabatta is a trademark process in the American commercial industry and you can follow the scent of the bread to supermarkets and restaurants.
I believe ciabatta first showed up on the West Coast with the Il Fornaio bakeries in the mid 1980s by Chuck Williams of Williams-Sonoma kitchen store off a concept of a bakery school in Linguria (think Genoa). Il Fornaio was sold to restauranteer Larry Mindel in 1986, and the bakeries became a city-corner standard for yummy Italian breads and cookies. When I left to go work in Alaska’s Mt McKinley National Park as a cook in 1983, I turned down a job at the Il Fornaio master production bakery, which was then located in San Mateo on the San Francisco Bay Peninsula. I often wish I took the Il Fornaio job instead since it was a great opportunity to up my skills and many of the hottest artisan bakers did a stint there.
I worked at Gayle’s Bakery in Capitola, California in 1982-3, when Joe Ortiz went to Italy for a vacation and came back with new Italian breads. He did not make ciabatta at that time, but within a few years did, and it is one of the best breads of the Santa Cruz area along with his baguettes, challah, and German inspired pumpernichel raisin that you need a hacksaw to slice. I used to serve these catering and the pumpernichel raisin with soft cheese for dessert. It was a masterpiece.
Ciabatta crossed over to be available to home bakers with the publication of Carol Field’s The Italian Baker in 1985. The shape, a short flat log with coarse crumb, is easy to create since it is earthy and uneven (even described as ridiculous), so you don’t need any special skills to get it perfect. This is amazing since for all its simplicity, it can be a real tricky bread to make because of the high volume of liquid to flour, so its real sticky in comparison to a smooth springy dough for traditional pan breads, yet for all its puddling nature, it still has a gentle domed form when you turn out the dough. It needs 24 hours to be made properly and is an exclusively machine-made dough.
This dough is perfect for the bread machine because it is so wet that it can’t be mixed with your hands, so don’t be tempted to add more flour, and the mechanical kneading time is about 23 minutes for the timed dough cycle, which is perfect. It is a bit more complex than a completely-made-and-baked-in-the-machine bread, since it is mixed in the machine on the dough cycle, then baked off in the regular oven to get its great shape. I went to make this same recipe in the Kitchen Aid stand mixer and to my surprise, the bread was not nearly as perfect as when it was make in the bread machine. I made the dough several times since I could not believe the same recipe could turn out so different when every single step was the same except for the tool used for mixing and kneading. So I don’t even fuss any more–I always make the ciabatta in the bread machine. Why try to improve on an already good thing?
It has a lievito naturale, or starter known as a biga, that is firm like a bread dough and rests overnight, so plan for a two-day process before shaping by hand and baking in your home oven. This is the flavor element in the manner of a quick sour dough culture. In technical terms, the biga contributes the following to the dough:
- Multiplication of the yeasts
- Hydration (moisturizing) and maturation of the gluten
- Formation of acid and aromatic substances (just like in sourdough)
Make the starter at night, then mix the dough in the morning, refrigerate the dough until late afternoon, and bake the bread by dinner.
There are many variations of ciabatta now (some with fresh herbs, garlic, multigrain, dried mushrooms, or with a small proportion whole wheat flour) and it is made all over Italy. The biga version is common in USA. When made with whole wheat flour, it is known as ciabatta integrale (just substitute 1/2 cup whole wheat flour for the same amount unbleached flour in the main dough). When milk is added to the dough, as in this recipe, it becomes ciabatta al latte. The original inspiration for this particular formula is an adaptation from one by P.J. Hamel of the King Arthur Flour test kitchen that I included in The Bread Lover’s Bread Machine Cookbook. When this loaf comes out of the oven, I always think it is magic!
Half of this recipe also makes a dozen long grissini, which are nice for appetizers with wine or alongside a lasagna. Divide the whole recipe into 8 portions and make ciabattini, or sandwich rolls for panini, great for burgers as well.
Bread Machine Ciabatta Bread
Makes 2 large loaves
- 1/2 cup water
- 1 1/2 cups plus 3 to 4 tablespoons unbleached all-purpose flour
- 1/4 teaspoon bread machine yeast
- All of the Starter
- 7/8 cup warm water
- 2 tablespoons milk
- 2 teaspoons olive oil or organic canola oil
- 1 1/2 teaspoons bread machine yeast
- 2 cups bread flour
- 1 1/2 teaspoons salt
Make the biga starter: Place the water, 1 1/4 cups of the flour, and yeast for the starter in the bread pan. Program for the Dough cycle. After about 5 minutes, carefully scrape down the sides while it is mixing and slowly sprinkle in another 1/4 cup of flour. When the kneading cycle ends, remove the small ball of dough from the machine and place the dough on a work surface. Hand knead in about 3 tablespoons more flour. You will have a smooth dough ball firmer and a bit drier than one for bread, stiff yet resilient at the same time. Return the dough to the bread pan and close the lid (you could press Pause, but I just leave the lid open. This takes all of about 30 seconds).
When the cycle ends, unplug the machine and let the starter sit in the bread machine for 9 to 12 hours, or overnight. The dough will rise and fall back upon itself, become moist, and smell yeasty. If you can’t make the dough right away, store the biga in a Ziploc plastic baggie in the refrigerator up to 3 days. Bring to room temperature before making the dough, or warm it in the microwave for 10 seconds, before breaking up the pieces.
Make the dough: With your fingers, tear the slightly sticky starter into walnut size pieces and leave in the machine. Place the water, milk, oil, and yeast in the bread pan
with the biga pieces. Add 1 1/2 cups of the bread flour and the salt. Program for the Dough cycle; press Start. At the start of the Knead 2 cycle, add the remaining 1/2 cup of flour. The dough will be very wet and sticky like a savarin yeasted batter bread that is usually baked in a mold to hold its shape. Don’t add any more flour, just leave the dough alone except for scraping the sides into the center. The dough will end up elastic and shiny, but relaxed and slack; sticking on the sides of the pan, If you tried to mix it by hand, you couldn’t knead it on a work surface. It would just be sloppy.
Rising and Cold Rest: At the beep, after the rising cycle ends, the dough will have almost filled the pan. The top will be smooth, but if you stick your finger in, it will be sticky. Spray a deep 6-quart plastic bucket with olive oil vegetable cooking spray or brush with oil. Scrape the risen dough into the container (it will deflate), give the top a light spray of oil, cover, and refrigerate 6 hours to overnight, but no longer than 24 hours. This long, cool rise is important for the slow fermentation and the flavor of the finished ciabatta, so don’t skip it.
Portion the Loaves: Line a large, heavy baking sheet with parchment paper (some bakers use aluminum foil) and sprinkle heavily with flour. Turn the chilled dough out onto a lightly floured work surface, sprinkle lots of flour on top, and pat into a long rectangle about 5 inches wide. Divide into 2 equal rectangles across the middle and place each portion on the baking sheet. Cover with a clean tea towel and let rest at room temperature 20 minutes to relax the dough.
Shape the Loaves: Dust the tops with some flour. Using the flat section of your fingers below the fingertips and holding them in an open splayed position, press, push, and stretch the dough, making a rectangle about 10-x-5-inches (the width of your hand). Your fingers will not press in some areas, so you will have a dimpling, flattening effect, which will end up producing the characteristic uneven texture in the baked loaf. Cover again and let rest at room temperature until triple in bulk, about 1 1/2 hours. The loaves will stay flattish looking and have some flour on them. Don’t worry, they will rise dramatically in the oven.
Twenty minutes before baking, preheat the oven to 425º with a baking stone on the lower third oven rack.
Bake Off: Spray or sprinkle the loaf by shaking some water off your fingertips and place the baking sheet directly on the hot stone. You can slip the parchment off the baking sheet and bake directly on the stone, if you like. Bake for about 25 minutes, until golden brown. Prop open the oven door about 5 inches and let the ciabatta cool in the oven at least 15 minutes. Remove from the oven and serve. Eat the same day it is baked. Wrap in plastic to store.
Excerpted from The Bread Lover’s Bread Machine Cookbook, by Beth Hensperger. (c) 2000, used by permission from the Harvard Common Press.
Recipe and text copyright Beth Hensperger 2013
Please enjoy the recipe and make it your own. If you copy the recipe and text for internet use, please include my byline and link to my site.