Compared to some of the other bakes I’ve showcased on this blog, the history of ciabatta is fairly short. In fact, this Italian bread was invented in 1982 by a baker named Arnaldo Cavallari. Like many other inventions, it grew out of a necessity, in this case the need to find a domestic alternative to the French baguette, which had become so popular for sandwiches in Italy that bakers were beginning to fear it would put them out of business.
After weeks of experimenting with different flours and hydration levels, Cavallari came up with what he dubbed ciabatta polesana. Ciabatta is Italian for slipper, which the long, flat loaves resemble, and polesano is for the Polesine region of Italy where Cavallari is from.
It didn’t take long for this rustic-looking bread to catch on all over Italy, and by 1985 it was being imported to Britain by the Marks & Spencer food-store chain. Just a few years later, it came to America.
Because of its high hydration level (around 72-80%), ciabatta has an open crumb structure, as the water in the dough turns to steam while it bakes, creating air bubbles. It was designed as a sandwich bread, so it will hold up to the hardiest fillings as well as the heat of a panini press.
The recipe for this technical challenge is, of course, Paul Hollywood’s. He specified that he was looking for a strong crust with a crisp, floury surface and an irregular crumb structure with big, visible air holes. His advice to the bakers in the Great White Tent? “Be patient.” The first rise is crucial and should be done at room temperature so as not to overactivate the dough, in which case it would collapse and lose its shape. But with a slow rise of 1 to 2 hours, it should at least double and perhaps even triple in size.
My advice, if you’re making ciabatta for the first time, is to watch the Masterclass episode where Paul demonstrates how to do it. Also, oil the container well that you plan to use for proving the dough. (Enough of my dough stuck to the sides that I scraped it out and got another half a loaf out of it!) And liberally dust the work surface as well as the dough with flour when it comes to cutting and shaping your loaves.
The dough is very wet and sticky!
It always amazes me that a simple combination of flour, yeast and salt can create such a fragrant and flavorful substance as bread! These ciabatta loaves taste just as good simply dipped in olive oil or slathered with butter as they do sliced and topped with your favorite bruschetta topping or filled with meat and cheese and grilled on a panini press!
You can find Paul’s recipe here, but I’ve adapted it for American bakers below.
Paul Hollywood’s Ciabatta
(Adapted for American bakers)
- 3½ c. + 1 T. strong white bread flour, plus more for dusting
- 1¾ t. salt
- 3½ t. instant yeast (one packet)
- 14 fluid ounces cold water, divided
- Olive oil, for coating the proving container
- Fine semolina or cornmeal, for dusting
- Put flour, salt and yeast with 11 fl. oz. cold water into a freestanding mixer fitted with a dough hook. (Don’t put the salt directly on top of the yeast.) Begin mixing on low speed.
- As the dough starts to come together, while the motor is running, slowly add another 3 fl. oz. of cold water, drip by drip. Mix for another 5-8 minutes on medium speed until the dough is smooth and stretchy.
- Coat with olive oil the inside of a 12-cup (3-liter) square plastic container with a lid. (It’s important to use a square tub, as it helps shape the dough).
- Transfer the dough to the oiled container and seal with the lid. Leave for 1½ to 1¾ hours at room temperature, or until at least doubled, even tripled in size. (It’s important that the dough proves slowly, otherwise it will collapse and your loaves will be flat.) Meanwhile, dust two large baking sheets with flour and semolina (or fine cornmeal).
- Dust your work surface heavily with flour and semolina/cornmeal, and carefully tip the dough out of the square container — trying to retain a rough square shape.
- Rather than knocking it back, handle the dough gently so you can keep as much air in it as possible. It will still be very wet and sticky. Coat the top of the dough with more flour and semolina/cornmeal.
- Cut the dough lengthwise into four equal sections by pressing down firmly with a bench scraper. Quickly transfer the loaves to the prepared baking sheets. (This is the tricky part, as the dough will stretch when you lift it up. Work quickly and try to stretch it only to the length of the baking sheet.)
- Leave the ciabatta to rest for another 30-45 minutes. Meanwhile, preheat the oven to 425°F.
- Bake the loaves for 25 minutes or until they are golden brown and sound hollow when tapped on the bottom. Let cool completely on a wire rack before serving.