Friday, February 7, 2014

All About Ciabatta: notes from a class

Ever since last May when I attended All About Ciabatta, a Bread Bakers' Guild of America's (BBGA) class taught by Master Baker Didier Rosada (see Of Bread and Bridges: A Baking Weekend in San Antonio), I have been meaning to share what I learned as well as some photos and videos but most annoyingly, life intervened, notably in the shape of a shattered wrist, and I didn't get around to it. Since I owe an eternal debt of gratitude to the Italian bakers who invented ciabattas (the only bread I was able to tackle one-handed last summer because it requires no shaping) and to Didier for teaching me how to make it without fuss or fear, I am more than happy to pick up the slack today. As my indulgent mom used to say, better late than never! Except where otherwise indicated, all the information below comes from the notes I took during the class. 

  • All the doughs were mixed using a spiral mixer
  • At home, I use a 6-quart mixer with a dough hook
  • The bread flour used during the class was hard red winter wheat (11%-11.5% protein)
Preferments: a recap

What's a preferment?
"A preferment is a dough or batter prepared prior to mixing the final dough and composed of a portion of the total formula's water, yeast (natural or commercial) and sometimes salt. The dough (or batter) is allowed to ferment for a controlled period of time and then added to the final dough."
From Didier Rosada, Your Guide to Preferments, an online article I recommend reading for a better understanding of the various preferments and their applications

Old dough
Old dough can be used as a preferment for ciabatta. A good average is 40 to 50% of total flour. Using old dough is an easy way to have a quick preferment. But old dough has already been mixed fully once, which means it should be added at the end of the mixing time (so that it doesn’t get mixed again). Which is NOT the case for biga.

Biga is a very stiff preferment which came originally from Italy. If you choose biga, use 1% of yeast and let the biga ferment for 18 hours at 60°F. Remember to watch the water percentage in the final dough: hydration may need to be adjusted. If necessary, you can keep biga at 45°F (just up the yeast a little bit). As a preferment, it is more strongly flavored and more acidic than poolish.

Poolish was invented by Polish bakers and brought to France by Austrians. A transition between sourdough and commercial yeast, it is one of the first preferments made with the latter. It has a sweet nutty flavor profile. A poolish is ready when it shows lots of bubbles and crevices and offers some resistance.

The amount of yeast to use in the poolish depends on the length of the fermentation. In the table below, please note that "total flour" refers to the total flour used in the poolish.
If you choose to let your poolish ferment overnight, always add to it 0.1% salt (1 g of salt for 1000 g of flour) as it will help you control the fermentation much better.
For reasons of personal convenience, I have always let my poolish ferment overnight. Ever since I took Didier's class, I have been systematically using in it 0.1% yeast and 0.1% salt and I am delighted with the results: no more overripe and defeated poolish!

Sponge was invented by the British. Hydrated at 60%, it ferments overnight at the same temperature as the poolish.

Gluten development
  • When the gluten is 100% developed, the gluten window is transparent. The finer the veins on the window, the more developed the gluten
  • Always relate dough temperature to gluten development: if your recipe calls for full development of the gluten, use a lower water temperature
  • Adequate dough consistency, gluten development and dough temperature will give the process a good start. If careful thought isn't given to all three, troubleshooting will be necessary 

Ciabatta: a historical perspective
  • In the old days, Italian wheat was very weak and a very stiff preferment was needed to reinforce the dough. Accordingly ciabatta dough was traditionally leavened with biga, then set to ferment overnight at low temperature. A long fermentation at low temperature produced acidity which made the dough stronger. One can still see biga cellars in old Italian bakeries
  • Most of the wheat in Italy now comes from France and Germany and is low in protein (10 to 10.5%). It is stronger than the old Italian wheat, which means that biga is no longer the preferment of choice for ciabatta: it makes the dough too strong
  • Even though today's Italian bakers still call most preferments biga, they generally use poolish in their ciabatta. (In the United States, the term biga is often preferred for marketing reasons: it sounds more romantic than old dough!)
  • Today in Italy, ciabatta is often made with straight dough and therefore less flavorful
Ciabatta: basic concept
  • Today's preferment of choice: a poolish using 30% of the total flour in the recipe
  • Ciabattas require no shaping although some people like to give the dough a fold to make it fluffier
  • Ciabattas are proofed top down on floured linen
  • They are baked flour side up without any scoring
  • Do NOT dimple the top of the ciabatta
Double hydration technique
  • The baker adds enough water at the beginning to get the consistency of baguette dough; develops gluten to about 80%; then adds rest of water (always in increments)
  • The dough no longer sticks to the sides of the bowl when mixing is done
Retarding ciabattas: tips
  • Retarding is only for convenience. Longer in the cooler doesn’t necessarily mean better. You will never get as complex a flavor as with a room temperature fermentation
  • If you plan to retard your ciabatta, choose a stiffer preferment (for instance a biga or a sponge), increase the amount of yeast in the preferment, shorten the preferment fermentation time (5 to 6 hours instead of overnight) and increase the amount of preferment in the final dough
  • Use the double hydration technique (see above)
  • Use olive oil
  • Increase mixing time to give the dough more strength: mix to improved (gluten at 90%) before adding the second water
  • Shorten the first fermentation before putting the dough in the retarder: 30 minutes, one fold, then into the retarder. Next day: take the dough out, divide it, proof and bake (right out of the retarder) OR: take the dough out, wait for one hour, then dump it on the  table, wait 30 minutes then divide and bake
 Miscellaneous tips
  • Always adding a bit of salt to a preferment is a safety: it will slightly penalize  the flavor of said preferment but it will ensure that it works
  • It is important not to put too much water at the beginning of the mixing: start at 68-70% if the formula calls for no oil (65% or a bit less if using oil)
  • Always put the liquid ingredients in the bowl first
  • Always add yeast and salt to the flour. Especially important if using cold water, so that the yeast doesn't come in contact with the cold water
  • Be very careful when dumping ciabatta dough on bench for scaling, you want to avoid any accidental folding
  • When scaling ciabatta, add scraps on top. Since ciabatta proofs wrong side up, the scraps won’t show in the final product (see photo immediately below)

  • You can add 10% natural starter to the formula for added flavor and longer shelf life
  • Steam is very important as ciabatta will always turn out better with steam. But only at the beginning of the bake. It is actually important to vent the oven towards the end of the baking because ciabatta can get soggy (in my house, I use the handle of a wooden spoon to keep the oven door ajar for the last five minutes of baking)
  • If the dough is too cold when done, increase the fermentation time
  • Milk makes ciabatta a bit more tender

Mixing ciabatta dough
(The sound is quite poor at the beginning but the video is still worth watching because it gives you an idea of the soft consistency and high gluten development Didier was looking for in that particular dough.)

Folding ciabatta dough
(For very wet doughs: soupy consistency and underdeveloped gluten)

"Shaping" ciabatta

Another ciabatta "shaping" (or rather, dividing) video

Ciabatta: loading the oven

What we made

We made nine different ciabatta doughs during the class, covering various techniques, preferments and grains. For all, except the first one, Didier used the double hydration technique.
  • Ciabatta with poolish (short-mix technique): the dough is mixed until all the ingredients are just incorporated and the gluten is developed by a series of folds during fermentation. This technique is the most traditional
  • Ciabatta for retardingwith sponge: allows for more flexibility in the baker's production schedule 
  • Ciabatta with biga: this version uses the most traditional preferment
  • Ciabatta with poolish: more modern version
  • Multigrain ciabatta with whole wheat poolish and multigrain soaker: higher nutritional value
  • Ancient grain ciabatta (with teff sponge and amaranth poolish): a functional bread*
  • Ciabatta integrale (with sponge and cracked wheat soaker): 20% of the bread flour is replaced with whole wheat flour and a soaker is added for higher nutritional value
  • Ciabatta with whole wheat poolish and flax soaker: a functional bread
  • Breakfast ciabatta with poolish and chocolate pieces: plain yummy!
* The functional movement started in Japan: it centers on the idea that certain foods can improve the functioning of the body (ex: oats help control cholesteral, flax seeds add omega 3, etc.) and help prevent or cure diseases.

When time came to taste the ciabattas we made, we were hard put to choose and opinions differed wildly. For what it's worth, my three favorites were the plain one with poolish (which I found more delicately flavored and more interesting than the biga one), the functional one with whole wheat poolish and flax soaker and the one with candied orange and chocolate pieces.

Related Posts:
Ancient Grain Ciabatta (coming up)
Chocolate ciabatta with dried cherries and roasted hazelnuts


  1. Thank you so much for all these informations.
    I love ciabatta and never stop experimenting to develop new recipes and very new information is golden.
    I wish you a lovely weekend.

    1. Thank you for stopping by, Lou, and a lovely weekend to you too! I can't wait to see what you will experiment with next...

  2. That is fascinating. I am a home cook and have made my own bread, using a 'preferment', though I didn't know what it was called. It is how I learnt when I was 9 or 10 years old and it worked so I never changed my method.

    Once I retired and discovered the world of Biga, Poolish, Sponge, and Sourdough, I was fascinated and your explanation is the clearest I have seen so far. Thank you.

    1. Thanks for visiting, Pat! I too am fascinated by the world of yeast, wild and otherwise... How amazing that you started on your adventures as a baker when you were 9 or 10 years old. You are one lucky baker!

  3. It's amazing that you were able to film this course if this was a BBGA sponsored event. I've been to one last year, and they said filming is not allowed.

    1. Hello Anonymous! You know, I have been to several of these events and I have the feeling it all depends on the instructor and venue. For this particular class BBGA actually asked me to film as much as I could so that they could use some of the clips on their website. I don't think they have posted them already. I can remember at least another class where we were asked not to film because the hosting venue was planning to post its own videos. So I always ask at the beginning. Just as I always ask my fellow students if they mind appearing in a photo on my blog or not. If they do, I crop the picture or just don't use it.

  4. Very interesting informations! I made Reinhart's Ciabatta from "Bread Baker's Apprentice" a few times, but wasn't too smitten by the result.
    Regarding the old dough - instead of just adding it to the dough, I refreshed like a starter it before it went into the final dough:

  5. Re: old dough. I looked at your blogpost (gorgeous rolls by the way!). By feeding it you pretty much treated the old dough like a piece of stiff levain and my guess is that, after a few days (or months) of fermentation in the fridge, it is in fact what it had become. Great idea! I must try it... Isn't bread baking a never-ending adventure? I love it.

  6. Hi MC,
    Love watching how he works the dough. Making it all look so simple when I know it is not. When I tried making cibatta I probably had more dough on my hands and stuck to the bench than the loaf contained…I certainly was not as cool and collected as he is. That is why he is known as a 'pro' and I am not :)
    Thanks for sharing all of your notes too. Very interesting history behind the loaves which I enjoyed learning about.

  7. Hi Janet,
    The class made a huge difference to me: making ciabatta is actually way easier than you would think. There are three main things to remember: 1) Don't try to mix the dough by hand (I am convinced that it is possible but it would require more energy and stamina that I have unless making the short-mix version, so I use the mixer); 2) Do use the double hydration technique: it works like a charm and, in my book, is a life-saver for all doughs that are supposed to end up very soft and wet; 3) If you think the dough looks too soupy, take a look after 30 min during the first fermentation and give it a fold inside the tub (I always use a rectangular tub for ciabatta dough to make it easier to fold without putting the dough on the bench). If necessary give it another fold 30 min later and another if still very weak, but one or two will probably do the trick. Also try and keep the bakery temperature in the mid-70s. I use a space heater nowadays when I am working and fermenting the dough. That too makes a difference. I can't wait until you give ciabatta a try...

  8. Thank you so much!!!! you are awsone for sharing these videos, I will ty to do the cibatta, the photos are great!!! you did wonderful!!
    Thanks again and God bless you. All your Posts are pure gold.

    1. Good luck with the ciabatta, Anonymous, and please keep me posted! I'd love to hear how it turns out...



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