Bread Baker’s Apprentice Challenge: Ciabatta

Ciabatta Crumb

Last week I finished bread #7 in the Bread Baker’s Apprentice Challenge.  The bread was ciabatta and while I was excited to try it, I admit that I was a bit nervous.  Lots of BBA Challenge members finished their ciabatta before me, so I knew that the bread wasn’t turning out perfectly for many people.  Everyone seemed to be saying the same thing:  great flavor, but not enough holes!

In addition to its signature flat and rectangular shape, ciabatta is known for its open crumb with lots of big, shiny holes.  And I’ve learned over the years while trying to perfect my own loaves of sourdough, the open crumb with big shiny holes is much harder to achieve than a great flavor!

Peter Reinhart offers many variations for his Ciabatta formula.  We had the option of using either a Poolish or Biga for the pre-ferment — the main difference being the amount of water added to the flour and yeast during the pre-ferment stage.  A note in the sidebar mentions the option of enriching the dough with olive oil, milk or buttermilk, for a softer, more tender loaf.  And he also gives directions for Wild Mushroom Focaccia, Ciabatta with Cheese, and Caramelized Onion and Herb Ciabatta!  But even with all those choices and variations available, I decided to stick to original formula using only flour, salt, yeast and water.

Although some people seemed to be having better luck using the stiffer biga starter, I decided to give the poolish a try.  Like I mentioned earlier, the difference between a poolish and biga is simply the amount of water added to flour and yeast.  A poolish will have the consistency of pancake batter, while a biga will be stiff and kneadable like bread dough.  Both types of pre-ferments are made day before using a portion of the flour and yeast from the bread formula.  The purpose of a pre-ferment is to improve the flavor and structure of the bread by extending fermentation time.  Although these terms are probably new to many of you, there is nothing difficult about using a pre-ferment.  You just need to plan ahead and allow some extra time to let the mixture sit around and do its thing.

My poolish started with 2 1/2 cups of bread flour, 1 1/2 cups of water and 1/4 teaspoon instant yeast.  I just stirred it up with a wooden spoon, covered it with plastic wrap, and let it sit at room temperature.

Ciabatta Poolish

After a few hours, it had bubbled up and increased in size quite a bit.  Now it was ready for an overnight rest in the refrigerator.  See, nothing to it!

Ciabatta Poolish Fermented

The next day, I removed the poolish from the fridge an hour before I was ready to start making my ciabatta dough, to take off the chill.  When I was ready to begin, I measured out the rest of the flour, yeast and salt.

Flour, Yeast and Salt

I whisked the dry ingredients together then added the poolish.

Still Adding Poolish to Flour

The amount of water in the recipe can vary by quite a bit.  The instructions say to add 6 tablespoons of water at this point, but the final dough might use up to 3/4 cup.  I knew I would end up using more than 6 tablespoons, so I  started out by pouring in about 1/2 cup of water.

Adding Water to Ciabatta Dough

I then started stirring everything together to get an idea of how wet the dough would be with that amount of water.  I ended up adding a bit more water until the dough looked to be the right consistency.

Mixing Ciabatta Dough

I used my stand mixer with the paddle attachment to mix the dough for a few minutes.  I think I ended up adding close the full 3/4 cup of water by the time I was done mixing.  I knew from making sourdough bread, that I needed a very wet dough if I wanted big holes in my ciabatta.  After mixing with the paddle attachment for a while, I switched to the dough hook and kneaded for a final two minutes.  The dough mostly cleared the sides of the bowl while it was being kneaded, but stuck to the bottom, as described in the book.  but as you can see, it was a wet and sticky dough.

Kneading Ciabatta Dough

Next, I scraped the dough out onto a well-floured board.  The book says to create a bed of flour, so I really used a lot!

Kneaded Ciabatta Dough

Now it was time for some stretching and folding.  Since I’ve never made ciabatta before, this was a new technique for me.  First, I sprinkled some flour on top of the dough and formed it into the shape of a triangle.  Then I let it relax for a couple of minutes before grabbing the ends and stretching it out to twice it’s size.

Stretching Ciabatta Dough

Then I folded it into thirds, like a letter.

Folding Ciabatta Dough

Folded Ciabatta Dough

Then I covered it with plastic wrap and let it rest for 30 minutes.  I was surprised at how much the dough grew in 30 minutes!

Ciabatta Dough after Resting

Next, I repeated the stretch and fold process one more time, covered it with plastic wrap and let it sit and ferment for an hour and a half.

Second Stretch and Fold

The book says the dough should swell, but not necessarily double in size.  But I think mine doubled!

Ciabatta Dough after Bulk Fermentation

Next, the dough is divided.  I decided to make three small loaves, so I cut the dough into three pieces.  Since the dough is so sticky, I dipped my bench scraper in water before cutting through the dough.  I didn’t weigh the pieces because I wanted to handle the sticky dough as little as possible.  Consequently, I ended up with three different sizes!

Ciabatta Dough Divided

Next, I gently rolled the pieces in flour so they were well-coated on all sides.

Divided and Floured

And then I transferred them to a prepared couche, and folded each one again.  A couche is a heavy linen cloth that is used to support the loaves and help them keep their shape during proofing.  After shaping the loaves, I covered them with plastic and allowed them to proof for close to an hour.

Ciabatta Dough Nestled in Couche

Since I didn’t think all three loaves would fit on my peel, I decided to use the back of a sheet pan to transfer the loaves to the oven.  First I dusted the back of the sheet pan with corn meal.

Ciabatta Dough after Proofing

Then I started transferring the loaves from the couche to the makeshift peel, gently stretching each loaf out to a length of about 9 inches.

Stretching Ciabatta Loaves

I was happy to see that the three loaves fit perfectly on the back of the pan!

Stretched Ciabatta Loaves

Now it was time to put them in the oven.

Earlier, when I placed the loaves in the couche to proof, I had prepared the oven.  I placed a baking stone on the middle rack, and an empty pan on the bottom of the oven (this will be used to create steam later).  I then preheated the oven to 500 degrees.  When you are heating the oven with a baking stone, it takes longer for it to come to temperature.  When I need the oven and baking stone to reach 500 degrees, I always allow it to preheat for 45 minutes.  So by the time, the loaves were proofed and ready to go in, the oven was ready.

I also had a pot of simmering water on top of the stove, ready to help me create steam.  Just before putting the loaves in, I measured out one cup of simmering water.  Now I was ready to bake some ciabatta!  I popped the loaves onto the baking stone, quickly draped a dish towel over the oven door glass (to prevent water from splattering and possibly shattering the glass) and carefully poured the cup of simmering water into the hot pan on the bottom of the oven (I used a long oven mitt for this).  As the steam billowed up, I quickly shut the oven door (making sure to remove the towel) to trap as much of it inside as possible.  After 30 seconds, I opened the oven door and used a spray bottle to mist the oven walls with water, creating even more steam.  Again, I quickly shut the door to trap the steam.  I repeated this two more times at 30 second intervals.  After the final spray, I turned the oven temperature down to 450 degrees and baked the bread for somewhere between 15 and 20 minutes, rotating the loaves halfway through.

Perhaps all that steaming sounds like a lot of work, but it really does help to create a beautiful crust!  Here are the finished loaves:

Baked Ciabatta Loaves

And what about the crumb?  Perhaps the holes aren’t as large as the ciabatta featured in the photo in the book, but I was perfectly happy with the way mine turned out.  Especially for a first try!  The main problem I had with my loaves was the line of flour that was visible in the middle of the loaf.  Next time I will try harder to brush the flour off the top of the dough before folding.  But it didn’t affect the flavor or texture too much, so I’m still calling this one a success!

Ciabatta Slice

The ciabatta tasted great and I really enjoyed it as a sandwich bread, especially lightly toasted!

Vegetable Sandwich on Ciabatta

The Next Bread

This week we will be making Cinnamon Buns!  The cinnamon bun instructions begin on page 143 of The Bread Baker’s Apprentice.  You have the choice of making either cinnamon buns or sticky buns, depending on whether you use the white glaze or the caramel glaze.  I’ve heard nothing but great things about this formula, so I can’t wait to get started!  Good luck and happy baking!

Want to Bake Along With Us?

There are several ways for you to join in the fun!  First of all, you need a copy of Peter Reinhart’s The Bread Baker’s Apprentice.  Read the first section of the book carefully, as this will prepare you for the bread recipes in the second section of the book.  Then just jump in and bake some Anadama Bread! But first, please visit The BBA Challenge Page for more details on how to participate in the group!

If you haven’t already, you might want to bookmark the BBA Challenge Page.  From there you can see which breads are coming up soon, find answers to Frequently Asked Questions, visit and/or add yourself to our World Map, see the BBA Challenge Blogroll, and check out the continually updated slideshow of BBA Bread photos from our ever-expanding group of bakers!

For those of you who are participating in The BBA Challenge, here are some questions:  How did you like the Ciabatta?  Did you use the poolish or the biga for your pre-ferment?  Did you stick to the original formula or did you try some of the variation?  Did you learn anything new while using this formula?

And remember, if you wrote a blog post about Ciabatta, or have photos available online, please leave a comment and share your link!

Ciabatta from other BBA Challenge members:

  1. ATigerintheKitchen

    I feel like I say this every week but, every week it’s true: What beautiful, beautiful bread! And you make it look so easy. Very inspiring — you’re making me want to try ciabatta again soon. (Mine turned out to be a disaster… )

    What I learned from my experience was, don’t overbook yourself — which is applicable to life in general, too. Not just baking.

    Congrats on your ciabatta …

    11:58 am  Jul 7th, 2009
  2. Paula - bell'alimento

    Nicole, you do make it look so easy! Beautiful Ciabatta! Brava! I used the Poolish version. I tried the milk & water. Water worked much better. Here is my post

    12:09 pm  Jul 7th, 2009
  3. Heather

    Beautiful bread, Nicole. You did great! Love the step-by-step photos.

    Happy baking!

    Can’t wait to try those cinnamon rolls!

    12:10 pm  Jul 7th, 2009
  4. Sara

    Thanks for this! i am looking forward to my next attempt–I have been afraid I think to make the dough wet enough–the proof is always how un-airy the loaf is at the end. I guess I find that books caution so much against over-hydrating it’s hard to “re-set” your brain.

    12:13 pm  Jul 7th, 2009
  5. chris

    Just gorgeous! Well done. My manly stretching pulled all the air out I think, but they still tasted good.

    12:13 pm  Jul 7th, 2009
  6. Dianne

    I, too, experienced the line-of-flour-in-the-middle-of-the-crumb but decided that it was OK, especially for my first try. Your loaves look very lovely — the ciabatta has by far been the best BBA learning experience, for me, so far. Can’t wait to try it again!

    12:21 pm  Jul 7th, 2009
  7. Susie

    Perfect from the color to the crumb and crust. Great photos and write up. 🙂

    2:14 pm  Jul 7th, 2009
  8. LeeYong

    Oooooooooooooooooooo your ciabatta looks wonderful!!! Kuddo!!!!!!!!

    2:15 pm  Jul 7th, 2009
  9. Phoo-D

    Congratulations that looks marvelous! I’m a bit behind and am baking the ciabatta and sticky buns this week. I’ve been feeling nervous about the ciabatta, but your instructions and photos are making me feel better! Thank you!

    2:17 pm  Jul 7th, 2009
  10. Ruby

    Looks fabulous Nicole! Great job 🙂

    2:20 pm  Jul 7th, 2009
  11. wendy

    Your ciabatta looks perfect. I love the golden color and your holes are gorgeous. Great job.

    2:27 pm  Jul 7th, 2009
  12. cheffresco

    Looks like it turned out perfectly! Congrats!

    4:45 pm  Jul 7th, 2009
  13. The Blushing Hostess

    Oh, it is beautiful. Really perfect and not easy in a home kitchen. I wish I could find time but with two babies it will have to wait for preschool… at least I can live vicariously!

    4:59 pm  Jul 7th, 2009
  14. mags

    I’m so jealous of your holes (now that’s something you don’t just write on anybody’s blog…lol) Lovely ciabatta Nicole. And thank you for including a link to my ciabatta post in your write up.

    5:14 pm  Jul 7th, 2009
  15. SallyBR

    WOW! Yours turned out great! And you tell me you were a ciabatta-virgin! Amazing!

    I wish I could say I learned something from this experience, but I am still quite puzzled by my tight crumb. Everything seemed to be going so well, but… it was not to be. Very frustrating.

    Thank you for including my baby-blog on your post, it gave me a slight hyperventilation when I saw it… 🙂 Wish my ciabatta had turned out better….

    5:18 pm  Jul 7th, 2009
  16. Caitlin

    Gorgeous! I had the line of flour as well, and when I made a half recipe, used about 1/2 cup water for the final dough. Nice number of holes, but they didn’t gelatinize quite enough for me. Still tasty though, which is I guess what matters 🙂

    6:07 pm  Jul 7th, 2009
  17. Jennie

    That is some GORGEOUS ciabatta! You’ve got me drooling 🙂

    6:29 pm  Jul 7th, 2009
  18. Jen Schall @ My Kitchen Addiction

    This ciabatta looks wonderful! Your pictures of the process make it look very easy and approachable. It’s one of my favorites – I really need to give this a try!

    6:45 pm  Jul 7th, 2009
  19. Haley J.

    Your ciabatta is gorgeous! I think the holes turned out quite nicely. I am wondering the number of loaves baked affects the hole structure. Very grateful for the pre-heating tip!

    6:58 pm  Jul 7th, 2009
  20. maris

    Your bread looks great! I think my mistakes were in cutting the proof time (I actually missed the second shaping step – so that had to have had an effect) and I don’t think I did the steaming well enough. When the water would sizzle in the pan I kept flinching as though it would splash back out at me – I’m a spaz, I know. Maybe next time I’ll enlist an assistant and pay them for their time in bread 😛

    7:14 pm  Jul 7th, 2009
  21. MyKitchenInHalfCups

    We loved this one. Sort of yells at you “Make me a sandwich!” doesn’t it.
    I used this recipe and two others and my “holes” are inconsistent. Still, I love this bread.

    8:42 pm  Jul 7th, 2009
  22. Jon T.

    Nicole: Lovely, lovely , lovely! Ciabatta is one of those amazing breads. The dough is difficult to handle, but the results are well worth it. I’m continually impressed by the composition, lighting, and sheer beauty of your photographs. Nearly all bread books I know of don’t have the step-by-step details you show us. It’s amazing that you have your bread baking organized enough that you can stop and take such beautiful pictures along the way. They inspire me to bake today. Is there such a thing a “bread porn?” This comes very close…

    5:41 am  Jul 8th, 2009
  23. DishinandDishes

    What a great tutorial you give! It sounds like A LOT of work and you did it beautifully. My mom makes a great German light rye (you can see on my website) and after she removes her loaves from the oven, she always takes her hand and dips them in water and smears the water over the top of the makes lovely crust for some reason? Great post! I enjoyed reading it! Wish I could have a bite of the bread!

    7:01 am  Jul 8th, 2009
  24. Cindy


    Your write with such a calm voice. It would inspire any new baker to jump in and give it a try. You make it look all so easy and clean!! Beautiful ciabatta.

    12:36 pm  Jul 8th, 2009
  25. pam

    That sandwich is to-die-for!

    3:35 am  Jul 9th, 2009
  26. Kathie

    Another lovely loaf! You continue to inspire with your story-telling and photos. Will be attempting ciabatta this weekend! Hmm, what sandwich fillings to procure…

    5:36 pm  Jul 9th, 2009
  27. Brandon

    Wow – yours turned out great! Thanks for putting the step-by-step steps up there. It really augmented what was in the BMA book. I attempted the recipe yesterday and unfortunately, fell short on the hole-y crumb. The crust ended up great, though! I think I needed wetter dough – more than the 6 tablespoons mentioned (I think I did eight, but more were probably necessary.) Another spot I might have failed in was transferring the final loaves to the peel – they went much flatter right away. Not sure which was larger problem.

    You got some beautiful looking ciabatta, though. Very encouraging.

    5:24 am  Jul 22nd, 2009
  28. Daniela Restrepo

    Brilliant photos and explanation, but mine still turns out like a soggy flip flop. Are there any guidelines for baking at altitude? Bogotá is 2640m above sea level and I think it has a detrimental effect

    9:25 am  Jul 22nd, 2009
  29. Jon T.

    Daniela–high altitude baking requires significant adjustments to recipes. I’ve seen articles about how baking in Denver can be a challenge. And Bogata is even higher. I don’t have personal experience baking at high altitudes, but here’s an article I found that may explain why your bread turned out floppy (see the Yeast section–it sounds like it describes your problem).
    I’m sure you can find more high altitude baking tips on the Internet.

    10:43 am  Jul 22nd, 2009
  30. Ciabatta from Peter Reinhart’s book

    […] Going to try this: […]

    8:59 pm  Jul 23rd, 2009
  31. Daniela Restrepo

    Thanks Jon T for the link, I will try to make some adjustments.
    Best wishes

    12:32 pm  Jul 24th, 2009
  32. CateringPro

    If you wipe them down with a wet cloth you wont get the line in the middle of the bread.

    2:46 pm  Jul 26th, 2009
  33. Nicole

    CateringPro: Thanks for the tip!

    3:22 pm  Jul 26th, 2009
  34. Di

    Great job–that looks fantastic. I’m finally getting to ciabatta this weekend. I really appreciate you sharing lots of photos, especially of the folding parts.

    8:05 am  Aug 1st, 2009
  35. kellypea

    Very nice, Nicole! I figured my dough wasn’t nearly as wet as it should have been. A big DUH to me that I’m not doing a good job of reading about others’ adventures *before* I start a new recipe so I can actually learn something. Thanks for all the step-by-step photos. Awesome as usual ; )

    9:44 am  Aug 2nd, 2009
  36. Athanasius

    Hi – I’ve been baking out of the Reinhart books for years and have baked almost every recipe. (I don’t think I’ve done the potato bread in the appendix or the Vienna bread… I just never had an occasion, but probably everything else.) I recently happened on the Challenge info. It’s really terrific, and I’m glad to see so many enthusiastic people. My comment on the ciabatta — I made this twice, including once for a huge reception along with some other breads from the book, and both times it came out perfect — very holey crumb, exactly what you’d expect. But I just baked it two weeks ago for another dinner party, and it looked like what many of your bakers seemed to get… rather compact, small holes, and not as much flavor. What was different? I don’t know — the yeast, the temperature, the humidity — I think these all played a part. All I can say is for those who had trouble, try it again under different conditions. It worked twice for me in an amazing way, and I got huge compliments on the caramelized onion-herb variation.

    7:41 pm  Aug 3rd, 2009
  37. BBA Challenge - Ciabatta Bread | Mamaliga

    […] like I have to join the “Not Enough Holes” chorus of the BBA participants mentioned in Nicole’s post about Ciabatta. The flavor, crust, etc., indeed, was all there and made excellent sandwiches, but the crumb  […]

    7:48 am  Aug 19th, 2009
  38. BBA Challenge #7: Ciabatta « Three Clever Sisters

    […] if even more is needed than the recipe calls for–check out Pinch My Salt’s ciabatta here).  Still, I got the loaves to stretch out nicely, better than I’ve had before so at least […]

    6:42 am  Sep 1st, 2009
  39. AP269

    Hi, your ciabatta looks sooooo gorgeous – hole-wise and all. Mine didn’t turn out quite as well, but I still was very pleased with the result. Here’s what I wrote about it:

    1:39 pm  Sep 2nd, 2009
  40. Abby

    Just finished the ciabatta with the same results as many others: great taste, not many holes. My loaves also had a hard time sliding off the makeshift peel (the baking sheet) – they crumpled onto themselves and lost their form – how did you keep yours looking so gorgeous? Here is my post:

    5:48 pm  Oct 3rd, 2009
  41. Herbed Focaccia from The Bread Baker’s Apprentice — Pinch My Salt

    […] flavor.  This can be achieved by using a pre-ferment such as a poolish (like I used for the ciabatta), or by refrigerating the dough overnight (the bagels were a good example of overnight […]

    8:09 am  Oct 26th, 2009
  42. Ravenlynne

    Did this today…mine is one of the ones without the holes…tight crumb but still tastes good…

    11:26 am  Nov 10th, 2009
  43. Foodfreak » Nachgebacken: BBA Ciabatta

    […] habe die Biga-Version gemacht) mit meinem Ergebnis nicht alleine oder so daneben, wenn ich mir die Ciabatta bei Pinch My Salt ansehe, oder bei That Certain […]

    3:19 am  Dec 26th, 2009
  44. Anamaris

    I’ve been staring at this recipe for a couple of months now… I’m taking the bite. Will let you know how it goes.

    11:36 am  Jan 9th, 2010
  45. BBA Challenge #7: Ciabatta « Family & Food

    […] and sticky dough (I had used almost the maximum amount of water), so I read and re-read and re-read Nicole’s instructions again and again and tried to combine those pictures with the pictures shown in the book so I would […]

    2:09 pm  Jan 16th, 2010
  46. Anamaris

    I did it! I made the poolish and my bread was delicious. Because I used sea salt, it’s a bit undersalted, but still. Delicious! I had a bit of a challenge baking it. Maybe my electric oven burns hotter, but they came out pretty dark. But I had beautiful holes and the crumb was just right.
    Thanks SO much for the step-by-step directions.

    9:14 am  Jan 17th, 2010
  47. Ch-ch-ch-CIABATTA! « Chef It Yourself

    […] off, I read and reread Nicole’s recipe on Pinch My Salt. Her ciabatta looked so…, so… seductive. I had to try it. She used the poolish method. […]

    4:24 pm  Jan 20th, 2010
  48. Anamaris

    I finally have the post. I’d love your POV.
    Thanks again for the pointers!

    4:26 pm  Jan 20th, 2010
  49. Jim K

    I made the BBA ciabatta for the third time. I went with the poolish cheese ciabatta and divided it into two loaves. I did not use milk or buttermilk just water. It was the best ciabatta I have made. The crust was good and crusty and deep brown. It was the best crumb, uniformed but small holes, I have made. I haven’t been able to duplicate the large holes as shown in the book. A little cheese leaked out thru the crust as it baked and it smelled out of this world. This is my, wife’s too, bread so far.

    3:37 pm  Mar 23rd, 2010
  50. Bread Baker’s Apprentice Challenge: Pain à l’Ancienne — Pinch My Salt

    […] dough of bread flour, salt, instant yeast, and ice cold water.  It’s a wet dough, similar to ciabatta, so it’s easiest to mix and knead it in a stand mixer.  Once the dough is mixed and kneaded, […]

    7:51 am  Jun 7th, 2010
  51. On baking: ciabatta zen « Big Dawg Eats

    […] I can’t sing the praises of the Bread Baker’s Apprentice enough.  If you want to really learn how to bake bread, this is an excellent source.  While it does get a little complex, and you’re unlikely to find many one-day recipes, I can assure you that with a little practice and effort you will be able to make better bread than most anything you can buy.  The keys are to manipulate the starch in flour to the maximum to extract as much flavor as possible.  This is done by creating starters, taking your time, and using refrigeration to retard the dough to build flavor. For a full description of BBA ciabatta, click on this link. […]

    7:34 pm  Nov 18th, 2010
  52. Artisan Bread | 201502Sarah

    […] […]

    7:29 pm  Aug 21st, 2015
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