As a rustic bread of northern Italian origin, ciabatta is one of those breads that can be anything you want it to be. It’s thought that ciabatta means “slipper” in Italian, though the resemblance might escape some people. “This slipper is supposed to be big and fluffy, to wear during cold weather,” says Sarah Sciortino, who, along with her husband, Renzo, owns Renzo’s Restaurant and two Renzo’s Café & Pizzeria locations in Boca Raton, Florida. That explains a lot about ciabatta’s appearance.
It’s generally agreed, though, that a ciabatta loaf or roll is fl at, irregularly shaped, has large holes in the interior and retains on its surface some ofDame Mystique Parka Dame Palliser Jakke the fl our with which it’s dusted to prevent it from sticking to everything. In addition, the dough usually is given a long, slow fermentation for at least 24 hours to compensate for the fact that the very wet dough isn’t mixed much. Instead, much of the flavor and structure develop during the fermentation period. The long two-step process, which also includes overnight fermentation for a sponge, explains why many operators prefer to buy their ciabattas.
For example, when Renzo and Sarah started their business in New York 42 years ago, they made ciabatta in their shop. “We like ciabatta because it has very good fl avor,” says Sarah. “It’s like an artisan piece of jewelry, but it takes a lot of work and time to make. After we moved to Florida, when an Italian bakery opened near us, we decided to buy it instead. They deliver ciabatta every day at 8 a.m., still warm from the oven, so we know it’s nice and fresh. We usually don’t have leftovers, because we have the same order delivered every day, with a little more on weekends. But if we have any left, we put it on top of the oven to dry out, and make breadcrumbs for our other dishes.”
“We buy ciabatta made with some whole-wheat fl our so you can see the bran in the slices,” Renzo explains. “We use a 10-inch size for sandwiches at our cafés. That gives customers their money’s worth, which is important in this economy. We also use a 16-inch loaf to make garlic bread for the restaurant breadbasket. We cut the ciabatta in half, add olive oil, garlic, paprika, parsley and Romano cheese, then cut it into strips after it comes out of the oven. When we have a big table, we include plain ciabatta too, and customers can request just the plain ciabatta if they don’t want garlic bread.”
Sherri Dominic, owner of Lone Elder Pizza in Canby, Oregon, also buys ciabatta, though as a former baker, she knows how to make it. “We make all our other doughs from scratch,” she says, “but making ciabatta is a long process, so we buy frozen prebaked ciabatta rolls from our supplier. We can just pull it out of the freezer to thaw for our toasted sandwiches and ‘pizza’ slices. For slices, we split the rolls, add sauce and two toppings, then run them through the oven. It’s easy and inexpensive for customers who just want a quick bite, and the ciabatta provides a nice chewy crust. We also serve the rolls in bread baskets for customers who dine in.”
Using a sourdough starter to accelerate the fermentation process and provide some flavor development is an option for ciabatta dough. But some operators don’t see that much difference between producing pizza dough, which has to be retarded, and ciabatta from scratch. “Making ciabatta takes a couple of days,” says Roberto Ienzi, owner of Luciano Italian Restaurant and Pizzeria in Herndon, Virginia. “But we make everything else from scratch, too. We want our food to be authentic Italian, so we don’t take any shortcuts. We added ciabatta rolls to our menu about a year ago for our sandwiches, and our customers already order more of them than sub rolls.
“Fermenting ciabatta at least 24 hours after making the dough is important. If you try to make them right away, the rolls will be gummy and won’t taste right. A lot of the flavor comes from letting the dough rest after dividing it into 4-inch balls. We cover the tray with plastic wrap so the dough stays moist in the cooler.
“Once we’re ready to bake the rolls, we flatten them like small pizzas, put them on double screens and put the trays on top of the oven to start rising. This step is also important because the rolls have to proof to have the right texture inside. They should be fluffy, not heavy, and proofing them at a low temperature helps to develop more flavor.
“When they hit the right height, we put them in a 500 F oven — I wouldn’t go any lower than 480 F or more than 550 F. We don’t use steam, but we can squirt water into the oven to make sure the crust is thin and not too hard. We put the rolls near the edges of the oven, but not near the corners, so we get an even bake every time. It takes about 15 minutes for the rolls to bake.
“One advantage to making our own ciabattas is that they aren’t perfectly round, so they don’t look like they were bought. Also, they stay moist without heat for at least 12 hours, and probably longer than that. However, we don’t keep it any longer than that, because we want to maintain the highest quality. Besides, about 90 percent of our ciabatta rolls are used in lunch sandwiches.”
Makes 4 large loaves or 24 to 30 rolls
6 cups high-gluten fl our
2 teaspoons salt
2 teaspoons instant yeast
4 to 5 cups warm water (95 F to 100 F)
1 to 2 tablespoons extra-virgin olive oil
Blend dry ingredients in mixing bowl using a paddle. Add water and oil. Mix on low speed to blend, then mix on medium speed 5 to 6 minutes or just until dough starts to pull away from the bowl. The dough will be very soft and sticky. Pour dough into well oiled container with enough room to double in size. Lightly spray with olive oil or cover with plastic wrap (or use container with cover). Ferment 1½ to 2 hours at room temperature. Dust workbench generously with fl our. Gently transfer dough to bench, using oiled scraper to avoid deflating dough.
Dust dough with fl our. Use scraper to divide dough into rectangular rolls or loaves. Gently elongate dough pieces using your hands, then fold to middle, forming desired width and length.
Transfer to fl our-dusted pan; dust again with fl our, if necessary. Cover with plastic wrap and proof until doubled. Gently flatten, fold ends to middle and elongate to desired width and length again. Cover and proof until doubled.
Oil or fl our sheet pan. Gently lift dough, place on pan, and stretch to desired length. Place in 475 to 500 F oven, using steam. Bake loaves 25 to 30 minutes (rolls 15 to 20 minutes) or until golden brown. Test by tapping on crust; baked bread will sound hollow. Tap baked loaves to remove excess dusting fl our, if necessary.
Note: This procedure allows you to produce a bread that has ciabatta like characteristics. However, it will lack the fermentation flavor that can only be developed during long fermentation.
Carol Meres Kroskey is a freelance writer based in Chicago. She has extensive knowledge covering the baking and food service industries for a variety of publications.