Cook’s Illustrated #97: Ciabatta
I have often sung the praises of Cook’s Illustrated‘s Multigrain Bread, and I have made their “No-Knead Bread 2.0” more times than I can remember (I stopped making it after I decided it was too easy). Suffice to say, Cook’s Illustrated publishes great bread recipes, so when a new one comes out I take notice. In the latest issue there is a recipe for ciabatta. Ciabatta is a rustic bread with a big crumb, and since I am a fan of all things rustic and big-crumbed, I had to try it.
Reviewing the article and recipe, most notable was how wet the dough is. It calls for a starter with 5 oz of flour and 4 oz of water, and then a final dough of 10 oz of flour with 6 oz of water and 2 oz of milk (the milk inhibits gluten formation, preventing the crumb from getting too large). That’s 15 oz of flour and 12 oz of liquids, for a hydration of 80%. In my standard bread recipe I shoot for about 68% hydration, so this was ridiculously wet dough, practically batter! This makes kneading and shaping the dough very difficult.
Cook’s gets around this problem by using a stand mixer to mix and knead the dough. That’s all well and good if you have a stand mixer, but I don’t. I like kneading! Since a machine was not an option, but kneading was necessary to make sure everything was mixed and gluten strands were long, I turned to a technique frequently used by Peter Reinhart: with the dough in a bowl, use a hand continually dipped in water to squeeze and rotate the dough, basically simulating a dough hook. Dipping your hand in water prevents the dough from sticking to it. Unfortunately, it also adds even more water to an already very-wet dough, making it even harder to work with. Cook’s also says to fold the dough over itself a few times with a rubber spatula to further develop the gluten. Here’s what I ended up with:
The key to shaping a dough this wet is using a lot of flour. I put a pretty thick bed of it on the board, poured on the dough, and then threw a few handfuls on top. This allows you to touch the dough without immediately having your hand sucked into the giant dough monster. In spite of all this flour it was still pretty difficult to contain the dough; eventually I wrestled it into two rough rectangles.
The dough rested on parchment for a half hour, then I baked it at 450° for 25 minutes. The breads came out pretty well, although I would have liked them to rise a bit higher in the oven. It was very difficult to get the necessary surface tension for vertical rise with such a wet dough. Had I used a stand mixer I probably would have had a stronger dough since I could have kneaded it longer without the addition of water. Still, I certainly couldn’t complain about the crumb:
The bread was nicely crusty and but still soft and chewy, really a first-rate ciabatta. Without a stand mixer, it may be more of a hassle than it is worth, but if you do have a KitchenAid gracing your counter, I would recommend giving this recipe a try.
UPDATE: In fact, this was so worth giving a try that I gave it another try. Still no mixer, but using less water during the mixing process made for an easier time with a consistent result.