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:

Sopping mess

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.

This was kind of difficult

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:

But I can't argue with results

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.


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5 comments on “Cook’s Illustrated #97: Ciabatta”

  1. Ryan 26 February, 2009 at 3:21 pm

    you stopped making a bread because it was too easy? sounds like you enjoy the act of cooking more than you do the act of eating. silly tom

  2. Tom 26 February, 2009 at 5:53 pm

    The problem with the no knead bread recipe was that I felt like I was a machine. I could get really good, really consistent results, but I had no control over what was happening: I just followed the formula and let the magic happen. I much prefer my current method where I control every part of the process. There’s probably a lot of experimentation that I could do with the no knead recipe too, so maybe that’s a topic for future posts.

  3. Uncle Don 27 February, 2009 at 1:09 pm


    Looks like great results. I must give it a try. Busy with grandpa at the moment.

    Received a great letter from Martha.

    Uncle Don

  4. Amy Mom 4 March, 2009 at 4:03 pm

    that looks absolutely delicious, incredible texture. I would gladly tear my teeth into that, Tom.

  5. Tom 4 March, 2009 at 4:19 pm

    I just made this for the second time. I didn’t use as much water in the mixing and the dough was easier to work with, but I still think it would be chewier if I used a stand mixer. The crumb was just as great, but I think I like the crust a little crispier. Probably my fault for storing it in plastic.

    Posts linking to this post

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