I love yeast.
I think it’s from my Dad. Growing up, every weekend included a different baking adventure. Dad always had specialties – cinnamon rolls, humongous dinner rolls, and loaves of fantastic white bread that billowed out of a loaf pans and spilled out like a pillowy dream. Dad made enough for an army, with flour on his forehead and sweat on his brow, and he would knead with vigor that would push far past what our counter could handle. Our oven ran for days at a time.
With the love and hard work that poured out of my father and into every airy loaf of goodness he produced, it was clear to me from a very young age that Dad was a fermentation fiend. Dad put in the grunt work by kneading every last bit of life into the backed goods and forcing every glutinous gram to its stretchy full potential. What I’m saying is, my dad is a killer baker.
I’m not as great at baking as my father is. I grew up in New Mexico and moved to Denver, so I’ve lived at high altitude for my entire life. High altitude can really mess with your breads (and cause your homemade root beer to explode in the bottle, but that’s another story) for a multitude of reasons. First, you have much less humidity at high altitude than at sea level, which means if you’re not working fast enough you will be left with a dried out and crusty mess before the gluten is activated enough to become dough. Secondly, you have much less atmospheric pressure at high altitudes, so your leavening agents like yeast will produce more and more air. Even if you end up with a workable dough, you could have it rise up enough to spill all over your counter if you’re not careful.
Fortunately, there are ways around this. But again, I’m not as strong of a baker as my father is. Typically if you look online, you will find several strategies for high altitude baking. Most of them involve removing a few tablespoons of dry goods per batch or adding a few tablespoons of liquid per batch. It’s a method that works time and again, but not one that works that well for an amateur baker. It reminds me of the time I tried to make pasta by hand and ended up with three sickening clumps of flour and free range eggs in the kitchen garbage (again, that’s another story).
For now, I’ve found a less than elegant solution. A high altitude environment is an imperfect condition to bake bread, so perhaps it requires an imperfect bread recipe to make it happen. Luckily for high altitude bakers everywhere, there’s an imperfect bread that ends up nice and crusty, no matter how high above sea level you are. Ciabatta makes a great, if messy, sandwich along with fantastic crostini, or even just a great table bread. Also, rather than messing with tablespoons and fractions of ounces to alter your high altitude baking, i think it’s simpler to just use scant cups of flour and heavy cups of your liquids.
Ciabatta is a very unique kind of bread. it’s incredibly chewy, and while it’s more of a flat loaf that doesn’t plump up like a normal white bread, it does end up with some amazing crust and some huge bubbles that hold any flavor you can think of. Spread some goat cheese on these suckers, and the bubbles with hold whatever you can throw at them. Even butter-I won’t judge.
What gives ciabatta its unique texture and flavor is the preparation. Rather, what makes ciabatta great is the work you’re willing to put in the night before. Ciabatta requires a biga, which is kind of like a halfway sourdough starter. Basically, you use a portion of flour and yeast in water, and you let the fermentation start before you mix the bulk of the dough. This mini dough/yeast mixture gives the bread its best notes, and since it takes all night to mix, you have the chance of some wild yeasts catching onto your mix. You end up with a slightly more complex yeast flavor in your bread, and you end up with a lovely, crusty, chewy end product. It’s a win-win.
Luckily, the biga is easy. You start with a half cup of water (heavy, if at high altitude) and a half teaspoon of yeast. You’ll want to use good water-no need for filtered, but if it’s good enough to drink, it’ll be good enough to bake with. You also want to use warm water, typically around 110 degrees fahrenheit. If you don’t have a quick-read thermometer around and you’re not too anal retentive, just think about it logically. Your body holds around 98.6 degrees. If the water feels a bit warmer than your finger, it’s probably good to use. Also, most apartments top out their water heaters at 120 degrees and most single home residences end up at 140 degrees fahrenheit. Two more reference points to use.
Add your half cup of flour and give it a brisk stir, fifty rotations or so. If you have a whisk, use that. What you’re looking for is a thick and sticky mess, with the gluten slightly activated. It should stretch out a bit and pull off the whisk or spoon you’re using. After it’s done, you’ll cover it up overnight. I prefer using a damp towel, but you can definitely cover it up with saran wrap if that’s what you have handy. A towel gives it the chance to pick up wild yeast, and I find beauty in the little, wild imperfections.
- 1/2 cup warm water
- 1/2 teaspoon yeast
- 1 cup flour (all purpose is fine. We’re doing imperfect, remember?)
After your biga has had the night to sit, it will bubble up nice and proper and sound rightfully yeasty. Then next morning, you’ll keep your two to one flour to liquid ratio going. Start with two cups (heavy again, if at high altitude) of warm water and add a full teaspoon of yeast. Let the yeast dissolve, then add four cups of flour and two teaspoons of sea salt. Morton’s table salt is fine, I just love the taste and flakiness of sea salt.
- 2 cups warm water
- 1 teaspoon yeast
- 4 cups flour
- 2 teaspoons salt
This dough, you’ll notice, will become much more wet than other bread doughs. I like mixing the dough together with a rubber spatula and letting the flour soak up the water for about ten minutes. You don’t have to do this, but I’ve found the dough to be more cooperative and consistent with the presoak method. After your dough has soaked, it’s time to knead.
Kneading gives your dough its strength. When you knead the dough, you are activating long strings of proteins which will form, essentially, a strong web. Air escaping from the yeast will fill the gaps in this strong web, creating bubbles. You could knead by hand, but with ciabatta it’s incredibly difficult since the dough is so wet. Your hands will stick to the dough and make it into a doughy mess on your hands before you have any gluten development. Instead, I throw the mixture into a stand mixer on medium with a dough hook. Let it do its work.
After about eight minutes, it will start slapping the sides as it becomes a more structured mass. Around fifteen minutes, the dough will take a luster that’s shiny and gorgeous. Once it’s shiny, it’s kneaded to perfection. Next, you toss it into a large bowl and let it rise. You can leave it in the stand mixer bowl and let it rise there, but I prefer getting a bit of oil or butter onto a fresh bowl and coating it, that way the dough won’t stick to whatever container it rises in. Crisco or butter work best, then you let the dough rise until it about triples in bulk.
We’re in the home stretch here, people. Your dough has risen, and now you have a chance to make it into actual loaves. First off, get a pizza stone or similar into the oven and crank it to 425-450. This recipe will make two good-size loafs, so flip your bowl onto a floured surface and slice it in half. You can use a floured chef’s knife or a pastry scraper, but just find a way to place each loaf onto a piece of parchment paper. If you want to make rolls, you can cut it into smaller pieces and go from there.
Next up, use your fingertips to punch the loaf around halfway down and give it some pock marks, that way it rises evenly.. Let the loaves prime for about a half hour, then they are ready to go in the oven. I like grabbing the parchment paper itself, that way it’s most stable, and transferring it to the oven by hand. Plop that sucker right on the pizza stone and close it up. They should be done in 15-20 minutes depending on your oven. You’re looking for an even golden brown crustiness, so if your oven doesn’t heat evenly, make sure you rotate the loaves in your oven. Once they look nice and golden and scrumptious, pull them out and place them on a cooling rack for another ten minutes before you slice into them.
Whew. I just realized that this is a pretty involved and long recipe. I know, I know, it sounds complex, but if you have to work around the house for a weekend, you might as well have some fresh and crusty bread as a reward for when you finish your projects. These loaves are seriously awesome with soup, on sandwiches, or just as a torn off hunk of a snack. Scrumptious!