Ciabatta and a lament for the Veneto

Frank and I have tentative plans to go to Portugal and Italy in late spring but the corona virus epidemic (soon to be pandemic) is complicating things. A large part of our Italian itinerary involves points north of Bologna and interestingly, those points are also the epicenter of Italy's current battle against COVID-19. We're on tenterhooks as this situation unfolds and in the meantime I'm still brushing up on my Italian (and learning some basic Portuguese) and throwing myself into the cuisines and foodways of both countries. The next month or so will determine whether or not we can make this trip but in the big picture, my dreams of a southern European sojourn are small potatoes when put up against a novel virus that's wreaking havoc across the globe.

Somebody who took one of my classes in January asked me to come up with a class that teaches how to make ciabatta. Ciabatta isn't a difficult bread to bake but it's an enormous pain in the ass to handle the dough. I tend to gravitate toward breads I make by hand and so far as I can tell, ciabatta has to be made in a stand mixer because it's so wet. Ciabatta dough sticks to everything but if you over flour it to make handling easier, you'll ruin the finished texture. So the way around that is to handle it as little as you can and remember that a wet hand can to things a floured hand could never dream of doing.

I'm still working out how to fit this process into a two-hour class and in the meantime, here's how I make ciabatta.

Ciabatta in its current form dates from the 1980s and was invented by a flour miller from Adria, in the Veneto region of northern Italy. Modern ciabatta is probably based on an earlier bread but that's all lost to history. This old article from The Guardian has a great explanation of ciabatta's history. Ciabatta means "slipper" in Italian by the way and I have to admit that I don't see the resemblance at all. To me, ciabatta looks more like un ciottolo, a cobblestone. Maybe that was already trademarked though...

Anyhow, there are a couple of things that make ciabatta unique. Number one, it's a very wet dough (hence the texture of it). Number two, it uses a preferment. In my baguette recipe, I refer to the preferment as a starter. That's sloppy language on my part because a starter usually means a wild yeast starter used in sourdough baking. What I call a starter in my baguette is actually a poolish and that's a wet preferment used in French bread baking. Italian breads use something called a biga. A biga is a drier version of a poolish and like all preferments, it exists to give bread a more complex flavor. Starting a bread dough with a preferment you make the day before is never an optional exercise. Remember that.



170 ml water
225g bread flour
1/8 teaspoon active dry yeast


all of the biga
170 ml water
225g bread flour
1 teaspoon active dry yeast
1 1/2 teaspoons salt


  1. To make the biga: Stir the water, flour, and yeast together, cover, and let rest at room temperature for at least 18 hours.
  2. To make the dough: Add the water to the biga, mixing to incorporate the two. Combine the flour, yeast, and salt in a separate bowl, and add to the biga-water mixture. Mix on low speed of a stand mixer fitted with a dough hook until the dough becomes cohesive, about 2 minutes. Increase the mixer to medium speed and knead to form an elastic, sticky dough, about 3 to 4 minutes. Resist the urge to add more flour.
  3. Cover the dough in the bowl, let it rise for 1 hour, then gently deflate it. Let it rise another hour, then turn it out onto a liberally floured work surface, and sprinkle lots of flour on top.
  4. Flatten the dough to an 8" x 10" rectangle and cut it into two pieces, each 4" x 10".
  5. Transfer the loaves onto a piece of parchment, leaving about 6" between them. Cover with a lightly greased piece of plastic wrap or a freestanding plastic cover, and let rise until they're very puffy, 1 1/2 to 2 hours.
  6. About 30 minutes before the loaves are ready to bake, preheat the oven to 500°F. If you have a baking stone, place it in the middle of the oven when you start preheating, so it gets nice and hot. This bread does best in a steamy oven environment, so place a skillet on the bottom rack of the oven.
  7. Spritz the dough with water. If you're baking on a stone, transfer the bread to the stone, parchment and all. If you're using a pan, transfer the loaves on their parchment to a baking sheet, and place them on a middle rack of the oven. Pour about a cup of boiling water into the now piping hot skillet and close the oven door quickly. Lower the oven temperature to 425°F.
  8. Bake the ciabatta until it's golden brown, approximately 22 to 25 minutes. Turn the oven off, place ciabatta on the oven's middle rack (remove the stone if you’ve used one), crack the door open about 2", and allow ciabatta to cool completely in the turned-off oven.  
  9. Fresh ciabatta is best enjoyed as soon as it cools down. 

Spare a thought for Italy as it faces this epidemic and gird your loins for when it starts spreading here. I don't want to add to the panic, but this viral infection is kind of a big deal.