How do you make that bread with the big holes: Secrets of ciabatta revealed

It’s the ne plus ultra of artisan bread.

The gold medalist (whoops, make that King Arthurist) of chewy loaves.

The Holey Grail.

I’m speaking, of course, of ciabatta, that light-as-air, hole-riddled loaf beloved of rustic-loaf bakers everywhere. (“Rustic” describing the loaves, of course; although perhaps some of the bakers as well.)

Here at King Arthur Flour, “How do I get those big, irregular holes in my bread?” is one of the most common questions we get on our baker’s hotline (open days/evenings, 802-649-3717; call us.) And, while there are numerous paths to that destination, the most reliable I’ve found is a very slack (wet) dough, one that’s challenging to work with because it’s so sticky and oozy and elastic. But one that, ultimately, yields a rich harvest of holes. And flavor.

I’ve made ciabatta a lot—about as many times as you’re heard the word “change” coming from the mouths of our Presidential candidates in the past month or so. And it’s definitely a “practice makes perfect” scenario.

Eventually, you learn just how slack the dough can be without being SO slack that it spreads, rather than rises. At last, you figure out just how long you can let the shaped loaves rise before they collapse. In other words, this bread is not without its challenges.

But by following the directions and the pictures below, you’ve got a really good shot at success. And even if you don’t get a loaf with HUGE holes, it’ll still be delightfully chewy and richly flavored.

So here we go: let’s take the Ciabatta Challenge.

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First, make the overnight starter. For simple breads, breads made with flour, water, yeast, and salt, an overnight starter gives the yeast a nice, long window in which to perform its magic—which is not only raising the bread, but giving it marvelous flavor. As yeast grows, it gives off alcohol and organic acids, both of which are flavor enhancers. Thus, the longer yeast grows, the more flavorful your bread will be.

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Here it is the next day, nice and bubbly. This starter has had about a 15-hour rise at room temperature.

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Mix the starter with the remaining dough ingredients.

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Knead till smooth; it’ll be silky-smooth. This dough is so soft, it really can’t be kneaded by hand; it needs a mixer or bread machine. Or food processor, I imagine, though I haven’t tried that method with this dough.

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Talk about elastic… You go, gluten!

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Now you’re going to let the dough rise for about an hour, deflate it, and let it rise again. This midstream deflation redistributes the yeast a bit, and offloads much of the CO2, making it easier for the yeast to grow.

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So here we are after 2 hours; despite deflating it after an hour, it’s risen to great heights.

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Look at those nice bubbles! I love to use this 8-cup clear measuring cup for dough rising. You get such a nice view of everything that’s happening.

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Next, turn the dough out onto a lightly greased or floured work surface. No need to punch it down; I don’t believe in violence when it comes to yeast dough. It’ll gently deflate itself a bit as you handle it.

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Cut the dough in half.

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Pull/stretch it gently to make two logs, each about 10” x 4”. Place them on a lightly greased baking sheet.

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Cover, and let them rise for about 45 minutes, till they’re definitely showing some puff.

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Dimple gently but firmly with your oiled or wet fingers. They’ll deflate a bit; that’s OK.

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They should look about like this.

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And after they’ve finished rising, they’ll look like this. The dimples will have filled in somewhat, but will still be apparent.

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Spritz with water, and bake till golden brown. For extra crispness, cool right on the rack in the turned-off oven; prop the oven door open with a folded-over potholder.

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Next up: garlic bread. But not that squishy, pallid version made with garlic salt (ewwwww) and dried parsley. No, THIS gourmet garlic bread, made on your own homemade ciabatta, features butter, olive oil, fresh garlic, coarsely grated Parmesan, and a fresh parsley garnish.

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Freshly grated Parmesan is key. PLEASE don’t use that stuff in the can. You need cheese that’s moist and nubbly in texture, not dry and sawdust-y.

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Next, fresh garlic cloves and olive oil…

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…emulsified in a mini food processor or blender. Stir in melted butter and a pinch of salt…

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…then brush on the ciabatta, which you’ve cut in half to make two big top-and-bottom pieces.

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Here it is, ready to go into the oven. No cheese yet.

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And here it is baked (notice the brown edges), and topped with Parmesan. The hot bread will soften the Parmesan just a bit.

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Sprinkle with freshly snipped parsley, if desired.

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And serve to great acclamation by garlic lovers everywhere.

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Be still my heart! This is Italian pan bagna, literally “bathed bread.” Doesn’t it look good? A “true” pan bagna is made with tuna and hard-boiled eggs, but I’ve substituted some of my favorite sub (hoagie, grinder, hero…) fillings here.

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Cut the ciabatta in half around its circumference, as befits a  mega-sandwich.

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Drizzle or brush both halves with olive oil.

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I like to start with a layer of lettuce, as it shields the bread from juicier ingredients, preventing it from becoming soggy.

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Tomatoes, red onions, roasted red peppers…

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Provolone and salami…

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More lettuce, to enclose the juicy stuff from the top…

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And here it is, not QUITE ready to eat.

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Wrap the pan bagna in plastic wrap, then in aluminum foil.

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Finally, weigh it down with something heavy for a few hours. Here I’m using a baking sheet topped with my flour bucket. This weighing down compresses the sandwich and its filling, melding everything together nicely.

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Unwrap, slice, and serve. Enjoy!

Read, review, and rate (please!) our recipe for Ciabatta Three Ways, including bread, garlic bread, and pan bagna.

Buy vs. Bake, Ciabatta

Buy: Panera, Ciabatta, 6.25 ounce loaf, $3.29

Nature’s Promise Ciabatta Bread, 11 oz. loaf, $3.49

Bake at home: Ciabatta, two 12-ounce loaves, 55¢ each

Buy vs. Bake, Garlic Bread

Buy: Morgan Street Brewery, St. Louis, MO. Three Cheese Garlic Bread, fresh-baked with provolone, mozzarella and Parmesan, $5.25 

La Famiglia Giorgio, Boston, Mass. Garlic Bread: Slices of French bread brushed with extra-virgin olive oil and minced garlic served hot from the oven,  $3.95

Bake at home: Garlic bread with fresh garlic, butter, olive oil, fresh Parmesan, and fresh parsley, one open-faced half-loaf, $1.36.

Buy vs. Bake, Pan Bagna

Buy: Patisserie Didier Dumas, Nyack, NY: Pan Bagna, a crunchy baguette with basil pesto, tuna salad, tomato, mesclun leaves, and  slices of hard-boiled egg, $6.95

Bistro Moderne, Houston, TX: Pan Bagna au Thon: Provencal tuna sandwich with tomato, eggs, artichokes and radishes, $15

Chez Jacques, Milwaukee, WI: Pan Bagna, chicken or tuna, $7.50

Make at home: Pan bagna stuffed with Boar’s head provolone and salami, lettuce, tomato, red onion, and roasted red peppers, half of one large (12”) sandwich, $2.92

 

PJ Hamel
About

PJ Hamel grew up in New England, graduated from Brown University, and was a Maine journalist before joining King Arthur Flour in 1990. PJ bakes and writes from her home on Cape Cod, where she enjoys beach-walking, her husband, two dogs, and really good food!

comments

  1. J.B. Bulharowski

    An internet search for holie bread turned up in the search listings. But here’s my issue. Yesterday I made and baked 2 round loaves of bread with my homemade SOURDOUGH starter and I know it was alive an kicking because it burbled over the stoneware container I keep it in. Lovely texture, nice sourdough aroma and taste; but none of the distinctive holes in the slices that show up in your ciabatta photos. Perhaps sourdough bread is not supposed to be as holie as the ciabatta. Any thoughts on this, and does the moist dough theory apply to the sourdough prep too? My dough was workable and maybe just a tad sticky – I had to use my bench scraper to move it around. My DH thought it was some of the best SD bread I have made and thought I was being hyper-picky about it. Any thoughts on my hyper-picky issue?
    Best,

    Reply
    1. The Baker's Hotline

      It could be a kneading thing or a shaping thing, JB. If we treat a ciabatta, sourdough or other hole-y dough like a typical yeast bread, then you’ll have a typical yeast bread appearance with even cells. Folding the dough instead of kneading and shaping the bread differently will help you get both the texture you’re looking for and maintain the sourdough taste your DH has given his seal of approval! Happy Baking! Irene@KAF

    1. The Baker's Hotline

      Hi Patricia,
      Sounds like you’re looking for the full recipe link, which will include all the details you need to know for baking this delicious, holey ciabatta. You can click the orange recipe link under the top-most photo or just click here. Bake the loaves in the middle of your oven. Happy baking! Kye@KAF

  2. Rasmus Ursem

    In short, the main factors in a fluffy bread with big holes are:

    – The right flour and balance between water and flour – depends greatly on flour quality. I have tried King Authors flour and it works great!
    – The right kneading – enough to make the gluten into an elastic structure with long threads, but not too much as it will break the structure.
    – The right handling of the wet dough – avoiding collapsing the gluten structure.
    – The right baking – 25-30 minutes at 225-250 degrees on a baking stone.

    You can read a detailed description on the page below. I also have including videos to help you see the kneading.
    http://www.rkursem.com/food/bread/fluffy-bread/

    Reply
    1. PJ Hamel, post author

      Ellen, it makes two 10″ to 11″ loaves – I’d say between those two loaves, you could bet six substantial servings. Hope this helps – PJH

  3. Clive

    I followed the recipe for Light summer Ciabatta bread (loaves) as it used only 1.5 cups flour plus the overnight Biga, then skipped to step 4 with the ciabatta rolls as I did not want to waste flour on a new recipe. While the rolls were tasty and had a good rise they did not even faintly resemble the Ciabatta either in taste or in the large holey structure. I was very disappointed as I have been looking far and wide for the Ciabatta recipe that really works at home using a bread machine for the kneading and thought this may be it. I followed the recipe exactly using the bread machine for the initial kneading(dough) + first rise then left it in the bread pan for 90 more minutes punched down and shaped into rolls let rise for 3 hours, baked etc but after all that trouble they were just like the usual kaiser rolls that I make in less than half the time, may be I should have added more water or not punch the dough down before shaping. I however skipped the dimples as I did not like dimpled bread. Even the pictures on the site do not show the baked result that the beautiful picture does show at the top of this page. Where can I find a recipe for ciabatta rolls that really work before I give up? I’m looking for large holey structure like the picture at the top of this page without substitution.

    Reply
    1. The Baker's Hotline

      You could replace the yeasted starter with 14.25 ounces of liquid sourdough starter.~Jaydl@KAF

  4. Michelle

    I just made this bread today and it came out looking beautiful and tasting great- but super flat. When I split the dough and put it on the pan, it refused to get taller; it just grew out a little bit. I live in Florida and the humidity is high, so is this result because the dough was too wet?

    The wetter dough will tend to spread out instead of rising up. You might consider experimenting with slightly more flour (starting with just a couple tablespoons) – keeping track of the amount you add and your results so you can duplicate. Happy Baking! Irene@KAF

    Reply
  5. Kayak Girl

    As I prepared the starter this evening, I realized I only had active dry yeast. I went ahead and used that, but can I also use it for the bread dough tomorrow?

    Today active dry yeast and instant yeast are interchangeable (in process and in recipe amount). Happy Baking! Irene@KAF</strong.

    Reply
  6. Denise

    Can this starter be kept going, like sourdough starter, so that I could make this bread “spur of the moment”, rather than having to plan a day ahead?

    Denise, you can actually just use a sourdough starter; the only issue with that is, I don’t particular care for sourdough pizza, so I’d rather use a “fresh” starter, one that’s rested only overnight. If you’re in a hurry, you don’t need to do the overnight rest, either; while it adds to the bread’s flavor and rise, you could, if desired, simply increase the yeast by about 1/2 teaspoon, and throw all the ingredients (overnight starter + dough) together, and go from there. Enjoy – PJH

    Reply

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