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. Steve sheffield

    Just a thought on your pan bagna, try using g a relish of green olives, black olives, and chopped roasted garlic as a spread and finish it off with a few chopped anchovies. I know it sounds odd, but try it and you’ll be a believer.

    Reply
  2. Elizabeth Montgomery

    I made the Ciabatta today beginning with 14.5 ounces of my fed sourdough starter. I also added and extra 2T KA flour because it is so very humid in Galveston; next time I will a little more depending on how loose everything is. I didn’t cover the dough on the last rise hoping that a drier skin would help the loaves hold together and that worked. Instead of dimpling, I folded the edges of the loaf in on themselves and they held. The loaves turned out great and I feel exceedingly pleased with myself! 🙂

    Reply
  3. NG LING MIN

    Hi,

    I am an editor from a publishing company. I am interested to take one of your bread photo to be put in a book that I am responsible for. I am currently editing a children science book that mentioning about the function of yeast. You photo (the first photo in this blog) is suitable for that purpose.

    Therefore,I am writing to ask your permission whether you allow us to use the photo for commercial purpose?

    Thank you.

    Regards,
    Ling Ng

    Reply
    1. The Baker's Hotline

      Hi Ling, thanks for thinking of us! We’d love to connect you with the right members of our team so you can get the information you’re looking for. Please send an email to mediarelations[at]kingarthurflour[dot]com (replace the bracketed words with the appropriate symbols) with your request. Someone will be happy to help you further from there. Kindly, Kye@KAF

  4. victor cotugno

    Great article but missing a few things- after you dimple dough with oiled or wet fingers, how long for final rise (approximately). Also, recipe never mentions the oven temperature you bake at- sort of an important ommission.

    Reply
    1. The Baker's Hotline

      It looks like Step. 8 is the step for you, Victor. This recipe suggests about a 60-90 minute rise after you’ve dimpled it with your fingers, and recommends an oven temperature of 425°F. We hope this helps, and happy baking! Annabelle@KAF

    1. The Baker's Hotline

      Justyne, the starter can be mixed and then left to rest for up to 15 hours in advance. After two days, the yeast will have lost its “oomph.” Prepare the starter the night before you’re ready to bake for best results. Kye@KAF

  5. cleek

    the first time i tried this the loaves came out about 1″ thick. tasted great, tho. the next time i added more flour and they came out flat and hard. the next two times the dough came out absolutely liquid.

    Reply
    1. The Baker's Hotline

      Sounds like some baking advice and troubleshooting is in order, Cleek. Feel free to give our Baker’s Hotline a call at 855-371-BAKE(2253) if you’d like to chat with one of our friendly, experienced bakers. We’ll get you on the right track again, not to worry. Kye@KAF

  6. Dwight Cimino

    Just a “thank you” for the recipe and the wonderful photographs. It makes the difference between wondering what is going on, . . . and knowing what is going on.

    No real hiccups, . . . had a little trouble getting the dough to raise this morning, . . . did the old warm oven trick, . . . worked like a champ.

    Made it for a family / friend get together (Labor Day) and every one was really thrilled with it, . . .

    I’ll definitely be making this more often.

    Thanks again, may God bless,
    Dwight

    Reply
  7. Bryan

    Hi, just tried this today. Everything was going to plan but I think I used too much oil on my baking sheet because on the last rise it just spread out and didn’t rise. Not to be deterred I scooped it off the plan and wiped some of the oil off and tried again. Slightly better on round two but not like you pictures. Haven’t cut into it yet but really smelled good and did rise while baking. I need to work on my loaf shaping a bit more but I’m pretty sure it’ll make some good garlic bread as is.
    My question is, what do you think about baking this bread in a ceramic bowl?
    Thanks so much!

    Reply
    1. The Baker's Hotline

      Hi Bryan, you can certainly opt for a ceramic bowl if you have one. That will help support your slack dough and give it structure. You can also try building strength in your dough by using a flour with a higher protein content (like bread flour) and adding some strength and folds into the rising process. (Here’s a video of how to stretch and fold dough; try doing this three to four times, every 15 minutes or so during the first rise.) That should help. Happy baking! Kye@KAF

  8. sammy smith

    I just wanted to say I really enjoyed this article. It has inspired me to take some creative discretion on my next batch of bread. Haha.

    Reply
  9. Nathaniel Ingersoll

    I came for the holey thoughts, but noticed questions about dough clean-up.
    This should be right up King Arthur’s alley – chain mail.
    My son makes chain mail armor, and he made me a piece about 5″ square; there’s nothing sharp about it and so you can scrub all kinds of things (including seasoned cast iron) – and it works wonders for doughy things, including hands, because the dough doesn’t get all stuck in the rings and the rings break it up really nicely.

    Before chain mail, I used to regularly ruin sponges getting stuff clean, but now a quick scrub under water with the chain mail and there’s no dough, anywhere.

    Reply

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