I made another version of ciabatta about two years ago, when I made a very similar recipe from the same book: Bread, by Jeffrey Hamelman. Two years ago, I reported this conversation:
Jim looked at the cookbook and asked me if I was making ciabatta with poolish. "No," I said, "I'm making the one with the biga." "What's the difference between biga and poolish?" he asked. "Ummm," I said, "well, you know." "No, I don't," he said. I didn't want to admit I really didn't know the difference myself. I searched my memory. "Well, you ferment them ahead of time and add them to the dough. And poolish means Polish. I think." I finally looked it up, and there's not a huge difference, except that a biga is a more generic term for a pre-ferment and can be soft or stiff in texture, and can be refrigerated up to three days, whereas a poolish is never refrigerated.So this time I made ciabatta with the non-refrigerated, soft poolish. It was very good. But I see that I reported that the ciabatta made with stiff biga was also very good. This made me realize why I'm not a true baker: I'm not scientific. I don't keep at a recipe until I've perfected it. I'm haphazard. I make ciabatta when I feel like it, which seems to be about every six months, judging by a search for "ciabatta" on my blog. On the other hand, I get to make ciabatta when I feel like it.
Please don't be intimidated by the foreign, exotic-sounding poolish, or by the make-ahead nature of it. The poolish could not be easier to make: you mix up water, flour, and a smidgen of yeast with a wooden spoon. Then you cover it with plastic wrap and go to bed. (You actually don't have to go to bed. You just have to leave the poolish alone for 12 to 16 hours, so if you are younger than I am and have more entertaining things to do with your time on Saturday night, feel free. I went to bed). When you get up (or get home, if you've had an exciting time of it), the poolish is bubbly and ready to go.
And don't be intimidated by the rest of the bread dough; that's simple too. It's just mixing the poolish into more bread flour, water, and yeast. If you want to be intimidated by something, you can worry about working with the outcome of the easy mixing: a very wet, very sticky dough, that is, according to Hamelman, so delicate that it might collapse if you sneeze. Now those are words to intimidate.
And you get plenty of opportunity to handle it. The first rise is about three hours, but you're supposed to take it out of its bowl, watching it slowly and silently plop onto the counter, and fold it into thirds, then carefully put it back in the container.
Next in the process--shape it into the typical oblong, flour-coated ciabatta loaves. The home version of the recipe makes three loaves. I cut the recipe in half, but made two smallish loaves. I should have made 2/3 of the recipe, but dividing by 3 is harder than dividing by 2, which was already taxing my limited math abilities.
What with the stickiness of the dough and the dire warnings about collapsing, I'm always surprised that the dough manages to shape itself into loaves that more or less look how they're supposed to look. It helps that they're supposed to look kind of rough-hewn.
If you want a super-crispy crust, you can do some kind of steam contraption. Depending on my mood, I toss ice cubes on a preheated cookie sheet, pour boiling water in a preheated cookie sheet, or use my steamer. I always use a baking stone when making a rustic kind of bread. Even if you don't want to do those things, though, I think the bread would still taste better than almost anything that you can buy, which is good because it goes stale very quickly.
Here is the recipe. As I mentioned, I divided it in half and got two rather small loaves. If you make the whole recipe, I recommend either giving some away or freezing at least one loaf because it just won't be as good the second day:
Ciabatta with Poolish
from Bread, by Jeffrey Hamelman
9.6 oz. (2 1/4 cups) bread flour
9.6 oz. (1 1/4 cup) water
1/8 tsp. instant dry yeast
1 lb. 6.4 oz. (5 1/8 cups) bread flour
13.8 oz. (1 3/4 cups) water
.6 oz. (1 T.) salt
.13 oz. (1 1/4 tsp)instant dry yeast
1. POOLISH. Disperse the yeast in the water,, add the flour, and mix until smooth. Cover the bowl with plastic and let stand for 12 to 16 hours at room temperature.
2. MIXING. Add all the ingredients to the mixing bowl, including the poolish. In a stand mixer using a dough hook, mix on low speed for 3 minutes. Finish mixing on medium for 3 1/2 to 4 minutes, until gluten development is evidence. The dough will still be loose and sticky, but should have some "muscle".
3. FERMENTATION AND FOLDING. Put the dough in a mixing bowl sprayed with baker's spray. Fold the dough twice, after one hour and again after two hours.
4. DIVIDING AND SHAPING. Flour the work surface copiously. Invert the dough onto the work surface and pat out the larger air bubbles. Lightly flour the top surface of the dough. Cut the dough into 3 rectangles, weighing about 18 ounces each. Gently shape into rectangles. Place the dough piece onto floured bread boards (I used floured parchment paper). Cover the shaped dough with baker's linen and then plastic.
5. FINAL FERMENTATION. About 1 1/2 hours.
6. BAKING: Preheat oven to 460 degrees.
To transfer the proofed dough to a baker's peel, spread the fingers of both your hands. With a quick, deft stroke, invert the dough piece so that the side that was touching the bread board is now on top. Place one hand at each end of the dough piece, bring your fingers underneath, and pick it up. Here you will slightly punch the dough for easier transport; there should be wrinkles in the center of the loaf as the transfer it to the peel. [I just picked up the parchment paper and put it on top of a pre-heated baking stone--I'm using his instructions here just to show why I think they're hard to understand.) Fill the oven with steam, load the ciabattas, steam again, and bake for 34-38 minutes. (I used the steam machine; otherwise you can use either an ice cube or boiling water method to get steam. Hamelmans thinks you should use all three: ice cubes on a heated skillet before the bread goes in, boiling water on a heated pan when the bread goes in, and spritzing with water too). Lower the oven temperature by 10 or 20 degrees if bread is taking on too much color, but be sure not to underbake.
Remove the bread from the oven and let cool on a baking rack.