From America's Test Kitchen Season 10: Italian Bread and Sauce
Unless your source is an artisanal bakery, most loaves of ciabatta available just aren’t any good. Some lack flavor, others are too flat, and still others have holes so big there’s hardly any bread. Ideally, this Italian loaf should boast a crisp, flavorful crust, a full and tangy flavor, and a chewy, open crumb. Uninterested in yet another lackluster loaf from the supermarket, we decided to make our own.
We started with the flour selection—whole wheat, bread, or all-purpose? We preferred all-purpose, which is made from both hard and soft wheat and has less protein than bread flour, producing loaves with a more open, springy texture. The next step was to build flavor through the sponge (or biga in Italian), which we also used in our Rustic Country Bread (page 450). As it ferments, the yeast in the biga produces lactic and acetic acids as by-products, which give the bread its characteristic sourness. Kneading the sponge and remaining dough ingredients in a standing mixer for only a few minutes produced loaves that spread out instead of rising, so we turned to a combination of kneading and folding the dough over itself a few times before letting it rest. This two-step process gives the dough structure but also supports oversized holes. Adding a small amount of milk, which contains a protein that slightly weakens the gluten strands, remedied the problem and took down the size of those big bubbles.
To avoid extra handling of the dough, we formed the loaves, then moved them to parchment paper and slid the parchment onto the baking surface after another rest. We opted to bake the loaves at a cooler temperature than 500 degrees (as most recipes recommend). A final enhancement was to spray the loaves with water in the first minutes of baking for a crisper crust and loaves that rose a bit higher.
Makes 2 loaves
Two tablespoons of nonfat milk powder can be used in place of the liquid milk; increase the amount of water in the dough to 1 cup. As you make this bread, keep in mind that the dough is wet and very sticky. The key to manipulating it is working quickly and gently; rough handling will result in flat, tough loaves. When possible, use a large rubber spatula or bowl scraper to move the dough. If you have to use your hands, make sure they are well floured. Because the dough is so sticky, it must be prepared in a stand mixer. If you don’t have a baking stone, bake the bread on an overturned and preheated rimmed baking sheet set on the lowest oven rack. The bread will keep for up to 2 days, well wrapped and stored at room temperature. To recrisp the crust, place the unwrapped bread in a 450-degree oven for 6 to 8 minutes. The bread will keep frozen for several months wrapped in foil and placed in a large zipper-lock bag. Thaw the bread at room temperature and recrisp using the instructions above.