Ciabatta: No need to knead

Posted April 05, 2011, at 11:07 p.m.

Bread bakers generally get along with one another, bound by a compulsion to devote hours of time to making something that’s readily available in bakeries and groceries.

So it’s too much to say that a schism exists between those who embrace the ease of the no-knead technique and those who wonder why anyone would forfeit the physical and mental therapy of pounding on bread dough.

Yet there is a loaf around which these two camps come together: ciabatta.

Ciabatta is known for a moist, hole-y interior captured within a flour-dusted, paper-thin crust. That’s the result of dough that’s wetter than most, and too wet to knead in the traditional manner.

Jim Lahey, whose recipe for no-knead bread turned the baking world on its ear when published in the New York Times in 2006, has gone on to tweak and improve this technique. But most of his recipes still require an outlay of cash toward acquiring a Le Creuset pan, a cast-iron pot, a Romertopf Clay Baker or other such vessel that creates a steam-trapping “oven within an oven.”

If you have such a vessel, then you’ll love what he does with it in his latest book, “My Bread” (Norton, $29.95).

But it’s possible to take the best of Lahey’s techniques and adapt them to a relatively unembellished kitchen. If you have a pizza stone and hot pads, you’re on your way to making a lovely ciabatta.

But not tonight.

The key to the no-knead approach is a long fermentation (12 to 18 hours) that develops the gluten without all the stretching and folding. So mix the dough the night before you plan to bake and eat the bread.

PLAN, PLAN AHEAD

Ciabatta is at its best the day it’s baked, so here’s a suggested schedule for serving fresh-baked bread for dinner on Saturday night.

Friday, just before you get your jammies on, mix together the flour, yeast, salt and water in a bowl. Stir thoroughly, cover with plastic wrap and set it on the counter overnight.

By Saturday morning, after about 12 hours have passed (you can sleep in), the dough is showing a few bubbles. Let it sit up to 18 hours, or into the afternoon, when it should look quite bubbly.

By now it’s about 3 p.m. Turn the dough out onto a floured surface, then pat it into a square, then fold twice to make a smaller square. Cover it with a cloth and let it rise.

After about 30 minutes, preheat the oven and place a pizza stone on a rack in the upper third of the oven, along with a cake pan on the bottom rack.

Now it’s 4 p.m. and the dough has risen again; it’s ready if you poke it and the indentation remains. Cut it in two pieces and gently stretch each piece onto a baking sheet covered with parchment paper.

Slide the paper onto the pizza stone, then quickly (but carefully) pour some boiling water into the cake pan. This technique mimics a steam-injected oven, which keeps the crust soft enough to rise to its fullest, then ensures a crackling crust.

After about 20 minutes, say by 4:30, you’ll have two golden ciabatta cooling on your wire rack. If you listen carefully, you’ll hear a subtle crackling sound as the loaves cool.

By dinnertime, they’re ready to slice, and you’re ready to indulge in the physical and mental therapy of eating home-baked bread.

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CIABATTA

Makes 2 loaves

This recipe is adapted from “My Bread: The Revolutionary No-Work, No-Knead Method” by Jim Lahey. He recommends using a Romertopf clay baker to capture the steam during baking, and that makes a wonderful loaf. But a darn good loaf also is possible with a pan of water and, ideally, a pizza stone. Instant yeast is sold as “bread machine” or “rapid-rise” yeast. This recipe must be started a day in advance of baking.

3 c. bread flour

1½ tsp. salt

¼ tsp. instant yeast

1½ c. plus 1 tbsp. cool water

Additional flour for dusting

Boiling water, about 1 cup

In a medium bowl, stir together flour, salt and yeast. Add the water and mix thoroughly until you have a wet, sticky dough, about a minute. Cover the bowl with plastic wrap and let sit at room temperature until the surface is dotted with bubbles and the dough has more than doubled in size. This will take at least 12 hours and up to 18.

When the dough has risen, generously dust a work surface with flour. Scrape the dough out of the bowl in one piece. Dust the surface of the dough with flour and, with floured hands, pat and nudge the dough into a 12- to 14-inch square. Brush off any excess flour. Fold the dough in half, then crosswise in half again, into a square 6 to 7 inches on each side.

Place the dough on a floured surface (a countertop or a baking sheet) and place in a warm, draft-free spot. Cover with a clean cloth and let rise a second time for 1 hour. The dough is ready when it has almost doubled. It should hold the impression when gently poked with a finger. If the dough springs back, let it rise another 15 minutes.

Half an hour before the end of the second rise, preheat the oven to 475 degrees. If you have a pizza stone, place it on a rack in the upper third of the oven. Place a cake pan or oven-safe skillet on the bottom rack.

When the dough has risen, place a sheet of parchment paper on a baking sheet. Bring a cup of water to a boil.

Using a bench knife or sharp serrated knife, cut the dough in half. With floured hands, pick up the dough and quickly but gently stretch it to about 12 inches and place on the parchment. Repeat with the second piece of dough.

Slide the parchment paper with the dough onto the pizza stone (or if not using a stone, place the baking sheet on the rack). Close the oven door. Pour the boiling water into a measuring cup then, working quickly, open the oven door and pour the water into the hot cake pan or skillet. Immediately close the oven door and set the timer for 15 minutes.

After 15 minutes, remove the pan of water and continue baking for another 5 minutes. The bread is done when it’s a light golden color. Cool on a wire rack.

Nutrition information per serving of 1 slice (8 slices per loaf):

Calories 95 Fat 0 g Sodium 225 mg

Carbohydrates 19 g Saturated fat 0 g Calcium 5 mg

Protein 3 g Cholesterol . 0 mg Dietary fiber 1 g

Diabetic exchanges per serving: 1 bread/starch.

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