We should all have a solid command of the ABCs of baking. Thankfully,Food52's Test Kitchen Manager Erin McDowell -- alongside photographer Sarah Stone, who both blog at The Shutter Oven -- is here, with tips and tricks to help you master the most essential desserts and the simplest breads.
Today: Who needs a stand mixer? Erin shows us how to get hands-on with bread baking.
When I graduated college, I went on a cooking and baking rampage. Finally out of a dorm room, I was elated to have my very own kitchen to romp in; I spent all day thinking about dinner, and all night putting it together. The problem? My kitchen still looked like it belonged to a college kid: It was totally bare.
I had two bowls, one sauté pan, and a lone fork. Thus began my search for good recipes that required little to no equipment -- and whose leftovers were worthy of showing off to my new coworkers the next day.
Thinking back on these circumstances reminds me of the biggest revelation I had while working early mornings in a bread bakery: Some breads should always be mixed by hand. Until that time, I had thought that making bread by hand was just for people without a stand mixer. In fact, certain breads benefit greatly from the gentle motions of hand mixing and kneading; this includes breads with high levels of hydration, such as focaccia, many types of flatbreads, and today’s subject, ciabatta.
More: Once your bread comes out of the oven, throw some pulled pork on it.
Here’s what you need to know:
Know your ingredients and scale them carefully. For this recipe, it's really important to use bread flour (all-purpose flour isn’t a good substitute). The bread needs its high protein levels to create strong gluten bonds, which are crucial to the structure and texture of the finished loaf (see the full explanation in my last article).
Most of my bread recipes use instant yeast, which doesn’t need to be activated in warm water -- it’s just mixed directly into the flour. I like to use filtered water to ensure that there’s no off-tastes or bewildering chemicals inside that could potentially affect the dough. Note that when a recipe says “warm water," the ideal temperature is between 95° and 110° F.
I use kosher salt in all my recipes, and as we’ve all learned, the type of salt you use can make a big difference in the final prodcut -- bread is certainly no exception.
Lastly, take care scaling your ingredients. It’s ideal to scale bread recipes by weight since it's the best way to ensure accuracy, but I've provided volume measurements, too (I know what it’s like to not have a scale!).
Use a preferment. Another major revelation from my years baking bread is the use of preferments -- the concept sounds intense and complicated, but it’s not. Mix a little bit of flour, yeast, and water in a bowl the night before you make the bread, and let it hang out. When I say mix, I mean hardly at all -- just combine the ingredients.
The next day, add the mixture to your bread dough. The preferment gives the final product increased stability and lots of additional flavor. A long fermentation time is an important key to super flavorful bread, and the easiest way to achieve it is with a preferment. For ciabatta, I use a biga -- a looser-consistency Italian preferment. Other varieties include poolish, sponge, and the most complex, a sourdough starter.
Mix it. Mix it good. Start mixing your bread in a bowl. I like to use my hands, but a wooden spoon is good too. When it comes to lean dough (dough without enrichments like oil, butter, and eggs), the ingredients can all be added at the same time. Start by mixing them gently, just until combined. Once they've formed a loose, messy ball, it’s time to knead.
Not all kneading is the same. Less hydrated doughs (think potato buns) can be kneaded more vigorously; highly hydrated doughs, like ciabatta, can be more difficult to knead and require more care. It’s best to keep the dough inside a bowl and use damp hands or a damp wooden spoon to fervently mix the dough. To develop the proper levels of gluten, mix for the amount of time directed by the recipe. When the dough is combined, it’s time to rise.
Transfer the dough to a lightly oiled bowl to rise. Most breads, ciabatta included, need at least two rises. The first rise, known as bulk fermentation, happens before the dough is formed, when it's all still in the bowl together; the second happens once the dough has been formed into loaves or rolls (known as proofing). For the first rise, let the dough rise until it doubles in size (this usually takes about an hour, but there is wiggle room -- a little more or a little less won’t hurt the dough drastically).
Shape the dough. Ciabatta dough is so wet and sticky that you'll have to work quickly to shape it -- but the desired loaf is so rustic and simple that there isn’t much effort in doing it. It’s okay to use a lot of flour. I use a sifter to dust my work surface, the dough, and the baking surface.
Gently remove the dough from the bowl and stretch it gently into a rectangular shape (the dough shouldn’t be thin at this point -- you’re just trying to create a rectangle in as few moves as possible). Divide the dough into two even pieces and gently transfer them to the baking sheet. The movement from the table to the baking sheet will be enough to stretch the dough into its final loaf shape. Ciabatta, literally translated, means “slipper” -- so you’re looking for a long, relatively flat shape. Dust the surface of the loaves with flour and let them rise for another hour.
Make your oven hot, and enlist help to do it. I put the ciabatta on a baking sheet for ease, but I still place that sheet on a baking stone to ensure even baking and a crisp bottom crust. Place the baking stone on a rack in the top third of the oven and turn the temperature up -- way up. I start at 475° F. If the loaf is browning too quickly, I lower the temperature to 400° F during baking.
Get steamy with it. The difference between most bakery breads and breads you make at home is steam. Moisture in the oven helps to form a chewy, golden crust -- and who doesn’t want that? Place an empty baking sheet on a rack in the bottom third of the oven and throw about 3 cups of ice onto it as soon as you put the loaves in to bake. The ice will melt and begin to evaporate, creating some (temporary) steam in your oven. Be careful when you open the oven for the first time after adding the ice: The steam will escape when you open the door!
Don’t be afraid of browning. I find that people are so afraid of overbaking things, especially bread, that they don’t let them get properly browned. Follow the baking time, and then (carefully) tap the loaves with your finger. A loaf with a properly formed, crisp crust will sound slightly hollow when you tap it. Remove the bread from the oven and -- here’s the hard part -- let it cool completely before serving. This will give its interior crumb the best possible structure.
Makes 2 loaves
For the biga:
2 cups bread flour
1/2 teaspoon instant yeast
1 cup room temperature water
For the dough:
3 cups bread flour
1 tablespoon instant yeast
2 teaspoons kosher salt
1 1/2 cups warm water
Biga (see above)
Photos by Sarah Stone