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Tuesday, June 30, 2009

Ciabatta di Birra

I think I've mentioned before, numerous times probably, about my love affair with bread. What you may not know is how much I hate drinking beer. It may just be the nastiest tasting stuff I can think of. Strangely enough, however, I love cooking with it. Once you mix the beer in with other flavors, it seems that the beer's best shines through while beer's worst seems to fade away.

With this in mind, it is not too surprising that I spend a lot of time experimenting with adding beer to bread recipes. I love the added yeastiness and depth of flavor beer imparts. In this case, with a ciabatta, the beer is added to the starter, or biga, and helps to develop the flavor overnight. Ciabatta is a great bread with so many uses. Considering how many loaves I've made in the last three weeks getting the recipe the way I want it, I have used it to make sandwiches, croutons, and toast and have served it as an appetizer with olive oil and balsamic vinegar for dipping. This is a very easy bread to make but does take a little foresight as the starter needs to sit overnight.

To make the starter, simply mix one-half cup of beer with one cup of flour and half a teaspoon of yeast. Stir to mix completely. It will seem a little stiff, but overnight it will soften and swell and get a bunch of bubbles in it. Cover with plastic wrap and let sit on the counter overnight.

Just look at how it grew! And the smell is divine. I love that yeasty, fermenty smell. It's a harbinger of future happiness. If you get sidetracked and can't make bread the next day, simply place the starter in the refrigerator for up to three days. If you do end up refrigerating the starter, let it come to room temperature before proceeding.

Pour the room temperature starter into the bowl of a stand mixer (see below for instructions for those without a stand mixer). Add 1 cup of the flour, the gluten, the yeast, and the water. With a paddle attachment, mix on medium speed for five minutes. The mixture should end up looking stringy and sticky as shown here in this photo:

Let the dough rest in the bowl for 10-20 minutes before continuing. Add the remaining flour and the salt and switch to the dough hook. Continue to knead on speed 2 until the dough starts to look very smooth and pulls away from the side of the bowl. It will still be stickier than heck if you try and touch it, but it will look more like taffy than dough when it is ready. Notice how smooth and glossy the dough is in the following picture compared to the preceding.

Dump the dough into a greased bowl. Spray the top of the dough as well and cover the bowl with plastic wrap, setting aside in a warm place to rise until it has doubled.

Oh yeah! Look at that baby grow! It's all ready to shape now.

Prepare a large sheet pan with parchment. Sprinkle flour liberally over the surface of the pan. With a knife or flexible rubber implement (I use a plastic bench scraper), gently divide the dough into two blobs. Pour each blob onto the sheet pan, trying to get them in some semblance of an elongated... blob.

That's why I love making this bread. I usually get all flustered trying to shape my loaves so that they look perfect. That is not an issue here. Simply pour so that the dough is elongated and then, with floured hands, gently "flop" the edges out to help it spread a bit more. This dough is very soft and can be hard to work with if you try and do too much. You want to avoid degassing as much as possible so just gently help it form the classic "slipper" shape (la ciabatta in Italian means 'the slipper'). Sprinkle the tops with more flour and then cover with a slightly damp flour cloth towel or plastic wrap. Set aside and let them rise for a couple of hours. They will noticeably swell but not go crazy.

Preheat the oven to 500 degrees F. Have a spray bottle filled with water at the ready. When the oven is hot, remove the towel/plastic wrap and place in the oven. Give the oven walls about three good spritzes and then close the door. Open and give three sprays every thirty seconds for about two minutes. Then reduce the heat to 450. Bake for about 30 minutes, until the loaves start to turn golden and reach an internal temperature of 205 degrees F. Remove from the oven and move to a cooling rack. Let cool completely before cutting or storing.

Store at room temperature in a plastic bag. I often keep homemade breads in the refrigerator, but I found that really messes with the texture of this bread. Because of the long ferment, it tends to keep pretty well.

Although I love it in many ways, it is exceptional as a breakfast toast. Crunchy in a very pleasing way, it has those perfect holes for holding that molten butter.

Ciabatta di Birra
Yield: 2 - 10 oz loaves

For the biga:
1 cup flour
1/2 cup lager beer (I used Yuengling)
1/2 tsp instant yeast

2 tsp instant yeast
1 cup water
2 cup all purpose flour with 2 tsp gluten OR 2 cups bread flour
1 tsp kosher salt

On the first day, mix the biga ingredients together and then cover the bowl with plastic wrap. Set aside on the counter overnight. If you cannot make bread the next day, put the biga in the refrigerator for up to three days. If you refrigerate the dough, be sure to let it come to room temperature before continuing.

On the second day, place the biga in the bowl of a stand mixer (see below for non-stand mixer instructions). With the paddle attachment, mix in the additional yeast, one cup of the flour, the gluten (if using), and the water. Mix on medium speed for five minutes. Let the dough rest in the bowl for 10-20 minutes.

Switch to the dough hook and add the last cup of flour and the salt. Knead on speed 2until the dough becomes shiny and smooth. It will still be very sticky but will pull away from the sides of the bowl. Add a little bit of flour if this has not happened after four minutes.

Pour the dough into a greased bowl and then spray the top of the dough will oil, too. Cover with plastic wrap and let rise in a warm place until double, about 1 1/2 hours.

Prepare a sheet pan with parchment paper and sprinkle liberally with flour. Pour the dough into two elongated blobs onto the pan. Sprinkle with more flour and then gently shape by carefully tugging on the edges of the dough. Be gently so that you don't degas the dough too much. Cover with a slightly damp towel or plastic wrap and let rise for two hours or until puffy.

Preheat the oven to 500 degrees F and have a spray bottle filled with water handy. When the oven is preheated, put in the bread and spray the sides of the oven three or four times. Close the door and repeat the sprays every thirty seconds for two minutes. Then reduce the heat to 450 and let bake for approximately 30 minutes or until the bread is slightly golden and reaches an internal temperature of 205 degrees F. Cool completely on a wire rack.

For those sans a stand mixer:
All instructions will be the same except when mixing. In the first stage of mixing, combin the biga, water, and yeast, mix in a bowl with a hand-held mixer until smooth. Gradually add flour (up to one cup) until you are on the verge of making it too stiff for your hand mixer. Mix for 8 minutes on medium or medium-low speed (whatever your hand mixer can handle). Let it rest for a full 20 minutes. Then add the remaining flour and salt. Mix by hand with a wooden spoon for 3-5 minutes. You don't have to stir vigorously; just keep it moving around. It may not get as glossy as it would with a stand mixer, but it will still make a darn good loaf of bread.


  1. That looks SO good. And I'm really hungry right now. That bread isn't helping. :-)

    Would also LOVE to be entered into your giveaway.



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