Ciabatta is an Italian bread that has become popular worldwide in recent decades.
Photo courtesy of Mühlenchemie. 
Ciabatta is a classic Italian bread variety that has made triumphant progress around the globe in the past few decades. Consumers on all the continents have come to enjoy the large-pored, succulent crumb and aromatic flavor of this oblong-shaped white loaf. One of the secrets of its production is the soft, long dough process and the use of a pre-dough.

In Italy, ciabatta is eaten in many ways. Popular variations with the Italians are to sprinkle a slice of the bread with good-quality olive oil, dip pieces broken off the loaf in pasta or salad sauce, or treat themselves to a panini filled with salami, mozzarella or Parma ham. Italian housewives and cooks even know creative ways of using up bread left over from the day before: they toast or grill the dried slices and serve them with tomatoes, Parmesan cheese and basil as a juicy bruschetta or aromatic bread salad (panzanella).

Many other nations have long developed a taste for these culinary traditions, too. That applies especially to Europe, the United States and Australia, but ciabatta has found its way into the standard ranges of supermarkets in parts of Latin America, Asia and Africa as well. Fresh, frozen, or packaged in a modified atmosphere: the bread industry offers ciabatta in a multitude of different forms.

The word ciabatta means “slipper” — a reference to the flat, broad and elongated shape of the loaf.

The basic recipe is simple enough. The main ingredients are flour (Italy: type 2 flour; first clear flour with about 1% ash or similar), yeast, salt and water. But besides the skill of the baker, it takes a few extras to transform this simple formulation into a real speciality: namely a pre-dough, olive oil and plenty of time.

Absolutely essential is a soft, cool dough process that allows the typical characteristics of ciabatta to develop — the crumb must be wide-pored and woolly, the taste savory-aromatic, the crust crisp and golden-yellow.

Producing the specific aroma

For the indirect process, bakeries use either a sponge dough or wheat sourdough. Wheat sourdough consists of flour, water and a starter culture containing mainly lactic acid bacteria. A yeast sponge, on the other hand, is not intended to acidify the dough. Nevertheless, both methods result in intensive swelling of the constituents of the flour and the formation of aromatic fermentation products.

The following is a typical ciabatta recipe:

100 kg flour (about 1% ash)

2.5% yeast

2% salt

4% wheat sourdough

3% olive oil

The ideal dough yield is between 170% and 180%. Intensive mixing is therefore essential to bind the water and form a stable gluten network. In artisan bakeries that work with fork mixers, the mixing time can be as long as 40 minutes. Even with spiral kneaders, 10 to 15 minutes are recommended. With high-performance kneaders, iced water often is used to avoid the risk of overheating the dough.

The subsequent dough resting time is an important quality factor, too. The process for ciabatta dough should be long and cool, so that enough gases and aromatic substances are able to form. The exact length of the resting time is individual, depending on the dough temperature, the proportion of yeast and the climate in the fermentation room. This step in the process may be extended to several hours, depending on conditions at the bakery.

Gentle processing of the dough

Processing of the dough demands gentle handling. As soon as the dough is pressed, stretched or worked too hard, the gas bubbles that are indispensable for the characteristic texture are expelled.

On a floured or oiled work surface, the dough is drawn out carefully to a thickness of about one centimeter and cut into strips. The separate portions are elongated slightly and dusted liberally with rye flour.

Because of the soft dough process, the dough portions flatten slightly during the individual proofing time of no more than one hour. But this effect is intentional and contributes to the typical shape of the product. The dough portions are baked with steam at 250° C to 260° C. Baking time is about 20 minutes, with declining heat.

Problems, solutions

In spite of the soft dough process, it is quite possible to produce ciabatta industrially if suitable equipment is available, with special dough dividers and handling plant. Even doughs with a yield of over 180% can now be processed, cut and portioned gently with machinery.

But in practice, faults occur again and again. Sometimes bakeries do not have optimum flour qualities, trained personnel or suitable equipment. The following is an overview of the most common problems encountered in the production of ciabatta and possible ways of solving them.

Problem: Poor dough stability.

Possible cause: Weak gluten.

Solution: Add ascorbic acid (e.g. ELCO) and/or glucose oxidase (e.g. Alphamalt Gloxy 13082).

Problem: Pores too small/texture too fine; crumb not characteristic of ciabatta.

Possible cause: Gluten too firm, “bucky”; too intensive processing.

Solution: Add hemicellulase (e.g. Alphamalt H) or cysteine (EMCEsoft P) to increase the extensibility of the dough. Gentle handling.

Problem: Water absorption and dough yield too low.

Possible cause: Low protein content of the flour; inadequate starch damage.

Solution: Compensate for deficiencies in the flour with enzymatic compounds such as EMCEgluten Enhancer or EMCEbest WA Pure. Alternatively, increase the gluten content by adding vital wheat gluten (EMCEvit C); increase the starch damage by raising the grinding pressure or the differential speed; add pre-gelatinized flour.

Problem: Sticky doughs.

Possible causes: Weak flour; gluten unable to retain water. Sometimes also release of water through over-mixing.

Solution: Adjust mixing time. Increase water retention capacity, e.g. with enzymatic agents (e.g. Alphamalt Gloxy 13082, Alphamalt TTC), possibly in combination with vegetable fibres (e.g. EMCEbest WA Pure).

Problem: Poor oven rise.

Possible cause: Low-enzyme flour.

Solution: Enhance oven rise with amylases (e.g. Alphamalt A or hemicellulases Alphamalt H).

Problem: Insipid taste, lack of intensive flavor.

Possible causes: Dough process without sponge or sourdough; fermentation or resting time too short.

Solution: Use an indirect dough process or add dried sourdough (e.g. EMCEdo SR/SW).

Problem: Crust or crumb too light in color.

Possible cause: Use of low-extraction flour deficient in minerals.

Solution: Use flours with a higher level of extraction. Add up to 10% rye flour. Add enzyme-inactivated malt extract (e.g. EMCEmalt 300) to enhance flavor and browning.

Ciabatta: Fantastic achievement of a determined miller

Although details of the origins of ciabatta are not known for certain, the history of the Italian speciality is inseparably bound up with the name Arnaldo Cavallari. To the owner of Molini Adriesi, a mill in the town of Adria near Venice, it was a thorn in the flesh that Italian consumers were increasingly buying French baguettes and leaving the local products on the shelves.

To put a stop to this trend, Arnaldo Cavallari resolved to develop an Italian counterpart to the French baguette together with Francesco Favaron, a baker from Verona. After numerous experiments, the two men created what was to become the big hit: a coarse-textured, aromatic bread made from high-mineral flour. In no time at all, the rustic oblong “ciabatta” not only captured the local markets, it also found enthusiastic buyers beyond the borders of Italy.

The vision of the miller Arnaldo Cavallari, who died in 2016, has long become reality: Italian ciabatta is now one of the best-known bread specialities worldwide and is no less popular than the French baguette.