There’s just something about eating a sandwich made with ciabatta bread that feels special to me. Don’t get me wrong, I love a good brioche roll or slab of crusty sourdough, but there’s something about Ciabatta that just screams homemade with love. Ciabatta bread is light, but solid, with medium-sized air pockets perfect for trapping any sauces, dressings, or oils, which is a plus if you’re like me and hate messy sandwiches (see also: my pita pocket hack). The crust is slightly textured with floury cracks, swirls, and creases, and its imperfect edges are a reminder of the work that went into making it.
Slice a ciabatta roll in half to make a sandwich and it’ll be fluffy and soft on the inside, no-nonsense and sturdy on the outside. Cut across into thin slices and it begins to dry out, making it a crisp, crunchy canvas for bruschetta or for dipping in olive oil. Cut it into cubes and toast them in the oven to make croutons or dip it in cheese for fondue. It’s excellent for both cheese steak and egg salad sandwiches. How versatile!
Because ciabatta on its own brings such a strong presence to the table, it can handle a lot of flavor being added in the baking process. In the case of developing this recipe, I added a whole bulb of roasted garlic and fennel seeds to the olive oil my favorite ciabatta recipe already called for. (Of course, if you want just plain olive oil ciabatta, simply omit the garlic and fennel.)
I like adding flavors directly to my ciabatta dough. Ciabatta’s floury exterior coats your tongue when you bite in, and the one-two punch of the roasted garlic and the aromatic fennel makes it just a little more interesting. Also, it’s one less thing you need to deal with when you’re ready to eat. Your flavors are already in the bread. Just slice and serve.
The first time I made ciabatta was at King Arthur Flour’s baking school in Vermont, and the recipe I’ve included here is adapted (just barely, tbh) from the olive oil ciabatta we used in the class. I like this recipe in particular because it doesn’t require an overnight poolish or levain (pre-ferment) as a leavening agent, which means you can make it all in one day (the dough takes about 4 hours start to finish). Of course, since this recipe includes that roasted garlic — you’ll want to make the roasted garlic at least 2 hours in advance or even a day ahead of time.
It’s also a great, easy recipe to familiarize yourself with a pretty standard technique for developing gluten called folding.
folding your ciabatta dough
There are a few ways to add strength and flavor to your bread dough — some doughs require vigorous kneading, some require the slow and steady progression of time, and others, like this ciabatta dough, require folding.
In this recipe, after mixing all your ingredients together, you’ll let the dough ferment for three hours. In that time, the yeast will get down to business eating up all the delicious sugars and starches in the dough and converting them into gas (aka air bubbles). Those air bubbles are what makes your dough rise. But rising alone won’t strengthen the gluten of your dough or develop the flavor. For that, you need to fold the dough every 30 minutes over the course of 3 hours. So, 6 sets of folds total.
The nice thing about this recipe is that you can do all your folds right in your mixing bowl, no need to move the dough from the bowl to your counter and back again.
To fold, grab a corner of your dough and stretch it out, away from the dough. Then pull it up and over the middle of the dough, pressing it down to make it stick. Rotate the bowl a quarter turn and repeat with the next corner. Rotate two more times, stretching the dough out, then up and over the center of the dough and pressing it down to stick to the middle. Do this all the way around until you have a loosely round-shaped ball of dough with all the rough edges folded up into the center.
At first, your dough will be loose and pretty stretchy. As the gluten develops with each set of folds, the dough will become stronger and harder to stretch. There are a lot of different folding techniques out there, so really, as long as all the folds in each set go in the same direction, and you have one smooth side and one seam-side, you should be fine.
Here’s a step-by-step of the folding process (using a different dough):
How to keep track of what set of folds you’re on:
- Set two timers, one for 3 hours and one for 30 minutes, and just keep resetting the 30 minute timer until the 3 hour timer goes off
- Sticking a post-it on the counter, setting a timer for 30 minutes, and making a tally mark every time you complete a set of folds
- OR, for a fun twist, set a timer every 30 minutes and put 6 M&Ms on the counter next to your dough. Eat one every time you complete a set of folds. When you’re out of M&Ms, you’re done with your folds.
loaves or rolls, slices or sandwiches
Before you put your dough in the oven, you’ll get to decide what kind of loaf (or loaves) you want. In step 9 of the recipe below, you’ll gently stretch the dough to a roughly 8″x10″ rectangle, at which point it’s entirely up to you how you want to cut it: two long loaves, four medium-sized rectangular loaves, or eight square-ish rolls. All of which bake for the same amount of time.
Mix it up if you want to — one long loaf and four square-ish rolls; one long loaf, one medium-sized rectangle loaf, and two square-ish rolls; or heck, make eight triangles if you want. The end pieces almost always end up vaguely triangular, anyway.
This is one of the things I love most about ciabatta dough, by the way. There is absolutely NO SHAPING the way bread usually requires. It’s so easy it almost feels like cheating, tbh. You simply turn your dough out onto the floured countertop, loosely stretch it into a rectangle, and then cut it. That’s it! Your ciabatta has its shape. In fact, if you do anything more than that you risk ruining the shape and the flour swirls, so once you cut it — leave it alone until it’s time to bake.
those distinctive ciabatta flour swirls
One of ciabatta’s distinguishing features is a domed top with a unique pattern of swirls and creases of flour. To create this pattern, you’ll flip the cut loaves over right before you transfer them into the oven.
But how does it work?
When you stretch the dough into the 8″x10″ rectangle and cut it into loaves, you do so on a generously floured surface. Most bread recipes say lightly floured, but not ciabatta. Generously floured. More than a light dusting but less than a complete snowfall. Like, you should still be able to tell the grass is green, but it’s definitely more white than green. (In this metaphor, the grass is your counter.)
When you let the shaped loaves rise, they’ll expand slightly against the countertop with the flour getting trapped in between the creases where the dough is sticky. Right before you transfer them into the oven, you flip the loaves over, revealing the swirly pattern — kind of like when you fall asleep on a creased pillow and wake up with wrinkles all over your face.
When the loaves bake, they’ll continue expanding and all those fine lines and wrinkles on the surface of the dough will spread out, further emphasizing the swirls.
Sliding your olive oil ciabatta loaves onto a baking stone
Whether you’re using a baking stone or an upside-down baking sheet, the process for transferring your loaves onto it for baking is the same. If you’re fancy, you can use a pizza peel, but an upside-down baking sheet will do the job just as well.
I have a round baking stone, so to get all my ciabatta loaves to fit, I put each one on its own piece of parchment paper. That way I can transfer them to the oven one at a time, and use tongs to move them around until they fit (like a game of baker’s Tetris).
If you have a square baking stone or are using an upside-down baking sheet, you can probably transfer two or even four rolls at a time. The parchment paper will allow your shaped loaves to easily slide off the baking sheet or pizza peel without getting stuck.
To slide the parchment paper and dough off your pizza peel or upside-down sheet tray, tilt it forward very slightly and rest the lip on the baking stone where you want it to land. Tilt the other end (the end in your hand) up, keeping the lip on the stone, and pull backwards in one quick movement. The parchment paper and dough should slide off and on to the tray. Use kitchen tongs to grab the edge of the parchment paper to adjust the placement as needed.
suggested tools for roasted garlic and fennel olive oil ciabatta
- Metal bench scraper for cutting the dough
- Large, sturdy mixing bowl with gripper bottom so the bowl doesn’t slide so much when you fold the dough
- Plastic bowl scraper if you find the dough is very sticky to fold, the bowl scraper is useful tool for sliding under the dough to grab an edge
- Dough whisk to make mixing the dough together a little easier, but a wooden spoon or spatula will work just as well
- Pizza peel for sliding the dough into the oven
- Baking stone in a square or rectangle shape, ideally
olive oil ciabatta with roasted garlic and fennel
- baking stone or baking steel
- 1 garlic bulb (whole, roasted with fennel seeds)
- 30 g olive oil (2 TBSP)
- 540 g flour (4½ cups)
- 2 tsp salt
- 2 tsp fennel seeds
- 1 tsp yeast
- 355 g warm water (1½ cups)
- Roast a bulb of garlic with 2 tsp fennel seeds in a foil packet. Let cool. Remove cloves from their skins and transfer them into a small container with 2 TBSP (30g) olive oil. Set aside.NOTE: For best results, let the garlic infuse the olive oil for at least 2 hours or overnight, but you can proceed to the next step immediately if you’re in a rush.
- Combine flour, salt, yeast, and additional fennel seeds in a large, sturdy mixing bowl. Use a fork to mash and break up the roasted garlic cloves in the olive oil. Add to the dry ingredients and mix briefly to distribute. Add the water and mix until a shaggy, wet dough forms. If dough still seems dry, drizzle a little more olive oil in and keep mixing until no dry spots are left.
- Cover the dough and let it bulk ferment for the next 3 hours, with folds in the bowl every 30 minutes (a total of 6 sets of folds).To fold: Grab one corner of the dough and gently stretch it away from the dough, then up and over the middle of the dough. Rotate the bowl a quarter turn, grab the next corner, and repeat, stretching the dough up and over the corner you’ve already folded across the center. Rotate the bowl and repeat two more times. The dough will gain strength and develop gluten over the course of the 3 hours. It should look tighter and smoother and be harder to stretch on your 5th and 6th set of folds.
- Turn oven to 500°F degrees with a baking stone on the center rack. Let the baking stone preheat for at least 30 minutes once the oven reaches 500°F degrees.NOTE: If you don’t have a baking stone, use an inverted cookie sheet.
- Generously flour your countertop and gently release the dough from the bowl onto the counter. Loosely stretch it into an 8″x10″ rectangle approximately 2″ high.
- Use a knife or a sharp-edged bench scraper to cut the dough into 2 long loaves, 4 medium loaves, or 8 rolls. Cover the rolls with a clean dish towel and let rest while the oven preheats.
- When ready to transfer loaves to the oven, trim parchment paper to size (try to use as few pieces as possible, but if you have a round baking stone you may need an individual piece for each loaf). Flip the loaves over (to reveal the beautiful flour patterns) and gently place onto parchment paper.
- Use a pizza peel or the back of a sheet tray to slide the rolls one or two at a time onto the baking stone until all of them fit. They’ll expand in the oven so you want to try to keep an inch of space between them, but if you have to separate them later that’s okay.
- Close the oven door but don’t walk away just yet. After 5 minutes, reduce the temp to 450°F degrees, and continue baking for another 20-22 minutes or until the loaves are golden brown on top, firm on the sides, and feel light for their size. They should sound hollow when you tap the bottoms.
- Let cool on a wire rack before eating. The loaves will soften as they cool.
- If you don’t have a baking stone or baking steel, use an inverted cookie sheet.
- 3 ways to keep track of your folds: 1) set two timers, one for 3 hours and one for 30 minutes, and just keep resetting the 30 minute timer until the 3 hour timer goes off, 2) stick a post-it on the counter and making a tally mark every time you complete a set of folds, OR 3) for a fun twist, put 6 M&Ms or skittles or whatever small snack you want on the counter next to your dough and eat one every time you complete a set of folds. When you’re out of candy, you’re done with your folds.
- Ciabatta tends to dry out or harden quickly. These are best consumed within a few days of baking. To revive them on day 4 or 5, you can cut them in half, run the halves quickly under water, then place in a 250°F degree oven for 15-20 minutes or until the water evaporates. I know, it sounds weird. But it totally works.