Introduction: Biga & Ciabatta Done 2 Ways

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The key to any really great food is its base.  Something to build on, bread is no exception.  Today we can start bread with dried yeasts or fresh cake, but it just doesn`t carry the same flavour that a natural yeast does.  Natural yeast fermented breads not only taste better but stay fresher longer, with out added preservatives.  There are many types of starters, biga being from Italy is just the one I will focus on.  It is very close to a natural starter, but the first yeast does have to come from some where.  I have made starters like this in the past simply by mixing up a batch of flour and water, and allowing it to collect spores from the air, refreshing the solution with additions of flour and water daily.  After about a week, you would be left with a bubbling starter ripe with yeast, giving off a not unpleasant pungent yet fruity smell.  Sometimes I would use a bit of banana mash to speed things up.  In Italy they call this `riding the wild horse``.  In our busy lifestyle though, we don't always have time for this, but we can come to a compromise, which is called biga.  With the addition of a tiny amount of artificially introduced yeast and allowing a long fermentation time we can get as close to a natural yeast, yet have predictable results.  Biga provides this, slowly risen over 12 to 24 hours it develops a beautiful flavour, extracting the true flavour of the wheat.  Once the biga has been made, a small portion can be reserved and refreshed as other starters with the addition of flour and water.  After several infusions, it has essentially become a natural yeast.  Allowed to go past 24 hours and you have sourdough.

Biga is used through out Italy on a daily basis, flavouring breads such as Pugliese, Pana di Como (french bread today), Pani di Terni from Umbra, Coccodrillo from Rome and many others.  Here I am using it to make Ciabatta which translates as princess lady slipper.  All though I don`t think i have made any that a princess would like to wear, eat maybe, but not wear...

The following recipe is very simple, like any bread, just water, flour, salt and a touch of yeast.  It goes together in minutes by hand, and much faster in a food processor or mixer.  the lengthy rising time will reward you with amazing flavours, aromas and textures.  Give it a try, and rate me to let me know how I am doing on instructables.  From time to time there are contests on this site, if you like it, I would appreciate the vote.  Look around though at the other recipes, it is an awesome collection of ideas and recipes from people around the world.

Step 1: Ingredients and Tools

For Biga: about 500 grams or so...
  • 1/4 teaspoon dry yeast or 2 grams of fresh yeast cake
  • 1/4 cup warm water
  • 1 cup room temperature water
  • 2 1/2 cups unbleached all purpose flavour, stay away from pesky "bread maker flours" you do not need the additives, some of which my bio-chemist buddy says are questionable.
For Ciabatta: about 6 loaves
  • 1 teaspoon dry yeast or 6 grams of fresh yeast cake
  • 5 tablespoons of warm milk
  • 1 cup plus 1/8 cups room temperature water
  • 2 tablespoons olive oil, plus more for later
  • 2-3 cups of biga, or about 500 grams.
  • 3 3/4 cups unbleached all purpose flavour
  • 1 tablespoon salt
  • Cornmeal, about a cup
For stuffed ciabatta:
  • Some nice shredded cheese, like fruiliano or asiago.  whatever floats your boat
  • Dry type deli meat, like procsuitto
  • Roasted tomatoe, avocado maybe  oooh roasted sweet peppers and feta.  garlic maybe, what ever really
  • large bowls x 2, if you have a hammerplast bowl, go for it.  "hammerplast has small raised feet on the bottom of the bowl, this allows for air to flow freely under the bowl, so you don't get cold spots - which equals a quicker rise"
  • clean work surface
  • obligatory measuring utensils
  • parchment paper
  • cookie sheet or baking stone
  • optional - dough cutter is nice, but a large sharp cleaver works too
  • optional - scale

Step 2: Biga!

The biga is your secret flavour maker!  Its also easy to make, just needs a little advance planning is all.
  1. Add your yeast to the warm water in a large bowl, and stir until dissolved.  Let sit 10 minutes until all milky
  2. Stir in the remaining water, and then your flour 1 cup at a time.  Stir for a couple minutes.  If its quite stiff, add another 1/8 cup of water.  This should make it a nice thick goopy sticky mess!  Which is what you want.
  3. Transfer it too a large bowl that has 1/8 cup of olive oil swirled around in it, cover with plastic wrap and put in a cool location.  Mine was by the window.  Antique stained glass plus -20 winter winds outside equals cool location. 
  4. Its the slow cool rise of about 12 to 24 hours that's key to developing flavour, so put away thoughts of making bread today, it will be ready tomorrow, and you will be glad you waited!

Step 3: Ciabatta Time!

Funny, I wrote this page all ready but it got deleted somehow, curses.  Well here goes again.
  1. Take your yeast and add to your warm milk and give it a stir.  Let sit for ten minutes until milky.
  2. Add the rest of the water and your olive oil and stir.
  3. Add the Biga and break it up with the spoon.
  4. Mix with the spoon for a couple minutes to combine, and get ready to knead, mid air!

Step 4: Kneading, Kinda...

By hand or aerial dough dog fighting:
  • At this stage your looking at this sticky oozy dough, that really looks more like thick cake batter then bread dough. Have faith, with some mid air antics this dough will come together nicely. Even when your done, you look down at your gooey fingers and bowl of dough, "insert swear word of choice here, when trying to clean them" and wonder if this will really work. To knead, simple stab the dough with both hands, lifting the maw into the air and turning your dough covered hands end over end for about 3 minutes. Yes it gets tiring but you can take breaks every couple minutes if you like. About 3 minutes is good enough, and sets up nice long gluten strands...hmmmmmm gluten strands....
  • Short 12 second clip of air kneading, come one watch it, its 12 seconds!

By Mixer:
Using a dough hook, knead for about a minute on a low speed, switch it up to medium for another minute

Either way, transfer to a large bowl with about 1/8 cup of extra virgin olive oil in it.  This will allow you tor remove the dough later easier, and facilitate the doughs rise  Let it sit somewhere cozy, not to warm not to cold, treat it like that pesky Goldilock girl.

Step 5: Rising and Developing Adamantium Finger Tips

After about and 2 hours, it will have tripled in size.  Your ready to start guiding the dough into loaves.
  1. Sprinkle your work surface heavily with cornmeal
  2. Dump your dough onto the cornmeal and divide into about 6 portions
  3. gently insert your fingertips under the dough till about the first knuckle, lift the dough and gently stretch it into an oblong shape.  Drop it hard onto the work surface.
  4. Its time to develop adamantium finger tips, make a claw like shape with your fingers and stab the dough till you penetrate it.  Do this all over the doughs surface, it will limit how high the dough can rise while baking and leave lovely holes for olive oil to collect in.
  5. Transfer to a piece or parchment paper that is on a cookie sheet.
  6. Sprinkle with olive oil, don't be basheful
For the stuffed loaves:
  1. Follow the same steps form 1 to 5
  2. Spread your toppings as a narrow strip down the middle.  Toppings should not exceed 1 cup in total.
  3. Gently grab one corner and fold it over, grab the kitty corner and fold it over.  The video really explains it.
  4. Sprinkle with olive oil
Get that oven nice and hot, mine goes to 550, crank yours as high as it will go.  Our bread ovens at work went to 650!!!

Step 6: Bake

  1. If you haven't preheated the oven yet do so now, high as it will go!  Mine gets up to 550
  2. Check your dough, it should have risen again over about an hour and a half.  Try not to let it rise too long, if it gets all bubbly it will still taste good, just will look a little well.... not so nice
  3. Steam, before we continue you must have a source of steam in your oven.  This gives the crust that chewy crackly crunchy goodness.  Our professional oven has a piece of red hot glowing re-bar that is hit with a spurt of water.  Instant steam bath!  At home we duplicate this with a spray bottle or by throwing ice-cubes in a pan in the bottom of the hot oven.  This is the best way for ciabatta.  Careful so you don't burn your self put a pan in the bottom of the oven, right on the floor.
  4. Minutes before putting your dough in the oven, lightly dimple them again and give a drizzle of olive oil.  Sprinkle with sea salt if you like and get ready to bake.
  5. Open the oven door, slip them in, drop in a ice-cube and slam the door
  6. after 5 minutes add another ice-cube.
  7. after 20 minutes they should be golden brown and ready to eat.  Serve warm, bu they will also be good later.  Just never ever put it in the fridge, this kills bread and probably inspire polar bears to go eat baby unicorns!
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