Ciabatta is a flat, rustic Italian bread that is substantially wider and flatter than a regular loaf. Its Italian translation is “slipper,” which is indicative of its baked shape. It is made in almost every region of Italy, with each region having its own style.
Depending upon the locale, the texture can range from a firm, slightly tough crust and a soft, chewy interior to a very crisp crust with a light, holey interior. Ciabatta dough can be seasoned with salt, olives, herbs, or extra-virgin olive oil, each of which will change its texture somewhat. If made with whole-wheat flour, it is known as ciabatta integrale; with milk, ciabatta al latte. In the United States, ciabatta is most often made with a sourdough starter and a very wet dough that produces a sour-tasting loaf with a very open crumb. No matter the style, ciabatta makes an excellent sandwich loaf and is often used to make panino, the classic grilled Italian sandwich.
*Note: It is best to use a cast-iron roasting pan, since stainless steel will warp.
**Note: A couche is a sheet of natural, untreated fabric, often linen, used to hold and separate loaves while they are rising.
Combine the bread flour and water with the yeast in a large mixing bowl, stirring with a wooden spoon to blend. When blended, scrape down the edge of the bowl, cover with plastic wrap, and set aside to ferment at 75 degrees for 12-14 hours.
Combine the bread flour with 16 ½ ounces of the water in the bowl of a standing electric mixer fitted with the hook. Mix on low speed until blended. Stop the mixer and let rest, covered, for 15 minutes.
Add the poolish along with the salt and yeast and mix on low for 5 minutes. Increase the mixer speed to medium and mix for about 8 minutes, or until the dough has come together but remains slightly sticky. Drizzle in the remaining water and continue to mix until the dough is smooth and almost shiny. Check the gluten development by “pulling a window”: If the dough can be stretched to an almost translucent film, it has been sufficiently kneaded. If not, the dough must be kneaded longer and the test redone.
Lightly oil a large bowl or container. Scrape the dough into the prepared bowl. Cover the bowl with plastic wrap and set aside to ferment for 1 hour. Uncover and fold the dough. Again, cover with plastic wrap and set aside to ferment for 1 hour.
About 1 hour before you are ready to bake the loaves, place the baking stones or tiles into the oven and preheat to 470 degrees. If using a pan to create steam, place it directly on the bottom of the oven now (not on a rack).* Cover the cutting board with a couche and dust the couche with flour, or lightly flour a bagel or bread board.**
Uncover the dough and transfer it to the floured surface. Carefully divide it into four 12 ½-ounce rectangular pieces (they need not be perfectly shaped). Place on the couche-covered board or bagel or bread board. Cover with plastic wrap and proof for 30 minutes.
Line a peel with parchment paper. Uncover the dough and invert it onto the prepared peel. When ready to bake, to make the required steam, add 1 cup of ice to the hot pan in the oven. Using the peel, immediately transfer the loaves to the hot baking stones in the oven.
Bake, with steam, for 35 minutes, or until the bread is a golden-brown color, the sides are firm to the touch, and the loaves make a hollow sound when tapped on the bottom. Remove from the oven and transfer to wire racks to cool.