I love the creative act of baking bread, and I’m on a mission to achieve the perfect artisan-style, 100% whole wheat hearth bread. In his book Tartine Bread, author and chef Chad Robertson refers to this hearth bread type as “integral,” meaning it is made from 100% whole-grain flour. To gain experience in making breads with that distinctive open crumb, silken inner texture and chewy outer crust, Robertson suggests starting first with his basic country loaf, made from 90% white flour and 10% whole wheat flour. Making the bread also requires developing your own wild yeast culture, which then becomes your starter, and eventually is used as the leaven for the bread. I’ve made two attempts at creating my own wild yeast starter. So far I’ve not succeeded, but I’m not giving up. As Robertson says in his book, “it’s absolutely worth the trouble to get there.”
To help ease my frustration and satisfy my yearning in the short term, I returned to making a whole grain ciabatta that I discovered in Peter Reinhart’s Whole Grain Breads: New Techniques, Extraordinary Flavor. This is my favorite whole wheat bread to make because it’s simple, beautifully rustic, and closer to that open crumb texture that I like so much. It doesn’t require you to make your own wild yeast starter, but instead uses instant yeast and an overnight delayed fermentation in the refrigerator. I also add a stretch and fold technique that I read about on Peter’s Pizza Quest blog, and it’s a technique that Chad Robertson uses in Tartine Bread as well. Instead of using the regular hard red whole wheat flour called for in the recipe, I use hard white whole wheat flour, and going a step further, I use flour that I grind fresh from the whole kernel. Using a pre-ground white whole wheat flour from the store works great too.
I like using this white whole wheat ciabatta for simple sandwiches, for dipping in a fruity extra-virgin olive oil along with a variety of Spanish tapas or appetizers, or as a side with a main meal or pasta dish. Its basic flavor and hearty texture allow it to work with all kinds of food, but really, the only reason I need to eat this bread is because I love it.
White Whole Wheat Ciabatta
(adapted from Whole Grain Breads: New Techniques, Extraordinary Flavor by Peter Reinhart)
4 cups (510 grams) white whole wheat flour
1-1/4 teaspoons (4 grams) instant yeast
1-1/4 teaspoons (10 grams) salt
1-1/2 teaspoons (10 grams) honey or sugar
2 cups + 2 tablespoons (482 grams) room temperature water, about 70ºF
1-1/2 tablespoons (21 grams) extra-virgin olive oil
The evening before:
In a large bowl, mix the flour, instant yeast, and salt together with your hand. Mix in the honey, using your fingers to distribute it evenly throughout the flour. Add the water gradually, mixing for a few minutes until you have a thick, sticky, somewhat smooth and cohesive dough. This type of dough requires higher hydration to develop its open crumb structure, so it will be wetter than other types of bread dough, but not so wet that it doesn’t hold together when stretched. If you use freshly ground flour, you may need to add a little less water. If the dough is too dry, adjust it by adding more water, a tablespoon at a time, or if it is too loose, add more flour, a tablespoon at a time. Once the dough is mixed, add the olive oil and work into the dough for several seconds, just enough to coat the dough.
Next you will use the stretch and fold technique to develop the gluten. Using a hand dipped in water to keep from sticking to the dough, begin by lifting one side of the dough, stretching it upward and then folding it over towards the center. Do this on all sides until the entire dough has been stretched and folded toward the center. Then lift the dough and flip it over so the bottom is now the top. Cover the bowl loosely with a towel, and let sit for 15 or 20 minutes. You’ll repeat this stretch and fold technique every 15 or 20 minutes, for a total of four to six repetitions. After the final stretch and fold, very lightly oil the bowl and turn the dough to coat it, then cover the bowl tightly with plastic wrap and refrigerate overnight. This is the delayed fermentation period which helps develop the flavor of the bread.
The next morning:
Remove the dough from the refrigerator and let it sit, still covered in the bowl, until it comes to room temperature, at least an hour. The dough should have at least doubled its size overnight and may have large bubbles that have developed as well. Once the dough has warmed up, gently lift it from the bowl, being very careful to not tear it or compress it, and place it on a well-floured surface. Cut the dough in half.
To shape the dough, loosely fold it into thirds by folding the bottom edge towards the middle, and then the top edge over that, similar to folding a piece of paper into thirds. Do this very gently-you don’t want to de-gas the dough while you shape it. Then turn the shaped dough over so the folded sides are facing down, and place it on a large piece of floured parchment paper. Sprinkle with more flour. Repeat this process with the second piece of dough. When finished, cover both pieces of shaped dough with plastic wrap and let proof for 45 minutes in a warm spot.
While the dough proofs, place a large rectangular pizza stone on the middle rack in the oven. Place a heavy cast iron skillet filled with oven-proof rocks on the bottom rack set on the lowest position in the oven, underneath the pizza stone. Preheat the oven to 500ºF.
Just a few minutes before the dough is finished proofing, heat about two cups of water until boiling in the microwave. Pour the water into a metal watering can with a long spout, and set aside. When the dough finishes proofing, remove the plastic wrap and very gently turn each piece of dough so that the folded side is once again facing up, and sprinkle with more flour. Carefully slide a large pizza peel underneath the parchment paper with the shaped loaves, and slide onto the pizza stone in the oven. Take the watering can and pour the hot water over the stones in the cast iron pan to create steam, being careful not to burn yourself or splash the water on the hot oven window. Close the oven door and lower the temperature to 450ºF. Bake for 20 minutes, then rotate the loaves 180º degrees, using the edges of the parchment paper to turn the loaves. Remove the parchment paper from underneath the loaves. Cook for an additional 15 or 20 minutes. The loaves are done when they are colored a deep golden brown and sound hollow when tapped on the bottom. Transfer to a wire rack and let the loaves cool completely.
Makes two ciabatta loaves