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Sourdough Ciabatta with Biga


There is a story about this bread. Although it looks like it was there since ever, in fact, this specific bread was invented only 40 years ago. French bread was very popular then and still is, all around the world. Italian bread was also great but maybe not as popular. One baker, Arnaldo Cavallari, from a small town near Venice, invented in 1982 a type of bread that suited sandwiches as well as its French competition, the famous baguette.

The ciabatta (translated literally means slipper) had a full success and in few months it became very popular in Italy. Many Italian regions made adaptations to the recipe and many variations were created.

But its success didn't stop in Italy. Two years after, was introduced to UK, and 5 years later to US.

The original ciabatta (called Ciabatta polesana) has a high hydration dough based on a high-protein flour and an open-crumb with big alveoli.

I made ciabatta before following recipes from books (Pumpkin seeds ciabattaCiabattaCiabatta with sunflower seedsCiabatta with pumpkin seedsBuckwheat ciabatta) but I have to recognise that it was just recently that I've discovered its secrets. I am however not ashamed of them because they were part of my journey. Without them, I wouldn't have learned to look for more, to always search for perfection.

All ciabatta attempts I made were perfect as taste but there was something missing.... those big alveoli. I know that as a beginner I was not fully understanding the importance of strong bread flour. I changed my method, I added water, and yes, I can declare that 90% is the highest hydration I ever used with white flour. Baking sourdough bread for my family every single week during all these years improved my skills, and here I am, standing in front of my open crumb ciabatta.

This recipe is easy but it is not for a novice. Handling very wet dough is a nightmare for somebody just starting baking bread. But even if you do not have high skills you can do this recipe if you follow closely the instructions I gave in the video. I also give tips and tricks and I also try to explain why you should do things in a way or another.

100% Spelt Sourdough Bread


You do not fully understand a type of flour before making a 100% loaf of that flour. I like to combine flours in my bread but to estimate what would be the consequence of each flour addition you need to have a good knowledge of how each flour you use impacts the final bread.

This is why, I baked this 100% spelt sourdough bread, to share with you how this flour behaves.

Spelt is a cereal, very close to wheat that has not been affected too much by industrialisation. The spelt grain is covered by a tough and thick hull. This one protects the grain from insects and diseases. Pollutants and pests are also less effective for this cereal. This is an ancient cereal, and we could consider that we are eating almost the same one that our ancestors were eating.

In recent years spelt gained a lot of popularity especially as an alternative to wheat. Keeping in mind the advantages of the hull, spelt is more organic. Spelt contains more proteins but less gluten. It is not only less gluten but its quality is also poor. The balance between glutenins and gliadins of the wheat is for spelt disturbed. It contains more gliadins that make the dough super stretchy and is low in gliadins that makes the dough less elastic. These are the factors that influence how a spelt dough behaves. Comparing to the wheat dough, it is soft, stretchy, sticky and it is difficult to build the structure inside. When the quality of the gluten network is affected, it is a challenge to trap the CO2 bubbles inside. More than this, spelt flour has fewer sugars, so less food for the yeast bacteria to feed. This means that there will be a lower degree of fermentation that will result in smaller gas bubbles. 

It might look that there are a lot of disadvantages of using spelt flour instead of wheat but there are good reasons why people prefer spelt over wheat.

The first one is that a lot of people who are gluten or wheat sensitive report that they tolerate much better spelt bread than wheat bread. The explanation might be that the gluten in spelt is different from the one in wheat. It is more water-soluble and it is broken much easier by the body. It is then easier to digest it. Another aspect is that it contains a lower % of phytic acid who is an anti-nutrient because it reduces the absorption of minerals by the body. The minerals seem to be in higher levels in spelt than in wheat.

But please, take into consideration that I am not a doctor either a scientist. I tell you here what I learned from studies and articles. The best is to consult a doctor if you have wheat/gluten sensitivity. However, keep in mind that spelt contains gluten so it is not for people with celiac disease.

I also read articles and studies swearing on the fact that spelt is the most miracle flour you can get. I've read others saying the contrary, that has nothing more special than wheat. But health and diet is not my area of expertise, I want to focus here only on how spelt affects bread making. One thing is sure, spelt flour is different from wheat flour.

With the above characteristics, bakers need to adapt their methods to get the best out of the spelt flour. 

The first thing to keep in mind is that the fermentation cannot be extended up until the dough doubles in size. The fermentation needs to be stopped at about a 50% increase in volume. Higher than 50% it looks like a trap, the loaf fell onto itself in the oven. I've tested this a few times and always the same result, the bread got flat. You might want to use tricks like baking the bread into a pan and in this case, you can extend maybe to a 55-60% increase. I wanted to bake this bread freestanding to learn its limits. You also need to understand that each spelt flour is different, so you need to run your own tests with every flour source/brand. Whole spelt flour has other limits of fermentation and hydration. 

To conclude, what works for me and my type of flour you also need to test for your case. Take away the basics and find your own "figures"/limits.

40% Spelt Sourdough Bread

To build a sourdough bread recipe is not probably a very easy thing to do for a beginner baker. I baked for years following recipes that I found in books and sometimes I was disappointed because the result was far from the photo displayed in the book. I couldn't understand WHY? How come that following the recipe by the letter the result was different? I had some thoughts about who might have been the culprit: the flour. But most of the books I had were from the US where I knew that the flour is different from the one produced in Europe. For years, I resigned myself that I will never reach with my bread the level of the photos from cookbooks.


There was one idea that bothered me: if the flour was the problem, how come that French bakers achieved so gorgeous baguettes and bread? Could it have been that I was wrong in my assumption?

This was enough to motivate me to learn more, to find out if the culprit was maybe my lack of knowledge and practice. And I was right on both aspects: the flour was the culprit but also my limited skills. 

I started by understanding the science behind bread baking focusing on one single type of flour. Then I looked for how to work with flour in my advantage.

The next step was to try different types of flours as additions to my bread and here things got more complicated. That is because each type of flour has slightly different properties than wheat flour. But by knowing how wheat flour behaves, you get a term of reference and all the flours you test will be always compared to wheat flour.

There is also another test to do. If you add 40% flour different flour from wheat the influence of that flour is substantial but you still get the properties of wheat flour to help you. To fully understand how one specific flour behaves you need to test the extreme: make bread of 100% special flour. Then you'll get the experience and you'll easily understand how it works.


Concretely, I reached this recipe by performing 4 attempts.

The first attempt

This was my first attempt at a recipe with 40% spelt flour bread. I knew few things about spelt flour and what to expect from it. But it is only when you try it that you really feel the difference.

Spelt flour, compared to wheat flour:

  • does not work well in the very hydrated dough
  • it is very extensible
  • it has a low % of gluten while high protein content.
  • it has a weak gluten quality
  • it rises quickly and over proofs at a lower volume increase

For this initial attempt, I tested first the recipe at 75% hydration (meaning 730g water). I performed 4 coil folds, shaped the bread at 50% volume increase but let the dough rise up until 75% before the overnight fridge retard.

The results:

  • even with 4 coil folds, the structure was a challenge
  • the hydration was too high and I've got a very wet dough feeling when shaping.
  • 75% volume increase looked over-proofed
  • the loaves were flat
  • despite the above, the taste was fantastic

You can watch short videos of this attempt at https://www.instagram.com/p/CSP95fID6ej/

The second attempt

 

 

With the previous experience, I learned that the hydration had to go lower, as well as the volume increase. So, instead of 75% hydration, I jumped down to 70% and the dough behaved nicely in my hands. Also, the structure was easier to build.
For the percentage of volume increase, I stepped down and shaped the dough when it was at 50%. Then, it went in the fridge overnight, after 15 minutes of resting in bannetons at room temperature.
On this first loaf of the 2nd attempt, I simply forgot to sprinkle flour before scoring. Not really a big deal, it is more a matter of look.
But the surprise came when removing the lid at mid bake: a gorgeous detachment of the ear. Usually, an exaggerated ear is a sign of "it could have fermented longer". In any case, the look was outstanding and I was very happy with it.
My joy was however short because it lasted just up until cutting the loaf. The crumb look confirmed my inner fear that the loaf was under proofed. And in a serious way. A dense crumb with big holes looking like a chain of caves/tunnels is the proof of under proofing.
Another lesson learned: while dropping the hydration was a good idea, dropping the volume increase during bulk at the same time, was not.

The second loaf of the 2nd attempt of the 40% spelt bread was a little different than the first loaf. Why? Well, because sometimes little changes can make a big difference.

First of all, for this 2nd loaf, I did not forget the flour before scoring and the pattern was more visible. Besides the look, this loaf does not have the signs of an under proofed loaf: no exaggerated ear and no dense crumb with tunnels, although the 2 loaves come from the exact same batch of dough, the timing and steps being exactly the same. But the crumb and look was different.
Let me ask you something: if I get such differences for 2 loaves of the same batch of dough, do you still wonder when you follow a recipe, why you get something totally different than what the author shows you?
The mystery of the difference between the 2 loaves of this bake is simple. When I put the bannetons in the fridge, my fridge was full. I rearranged the things and managed to put the bannetons one in the back and one in front on the same shelf of the fridge. But during the summer, opening the door of the fridge for a few seconds is enough for the temp to rise inside. Then, it takes a while for the temp to stabilise again to the setting of the fridge. If one of the bannetons is in front, the dough will get a higher and unstable temperature than the one in the back. Useless to say that if you place the bannetons on 2 different shelves you might get significant differences between them.
While in the fridge, the dough continues to rise until arriving in the fridge temp. It takes actually a few hours for this cooling process. But if the fridge temperature goes up and down every time you open the fridge, the process takes even more time and the dough continues its rise.
So practically, my shaped dough was under proofed. The one in the banneton in the back of the fridge had a less fluctuating temp and preserved the under the proofed stage while the one in front passed to a good fermentation stage.

You can watch short videos of this attempt at 

https://www.instagram.com/p/CSSkABmjtzb/ and https://www.instagram.com/p/CSXnKX1D0K1/


The third attempt





As you may notice, the result was a lovely risen bread, with an impressive height. The ear in this case was less dramatically opened because the dough expanded to a good state internally during the proofing stage rather than in the oven and had very little power to push the ear up.
The second loaf (not in these photos) was flatter with a less height than this one, making me think that passed a bit on the over-proofed side.
Without even seeing the crumb, I could have easily guessed that this bread had an open crumb inside and I caught to bake it in the very last moments before starting to collapse.
Oh, yes, this is what you can call an open crumb bread. The loaf is super light in your hands and you can guess even without cutting it that you get an airy crumb.
For a round loaf (well... my bannetons were actually squared but during baking, the round shape was quickly established) this is quite a nice crumb. Usually, you get more chances of an open crumb using oval bannetons rather than round/squared.
If my target was just the open crumb, then I would have stopped here with the recipe development. I love open crumb bread but I also know that this is a risky business. You need to extend the fermentation to the maximum and catch the dough at the very right moment to get it like this. The first loaf was great but I cannot say the same with the second one from the batch. It was flatter and less open crumb than the first one, although still a lovely loaf. What was the difference? Well, could have stayed more closer to the door of the fridge and it fermented faster. I would have then preferred to stay more on the safe side. I tried this bread at 50% volume rise and it was under proofed. At 75%, it was to the over-proofed limit. A perfect bread should have been fermented somewhere in the middle.
But yes, this loaf is fantastic. Not for sandwiches but suits so well a bowl of soup.

You can watch short videos of this attempt at 

The fourth attempt (this recipe)
With my second attempt at this recipe, I saw that a 50% volume increase was not enough and bread turn out under proofed. With my 3rd attempt, I saw that 75% was at the limit of collapsing due to over proofing. I've learned my lesson and I had only to ferment it in a range of 50-75%. I picked 65%, but this may be a matter of preference. I wanted an open crumb (not a super open crumb) and I've got it. Spelt dough reaches the over proofing stage faster than wheat flour so then I had to find the sweet spot.
The photos and videos are speaking by themselves. There are some things though that the camera cannot get: the taste and flavour. I can tell you about them but it won't be the same as if you would taste it by yourself.
The flavour... ah... travelling in time is the best description. Travelling somewhere in the medieval world in a countryside bakery. The taste is a little nutty and sweet due to the spelt flour.  Not convinced yet? Go to the kitchen and make this recipe...

40% Whole Wheat Sourdough Bread



Usually, when beginners start to make sourdough bread, they venture into using organic whole wheat flour and they easily get disappointed. But working with whole wheat (US) / wholemeal (UK) flour has its secrets that beginners need to learn first.


For this recipe, I hydrated the whole wheat flour the evening before. Hydrating flours before adding the sourdough starter begins the gluten network development, meaning that the windowpane test will pass. Those big bran particles partially block the gluten development resulting in a dough that breaks easily. This means that the CO2 bubbles created later in the fermentation process might escape.

This is a wet dough of 81.3% hydration. But bran has a high water absorption and makes the dough easy to handle. Bran also gives a darker colour to the dough and later to the crumb. But bran contains fibres, proteins, B vitamins and trace minerals that give a higher nutritious value to the bread.

I made a detailed video about the characteristics of wheat flour, please find it here.

During bulk fermentation, all steps performed are to improve the dough structure. Whole wheat flour has a weaker gluten network (because of bran presence), so the structure should be in focus for a more open crumb.

When adding more than 20% whole wheat flour to a recipe, you need to take into account the specificities of this flour.

  • It needs a longer time to hydrate.
  • More coil folds will help with the structure.
  • Bult ferment at 50-60% volume increase for a more open crumb.
  • Expect a slightly denser and darker crumb compared to regular white flour loaves.
  • Expect also a smaller and heavier loaf.

It is in your hands to apply the right techniques and steps to make it perfect.

Whole wheat flour provides a richer nutty flavour to the bread, even when it is combined with regular wheat flour. Whole wheat bread is also healthier, as it includes all the fibres, vitamins and minerals of the bran and germ. It also has a slightly lower glycemic index (GI) than white wheat bread.

What do you think? Will you give it a try?


How to succeed with a sourdough bread recipe?

 

When I started to bake sourdough bread, I was only baking following a recipe. I baked like this for years. Sometimes it was successful and sometimes not. There was a secret that I didn't know back then. I knew that there should have been something that would have turned any recipe into a successful one. But for years I've got distracted by important events in my life, and I gave up searching for it. I continued to bake bread during this time, and yes all the loaves were perfectly edible with a great taste.
One day, a friend of mine challenged me to bake bread without a recipe taken from a book and to look to make my own recipes. I got scared in the beginning as I didn't trust myself that I could do it. The first thing I had to do, it was to understand proportions in a dough,  like hydration, inoculation and so on. With all these clear, I started making my own recipes. But it was not enough. It was frustrating to see that sometimes it was working and sometimes not. What was the secret behind it? What could have made my baking consistent?

When the pandemic stroke us, I was already baking sourdough bread for some years. Almost everybody started to bake bread and the flours shops were empty. I had then to search for other sources of flour than my old good supermarket bread flour. I had then to chose other available flour brands. I've tested other flours before but I couldn't make big difference between them so I came back to my old and very accessible bread flour from the supermarket.
But this time, things were different. Being all the time at home allowed me to keep my sourdough at room temperature and to feed it 2 or 3 times per day. With this life change, I committed myself to search of the secret that I have not found beore, the secret of making incredible good looking bread. I was missing the consistency in baking bread with an ear. I desperately wanted to learn more. What was the secret to obtaining all the time an ear on the bread and a nicelly raised bread?
Things were linked: I needed a new flour, and I wanted a good one. My sourdough was spoiled with feeding at room temperature and got more active than when kept in the fridge. I added to this a bit of research. I bought a book to understand the science behind bread making. From there, I felt like putting together a puzzle. I had many pieces of the puzzle in my hands but I was missing some of them. The picture started to contour. I recall the first time I've got the ear after starting this improvement process. I felt I made a big step into understanding sourdough bread making.

My challenge continued after reaching the so desired ear. I wanted to bake a more open crumb bread, although pure open crumb has never been my target. I would rather say, to have a more aerated crumb in loaves that normally was denser. Also, I wanted to try other tastes from more flours.
On my way, I found the so much wanted secret. Although I have suspected it so long time ago, I have never thought that this would change so much the success of any recipe. The secret was a combination of factors:
  • The first was understanding bulk fermentation, understanding what is happening during this time. Fermentation is a fantastic natural process and o controll it, you need first to understand it.
  • The second was the quality of the flour. You need to know your flour and understand what to expect from it. If it is brand new flour, you need to test it. I had before other brands of flour in my hands, but what I didn't have before were the skills to make the best out of it. For me, all flours were the same before. Not even adding extra gluten didn't make any difference. This was because I didn't know exactly what to look for.
    My search for flour was twofold: one to find a high gluten flour coming from a sustainable source and the second was to find organic flours (if possible local) that would diversify my recipes.
  • The third was to understand my sourdough starter. I found a better place for it on top of my wifi router. My Maya became very active at warm temperatures and I started learning its signs. Once, I remember feeding it with an organic flour that made her very inactive. I had to select then, the perfect "food" for it too.
  • The fourth was to aquire new skills. My old skills, although learned from other bakers needed an upgrade. This is how I turned to Kristen's youtube channel and Instagram page. I've learned so much from her very detailed instructions, tested them and I have kept many of the techniques. It  is funny that although I've been inspired by her techniques, I've never tested her exact recipes. It will not be fair to say that only Kristen was my inspiration in my way, Trevor's book was another big one. And others also, but maybe with a lower influence.
On my learning path, I filmed and uploaded my bakes on youtube. If you are a beginner with sourdough bread, I recommend filming your bread making process (even just for yourself) to later rewind and make a self after bake critique. In this way, you are practically learning from your own mistakes. The more you bake and observe, the more you learn.

I've learned a lot in the last year but I still feel myself at the beginning of this trip. There are so many other things to try: other types of flour, other types of bread and so on. I think the list there can be so creative. I struggle with little time to put in practice and on youtube my loaves, but yes, I bake at least once a week, I test new recipes and most important, I put on the table an amazing bread for me and my family.


I stopped a bit and looked back. I started this path of creating my own recipes, but there are so many nice recipes in sourdough books or over the web. Nowadays, I use these books for inspiration only, without following the exact recipe (ingredients or directions). I wanted to go back, pick a recipe and follow it exactly to see what I would get. 
For this little challenge, I picked the Basic Sourdough Bread recipe of Kristen from FullProofBaking and let me tell you how it went.
The first bake with the exact ingredients and steps (even the same temperature) turned out OK but not outstanding. The high hydration dough (of 80%) didn't pose problems for me. What was wrong then? The crumb looked under proofed, with big holes (like tunnels inside) and very small bubbles around. For the next bake, it was clear that the bulk proof had to be extended. But there was another aspect: the bread looked a little flatter than I would have expected. Adding extra coil folds would have improved the shape.
With these in mind, the next bake was on the right track. I didn't change the hydration but worked on the above-mentioned aspects: I've let the dough to bulk ferment up until 75% instead of 50% volume increase and I made 5 coil folds instead of only 3. The result you can see in the photos and in the video. The result is not exactly like Kristen's and it will never be. The reason is simple: I do not have the same starter with the same behaviour, I do not have the same type of flours, not the same environment and even not the same skills.
But yes, I was able to bake bread that I am not ashamed of. I was actually very pleased with the result and with the incredible taste it has. 

The secret to succeed with a sourdough recipe, in general, is not to follow it by the book but to adapt and use the right techniques to it. Sometimes you can even adjust the ingredients if you know that the flour you are using is higher or lower in proteins. Usually, a recipe does not indicate the protein content of the flour to use. In US, bread flour usually has >13% protein content but my supermarket bread flour has 10% protein content. European bread flour is usually much lower in protein content thus the water content needs to be adapted accordingly. 
It might take you a few trials to be satisfied with the result of a recipe, but all the time, observe and improve is the key.

 I hope the tips and tricks mentioned above or in the video will help you too in succeeding with a sourdough bread recipe.