Overcoming the fear of dealing with high hydration doughs
Many of us don’t dare to bake high hydration breads because we think we won’t be able to handle the dough and that it’ll end up a real mess. But we must lose this fear because if we know how to handle properly this kind of dough it gives incredible results with few efforts.
I began to make ciabattas following the traditional recipes, i.e. trying to deal with high hydration doughs that do not require (or I should say, do not allow) any shaping. The truth is that I didn’t like the outcome since the bread lacked volume and the crumb looked damp and dense.
When we bake bread at home and, like me, have no professional skills we tend to use the heuristic method of «trial and error”. But sometimes theory can give us the keys. In this case, Jordi Morera’s book “La revolución del pan» («The Bread Revolution», still not translated to English) helped me understand important concepts and techniques to deal with high hydration doughs quite easily.
How to make a perfect ciabatta and pizza dough
Home bakers know that recipes are given for information purposes only; they are not magical formulas because we all use different flours and work in different environments influenced by the room temperature, the humidity rate, the quality of the water, etc.
What I intend here is to give you some tips to handle a high hydration dough (87% in this case) and bake ciabattas with a nice volume and an opened crumb, but also delicious pizzas with a thin crunchy base and a thick, fluffy crust. You will have to adapt the formula according to the flours you use and depending on your environment conditions.
Ingredients for two ciabattas (or one ciabatta and one pizza)
- 425 g bread flour (212 g Primitiva 1 (300), 107 g Spiga, 106 g Verde, all from Molino Pasini, see below)
- 290 g water
- 60 g extra virgin olive oil
- 160 g 120% hydrated sourdough starter (50 g sourdough starter, 50 g flour (wheat – rye), 60 g water)
- 1 g dry yeast (optional)
- 10 g sea salt
- Some saffrom strands
How to deal with a high hydration dough?
120% hydration sourdough starter
The first key to handle a high hydration dough is that a significant part of the water is added to the starter. We usually use 100% hydration starter (i.e. fed with the same amount of flour as water) to bake bread. When using a 120% hydration (or even more) sourdough starter, we add more water to the starter and thus, less to the dough (see baker’s percentages), which allows us to better handle the dough during preshaping.
Those of us who bake bread at home know that every ounce of water counts. On one occasion I spoiled a dough (which became a slurry) for adding 10 g over-water … Another advantage of using a 120% hydration sourdough starter is that it enhances the production of lactic acid, which boots fermentation.
Active sourdough starter
It is important to remember that the starter to be used to bake bread has to be very active. To do this, you will have to feed it several times before using it. Using part of natural yeast water to feed the dough can also help us achieving a strong starter and, therefore, an opened crumb and a nice volume.
What flours should we use to bake ciabattas?
A high hydration and long fermented dough like ciabatta’s dough requires the use of strong flours with a high rate of proteins (between 13 and 15%).
I was lucky to try some high quality Italian flours from Molino Pasini, which are actually perfect to deal with long fermented doughs. You can check and download all the technical data of each of the flours used here in their website (English version available).
As I said before, you will have to adapt the recipe according to the flours you can get in your country, although these should have similar characteristics.
Can we add yeast to the ciabatta dough?
Yeast is not evil provided it is correctly used and in the right proportion! As you can see, my formula carries 0.02% dry yeast. The use of yeast is optional, although recommended in winter. In this case, as I baked these ciabattas in summer so I did not use yeast. Anyway, in case the room temperature is too low, this very small percentage of yeast will help us boost fermentation without affecting the crumb texture or the flavor.
Baking sourdough ciabattas, step by step
The first thing to do is to mix the flours and water (cold in summer) and let it rest during 30 minutes. Autolyse allows the flour to moisturize, to produce sugars and to start developing the gluten mesh (which, in turn, allows the gas to be retained in order to get a nice volume and an opened crumb. As a general rule, autolyse is done without adding the sourdough starter.
Usually, a high hydration dough needs a longer kneading. It is therefore important to use a stand mixer with a hook to shorten the kneading process.
After autolyse, add the sourdough starter and start kneading at low speed (1 for Kitchenaid Artisan) for 2 minutes. Continue kneading 1 minute at speed 2, 1 minute at speed 3 and 1 minute at speed 4. After 5 minutes kneading, let the dough rest for about 5 minutes.
Start kneading again at speed 1 and add the salt & the saffron, and gradually the oil (cold).
The bassinage technique
This technique, called bassinage, consists of adding a small part of the recipe’s water (cold, especially in summer) nearly at the end of the kneading phase (i.e., once gluten is partially developed) in order to soften the dough and give it strength. During autolyse and initial kneading, gluten has been partially developed, which favors the absorption of water without deteriorating the gluten mesh.
What’s new here is that instead of water, we add olive oil. Adding vegetable oil to the dough in its right proportion helps getting a more opened crumb.
Another advantage of adding part of the water to the dough at the end of the kneading phase is that it cools down our dough which might have overheated after kneading because of friction. It’s important to remember that whatever liquid we add (water or oil) must be cold, especially in summer.
After adding the olive oil, gradually increase the speed to level 4 and continue kneading for 2 to 3 minutes, until the dough does not stick to the bowl and is elastic and silky.
The duration of the second kneading will depend on how well your dough has achieved tension after the initial kneading (depending on the flours you have used, it’ll have absorbed more or less water and will be more or less liquid). The less tension is has achieved, the more it needs to be kneaded. It is best to alternate short kneading times with short rest periods in order not to overheat the dough (resulting from the friction of the hook), especially in summer.
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To get the best possible results, it is important to control the temperature of the dough, which has to be between 24 and 26 ºC. A digital or infrared thermometer is very useful for this.
In order to maintain a constant temperature, you should either cool down the dough (alternating fridge/room temperature) or heat it up (alternating room temperature/hot spot in your house, i.e. preheated oven at 30 ° C and turned off).
Good fermentation is key to achieving a nice volume and an opened crumb.
According to the surface tension of the dough, it will be necessary to give it one or several folds. In my case, one fold after one hour fermentation was enough.
For this ciabatta, the dough has performed a 4 hours bulk fermentation at controlled room temperature. During this first rise, the dough should nearly double its volume.
Then the dough went for a cold fermentation at 4 or 5 ºC for about 20 hours (the container was hermetically sealed). If you use suitable flours you can leave your dough in the fridge up to 48 hours (unless you have used yeast, in which case this time won’t have to exceed 10 or 12 hours).
Once the dough is preshaped, preheat the oven at 275 ºC without the fan for 45 minutes and put the tray with the stone just below the middle of the oven.
Shaping (or unshaping!)
For a ciabatta: bake 15 minutes at 250ºC without using fan or steam. Use aluminum foil if the surface gets too brown.
For a pizza: preheat the oven as stated above. Then turn on the grill. Place the tray with the stone sheet at least 20 cm from the upper grill. Bake the pizza 10 to 12 minutes checking it continuously so it does not burn.
Enjoy and do not hesistate to share!