appetizers, breakfast, brunch, sides

sourdough ciabatta.

sourdough ciabatta.

There is something to be said for people who rush to your aid even though they have never met you in person. A few weeks back, I had been attempting (and failing, in various and really disgusting ways) to make a successful sourdough starter. By the second or third attempt, I was convinced the entire thing wasn’t for me. What was I doing wrong here? Bread starters are supposed to smell all luscious and warm hearthy; mine smelled like I poured beer over some yellow cake and abandoned it in the sink for a few weeks. I’m not going to lie; I may have cried a little bit. Because here I thought I had gotten over the yeast part of things (where nothing ever rose correctly), but now it seemed as though the universe was telling me that the gates were locked on anything sourdough-related.

But I love sourdough breads the best.

So I did what every one of us does when we’re in misery, and we feel alone, we don’t know who else to turn to: I posted a cry for help on Facebook. I thought at least I could verbalize my frustration and that would make me feel better, even if no on answered.

But so many of you answered. And like lightning, I might add; so fast that I went on to do something else for a bit and came back shortly thereafter and there was an entire discussion going on between people I’m not even sure know each other regarding sourdough starters. There was concern expressed over my use of milk and flour (I’m sorry, friends; I knew not what I was doing, and that recipe I was using was totally bogus, you’re right), suggestions for other friends to tell me what they used, and exact recipes and helpful guides set forth for me by all of you. One of you even named my starter. You not only suggested I name it, because naming sourdough starters is evidently a must, but you even helped me come up with one (Remy! I still love that name. Thanks, Jennifer B!)

My point: we may not all get to gather ’round the fire anymore like we did a hundred years ago, because our worlds are all so much larger than before, but let no one ever tell you that real friendships and love can’t stretch across the bounds of the internet. Because it can, and I see it every day, and it’s in dumb things like taking a minute to help someone with their stupid, failing bread starter. The internet isn’t as cold a place as it seems, at least not always, because all I saw that day in my mind was a bunch of people shuffling up my porch in their hoop skirts, fluttering about in my kitchen trying to make sure I got it right. No one was leaving until I produced something successful; it was like making sure the weakest of the herd didn’t fall behind. We were a team. And it was so, so great. Thank you.

sourdough ciabatta.

That right there is the coolest thing about blogging: this community is so willing and ready and able to help you it’s like there are thousands of people manning some invisible phone bank waiting, and wanting, to help you out. In August, I’ll have been blogging for two years, and in that time, I’ve been handed some pretty amazing opportunities because of the randomness which happens here. However, I think what keeps me going than most is the unending encouragement and support I get from the food community, on all levels. It keeps me in love with blogging, and that’s important.

For the ladies in their virtual hoop skirts who showed up on my porch the other day, this one is for you. The starter worked! I guess I’m not sure how to gauge the success of a bread starter, but it smells great, made a lovely dough for this, and the end result was incredibly delicious. I even looked up how to care for my new starter while I was on vacation, and I’m excited to get back to it. This ciabatta recipe was the short-term reason I wanted to make a starter, but obviously I’ll be moving on to other things with it, since this turned out so well. I realize that not all ciabatta involves a sourdough component, but my favorite ones do.

sourdough ciabatta.

I am no bread expert (obviously), but like the cherry focaccia, if I can do this, you can too. Maybe you have a bread starter already, which is great because you can get to baking this right away. The quicker the better, because this was a lovely, easy recipe, and it makes a huge amount. I shaped mine into two large loaves, but you could easily make smaller ones if that seems more practical to you.

I’m actually going to use it in a favorite breakfast sandwich of mine; a newish one from Panera Bread that I’m in love with. I figured out the copycat, and that will be coming up in a few days. Because of that, I made it in the style of their own ciabatta, which has a sourdough base and a softer crust than you typically see on ciabatta, and I can only assume this is because they don’t do the water spritz thing just prior to baking. I like it this way – pillowy – simply because it seems more useful for sandwiches.

Starter made just like Annie’s Eats said to make it, and it is beautiful. I highly recommend it, along with maybe a million others. If you’re in need of a sourdough starter, here you are.

Ciabatta recipe adapted from Williams Sonoma Essentials of Baking: Tips and Tricks for Successful Home Baking by Cathy Burgett.

Ciabatta (in the style of Panera Bread)

for the overnight sponge:

  • 1 teaspoon active dry yeast
  • 1/2 cup whole milk, heated to warm (105˚-115˚F)
  • 1 1/4 cups cool water
  • 1 cup sourdough starter*
  • 2 cups unbleached all-purpose flour (Bob’s Red Mill is my favorite for breads)

for the dough:

  • 2 cups unbleached all-purpose flour (again, Bob’s Red Mill is pretty awesome) + 1 cup more for additions (you won’t need that much, but it’s nice to have on hand)
  • 1 tablespoon sea salt
  • 1 tablespoon olive oil
  • 1/4 cup cornmeal
  • 2/3 cup (or so) all-purpose flour for the work surface

*so, as you read above, this is my first time making a successful sourdough starter, and I couldn’t be more thrilled. I tried one from this very book, actually, and it was weird and terrible. I asked for help on Facebook, and Facebook swept me up in its wings. So many lovely people responded, all of whom know way more about bread than I do, and they directed me to this starter recipe: it worked beautifully, and I have yet to kill it. Which is amazing. If you have your own starter, obviously use it here. If you don’t, this one comes highly recommended, by me and by a swarm of others. So make your starter and let it…er…start, and away we go.

Make the sponge:

In a large bowl, dissolve the yeast into the warm milk and let stand until foamy, about 5 minutes. Using a wooden spoon, stir in the water, sourdough starter of your choosing, and bread flour, mixing until everything is homogenous. Cover the bowl with plastic wrap and let stand overnight at room temperature.

Make the ciabatta:

Remove the plastic wrap from your sponge and transfer to the bowl of a stand mixer fitted with the dough hook attachment (or, alternatively, do this by hand if you have a specific way you normally make bread). Add the flour, salt, and oil; knead on low speed until soft and springy, about 7 minutes. See my note below on adding additional flour, and remember to scrape the bowl down periodically with a plastic scraper.

Note: I watched this the entire time, and needed to add a little bit more flour as it went; it shouldn’t clean the sides of the bowl, necessarily, but it should come off of it a little bit and smooth out. I added 1/2 cup more as it was kneading, and felt like that was perfect. You add more or less as you see fit, but don’t make it too dry. Aim for “not sticky oozy glob.”

Remove the bowl from the stand mixer and give it one more scrape-down to catch the sides. Use your hands to incorporate any side leftovers, and cover the bowl with plastic wrap. Place in a warm spot in your kitchen and let rise for about 3 hours; it should double in bulk. Alternatively, you can place the bowl in the fridge overnight, which is what I did, and it turned out beautifully. The chill on it makes it easier to work when you shape the loaves, so you pick. I think if you’ve done ciabatta before, you’re prepared for how soft and sticky it is. If you haven’t, I would recommend the refrigerator/overnight method first.

When your dough is ready, sprinkle two half-sheet pans generously with cornmeal.

Cover your work surface with that heap of flour (2/3 cup) and use your pastry scraper to turn the dough out of the bowl onto the prepared surface. Cut the dough into two equal pieces with a large, sharp knife.

Sprinkle a little more flour over top your two dough halves while you gently shape each piece outward into long, flat rectangles, about 6 inches by 16-18 inches in total size. Carefully pick up each loaf by weaving it over your hands and transfer it to the center of the prepared pan.

Cover the loaves loosely with two clean kitchen towels (1 each) and leave them to rise in a warm place in your kitchen until soft and puffy, 1 1/2 to 2 hours.

When ready to bake, place your oven racks in the middle and lower third of your oven, and preheat to 450˚F.

Place your bread into oven gently, and bake until they are lightly browned and sound hollow when tapped, about 18-20 minutes. Transfer to wire racks to cool completely before serving. That part, yes, will be difficult.

Makes two really big loaves; ones which you could use for slicing and serving as an appetizer with flavored olive oil, toasting for crostini or bruschetta, or making breakfast sandwiches much like the mediterranean egg sandwich coming up next.

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  • Reply Jen @JuanitasCocina July 13, 2013 at 7:30 am

    Linda’s always requesting ciabatta. I’m going to surprise her!!! I’ll let you know how many brownie points I earn.

    • Reply shannon July 16, 2013 at 8:29 am

      girl, serious: you’re the one who makes like, homemade bread EVERYTHING, right? and no ciabatta yet for linda? i guess that means i have to come visit…:)

  • Reply Wendy July 13, 2013 at 8:22 am

    Oh, Shannon, you provide hope to the yeast and sourdough impaired! I get all giddy when yeast does what it is supposed to for me (which is more often than it used to be but not often enough). Sourdough starter? Scary stuff! But I love sourdough ciabatta (Panera breakfast sandwich copycat? Yes, please!), so on my next brave and bold day, I will give this a shot. 🙂

    • Reply shannon July 16, 2013 at 8:36 am

      whew! wendy, i’m so happy i’m not the only one who freaks out a little with joy when yeast performs in the way it’s supposed to. don’t worry: i still have my yeast fails, for sure.

      if you give this a shot, let me know! i promise you it was delightfully easy; i was all smiles when i began working with this, right at the point that i touched it and just knew it was going to work. if you need help, you know i’m always available. 🙂

  • Reply Monica July 13, 2013 at 8:45 am

    So sweet about all the help from your internet friends. It’s really nice when people are supportive and kind. And great job on the sourdough ciabatta! Looks and sounds delicious. I’m very timidly thinking about giving bread-making a try but making my own starter is far from where I imagine my starting line to be. This is why I love looking at food blog – there is so much inspiration everywhere and it moves me to try something new. Enjoy the weekend (and the homemade bread)!

    • Reply shannon July 16, 2013 at 8:39 am

      it was so very comforting to have that many people just rally around my troubles like that; it’s never totally surprising, because i’ve learned that people in the food community tend to be helpful and overall awesome, but the rate in which people rushed in to help was astounding. really sort of affirming in the way that i love being a part of this particular community of individuals.
      as for your possible foray into bread-making: DO IT! believe me, i have struggled. i have failed. i have failed so badly it’s been funny. but i think once you have some success, you’ll never look back. AND somehow you start feeling like bread is fun, which is something i never thought i’d say.

  • Reply natalie @ wee eats July 13, 2013 at 9:03 pm

    I’m so proud of you for finally taking the plunge into yeast-baking!!! And, of course, you chose one of the types that requires the most attention and dedication… AND you made it your (explicit content)!!! It’s silly that I spent $2.99 a week to buy a loaf of ciabatta when clearly I can make such better loaves in my own kitchen, following the recipe and instruction that you have already perfected for me 🙂 Thanks love!

    • Reply shannon July 18, 2013 at 4:40 am

      OF COURSE: you know, i guess since i know so little about bread making, i had no idea this one was like, the most labor-intensive, but it doesn’t surprise me given my personality. Next step: making bread regularly in the kitchen, although i’m going to figure out what to do with all of it. This is the only time i need a large family around in close proximity; so they can eat all of the bread. you are welcome: it’s the least i can do for you, as someday you’re going to walk me through your croissants. someday.

  • Reply Faygie July 13, 2013 at 11:29 pm

    Yay!! I’m so excited to see that it worked for you! I WILL try sourdough one day, I hope. Maybe in the fall. I don’t know if it’s because it’s summer, or what, but I have absolutely no patience for cooking or baking these days (except for making ice cream, obviously). That’s why I haven’t been posting much lately. Planning menus, writing lists, cleaning up afterwards–they all seem like such a big CHORE lately.

    • Reply shannon July 18, 2013 at 4:43 am

      ha! you know someone has small children when you hear them say “maybe in the fall” because that’s what i’ve been saying for the past few months. 🙂 EVERYTHING will happen once less is going on. Summer does weird things to our brain, for sure: it’s vacation, and it’s a mix of being busy and not having normal levels of patience. i’m sort of experiencing the same thing, minus the ice cream maker (soon to be corrected). Everyone needs time to step back; i think we all feel bad about it when we do it, but i suppose the most important thing to remember is we ALL do it. 🙂

  • Reply Brianne July 14, 2013 at 3:09 pm

    Yay!! You did it!! Ciabatta is the best kind of bread, but I’ve been wary to try it at home. Our sourdough starter is in the freezer for now, as things have been too hectic to make it at home. Here’s to a fun future with your new friend Remy!

    • Reply shannon July 18, 2013 at 4:50 am

      yay! 🙂 you know, i couldn’t have done it without everyone’s encouragement, which makes it all that much better. When i was reading about starters, the first thing i thought of was “wow, wait: so i’m COMMITTED to making bread/caring for this on a weekly basis?!?!” because that’s hardcore, you know? But then i saw ways to make the starter dormant like you’re doing and it eased the pressure. I know Remy will have to endure time in the freezer, for sure, but i’m looking forward to a lovely future together.

  • Reply mediterranean egg sandwich + slow-roasted tomatoes: a panera bread copycat. | A Periodic Table July 15, 2013 at 6:12 am

    […] post, but I didn’t want to drag things out too much; you already have a separate post for the ciabatta part of this anyway, if you’re interested in making it […]

  • Reply Dana Staves July 15, 2013 at 8:47 am

    Oh yay!! I’m so glad this recipe came out, partly because I intend to make it very, very soon (now that you did the leg work). 🙂
    I love what you say about the Internet being like our kitchen full of neighbors. In those moments when it seems distant and lonely and like no one is listening, you post a question or a comment, and suddenly everyone is there with you, cheering you on and helping. I love getting to be one of the hoop skirt ladies in your kitchen, and I’m always thankful for your presence in mine.

    • Reply shannon July 18, 2013 at 4:55 am

      I am happy to do the work for you, Dana: problem-solving is my happy place, and it’s even better when it helps others along the way. thank YOU for all your help: without you i’m not sure my starter would exist.
      i’ve found it fascinating, this community we’re all in; it’s amazing. I always wonder if it’s the nature of what we all love – food – which makes it such an encouraging, non-competitive group…it’s pretty great. You’ll always be one of my hoop skirt ladies, this is know for certain, and i hope my hoop skirts bustle through your kitchen when you need me, also. 🙂

  • Reply Ashley July 15, 2013 at 9:38 am

    Love the imagery of hooped skirted ladies fluttering around your kitchen, escorting the ever-gentlemanly Remy inside and fussing over him until he’s all settled in his new home… And I have heard (from A Plum By Any Other Name’s blog) that naming your starter practically guarantees its success and longevity.
    I’m so excited by your victory over yeast AND starters!!!! You’re just rocking the socks off all kitchen trepidations! Woo!

    • Reply shannon July 18, 2013 at 5:00 am

      *giggle* thank you! something about bread-baking calls to mind the hoop skirts, and it felt so much like it that day for me. I hope naming my starter helps it stay wonderful! I’m excited to just have it…like a continual reminder that i did something correctly. 🙂
      i’m happy to rock your socks off! but i miss you rocking my own socks off, girl. i know you’re busy right now, so i’ll wait patiently. 🙂

  • Reply Amy @ Elephant Eats July 15, 2013 at 10:21 am

    look at you, not just conquering yeast, but sourdough too! I tried making a sourdough starter once but it totally stressed me out. I wasn’t sure how much water or flour to add to it without ruining it. I’m SO glad yours turned out well. People are so nice…or at least people who follow your blog 🙂 Your bread looks great!!!

    • Reply shannon July 18, 2013 at 5:04 am

      I’m laughing right now because i had zero idea sourdough was like, the Master Class of bread…i’m an idiot. 🙂 Let me tell you: this was not my first starter. my FIRST starter? HORRIBLE. by day three, it smelled like what i imagine straight-up nuclear waste to smell like, which is why i called out for help. I’m still nervous about the whole removal/add maintenance part of things, but so far, so good. People ARE so nice; having my wee starter in the fridge is sort of a continual reminder of how great people in this corner of the internet can be. 🙂 How did i attract so many incredible people? i need to bottle whatever it was… 😉

  • Reply Abbe@This is How I Cook July 18, 2013 at 10:02 am

    Shannon, you brave girl. I haven’t tried sourdough and I love it. I imagine it must have tasted as good as it felt. And I love pillowy ciabatta. I hate the ones that scape the top of your mouth.

    • Reply shannon July 18, 2013 at 3:06 pm

      Brave or crazy, jury’s still out on that. Try it sometime: once you get past that whole starter-starting bit, it’s pretty smooth sailing. Pillowy is my favorite too; great breads are ruined when they cause mouth injury…this one will not, i promise you. There’s a crust, but it’s just as soft as the insides, which makes it really great to sandwich around things.

  • Reply Maureen Smith October 14, 2014 at 9:21 am

    Im going to try this as soon as I get some more yeast. By the way, what is the best way to store yeast? For years Ive been storing it in the fridg. Is that ok?

    • Reply shannon October 15, 2014 at 11:47 am

      Hi Maureen! I store my yeast in the fridge too, and it’s never given me a problem. Probably that matters more in hotter (or humid) weather than it does right now, but it’s in there all year long. 🙂

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