Ciabatta Bake-Off

One of the big goals for the first half of 2016 is to nail down some core bread formulas for a little home bakery operation. While the last two years have seen me bake a (frankly crazy) lot of bread, I haven’t been as careful as I wanted to be re: recording details like temperature, timing, etc. In order to offer things for sale, I need to be consistent, which means knowing my dough really well so I can tell early if there’s an issue with a batch

Now, when you get way into bread, much like stationery, it becomes a bit of a “narcissism of minor differences” situation. While I know the majority of my friends, coworkers, etc. who will be my first customers can’t tell some of the differences, I want to make the bread I most love and am proud of. So naturally, I decided to start by finally comparing the two ciabatta recipes I’ve been playing around with for the last two years.

Overall these are very close to the Hamelman ciabatta recipes, because they’re solid formulas that always turn out for me. This bake, then was about comparing flavor/behavior between two preferments, biga vs poolish.

What’s a preferment? And why do you keep misspelling Polish? And what’s a biga? These are all sensible questions.

The short answers are:
preferments are any method of taking some flour and water from a bread formula and adding a bit of your rising agent (be that wild yeast or commercial yeast) before you mix the full dough.

In the case of these recipes I used a commercial yeast for both. Biga takes a larger amount of flour and a smaller amount of the water from a recipe, along with a very small amount of yeast. You let this rise for anywhere from 4 hours to, in my case, 12 to 14 hours. Then you add in the rest of the flour, water, salt, and a bit more yeast. For a poolish, the only difference is you take an equal amount of flour and water from the recipe.

A biga is stiff and tends to impart a nuttier flavor. You can use it to make a loaf of all purpose taste a bit more hearty like a whole wheat loaf. A poolish on the other hand is sort of a gloopy mess that imparts a more buttery flavor, sometimes it can add a creamy sort of sweetness.

The general process is simple. Pre-ferments came together around 6 pm on a Saturday. Sunday morning I got up around 8:30 and started checking them. They were both pretty ready, but the poolish more obviously so. I mixed it up first. Adding flour, water, salt and more yeast. Mix mix mix, fold it onto itself a few times, let it sit for about ten minutes, and then it’s the first fold. (You can see them soon after first folds in the bottom picture above). I mixed the biga one next, staggering them by about 35 minutes so I could let them both proof fully. I can’t really bake two full ciabatta in my oven at once with my circular pizza stone.

They each got three folds, every 30 to 40 minutes. And both rose an equal amount, around 4 hours. There’s no dividing because I did one loaf batches for each, so I massaged them into ciabatta-esque shapes and let them proof, each for 1.5 hours. Then into a 460 oven for around 28 minutes each.

Voila! And the verdict?

I took them into work and asked for feedback. It was pretty split in my small sample. Me? I loved the poolish. The flavor difference is subtle, admittedly, but the poolish had the richness I want from my ciabatta.

Next up with these is another bake-off. This time the same ciabatta formula with poolish, but two ways. One with a bit of olive oil, the other without. It’s pretty traditional to add in olive oil, although a lot of great ciabatta foregoes it. I do tend to like what it does to the flavor, especially with the poolish, but it’s time to compare them side to side.