I developed this recipe over time, taking bits of wisdom from all over the internet until I had something that I felt was basically foolproof (not to mention tasty). Some people will argue that traditional ciabatta doesn’t contain milk or olive oil; those people would be both technically correct and technically incorrect, since there are variations on a pure ciabatta that can contain one or the other (like ciabatta al latte). The milk and olive oil in this recipe are personal preferences that act to tenderize and condition the dough. Feel free to leave them out if you need/want to — just make sure to replace the milk with water.

ALSO NOTE: In a major departure from my usual on this site, I begin this recipe by weighing ingredients. I know, I know, weird. But I only weigh the flour and starter and then we’re back to regular American measurements. It’s just been the best way I’ve found to achieve consistency in the recipe every time. I’m giving you the approximate cup measures too, so if you absolutely can’t weigh your ingredients, you can play around with doing it the other way.

550-600 grams sourdough sponge* — This comes out to somewhere between 1 1/2 and 2 cups of sponge
550-600 grams flour (equal to the amount of sponge you use. I’ve had the best luck with handling the texture of this dough if I make the last 100-200 grams white whole wheat flour as it makes it slightly sturdier) — This comes out to somewhere around 3 1/2 or 4 cups
1 cup water
2 teaspoons salt
2 tablespoons olive oil
1/2 cup milk

*Sourdough sponge is what you get after you’ve fed your starter and let it ferment overnight.

To make the dough, weigh out your sponge and flour in the bowl of a stand mixer fitted with a dough hook. Add the water and salt and start mixing on low speed to incorporate the water, then increase to medium and stream in the olive oil. Let the dough work for 2-3 minutes to mix well, then knock the speed back to low and add the milk. Mix on low until the milk is incorporated well enough to make a very wet mixture (no sloshing!) and then gradually increase the speed to high. All the kneading for this dough will be done by the mixer due to its high hydration — doing it by hand is difficult and tedious.

Allow the dough to work for 7-10 minutes. You’re looking for the dough to develop long strands pulling away from the sides of the bowl, almost like a spiderweb; when you stop the mixer and lift the hook away, the dough should stretch from the top of the hook down to the bowl in a long V shape without any breakage. It’s very important not to skimp on this step, or the gluten structure won’t be developed properly and you won’t be able to work with the dough later on. It will still be very wet at this stage, almost pourable consistency, but as long as it has the stretch it’s fine.

Once the dough is ready, transfer it to a large clean bowl that’s been lightly oiled. I prefer glass so you can really see the progress while it’s rising. Cover tightly and allow to rise in a draft-free place until it’s doubled and full of air holes. Don’t be tempted to use warmth to speed the rising along; ciabatta needs a slow rise to develop its flavor and structure. I find that this dough needs 4-5 hours to rise perfectly for me, but since starters and strengths vary, you may need to adjust that time.

Once the dough is risen, you’ll need to prepare a sort of cheater’s “couche.”  Trust me on this — it’s vital to the shape of the bread but also, my method of doing this will make baking these loaves SO MUCH EASIER. To make the “couche,” first roll up two clean tea towels, and lay them crosswise on a rimmed baking sheet to create three equally sized sections. Then tear off three sheets of parchment paper, large enough to line the three sections with plenty of extra to spare. Sprinkle a heavy coating of flour into the bottoms of each piece of parchment.

Gently and carefully turn your dough out onto a heavily floured surface. You’re trying to handle the dough as little as possible at this point; ciabatta does not get a long second rise, so you need to keep the air in this dough rather than knocking it back like you would with most breads. Cut the dough into three equal pieces.

Ciabatta bread has a somewhat wide, rectangular shape (ciabatta means “slipper” in Italian), rather than a tighter, rolled baguette look. That’s going to be good news for you, because shaping this very wet dough without knocking out the air would be impossible. All you want to do now is try to get a bit of form to the loaves and transfer them to the segments of your “couche” without disaster; the shape of the couche itself will help do the rest for you. To accomplish this, I gently slide my hands underneath the pieces of dough and stretch lightly into a roughly rectangular shape about 3/4 the size of the couche, then lift and deposit into one of the waiting parchment squares. When you’re finished, you should have three loaves that are hemmed in by the rims of the baking sheet and the tea towels, each resting inside its own square of parchment.

Cover lightly and allow the dough to rest in a draft-free place for 60-90 minutes. It won’t rise appreciably, but by the end of the resting period you should see that the loaves have relaxed somewhat into their couches and there should be some visible air bubbles here and there.

Place a large baking sheet upside-down in the middle of your oven (or if you have a baking stone, you could certainly use that — I don’t, so baking sheet it is). Fill a cake tin with water and place that on the floor of your oven to create a steamy environment, which is crucial for the ciabatta’s crust. Preheat the oven to 425 degrees.

Once the oven is preheated, use the parchment to lift each loaf onto the hot baking sheet and keep them separated from one another; this allows you to transfer the bread without knocking out any air holes. You’ll bake the loaves on the parchment at first.

Bake at 425 for 15 minutes to set the bread, then open the oven and quickly remove the parchment from underneath each loaf. Continue baking for another 10-15 minutes, until the ciabatta has developed a golden, crunchy crust and sounds hollow when tapped. Be sure to cool for at least 20-30 minutes before slicing to set the inside structure.