Ciabatta shouldn’t usually be this challenging…

… but if you’re me, it means a two hour quest for lava rock and an explosion in the oven.

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I started baking bread once or twice a month about two years ago but I’ve yet to make my own starter (necessary for sourdough) and until today had yet to make a serious attempt at recreating the brick oven environment needed for truly great bread. Believe me, fresh bread is always great, but I was always a little disappointed with how quickly the crispness of the crust disappeared as the loaves cooled. I still liked baking my own bread, but there was something missing in the end product.

Today I tried to overcome the crust problem. The secret to a thicker and crustier crust is steam; in the past, I’d tried tossing a few ice cubes on the floor of my oven but evidently that didn’t work. I was also trying out a new recipe for ciabatta (from the excellent Wild Yeast blog) and I was determined to get the crust right, so while the loaves were proofing for the final time, I went out in search of lava rock and a baking stone. First stop, Bed Bath & Beyond two blocks from my house. No baking stone, even though they advertise one on their website. Second stop, the local nursery – no lava rock. Third stop, the local Orchard Supply Hardware. They carry lava rock but unfortunately were out of stock. Fourth stop, the Home Depot a couple towns over – 20 lb bag of lava rock, check. Fifth stop, the Crate & Barrel on the other side of town – only a small baking stone, not the larger size I needed. Sixth stop, Williams Sonoma in the high end mall next door to the Crate & Barrel. Expensive baking stone, check. Two and a half hours later, I hurry home to get the oven going.

This is where the disaster happened. You hear this warning all the time, but for some of us common sense takes inconvenient sabbaticals. You see, I put the lava rocks in a Pyrex baking dish and put this on the floor of the oven. 475 degrees later, I slid the loaves in, and poured a cup of hot water in the dish.

It exploded.

Duh. Glass doesn’t like temperature changes. And no matter how hot the water is from the tap, it’s not going to be 475 degrees. So now I had glass and lava rock all over the floor of the oven and I sure wasn’t thinking about steam anymore! (Luckily, the glass was all contained in the oven and none of it flew out when it broke.) So we scooped most of the lava rock into a metal pan and set the pan on top of the shards, poured some more water over the rocks, and hoped for the best.

After all that, the ciabatta seems to be fine. I’m mad at myself for sacrificing a dish and making a mess but the crust is definitely crustier and I’ve definitely learned a lesson. And now that I’ve seen what steam can do, there won’t be any going back.

Anyone need 18 lbs of lava rock?


5 Responses to Ciabatta shouldn’t usually be this challenging…

  1. Euge says:

    Doh! Ciabatta fail… :(

  2. shwu says:

    Maybe steam creation fail, but the ciabatta ended up a WIN! As someone who loves edge piece brownies and the heel end of breads, finally creating a crusty crust is worth all the fail. :)

  3. Jerry says:

    I’ve just made my third batch of ciabatta. I’ve got the inside the way I want it–airy and chewy. But the crust isn’t crusty enough and didn’t hold up. I used two techniques for the crust. I had a bread pan with boiling water in the oven, and I sprayed the back and sides of the oven with water several times as the bread baked.
    Just curious–what do the lava rocks add?
    Next time, I’m going to paint water onto the loafs before putting it into the oven.

    • Shirley Wu says:

      Hi Jerry,

      I can’t say I’ve truly mastered the art of the crusty crust, either! I think using a baking stone helps, but the real thing is steam. The lava rocks should help with producing the steam as they have a lot of hot surface area to evaporate the water over. That’s my guess anyway.

      I’m not sure that you want the steam for more than the first 1/3 of the baking time, though, so perhaps the boiling pan is too much?

      If you figure it out, do share the secret ;)

  4. Erik says:

    I found a small sauté pan heated on the top of the stove and inserted at the last minute into a larger sauté pan filled with water on the bottom of my oven a great way to generate loads of steam. The hotter the better right? Until I overheated my pan and melted the aluminum “sandwich​” which flew all over. Lesson learned, stick with cast iron.

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