Ciabatta bread is an Italian bread which is also popular in other parts of the world, thanks to its versatility and distinct flavor. Around Italy, numerous regions lay claim to the invention of the bread, and slightly different versions of it are baked in different areas. Many bakeries both inside and outside of Italy carry a version of the bread, since it is highly popular. It is also possible to make ciabatta bread at home, although it can be difficult to wade through warring recipes, and only experienced bakers should attempt it, with the aid of a good bread book.
There are a number of different ways to make ciabatta bread. The most simple uses a basic yeast and white flour recipe, although it tends to be lacking in complexity. Most bakers use a biga or sourdough starter to make a bread with an open crumb and slightly soured flavor. For cooks who are not familiar with making rustic or artisan breads, attempting ciabatta can be very frustrating, and it may take multiple tries. It is generally considered to be a poor choice of bread for beginners. When made well, this bread has a moist crumb and a crackly, crisp crust.
In Italian, ciabatta means “slipper,” leading some people to call the bread “slipper bread.” The name is a reference to the shape, which does sort of resemble a slipper. Ciabatta bread tends to be short, wide, and long, which makes it ideally suited to sandwiches. It is also offered with olive oils and other dips, since the crumb absorbs dips and liquids very well, and it may be toasted when served for this purpose. Dried ciabatta bread can also be turned into excellent croutons.
Some bakers add herbs, oil, or olives to their ciabatta bread before baking it, turning out a bread which slightly resembles focaccia, although it has a less dense crumb. Others may make it with milk, producing ciabatta al latte, and a whole wheat version is also available. Panini, the classic grilled Italian sandwiches on hearty breads, are often made with ciabatta.
Like many artisan breads, ciabatta bread tastes best when it is fresh. People should try and purchase it freshly baked on the day they intend to use it, although wrapping it in plastic can help it to last longer. However, plastic wrapping will tend to make the bread slightly soggy, which can be an undesirable or unacceptable trade-off. To refresh ciabatta bread which is slightly stale or soggy, it can be sprinkled with water and toasted in an oven immediately before serving. Otherwise, stale ciabbata bread can be allowed to go truly stale and turned into croutons.