Pugilese – a ciabatta style bread with a sourdough starter

As I mentioned in my previous post, my oven – a long suffering little gas thing – has finally started to give up. The maximum temperature varies, but recently hasn’t topped 200˚C on the middle shelf. This means it isn’t much good at the moment for baking dark sourdough loaves with blistered crusts like porridge sourdough or fig and raisin sourdough.

This dark multigrain loaf was baked in a very hot oven… This won’t work for me right now

Still, I’ve resisted biting the bullet and heading down to the shops for bread, and instead have been working on some recipes that will get good results at medium temperatures. Rye bread, for example, works very well at a low temperature. It’s hardly an “every day” bread, however, so have also been experimenting with how to make a ciabatta style loaf at home in my dying oven.

The pugilese - "ciabatta" style loaf - proofing in a banneton
The pugilese – “ciabatta” style loaf – proofing in a banneton

I’ve made ciabatta before, using whey as part of the liquid. That post also includes instructions on the stretching and folding of the dough, which is very elastic and can be difficult to manage. The word “ciabatta” refers to the shape – a slipper. These loaves are slightly different. Leavened with a mix of sourdough starter and a little instant yeast, these round ciabatta style loaves are more like “Pugilese”, another Italian bread from the Puglia region. The major difference is the round shape, which needs a well floured banneton due to the slackness of the dough.

Two rye loaves and a pugilese – some of the breads to come out of my “broken” oven

Pugilese – makes 2 small loaves

Firm Starter


  • 300g firm starter
  • 285g white bread flour
  • 11g salt
  • 3g instant yeast
  • 255g lukewarm water
  1. To make the firm starter, refresh a sourdough starter with white flour to 130% hydration (130g water for every 100g flour). On the day before baking, combine the firm starter ingredients. Knead for a few minutes to combine, then place into a lightly oiled bowl. Allow to rise for 4 hours, then refrigerate overnight.
  2. The day of baking, remove the firm starter from the refrigerator an hour prior to making the bread, and cut up into about a dozen small pieces.
  3. Combine the firm starter with the remaining dough ingredients. The dough will be very wet and “slack”. Autolyse for 20 minutes. Stretch and fold the dough a dozen times, then bulk ferment for four hours. Perform stretch/folds several times during the first two hours of the bulk ferment.
  4. Flour a work surface, two lined bannetons, and your hands. Divide the dough into two equal portions. Try to work quickly but gently, so that the air in the dough is not squeezed out. Shape the dough into rounds and place into the well floured bannetons. Dust the tops with flour and cover loosely with cling film or a tea towel.
  5. Proof for 1 – 1.5 hours. Preheat the oven to 200˚C with a lidded cast iron pot (“Dutch Oven“) on the middle shelf.
  6. Bake the loaves one at a time in the cast iron pot, for 30 minutes with the lid on, then 15 minutes with the lid off.
  7. Transfer to a wire rack and cool for one hour before slicing.
The best way to enjoy this kind of loaf – with a dish of good quality olive oil and balsamic vinegar
One of the finished “Pugilese” loaves

Baking Maths – The Baker’s Percentage

I’ve written posts in the past about the ingredients used in creating new bread recipes, and about the standard skills that I apply to each of my loaves. There is, however, a step before all of this that needs some attention: planning.

recipe notes
Working out a new recipe on paper, before the trial and error of baking

When I started baking a few years ago, I relied on fairly simplistic recipes with reliable outcomes. I began with recipes like Jamie Oliver’s foccacia, which produced a good result every time. As my own baking skills developed, the recipes I used became more complicated, leading to sourdoughs and enriched, sweet breads.

Along the way I came across a book that I have mentioned on here before: Peter Reinhart’s The Bread Baker’s Apprentice, and one part in particular has changed the way I plan and bake bread: The baker’s percentage.

The Baker’s Percentage

The purpose of a baking formula is to place all of the ingredients in relation to the flour used in the recipe. The reason for this is that, with a few simple calculations, it is possible to work out not only how much of each ingredient to use, but also to predict the outcome of the bread. As Reinhart himself writes,

“possession of this knowledge will strengthen your ability to control the outcome of your baking.” (p. 40).

So, how does it work? The total flour weight, or TFW, is always represented as 100%. From this, the other values are calculated. Using my most recent recipe, for beetroot sourdough, this would mean that 1000g of all purpose flour + 200g rye flour from the starter would equal 100% in the formula.

  • 1kg all-purpose (plain) flour
  • 670g water
  • 400g rye starter @ 100% hydration (200g starter + 200g water)
  • 18g salt
  • 430g raw beetroot, coarsely grated

From this, the rest of the ingredients can be converted by dividing the ingredient weights (I) by the total flour weight (TFW), and multiplying by 100. So, for the water: (I/TFW)x100 = ((670+200) / 1200)x100 = 72.5%.

The beetroot sourdoughs – 67% hydration with 40% starter

As a start, this not only gives the amount of water, but also the hydration of the final dough. Applying this to the rest of the ingredients gives the following:

Total Flour (including flour from starter): 100%
Total Water (including water from starter): 72.5%
Salt: 1.5%
Beetroot: 35.8%

Some other aspects of this bread can now be worked out from the formula. 72.5% hydration is fairly high, but still not as high as, for example, a ciabatta. This dough will probably be fairly wet, but will hold its shape. The high amount of starter means that the total bulk ferment and proof time will be relatively short for a sourdough, and unless the dough is refrigerated, it will need to be made and baked on the same day or it will overproof. The amount of salt (1.5%) is appropriate, as most breads will have between 1.5 and 2%.

A knowledge of this basic formula has many applications. If you find a recipe you like, but feel that it is perhaps a little dense, then you can increase the hydration and experiment. Similarly, if you wish to manage the proofing time, you can alter the percentage of starter or yeast. If a bread is too bland, you can safely increase the amount of salt, but without going much beyond that 2% guideline.

These ciabatta have a very high hydration, meaning that the very
These ciabatta have a very high hydration, meaning that the very “slack” dough can be difficult to shape

I have actually slightly changed this post following a discussion on The Fresh Loaf. Originally, I was following Reinhart’s advice and treating the starter as an ‘ingredient’. However, I have been convinced that breaking it down into the flour and water, and adding those to make the total flour weight, is a far better approach. The slightly more complex approach gives a more accurate result: treating the starter as a 400g ingredient gives a hydration of 67% (670g of water to 1000g flour). Breaking it down gives 72.5% (870g water to 1200g flour). There is quite a difference between 67 and 72% hydration, so from now on I’ll be using the latter approach.

I will be following up on this post with further ones down the track, writing about how to use the baker’s percentage to scale up or down the number of loaves, to change the size of loaves, and to “troubleshoot” recipes. The topic itself can get very confusing – my advice as a homebaker would be to find something that works, and leave the fine-tuning to the professionals!

dmsnyder at The Fresh Loaf has an excellent post on Baker’s Percentages here.

If you wish to learn more about baker’s percentages, I would highly recommend getting a hold of The Bread Baker’s Apprentice.

This loaf is around 70% hydration - not quite as wet as a ciabatta, but dry enough to hold shape as a
This loaf is around 70% hydration – not quite as wet as a ciabatta, but dry enough to hold shape as a “boule”

Wholemeal spelt sourdough

This sourdough uses a method from The Bread Baker’s Apprentice to increase the fermentation time, resulting in a more complex flavour and a well developed crumb. The method involves using cold water and an overnight fermentation, and I have added an extra proofing stage to help with the irregular, aerated crumb.
I shaped this batch of dough into 6 rough baguettes, two of which I cut into “épi” or “wheat” shaped loaves. This amount could be made into two free form loaves or three small tin loaves.


Wholemeal Spelt Sourdough
200g rye starter at 100% hydration
500g cold water
600g wholemeal spelt flour
20g salt

1. Combine all of the ingredients in a bowl. Rest for 20 min, then stretch and fold for 5 min.
2. Rest for 30 min, then stretch and fold a dozen times. Repeat this step twice more.
3. Refrigerate the dough in a bowl, covered in cling film, overnight.
4. Remove the dough from the fridge and rest at room temperature for two hours.
5. Divide the dough into 6 portions. Rest for 5 min, then stretch the dough out into rough baguette shapes. The dough is quite wet and slack, so either flour or water your hands and the work surface. Place each baguette onto baking paper on a baking tray.
6. Preheat oven to max. Proof loaves for one and a half hours. Slash baguettes just prior to baking.
7. If making épi, cut into the dough with a pair of scissors almost parallel to the surface of the dough. Swing the cut piece away from the dough but be careful not to cut all the way through. Repeat the cut, moving along the baguette, in roughly 8cm gaps.
8. Bake for 10 min, check and reduce temperature of necessary. Bake for a further 15-20 minutes. Cool on a wire rack.