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”

Ciabatta with whey and a simple cheese

This recipe is a great way of using up the whey produced as a byproduct of making cheese or yoghurt. They whey adds extra protein to the bread and a rich, creamy colour. It also makes the dough chewier, but this is offset by the inclusion of fat in the form of extra virgin olive oil.

As mentioned in a previous post, ‘ciabatta’ refers to the “slipper” shape of the bread, but this dough can be used to make an outstanding loaf in any shape you choose, including in a loaf tin. The hydration is “high” at 75%, but, for a ciabatta relatively low. It can easily be increased by adding more water (or whey) into the final mix. The higher the hydration, the bigger the holes in the loaf and the more irregular the crumb. I baked this loaf to slice and use as burger buns, so the ‘lower’ 75% hydration provides a perfect texture.

The finished ciabatta: rough and ready to eat.
The finished ciabatta: rough and ready to eat.

The ciabatta uses a “poolish“, which is a pre-ferment using a large quantity of the water and flour from the dough mixed with a small amount of yeast. This is allowed to bubble up and the refrigerated overnight, and gives a more complex flavour to the final loaf.

The cheese recipe following is a very simple method of making an Indian “paneer”. It does not require any fancy equipment or any special ingredients: just milk and acid. The lemon juice in the recipe can be replaced with an equal amount of white vinegar if desired.

Milk plus lemon - an extremely simple fresh cheese
Milk plus lemon – an extremely simple fresh cheese


  • 6 cups whole milk
  • 3 tbsp lemon juice, strained
  • 1/4 tsp salt
  1. Heat the milk in a large pan until boiling (be careful – it will easily froth over the pan and burn to both the bottom of the pan and the top of the oven.)
  2. Reduce the temperature and stir in the lemon juice. Shake the pan gently to encourage large curds to form.
  3. Place a colander over a pan to catch the whey. Line the colander with cheesecloth or muslin (a tea towel or even a double layer of kitchen paper will work). Drain the separated milk into the cheesecloth. Tie the cheesecloth into a bag and place a plate with something heavy on top.
  4. Leave for 3-4 hours or overnight. Remove from the cheesecloth.
  5. Refrigerate immediately, or knead 1/4 tsp salt into the cheese and then refrigerate. I press the cheese into a small rectangular tupperware and then turn out onto cling film.
  6. Reserve the whey for use in bread making (or a hundred other uses that a quick internet search will give you).
Adding an acid to milk produces a very simple cheese.
Adding an acid to milk produces a very simple cheese.
The finished cheese - pressed into a tupperware and then stored in the fridge.
The finished cheese – pressed into a tupperware and then stored in the fridge.

Ciabatta with whey makes 2 large ciabatta


  • 360g strong white flour
  • 360g water
  • 1g yeast


  • All of the poolish
  • 215g whey, warmed (in the microwave or a pan) to about 35˚C
  • 400g strong white flour
  • 13g salt
  • 5g yeast
  • 40g extra virgin olive oil
  1. The night before baking, mix the poolish and allow to ferment at room temperature for 4 hours. Refrigerate overnight.
  2. Remove the poolish from the fridge an hour before mixing. Warm the whey.
  3. Combine all of the ingredients in a large bowl. Stretch/fold knead for 5 minutes in the bowl.
  4. Turn the dough out onto a very well floured surface and shape into a rough rectangle. Allow the dough to rest for a couple of minutes. Pull the right hand side of the dough out and fold it back on itself, then repeat with the left (a “letter fold”).
  5. Rest the dough for 30 minutes, then repeat the letter fold. Bulk ferment for 2 hours.
  6. Divide the dough. Flour a piece of linen (or a tea towel) well with white flour or rice flour. Fold the towel so that it is raised in the middle (see photos) and place half of the dough on each side of the towel. Letter fold the dough again. Proof for 45 min – 1 hour.
  7. Preheat the oven to 230˚C. Flour a baking tray and flour your hands thoroughly. Gently lift the dough onto  baking tray one loaf at a time. If you have a large baking tray, place both onto the tray with a gap of a couple of inches between.
  8. Bake at 230˚C for 20 minutes, rotating half way through if necessary.
  9. Cool on a wire rack before serving.
The "letter fold" stretch and fold technique adds structure to the loaf and also makes the traditional "slipper" shape for the ciabatta
The “letter fold” stretch and fold technique adds structure to the loaf and also makes the traditional “slipper” shape for the ciabatta
The towel is rucked up in the middle and at the edges to support the slack dough.
The towel is rucked up in the middle and at the edges to support the slack dough.
The dough is given one final shape - being careful not to knock the air out - before baking on a sheet dusted with semolina.
The dough is given one final shape – being careful not to knock the air out – before baking on a sheet dusted with semolina.