Both sourdough and ciabatta are popular sandwich bread choices, and you can find both of them at most bakeries and supermarkets. They are both baked in similar ways using essentially the same ingredients.
So when it comes to ciabatta vs sourdough, are they the same? Or is there a reason for their different names? What makes each type of bread unique, and what are the uses for each of them in cuisine?
Here we will examine the characteristics of each type of bread to see what sets them apart.
Origins of Each Type of Bread
One key difference lies in where and how each bread type was first developed.
Ciabatta bread originated in Northern Italy more recently than you might think. It was invented in 1982 by an Italian baker named Arnaldo Cavallari. Arnaldo made the bread specifically for sandwiches to compete with the increasingly popular French-originated baguette. He wanted Italian bread to be put back on the map, which is what happened.
Ciabatta, translating to English as “slipper,” quickly grew in popularity not just in Italy but internationally. By using soft dough and an exceptional amount of water, he created ciabatta with its distinct taste and texture. Arnaldo’s original ciabatta dominated northern Italy, with variations appearing in southern regions.
Sourdough, on the other hand, has a history that goes back much further than ciabatta. The origins are so ancient that it is uncertain where it specifically originated, with sourdough bread found in Switzerland dating back to 3700 BCE.
Ancient Egyptian records even have sourdough recipes. The bread likely was created initially from flour and water accidentally combining with wild yeasts that caused it to rise.
It makes sourdough the original form of “leavened bread,” meaning that before sourdough, only flatbreads and crackers were available to humans for consumption. The introduction of wild yeasts to sourdough gave it the airiness and texture we love in bread today.
The Fermentation Process
Ciabatta is a mix of flour, water, salt, polish, and fresh, instant, or dry yeast. The yeast used in ciabatta is not wild yeast like that of sourdough and instead is commercial yeast. This affects the flavor and texture of the bread and the fermentation process.
Ciabatta also uses more water than sourdough, giving it the stickier, more moist texture that it is known for. This high water content makes the fermentation process take especially long compared to other types of bread.
You mix the ingredients until a strong gluten structure is developed, which takes a while because of the high water content. After mixing, you have to leave the dough to ferment for at least three hours. This is vital for giving the ciabatta the proper smell, taste, and texture.
Unlike ciabatta, sourdough uses exclusively wild yeasts in its fermentation process. That means it uses no pre-prepared or commercially made yeasts. A simple mix of flour and water acts as the “starter,” which is then fermented by wild yeasts and bacteria that produce the necessary acids to give the bread its distinct taste and texture.
The fermentation process can take days, or even weeks, depending on the taste, texture, and rise level you want out of the dough.
After the starter begins being fermented, it is crucial to add more flour and water each day to continue to catalyze the fermentation process. Whole grain flour specifically contains bacteria that help this process. This process relying on natural, wild yeast explains why sourdough has been around for millennia.
The higher water content of ciabatta gives it a sweeter taste than sourdough. The lower water content and colder atmospheric conditions of sourdough make it sour. Additionally, the higher water content of ciabatta gives it the lean, airy texture it is known for, while the lower water content of sourdough gives it more of a thick, sticky texture.
It has to do with the active microbes during the fermentation process. For ciabatta, adding more water during the mixing and fermentation processes activates specific microbes that break down a less sour acid in the dough.
This less sour acid is lactic acid, which exists in higher quantities in ciabatta because of the increased hydration. More water perpetuates the microbial production of lactic acid.
In contrast, sourdough uses less water in the mixing and fermentation processes. This enhances the bacterial production of the more sour acid in the dough, known as acetic acid.
In either case, whether making ciabatta or sourdough, these principles still apply. Meaning, more water will make either type of bread overall sweeter. And cooler conditions during fermentation will make either bread more sour.
Ciabatta bakes faster than sourdough even though both have similar ingredients.
After mixing ciabatta extensively to give it a robust but lean gluten structure using a high amount of water throughout, you should slice the dough into appropriately sized pieces.
Unlike sourdough, ciabatta does not need to be shaped before the baking process. It just needs to be floured before putting it into the oven. Additionally, you can brush the tops of each piece of bread with olive oil.
The general guidelines for baking ciabatta are as follows:
- Preheat an oven to 375 degrees Fahrenheit.
- Once the oven is hot, insert the ciabatta directly onto the oven rack and let it bake for 12 to 15 minutes.
- You want to pay attention to the color throughout the baking process. Let it become a nice, crispy golden color. You want it cooked enough to give it a nice balance between crispiness and softness, but not so much that it is dry or burnt.
- Remove the bread from the oven and let it cool for at least a few hours.
Baking sourdough involves first combining the fermented starter with water, flour, and salt. These percentages vary depending on the recipe, but a good rule of thumb is to treat the flour as the main addition, with the water and salt being percentages of the total flour.
Once these are combined, you begin shaping the dough and giving it the right texture. There are multiple ways to do this, but it generally involves using your hands to work the dough into the right shape and thickness for baking. This also builds the structure of gluten in the dough, making it more stable and loaf-like.
You want there to be a decent amount of air inside of the loaf to preserve the shape so it has a light enough texture after baking. The shape itself is less important than the gluten structure and air makeup within the dough.
You can choose to even further ferment the dough after baking for sourdough. You can put it in the fridge for a few days to slow yeast activity while allowing the dough to firmly hold its shape. This can, if done correctly, give the sourdough more flavor.
The general guidelines for baking sourdough are as follows:
- Preheat an oven to 450 degrees Fahrenheit.
- Place the sourdough into an oven-safe container with a lid or directly insert the sourdough onto the oven rack.
- Leave the sourdough in the oven for 40 to 50 minutes, checking it for the desired level of crispiness.
- Let the sourdough bread cool for a few hours.
Again, these are general guidelines and there are many specific ways people choose to bake sourdough. After it cools, you can leave it out for a full day before transferring it into a sealed container to maintain freshness.
Taste and Texture
As discussed above, each type of bread has different fermentation and baking processes used by different people. This means neither has one single flavor or texture. There is sweet sourdough bread and not-so-sweet ciabatta bread.
However, when comparing the two, there are some fundamental differences in taste and texture between them.
As the name implies, sourdough is known for having a slightly sour, distinctly appetizing flavor. Its lower hydration makes it less sweet and airy than ciabatta. The flavor and texture of an individual sourdough bread largely depend on the climate and wild yeasts in the area it was made. This makes sourdough have a variety of potential tastes and textures.
Ciabatta uses commercial yeast in its starter and more water than sourdough, giving it a more sweet taste and a more airy texture. The outer parts of the ciabatta will have a nice crusty texture after baking. It will overall have less flavor than sourdough, making it a more mild-tasting bread. Olive oil used in the baking process can add some flavor, though.
So now to answer the title’s question, comparing ciabatta vs sourdough, are they the same?
After delving into the specifics of each type of bread’s characteristics, they are not the same. Some small but crucial differences separate the two.
Sourdough has a much more ancient history than ciabatta, going back thousands of years. Ciabatta originated in Italy in 1982, just 40 years ago.
Ciabatta uses more water than sourdough, giving it a different type of fermentation process. The higher hydration levels used in ciabatta cause certain bacteria to break down more lactic acid, giving ciabatta a sweeter taste and more airy texture than sourdough.
Regarding baking each type of bread, ciabatta bakes at a lower temperature and for a significantly shorter period than sourdough.
But the crucial difference between ciabatta and sourdough is the type of yeast involved in their fermentation processes. Ciabatta uses commercial yeast, while sourdough uses wild yeast. It affects the overall texture and flavor of each bread and relates to their respective origins.