4th and final batch for a while...Felix,
I was actually letting the ciabatta dough bulk ferment for 2 hours--I may try longer next time, but this time I relied on the bubbliness of poolish.
My final batch today turned out the best yet and is likely the best I will be able to get out of a home oven with an upper limit of 460-500 degrees.
I made my poolish as set out in the Bread Baker's Apprentice--but I added a pinch more yeast and a bit more water.
Now here is where I parted from the Apprentice's formula. Instead of 3c of flour, I only used 1c. And I added, again, just a pinch more yeast than the recipe called for. And, instead of using ONLY 6 tbls. of water, I used maybe just over half a cup.
The dough was very sticky, but with a bed of flour on the counter, I managed just fine. The stretch and fold I did delicately, and made sure to stretch the dough out thoroughly--I mean the dough was literally stretched across my counter.
From there I returned to the recipe for stretching and folding, proofing, etc.
I cut the bulk into four small loaves. I preheated the oven, including a pizza stone and a cast iron pan on the lower shelf, to 500 degrees. I then placed 2loaves into the oven onto the stone then steamed the oven up by 1) misting lotsa lotsa water into the over via a garden mister (not a regular hand spraying bottle--see previous post); and 2) pouring hot water from a tea kettle into the cast iron pan (easy to get steam burns at any of these points so watch out). I then steamed the oven 2 or 3 more times at 30 second intervals from the sprayer only and then reduced the oven to 450--baked for 20 minutes and let them cool for roughly 45 mins (pretty much the recipe from the book).
The results? The crust FINALLY turned out crusty and a nice brown color. And more importantly, the bread itself had PLENTY of those air pockets that I had been striving for. Now, granted, the pockets/holes were nowhere near as large as you would find in the pics of the Apprentice book, nor were they as numerous but there were plenty of them AND the bread was light, chewey, etc. like it should be.
I don't think I will be trying other techniques anytime soon but at least, FINALLY, I would call this a success for a home oven.
One last note: I do live in a VERY dry climate, so the large amounts of water and the minimal use of flour I used may not work in more moderate climates.