Biga

Many of the recipes for classic regional breads begin with a starter dough made from small amounts of flour, water, and yeast allowed an initial fermentation. The starter, known as biga in Italy, or bighino when in small amounts, not only gives strength to what in Italy are weak flours, it also produces a secondary fermentation from which come the wonderful aroma, natural flavor, and special porosity of the final loaves and wheels of bread.

The important point about a starter dough is that the breads made with it develop a wonderful taste because their risings are long and bring out the flavor of the grain. Another benefit is that the loaves remain fresher and taste sweeter than those made with large amounts of commercial yeast.

In Italy, bakers use dough from the previous day’s baking to start a new dough. I keep some starter on hand at all times; by having it around, I can decide to make pane pugliese or ciabatta in the morning and have it for dinner that night. Because the first biga must come from somewhere, though, you may make it following the instructions below. It’s remarkable. It freezes very well and needs only about 3 hours at room temperature until it is bubbly and active again, or it can be refrigerated for up to 5 days.–Carol Field

LC Obliged to Biga Note

Behind each and every memorable bite of proper Italian bread we’ve daintily nibbled, hungrily inhaled, or otherwise somehow consumed, we have a biga to thank. So we’re feeling much obliged to Carol Field for this recipe. Nonna not included.

Italian Biga Recipe

  • Quick Glance
  • 20 M
  • 6 H, 20 M
  • Makes about 2 1/3 cups

Ingredients

  • 1/4 teaspoon active dry yeast
  • 1/4 cup (2 ounces/60 grams) warm water
  • 3/4 cup plus 4 teaspoons (7 ounces/200 grams) water, preferably bottled spring water, at room temperature
  • 2 1/3 cups (11.6 ounces/330 grams) unbleached all-purpose flour
  • Vegetable oil, for the bowl

Directions

  • 1. Stir the yeast into the warm water and let stand until creamy, about 10 minutes.
  • 2. Stir the remaining water into the creamy yeast mixture, and then stir in the flour, 1 cup at a time. If mixing by hand, stir with a wooden spoon for 3 to 
4 minutes. If mixing with a stand mixer, beat with the paddle at the lowest speed for 2 minutes. If mixing with a food processor, mix just until a sticky dough forms.
  • 3. Transfer the biga to a lightly oiled bowl, cover with plastic wrap, and let rise at cool room temperature for 6 to 24 hours, until the starter is triple its original volume but is still wet and sticky. (The bakers I admire most advise 10 to 11 hours for the first rise, but others are very happy with the 24 hours it takes for dough to truly become yesterday’s dough, and if you like sour bread, allow your biga to rest for 24 to 48 hours or even 72 hours.)
  • 4. Cover and refrigerate or freeze the biga until ready to use. (If refrigerating the biga, use within 5 days. If freezing the biga, let it rest at room temperature for about 3 hours until it is bubbly and active again.) When needed, scoop out the desired amount of biga for your recipe and proceed. I strongly recommend weighing the biga rather than measuring it by volume since it expands at room temperature. If measuring by volume, measure chilled biga; if measuring by weight, the biga may be chilled or at room temperature.
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Comments
Comments
  1. Susan says:

    Thank you for this! You have just confirmed what I’d discovered (and read) about making bread that tastes like the grain rather than the commercial yeast. Since the first time I made an Italian bread with a biga, and discovered that the no-knead bread was really just a biga, baked, I’ve used the technique almost exclusively with all my breads; sweet doughs as well. It’s so simple and it makes a world of difference in the flavor of the bread. I usually just throw it together the night before and let it do it’s thing until I’m ready to make the bread dough the next afternoon. Nothing could be easier and as a bonus, I get more mileage out of a jar of yeast because I don’t need to use as much in a recipe. Such an outstanding technique!

    • Renee Schettler Rossi, LC Editor-in-Chief says:

      Susan, why were you keeping all this to yourself all this while?! But we won’t hold it against you. We’re just glad we’re privy to it now.

    • Elaine says:

      You know I was wondering about the whole idea of using my no-knead dough as just a biga and now I will. I almost always have a batch of it in my fridge. Thanks for the idea of using it this way, as well as for other types of bread also. I’m going to try it for my cinny rolls now, too, I think.

  2. Chris says:

    This looks great! Do you know of any recipes where I can use the biga, or any cookbooks? I have made biga before but have never found any recipes that use it. I therefore guesstimate how much to use… It would be nice to see an authentic recipe use it.
    Thanks!

    • David Leite says:

      Hi, Chris. We certainly do. The ciabatta recipe that we featured requires biga, which is why we linked them. Happy baking!

      • renee says:

        This recipe looks amazing! Just wondering, can it be made with bread flour instead of all purpose?
        Thanks,
        Renée

        • Beth Price says:

          Hi Renee, if you are going to use this in the corresponding ciabatta recipe, I would stick with AP flour. Due to the differences in gluten between AP and bread flour, it might impact your hydration levels.

  3. Jake says:

    Do you think it would be possible to make the ciabatta recipe with a sourdough starter instead of a biga? I might give it a try and report back…

    • Beth Price, LC Director of Recipe Testing says:

      Hi Jake, I asked Linda, one of our recipe testers and a great baker, what she thought. This is what she had to say “I believe that you could use a sourdough starter for ciabatta instead of a biga. To give it the character and flavor that you would get from a young biga, I suggest feeding the starter a few hours before you will be mixing the dough and letting it sit at room temperature until it becomes active. You can adjust the thickness of the starter with flour or water depending on how sour you want the bread to be – the thicker the starter, the more sour the taste.) I have not personally tried this method, but I did think about it as an alternative when I was testing the recipe for the website.” Please let us know if you give it a try!

      • Jake says:

        Ok, I’ve tried a couple of things now and can report that you can make a very successful focaccia using sourdough. Unfortunately my partner has a low gluten tolerance, so cooking with proper 00 flour is not an option and I think it’s a bit of a lost cause to try and make a ciabatta with any kind of low gluten flour because you need so much stretch in the dough. Spelt flour makes an amazing focaccia though.

        • Beth Price, LC Director of Recipe Testing says:

          Hi Jake, great news on the sourdough. Cindi Kruth, one of our baking testers, swears by her stash of sourdough. Happy baking!

        • Paul says:

          Jake, I would like to know if you tried both the biga and sourdough with whole grain spelt. I understand some people who have a gluten intolerance to regular flour can eat spelt. I am using spelt for almost all breads, pizza, etc. due to its higher nutritional value, better taste, and digestibility. I would like to hear your experience. Paul in Santa Monica, CA.

  4. Suzanne says:

    I really want to give this a go but it’s hard to find a cool room temperature nowadays. What happens if it is left out in a warm room? Or can I put this in the refrigerator for the initial 6-24 hours? I don’t want to wait until the fall to eat this! Thanks!

    • Beth Price, LC Director of Recipe Testing says:

      Hi Suzanne, I checked with Cindi (our super duper baker) and this is her advice “When I made this the other day I actually had it at un-airconditioned room temp for about 6 hours then stashed it in the frig overnight. It worked fine. My room temp wasn’t that hot, but definitely there is a difference when this is made in the summer. Doughs ferment differently, not just faster, at higher temperatures, more yeast action less bacterial. If the room is over 80 degrees I’d suggest leaving it only a few hours, then refrigerating overnight. There’s little risk in keeping it at cooler temperatures. Although, frankly, I doubt there’s much problem with even a very warm room temperature (90) for 6 hours for the biga since there’s no added fat or sugar. I proof starters at school in a proof box sometimes (90-95) when I need to get them active quickly since our class isn’t long enough to allow the proper time at room temp. It’s not my preferred method because it doesn’t allow for maximum flavor and texture development, but it doesn’t hurt the yeast. And, as you know, I stash Lex (fyi “Lex” is her beloved sourdough starter) in the refrigerator indefinitely. I don’t think there’s any reason to hesitate just because it’s summer and the kitchen’s warm. Leave it out for the full 24 hours and it may develop a slightly more sourdough flavor, which is not necessarily a negative in any case. I can’t see any harm in a 6 hour rise at summertime room temps.”
      Hope this helps, can’t wait to hear about your summertime version.

  5. Bobba Ganoosh says:

    I have just started baking bread a few months ago, and have been mainly sticking with the ‘no-knead’ method of baking, and this whole time I didn’t realize I was making biga. Curious tho, how long can you freeze it for? Not that I plan to have it in there for more than 2 weeks tops. I’d like to try this with your ciabatta recipe, but I have neither a food mixer nor food processor, and it sounds messy otherwise.

    • Beth Price, LC Director of Recipe Testing says:

      Hi Bobba Ganoosh (love the name, btw) I spoke with Cindi our baker extraordinaire to get some answers for you. This is her advice “There’s a little difference between no-knead and biga in that the biga contains no salt. Yeast dough freezes very well. I don’t do it often because these lean doughs also keep well several days in the refrigerator and that’s easier to me. That is essentially what the whole book Artisan Bread in Five Minutes A Day is about. When I do have too much to use or a change of plans, I oil a freezer bag and slip the dough in, double the bag, flatten it out a little (defrosts faster) and freeze for up to 3 months. I think the dough is best used within a month. It loses a little rise, but for the most part the yeast survives intact and the bread made with it should not be noticeably different.

      Although the recipe for ciabatta recommends against making it by hand there really isn’t any reason not to. After all this bread was made, as well as other classics that we use machines for today such as brioche, successfully long before the invention of modern appliances. True, it’s a very wet dough and can be awfully messy/sticky, so I’d suggest the aid of a dough scraper. A light coating of oil on your hands may help too. Worst case is a little too much flour gets added and the loaf is a bit denser, less full of those gorgeous holes, than traditional ciabatta. Not a big downside risk.

      Hope this helps!

  6. MahBaker says:

    I have a quick question. I live in a very dry climate and I have used this recipe twice now, and the Biga doesn’t seem as wet as it does in the picture. Should I be adding more water? Just how wet does it need to be?

    • Beth Price, LC Director of Recipe Testing says:

      Hi Mahbaker, since the biga is covered with plastic wrap (which is pretty good at sealing in humidity for a short period such as this recipe requires), it is unlikely that a drier climate would make any difference. It might be the amount of flour. Just to be super accurate, I would suggest using a scale for your measurements. The biga and the dough are quite dependent on the proper hydration level for their texture, as is the resultant ciabatta. The technical answer to “Just how wet does it need to be?” is 79%, which a bit difficult for quantify. You might also want to check the protein levels in your flour as sometimes a very high protein flour it could absorb more of the water and appear drier.

  7. Barbara Dumler says:

    Are you supposed to feed it with more flour or do you use it all up before starting more? Thanking you in advance.

    • Beth Price says:

      Hi Barbara, you will use most of the biga in the ciabatta recipe. I did speak with our baking expert, Cindi, and she said that if you do have a tad leftover, it is fine to feed it and treat it as a starter.

      • Lori says:

        Hi Beth. I have a quick question about feeding the Biga. I did this back in the 90′s and passed a cup of it along to friends. After they made something, they passed it on. Was fun & it was in our group of friends so long we named it Herman. I’ve forgotten how to feed it. Thanks for your info…….Lori

  8. D's Notes says:

    I’ve been studying your biga and Ciabatta recipes and blogs so I can make these recipes too; they sound amazing. What I’m wondering is, if I want to keep biga on hand how do I do that? What do I add to the the left-over original to keep it going? or am I better off making it new every time? Thank you

  9. Larry Noak says:

    I used to add a half cup of unbleached flour and a half cup of water every third day when I kept them refrigerated. If you leave it on your counter you will want to feed it every day. If you do keep a starter you will need to either bake with it when you feed it or dispose of about half each time before you feed it. Now I just make a biga the day before I use it. You don’t need to worry about having someone feed your starter while you are traveling etc. If you wish to learn about keeping a starter there are very good references in your library and on the internet. What you want to look for is a how-to for making your own Sourdough starter.

  10. Larry Noak says:

    I would also like to mention that this is a great starter for a lot of breads. I have used this in bagels and other breads that don’t call for a starter as they can benefit from a bit of biga if you happen to think ahead and start it a day or two ahead, or if you have some big left over. I have also been known to add a tablespoon of rye or whole wheat flour to this biga, just to change the flavor a bit.

  11. Jim Castelli says:

    Hello – I have read that Biga needs to be fed and at the same time, some of the mix thrown away so the yeast has fresh food to eat. Is that needed? I’ve tried store bought biga starter mixes (add water, etc) and they all say to feed and reduce for 7 days. Needless to say mine stopped bubbling after 72 hours and went dormant then was afraid to use it….anyway any input would be appreciated.

    • Beth Price says:

      Hi Jim, in this particular recipe the bulk of the biga is used in the corresponding ciabatta recipe so there is little left to use as a starter. If you are not going to use the biga within a day or so, I would follow the instructions for freezing it until you are ready to use it.

  12. ricky says:

    Hi, great article! I’m beginner baker and had been using a starter (supposedly biga) 100% whole wheat flour with 60% room temp water and 0.8% instant yeast. The starter is extremely stiff, and I refrigerate the starter immediately after mixing and use it 24 hours later.

    – am i doing anything wrong?

    • Beth Price says:

      Hi Ricky, have you tried our biga recipe? It uses unbleached all-purpose flour and is not refrigerated immediately. After resting, it rises into a nice spongy starter.

  13. Anne Wheeler says:

    Can I use SAF yeast for this recipe?

  14. Anne wheeler says:

    Also…..what modifications do I make for my Zojirushi bread machine. It has a setting to make biga. I am trying for ciabatta. I make lots of bread but I haven’t been able to do any ciabatta!

    • Beth Price says:

      Hi Anne, we did not test this recipe using a bread machine. I would suggest following the manufacturer’s instructions.

      • Anne Wheeler says:

        Thanks…love this place! I made the biga in the bread machine last night and I will let you know how it works. I think I will do the ciabatta per your instructions.

        • Renee Schettler Rossi says:

          And we love that you love this place, Anne! Am looking forward to hearing how it goes…

  15. Anne Wheeler says:

    This is the first time my ciabatta didn’t go directly to the trash! I learned SO much. My husband ate a whole loaf with butter. Good grief! I need to work…I am a potter….but making bread and cooking is so much fun! Thanks for this wonderful blog! I didn’t get a picture of the finished product…..it was gobbled up! Next time!

    • Renee Schettler Rossi says:

      Anne, that’s terrific beyond words to hear! Can’t wait to see the photo from next time…and to hear what other recipes you try from the site. Many, many thanks for taking the time to loop back and let us know how it went.

  16. Mary says:

    This is the most comprehensive and yet simple discussion I’ve seen on Biga. Thank you for taking the mystery out of how to make Biga. Our Italian Breads we’ve been making rise nicely and have a good crust, but we are looking for larger holes and more flavor (pretty bland). We’ll be giving the Biga a try tomorrow for final baking on Sunday.

    Question, the bread recipe calls for salt and we thought this would give the bread more flavor. Does salt negatively affect the yeast?

    Also, what would you suggest for a heartier yeast flavored bread? Will the Biga give us the flavor we’re looking for. We’ve been using Bread flour and Red Star Platinum Instant Yeast.

    • Beth Price says:

      Hi Mary, thanks so much for your kind words! Please let us know when you bake the bread if it gives you the hearty flavor that you desire. In the meantime, this is a great link that discusses the role of salt in bread baking. https://www.kingarthurflour.com/professional/salt.html

      • Mary says:

        Thank you for your reply – interesting and good information on salt. Very helpful for a reference.

        We have made the biga and it’s resting, probably will let it go for 15 to 18 hours. Will let you know how the Ciabatta turns out.

        Question: If making a bread recipe that doesn’t call for Biga, but I want to add it in the recipe – how do I determine how much to put in as added ingredients. For ex. if it calls for 3 1/2 cups of flour, 12 oz. water, 1 1/2 tsp salt and 1/4 tsp of yeast – how much Biga do we put in? Is the Biga a substitution of the dough mixture (i.e. 1 cup of dough for 1 cup of Biga)?

        Thanks very much.

        • Beth Price says:

          Hi Mary, fingers crossed! We only tested the biga as a starter for the ciabatta but I understand that you can use it as you would a sourdough starter. Hope this helps.

        • Eric Noak says:

          Mary, I just add it to my dough as soon as I am done mixing it (the dough). A cup or so of any starter, biga, or aged dough can do nothing but improve the flavor of your bread….

  17. John E says:

    Some sympathy for the Australians in the earlier part of this discussion, some problems may be solved by understanding that an American Legal cup = 240 mls compared with Australian 250mls and an Australian tablespoon is 20ml compared to American 15ml. When a recipe has been converted to grams (including teaspoons tablespoons etc) this is a great help to the international audience.

    • David Leite says:

      John E, thanks for the reminder. We did include gram weights for this recipe especially because of these kind of issues. We didn’t convert the 1/4 teaspoon of dry yeast because that comes out to .71 grams and most scales aren’t that specific.

  18. smith says:

    Hi, could you also post the yield in metric?

  19. Barbara says:

    So you sift the flour?

  20. Quyen says:

    Can I use bread flour instead of all-purpose?

    • Beth Price says:

      Hi Quyen, because of the differences in gluten, I would stick with all-purpose flour for the biga.

  21. caj amadio says:

    Your cups converted to grams in the biga recipe do not add up! How can 3/4 cup plus 4 teaspoons total 200 grams? when 2 1/3 cups only 330 grams? When it should be apron 500 grams plus! Have I misread something? Thank you, I have adjusted and it works good.

    • David Leite David Leite says:

      Caj, I can see how on the surface it can look wonky. But you’re comparing water to flour. A cup of water and a cup of flour have different weights. A cup a water weighs about 8 ounces, and a cup of flour weighs between 4 1/2 to 5 1/2 ounces.

  22. Larry Noak says:

    Hi Lori, technically, this is not intended as a traditional sourdough starter but could easily be turned into one. I would feed it maybe 3/4 cup of unbleached AP flour and 1/2 cup of water every other day or so. First take about half of the starter and either use it or dispose of it. After a week or two, it should nearly double every day and be bubbly. Then, you may want to feed it every day or refrigerate it. If refrigerated, once a week, let it warm up to room temperature, feed it and refrigerate it again.
    Your public library undoubtedly has many resources to, help you with keeping a starter. If you do this,you can share your starter with your friends at any time and you will always have some on hand for yourself!

    • Lori says:

      Thank you Larry. I will try a starter this fall. I wanted to use it for ciabatta bread. I have made three of them this last two weeks & they turned out flat. I checked the yeast, temperature & everything I could think of. Not sure what happened. …Lori

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