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. When using it in recipes, I strongly recommend weighing rather than measuring it, for it expands at room temperature. Use chilled biga when measuring by volume; when measuring by weight, the biga may be chilled or at room temperature.–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. Much obliged.
Italian Biga Recipe
Hands-On Time: 20 minutes | Total Time: 6 hours, 20 minutes, unattended | Makes about 2 1/3 cups
- 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
- 1. Stir the yeast into the warm water and let stand until creamy, about 10 minutes.
- 2. Stir in the remaining water and then 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 a cool room temperature for 6 to 24 hours. When ready, the starter will be triple its original volume and still be 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. If you like sour bread, allow your biga to rest for 24 to 48 hours, or you might even stretch it to 72 hours.) Cover and refrigerate or freeze 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.
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Italian Biga Recipe © 2011 Carol Field. Photo © 2011 Ed Anderson. All rights reserved.