Many of the recipes for classic regional breads, such as this ciabatta recipe, 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 biga 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.

A plastic container of homemade Italian biga.

Italian Biga

4.80 / 30 votes
An Italian biga is a beautiful thing. It's the basis for so many traditional breads that you'll have no problem using it. The flavor is unbeatable.
David Leite
Servings2 servings
Calories536 kcal
Prep Time20 minutes
Cook Time6 hours
Total Time6 hours 20 minutes


  • 1/4 teaspoon active dry yeast
  • 1/4 cup warm water
  • 3/4 cup plus 4 teaspoons water, preferably bottled spring water, at room temperature
  • 2 1/3 cups unbleached all-purpose flour
  • Vegetable oil, for the bowl


  • Stir the yeast into the 1/4 cup warm water and let stand until creamy, about 10 minutes.
  • Stir the spring 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.
  • 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.)
  • 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.
The Italian Baker

Adapted From

The Italian Baker

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Serving: 1 cupCalories: 536 kcalCarbohydrates: 112 gProtein: 16 gFat: 2 gSaturated Fat: 1 gMonounsaturated Fat: 1 gSodium: 10 mgFiber: 4 gSugar: 1 g

Nutrition information is automatically calculated, so should only be used as an approximation.

Tried this recipe?Mention @leitesculinaria or tag #leitesculinaria!
Recipe © 2011 Carol Field. Photo © 2011 Ed Anderson. All rights reserved.

Recipe Testers’ Reviews

This is a perfectly suitable starting point for most any bread which uses a starter. I bake bread several times a week and it’s nice to have this handy. Sometimes I add this to a bread dough which doesn’t call for a starter just for the added flavor.

About David Leite

I count myself lucky to have received three James Beard Awards for my writing as well as for Leite’s Culinaria. My work has also appeared in The New York Times, Martha Stewart Living, Saveur, Bon Appétit, Gourmet, Food & Wine, Yankee, Los Angeles Times, Chicago Tribune, The Washington Post, and more.

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  1. 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…

    1. 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!

      1. 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.

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

        2. 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.

  2. 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.

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

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

        1. 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.

      2. I love this bread AND would love to have the authentic recipe for the Very Dark Lithuanian Bread that I had as a teen in Nashua, NH, years ago. I remember my Mom bringing home this hot dark round bread with a thick chewy crust and dense but light enough chewy interior with a strong (malty?) Flavor. Great with just butter. It could take the place of a piece of meat with the hearty feel and texture. A full bodied bread that was heavy enough to seem as though it was a complete meal in just one slice of bread. Have not found anything like it over the years since then. They must have started with a biga also?

        1. It’s quite likely, Joanne. Your description is so evocative, I’m craving that sort of bread like crazy right now. Greatly appreciate you taking the time to let us know how well this recipe worked for you!

        2. Laurie Colwin has a recipe for a dark bread that sounds similar to what you describe. Take a look at her books Home Cooking, and More Home Cooking and see if it strikes your fancy. Think it is in More Home Cooking. Delicious writing even if the recipe isn’t on pointe.

          1. Many thanks, Mary. I have a copy of Home Cooking and will take a look. I couldn’t agree more with you regarding her writing. Simply lovely.

    2. I first learned about biga in a book called “The Breadmaker’s Apprentice” It belonged to a chef I worked for, but I wish I’d copied some of the recipes.

  3. 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!

    1. 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.

    2. 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.