Italian Biga

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.

Italian Biga

A plastic container of homemade Italian biga.
Carol Field

Prep 20 mins
Cook 6 hrs
Total 6 hrs 20 mins
Sides
Italian
2 servings
536 kcal
4.8 / 20 votes
Print RecipeBuy the The Italian Baker cookbook

Want it? Click it.

Ingredients 

  • 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

Directions
 

  • Stir the yeast into the warm water and let stand until creamy, about 10 minutes.
  • 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.
  • 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.
Print RecipeBuy the The Italian Baker cookbook

Want it? Click it.

Show Nutrition

Serving: 1cupCalories: 536kcal (27%)Carbohydrates: 112g (37%)Protein: 16g (32%)Fat: 2g (3%)Saturated Fat: 1g (6%)Polyunsaturated Fat: 1gMonounsaturated Fat: 1gSodium: 10mgPotassium: 170mg (5%)Fiber: 4g (17%)Sugar: 1g (1%)Vitamin A: 3IUVitamin C: 1mg (1%)Calcium: 26mg (3%)Iron: 7mg (39%)

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.

Originally published March 06, 2012

HUNGRY FOR MORE?

#leitesculinaria on Instagram If you make this recipe, snap a photo and hashtag it #LeitesCulinaria. We'd love to see your creations on Instagram, Facebook, and Twitter.

Comments

  1. 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.

  2. 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

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

    1. 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.

      1. 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

  4. 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?

    1. 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.

  5. 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.

    1. 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!

Have something to say?

Then tell us. Have a picture you'd like to add to your comment? Attach it below. And as always, please take a gander at our comment policy before posting.

Rate this recipe!

Have you tried this recipe? Let us know what you think.

Upload a picture of your dish