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
CourseSides
CuisineItalian
Servings2 servings
Calories536 kcal
Prep Time20 minutes
Cook Time6 hours
Total Time6 hours 20 minutes

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

Instructions 

  • 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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Nutrition

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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320 Comments

  1. 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?

    1. 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.

  2. 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.

    1. 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.

  3. 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.