This recipe is from Shipton Mill's "Discover Italian Baking" Day.
What is a Biga?
A “Biga” is an Italian style, pre-ferment (starter). It differs from the French Pâte fermentée in that it has no salt. It is specifically made to be used as a pre-ferment. The absence of salt means it uses less yeast (either wild or added) to accomplish necessary fermentation, minimising the flavour of the yeast and maximising the flavour of the grain. It is used in breads such as ciabatta, focaccia and panini. In Italy nearly every pre-ferment, including wild yeast or sourdough, is called a biga. So if you are making a recipe make sure you check to see exactly what kind of biga (wild yeast/added yeast) it requires. The liquidity or firmness of a biga will vary depending on the proportions of flour to water.
Breads made with a fermented biga have an added dimension of texture and flavour which will only get better as your biga ages. Generally known as a biga throughout Italy, these ferments are also referred to as la madre, the mother, in northern Italy and il babbo, the father, in Tuscany and further south.
This recipe is from Shipton Mill's "Discover Italian Baking" Day. It is based on a mature ferment started 14 years ago by Salah Bournemman, our tutor on the course.
Starting Your Biga From Scratch
To start your own biga from scratch using Salah's original recipe, you can either use the wild yeast method or the express method using added yeast. You can start the biga with 1g of yeast for the first day and thereafter keep feeding with just flour and water which will get it off to a flying start, or with 10% natural yogurt for the first day only, and again after that keep feeding with only flour and water.
You will need:
1kg ciabatta flour
10g yogurt (at room temperature) or 1g of yeast
Mix the ingredients to a smooth, batter-like consistency.
Keep it loosely covered at room temperature and it will treble in volume and bubble with vigorous activity before falling back to a smaller voume.
Your biga will be ready to use the following day in your recipe.
Maintaining Your Biga
To develop and enhance the flavour and character of your biga you can keep it going indefinitely. Salah's biga is now 14 years old and just gets better and better.
If you’re not intending to use your biga every day, you can keep it in the fridge to slow down the fermentation process and feed every couple of days. At a stretch it will go for up to a week without feeding but if you go on holiday for a fortnight, find someone to feed it for you while you’re away. If you're keeping it at room temperature you will need to feed it every day.
Store in a sealed container such as a Tupperware with holes pierced in the lid. Your biga will become very active and increase in size after feeding before falling back in volume before the next feed. Always ensure you leave about a third of the volume of the container for it to grow into.
Once you've reached a volume that is sufficent for your regular baking (i.e. always having enough to retain at least a third of the weight after you have taken out what you need for your recipe) you will want to maintain your biga without ending up with gallons more than you need.
Simply discard approximately a third of the volume when you feed it and replace the same volume with a mix of 50/50 ciabatta flour:water; hence if you discard 2 large cups of your biga, add back 1 large cup of flour and 1 large cup of water.
If this seems wasteful. just think of it like feeding your family, your biga is constantly hungry, and you need to keep it constantly fed with new nutrients to help it grow strong and healthy. The nutrients from the bit you are discarding have done their job and are now spent, you need to replace them with fresh nutrients.
Students From The "Discover Italian Baking" Day
Students receive a pot of Salah's 14 year old starter to take away with them and following this recipe will maintain the biga and keep it active for as long as it continues to be fed.
As soon as you get home, refresh your biga as follows:
- Weigh the biga.
- For every 100g of biga, add 300g of ciabatta flour and 300g of water.
- Thereafter whenever you use your biga, refresh it with the same volume to replace what you’ve used, split 50/50 flour/water. Hence if you use 350g of your biga for a recipe, add back 175g flour and 175g water.
- Whether you’re growing your biga or simply replacing what you’ve taken out, always use equal quantities of flour and water.