Tag Archives: biga

Biga 2: making a loaf

freshly cut biga loaf

After visiting Il Vecchio Forno in Pescasseroli, Abruzzo, and getting advice from the master baker, I had to try making bread using a biga.

Although I’ve experimented a lot with natural leavens (sourdough), sponge and dough techniques and long fermentations of the finished dough (such as overnight in the fridge), I’ve never actually tried to make bread based specifically on the biga technique, that is using a low-hydration Italian style pre-ferment. This is still experimental though, as I’ve not made a strict biga – I had a healthy batch of leaven around, so I’ve added some of that. Also, I didn’t have enough of one type of flour, so I’ve done a mixture.

The flour types I used were a 0 grano tenero, at 11.5% protein, and a 0 Manitoba at 15.5% protein, W360-400. For an explanation of Italian flour types, see here. For a description of what the heck “W” means in this context, see my previous post.

mixing the biga


500g flour (370g grano tenero, 130g Manitoba)
250g water (cold, you don’t need to rush the yeast)
5g fresh yeast
30g leaven (at 80% hydration)

biga, before fermentation

1 Dissolve the yeast and leaven in the cold water, giving it a whisk.
2 Add the liquid to the flour in a roomy bowl, and combine.
3 Turn out the mixture onto a lightly oiled surface and bring the dough together. It’ll be quite firm, as it’s only 50% (give or take) hydration at this point
4 Put the biga in a container with a lid.
5 I left mine at room temperature to ferment for half an hour then put it in the fridge… because a) it’s warm here, around 25C (77F) and b) because I had to go out (to a gig).
6 Leave the biga in the fridge for 10-14 hours, until it is soft and relatively lively. It won’t be lively like a liquid leaven as it’s effectively a fairly dry dough.

biga, after fermentation

Bread dough

200g more flour (Manitoba/strong white bread flour)
200g water
10g salt

pieces of biga

1 Take the biga out of the fridge. You can leave it as is, but one site I read suggested cutting into pieces, which seemed like a good idea. Why? Because it’ll warm up more evenly that way and it’ll be easier to combine into the final dough.
2 Cover the pieces and leave to come up to room temperature for an hour or so.
3 In a roomy bowl, combine 200g flour, 200g water and 10g salt, making a pasty mixture.
4 Add all the biga pieces, and mix well, with a spatula and your hands. Really get in there and squeeze it all together, to help form one uniform dough.

making a biga dough
5 Turn the mixture out of the bowl onto a lightly oiled surface and bring together the dough. At this point, it’s around 65% hydration, so it should be moist without being totally sticky and awkward to handle.
6 Form a ball and return to the roomy bowl (lightly oiled).

dough, ball
7 Cover (I used a shower cap), and leave to prove until it’s doubled in size and soft. Time will vary but it took 1 1/2 hours for me. My kitchen was warm, up to 26C (79F).

dough, end of first prove
8 Turn out the dough. It should weigh around 1.2kg, so you could make two smaller loaves, but I wanted to make one large-ish loaf. Form a ball, then leave to rest for about 10 minutes.
9 Form a baton, then place, seam-side up, in a proving basket lined with a floured cloth.

10 Prove again. I left mine for half an hour in the warm kitchen, and it was nice and soft (morbido). I probably could have left it a bit longer – you want it soft and springy.

final prove
11 Turn the dough out onto a baking sheet lined with parchment (I sprinkled mine with coarse cornmeal). Slash the top in your preferred manner.

ready to bake
12 Put a dish of boiling water in the bottom of the oven to fill the oven with steam, preheated to 220C. My oven takes ages to come to temperature but you might have a new-fangled type that heats in 10 minutes. Lucky you.
13 Bake for 25 minutes, then turn the heat down to 200C and keep baking for another 20 minutes. I left mine another 10 minutes, trying to get some colour on top.


All in all, this is one of the better loaves I’ve made recently. Despite our oven not really having any top heat to colour the crust, the rudimentary steam system (domestically, I prefer to use a mister spray, but I ain’t got one at the moment) gave the crust a reasonable crisp crunchiness. The crumb isn’t particularly open, but it’s soft.

Best of all, I got a decent oven spring! I’ve been struggling with the form of my loaves recently. I doubt this decent shape is the result of the biga per se, it may well be more because the dough was a lower hydration than other doughs I’ve made recently (more usually 70% hydration) and because the Manitoba is easier to handle and glutinous then the farro flours and whatnot I’ve been playing with.

I’m not sure my loaf is really a genuine rustic Italian style bread: with its fairly close and soft crumb, it’s more like a classic British bloomer. But hey, I’m happy with that for a first try.

Oh, and yes, from the cracking it was clearly a little underproved, but not radically so.

fresh from oven

Bakers’ percentages

If you’re not familiar with bakers’ percentages, they’re just a way of expressing the proportion of ingredients as a percentage of the flour – or more precisely a percentage of the flour weight. This blog provides a good explanation, if you’re in the mood for some maths.

So, the total ingredients here, including both the biga and the final dough are:

700g flour
450g water
30g leaven
5g yeast (fresh yeast, aka lievito di birra)
10g salt

However, if I break down the leaven, more accurately this means:
717g flour
463g water
5g yeast
10g salt

As bakers’ percentages this is:
100% flour
65% water
0.7% yeast
1.4% salt

Having said all that, I’m sure I’ll keep playing with this technique, and experiment more with quantities – playing with the qb, or quantobasta. This is the “how much is enough”, the quantities that, more intuitively, feel right. (Something that’s discussed by Rachel over here). For starters I think the biga I made was too low hydration, despite the maestro’s advice. So I’ll increase the water, or, if I’m using more of my high hydration leaven (to make a semi-biga, semi-madre), add more of that. Vediamo!


Filed under Breads, Recipes

Biga 1: Advice from the maestro at Il Vecchio Forno, Pescasseroli

Il Vecchio Forno, Pescasseroli, Abruzzo

After our wonderful hiking in Abruzzo, we had a delicious dinner at Plistia restaurant in Pescasseroli. As I asked a lot of questions, particularly about the bread, the host, Cicitto, offered to take me to the bakery where his brother-in-law (sibling of Cicitto’s chef wife, Laura) is the master baker. Aside from how just plain lovely this small town dynamic seems to someone like me, who grew up in Britain at a time where traditional food trade was being killed off by supermarkets, it was also just a wonderful opportunity. Cicitto was offering to get me some lievito madre (natural leaven starter), but the jaunt actually turned into a handy lesson.

Il Vecchio Forno (The Old Bakery, or The Old Oven),  is located in the centre of Pescasseroli, in a row of old stone buildings. Its shop sign is barely legible, there’s no window showing the wares and a ribbon curtain covers the doorway, so it’d be easy to walk past – were it not for the intoxicating smell of freshly baked bread emerging. We entered down a side entrance, and wandered into the bake-house at the back.

My old teachers at the NBS in London have conditioned me well, as I felt self-conscious about my street clothes, but hygiene legislation clearly wasn’t exactly a priority as there were at least a couple of lit cigarettes in there. Boggling! Still, the loaves being turned out from the large deck oven looked great, as did some plump pizza bianca (an olive-oily flat-ish bread that looks more like what we’d call focaccia in the UK, though actually that’s Ligurian focaccia; in Rome, the name focaccia is used for a flatter, crisp and crunchy bread).

The maestro kindly gave us half an hour of his time, first introducing us to his mother. His lievito madre – mother yeast or leaven – that is. What surprised me about this was how much it just resembled a dough, unlike the more liquid, ie higher hydration, sourdough cultures I’d previously learned about and been using. The madre is about 50 per cent hydration, where recently I’ve been keeping my leaven at around 100 per cent.

Bread at Il Vecchio Forno, Pescasseroli, Abruzzo

We chatted about the issues I’d been having with my naturally leavened breads, and he did some diagnosis. I was fermenting the dough for too long he said, resulting in too sour a flavour – though arguably, a sour sourdough is more in line with certain northern European breads than Italian naturally leavened breads, where the flavours are generally milder, nutty but not sour.

His biggest piece of advice to me, as a home baker making bread once a week, was actually to not worry about using a lievito madre at all. So no sample of their venerable madre for me. Instead, he recommended using a biga.

A biga is an Italian pre-ferment, not unlike a British sponge or French poolish. Unlike those pre-ferments, however, it’s much lower hydration – again, like his madre, more lively dough than bubbling gloop. The maestro went on to give me a recipe for a biga. He recommended using a 00 (ie a fine grade) flour, then got a bit technical for me – saying to use a flour with a P/L grade of 0.55 and a W…. To be honest, with my bad Italian, and terrible handwriting, my note-taking abilities failed me. My notes either say a W of 240 or 400.

But just what are P/L and W? Well, some research  tells me the former is an elasticity rating, the latter the forza della farina (“strength, force of the flour”). Italian Wikipedia calls it the fattore di panificabilità, which you could translate as the “breadability of the flour”.

Although this is in Italian, and fairly technical, it includes a good table. Which I’ve borrowed, as the blogger himself seems to have borrowed it from Professor Franco Antoniazzi of the University of Parma.

W P/L Proteine Utilizzo
90/130 0,4/0,5 9/10,5 Biscotti ad impasto diretto
130/200 0,4/0,5 10/11 Grissini, Crackers
170/200 0,45 10,5/11,5 Pane comune, Ciabatte, impasto diretto, pancarré, pizze, focacce, fette biscottate
220/240 0,45/0,5 12/12,5 Baguettes, pane comune con impasto diretto, maggiolini, ciabatte a impasto diretto e biga di 5/6 ore
300/310 0,55 13 Pane lavorato, pasticceria lievitata con biga di 15 ore e impasto diretto
340/400 0,55/0,6 13,5/15 Pane soffiato, pandoro, panettone, lievitati a lunga fermentazione, pasticceria lievitata con biga oltre le 15 ore, pane per Hamburgher


Basically, it says that the higher the W, generally the higher the P/L, and the higher the protein. To translate that into familiar products, a flour with a lower W and P/L (used for biscuits/cookies etc) is akin to a plain or all-purpose flour, while a flour with a higher W and P/L (used for enriched breads with long fermentations like panettone) is akin to a strong white bread flour. So really not that technical after all. Ahem.


Not that domestically purchased packs of flour generally include this grading information, but it’s good to know. All part of my baking education.

So anyway, armed with this knowledge, straight from the maestro a cool old bakery in pleasant little Italian mountain town, I embarked on my first biga experiments… Coming soon!

Il Vecchio Forno, Piazza Vittorio Emanuele III 20, 67032 Pescasseroli, Abruzzo


Filed under Bakeries, Breads