A ripe biga preferment

Biga (Preferment)

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Biga, a stiff Italian preferment, enhances the texture and flavor of baked goods. With its low hydration level and unique fermentation process, biga strengthens the dough and imparts a distinctive, sharp flavor. In this post, we will learn about biga, its characteristics, and how to make it

Biga – introduction

Biga is a stiff preferment that originated in Italy. In Italian, ‘biga’ literally means “preferment”.

Biga is made with a very low hydration level (traditionally 45% hydration), resulting in a very stiff consistency. It is traditionally fermented at room temperature for 12-24 hours at 16-18°C/60-64°F.

The fermentation conditions and composition of biga are what give it its unique characteristics. These characteristics include slowing down protease enzyme activity to minimize gluten breakdown during fermentation and prioritizing the production of acetic acid. As a result, biga greatly strengthens the final dough, which was its original, historical purpose.

Today, with the availability of stronger flours compared to those used by Italian bakers in the past, it is important to use biga “carefully” to prevent an overly elastic dough with a tough, chewy crumb texture. Biga is particularly effective when used in doughs with high hydration, such as ciabatta, or in modern Neapolitan/Canotto-style pizza.

Compared to poolish, biga is a more forgiving preferment in terms of fermentation, offering a wider window of usability. This is mainly due to its slower fermentation process (including slower acid production) and less gluten breakdown. In other words, biga is less likely to over-ferment compared to poolish.
Nevertheless, using an over-fermented biga is not recommended.

A well-prepared and ready-to-use biga will consist of many biga “chunks” that have slightly expanded during fermentation (depending on the amount of biga and the size of the container, the biga can also form a cohesive “biga block”).

The preparation and incorporation of biga into the final dough are more complex than with poolish, requiring careful mixing to create the desired biga “chunks” (to ensure proper hydration of the flour and prevent excessive gluten development). Given its stiff consistency, incorporating the biga into the final dough without a mixer can be challenging, so it is less recommended using biga when kneading by hand.

Compared to poolish, a biga will impart a sharper, more acidic, and vinegary flavor to the dough.

Crumb structure of a pizza made with biga preferment
A dough made with biga (final hydration of 60%) – chewy, relatively dense, with irregular, big “air bubbles” (“alveoli”)

How to Make Biga: General Guidelines

For detailed information on how to make a preferment in general, please refer to the post linked at the bottom of this page.

Traditionally, the preparation of biga follows very clear and strict “rules”. These rules include a hydration level of 44-45%, the use of 1% fresh yeast or 0.3% instant dry yeast, and fermentation for 12-24 hours at a temperature of 16-18C/61-65F. Why this specific temperature range? Because this range is ideal for the formation of specific by-products in the biga during fermentation; Specifically, it helps achieve the right ratio between lactic and acetic acid, which gives the biga its unique characteristics.

However, since we are not purists and there is no Italian standing behind us grading our work, there is no problem in fermenting the biga at a different room temperature. However, it is important to note that in this case, it’s technically no longer a “biga” but rather a stiff preferment; Consequently, its effect on the dough, both in terms of texture and taste, may also differ (but not necessarily for the worse).

There is also a variation of biga called “biga lunga”, a process that involves cold fermenting the biga in the fridge for 24 hours and then another 24 hours of room temperature fermentation. Honestly, I don’t see any reason to go through all that trouble, and in such cases, it’s better to simply make a direct dough (or a “regular” preferment). Italians and their peculiarities…

Mixing the Biga

Biga should be prepared in a wide and deep container to facilitate mixing. Add the water and yeast to the container and mix thoroughly. Be careful not to use cold water; instead, use water at room temperature (e.g., tap water). Cold water can harm the yeast cells.

Next, add flour to the water and yeast mixture, and begin mixing, NOT kneading. It’s preferable to use your hands for this step (as mentioned, we want to avoid kneading the biga and developing gluten; instead, we simply want the flour to absorb the water).

The most effective way to mix biga is by forming a claw-like shape with your hand and using your fingertips to circulate and combine the flour and water. Continue mixing the biga until there is no dry flour left in the container, as any remaining dry flour will not participate in the fermentation process.

The final consistency of the biga should resemble small to medium-sized chunks, similar to gnocchi, with minimal gluten development. Avoid kneading the biga or forming a cohesive dough mass that will increase in volume during fermentation. The biga should not expand by more than 20%, and certainly should not double in size.

The entire mixing process should take between 3 to 6 minutes. If any large chunks of biga form, you can break them up into smaller pieces with your hands.

Once the biga has been mixed, cover the container with a lid or cling wrap to prevent it from drying out, and allow it to ferment. There’s no need to poke holes in the cling wrap or provide air circulation in the container, as this is unnecessary and serves no purpose.

There is a method for mixing biga called “biga no-stress” that involves “shaking” the container to mix the flour and water (similar to making a shake). However, I do not recommend this method as it often results in an under-mixed biga with a significant amount of dry flour that has not absorbed water.

A biga preferment at the end of mixing
This is how a properly mixed biga should look at the end of the mixing process: small to medium-sized chunks, without any dry flour remaining in the container

Fermenting the Biga

The biga is ready once you can observe a slight “puffing up” of the chunks and approximately a 20% increase in volume (refer to the photo below). If the biga has not puffed up at all, it is not yet ready.

A ripe biga will have a moderately sharp alcoholic/sour smell that is relatively mild and not overpowering.

If the biga has significantly doubled in volume, it indicates that it was over-mixed. If the biga has a very strong acidic/alcoholic smell, it suggests that it has over-fermented.

A ripe biga preferment
This is what a ripe, ready-to-use biga looks like. The biga chunks have increased in volume by about 20% and have formed a cohesive “biga block”

Incorporating the Biga Into the Final Dough

Since biga is a very stiff preferment, incorporating it into the final dough can be challenging. To make it easier, it is highly recommended to crumble or cut the biga into smaller pieces before incorporating it into the final dough.

To further facilitate the incorporation of the biga, you can optionally soak it in water prior to mixing. Simply add the remaining water from the recipe to a bowl, add the biga chunks, and let them sit in the water for a few minutes before mixing. However, be cautious not to mix the biga too much in water alone, as this can cause the starch to separate from the biga chunks, resulting in hard and sticky gluten lumps that are difficult to incorporate into the dough (this is different from mixing poolish with water, which is possible due to its liquid texture).

Once the biga and water are ready, add the flour and other dough ingredients, and continue kneading as usual, ensuring that all the biga is fully incorporated into the dough.

Please note that the above process is for using a mixer. Hand kneading a dough made with biga is possible, but it is labor-intensive and requires a lot of force and elbow grease to properly incorporate all the biga into the final dough. If you choose to knead by hand, it is recommended to cut the biga into small pieces to facilitate its incorporation into the dough.

Another option for hand kneading is to put the biga in a food processor along with all the flour from the recipe and grind everything together until you achieve “biga crumbs”, which can then be added to the remaining water.