The secret to great bread is old dough. Not the “hey, I found this package of ready-bake biscuits at the back of the fridge” type of old dough, but the kind that turns a pretty good loaf into a delicious toasty, tangy, chewy, sensory delight.
Old dough is the magic behind sourdough as well as many Italian, French and other breads and goes by names like “biga”, “poolish” and “starter.” Bakers call these “pre-ferments”, but it’s more accurate to call them “initial ferments” since what you’re doing is fermenting yeast over many hours or days to produce aromas, flavors and textures in your bread that are richer and more complex than those of fresh yeasts.
While I have a number of old doughs in my fridge, the one I go to most often is the Italian version known as biga. Biga is a basic ingredient in Italian breads like Chibatta, but it’s also my the key ingredient in day-to-day breads like Hoagie rolls and whole wheat. Over time I’ve managed to “tune” the yeast in my biga to produce nutty sweet aromas and flavors with just the right amount of chewiness that pushes just about any bread I make from “good” to “great” (or “okay” to “good” — sometimes I goof).
Here’s how to make your own biga:
- Wide-mouth quart or similar sized jar with a large mouth (big enough to get a large spoon or your hand into)
- 2-½ cups bread flour
- ½ teaspoon instant yeast*
- ¾-1-1/4 cup room temperature water
Making Your Biga
Step 1 – Mix 2 cups of flour and the yeast in a large bowl, Add about ¾ cup of water and mix it at low speed for 1 to 2 minutes until it makes a rough ball. As you’re mixing, add water and/or flour until you’ve got dough that’s just a little sticky.
Step 2 – Give your work surface a dusting of flour and move your dough to it. Knead for 5 minutes or so — long enough to make the dough pliable but still a little sticky (when in doubt, it’s better to be too sticky is better than too dry).
Step 3 – Lightly oil a bowl and put your dough in it. Cover it with plastic wrap and let it sit at room temperature until it’s nearly doubled in size (usually 2-4 hours).
Step 4 – Coat the inside of your quart jar with oil. Knead your dough in the bowl to de-gas it, then squeeze the dough into your jar. Cover it with plastic wrap and put it in the refrigerator to rest for at least 12 hours.
Using Your Biga
Make sure to let your biga rest in your refrigerator for at least 12 hours — a full 24 is better — before using. Once it’s ready, take it out and let it warm to room temperature before adding it to your bread. For recipes that specifically call for biga, use the amount in the recipe. For recipes that don’t have biga, simply add 1/4- to ½ cup of biga to your dough when you’re mixing it.
If you don’t plan on using all your biga right away, you can store it for up to 3 weeks in the refrigerator, or freeze it for up to a year.
Cultivating and Nurturing Your Biga
The magic in Biga is the yeast. When you first make your biga, the yeast is straight out of the package and the same as any other yeast from that manufacturer. But as that yeast colony grows, doubling every 90 minutes or so, the sugar and byproduct levels change, causing the yeast’s offspring to change as well.
Within 24 hours the yeast colony in your biga is entirely unique and produce scents, flavors and textures unlike any other. The longer that colony grows, the more distinct its traits will become, as will the breads you make with that biga.
In order to keep your biga thriving you need to “feed” it every so often by adding fresh flour. Once every 1 to 3 days take your biga out of the refrigerator, remove half (bake with it, give it to a friend, toss it) and allow the remainder to warm to room temperature. Then mix in 1 cup of fresh flour (add a little room temperature water if it gets too dry to mix), let it stand for 30 minutes, re-cover the container with plastic wrap and return it to the fridge.
Because old yeast colonies tend to die out, many recommend starting a fresh biga every 3 months. If you happen to like the flavors and textures your old biga is producing, you can keep it going by making a fresh biga and blending it with the old one within 3 to 6 hours. That boost of new yeast genes will re-invigorate the colony allowing you to keep you biga going for years.
* I use instant yeast rather than dry activated yeast because it has a higher concentration of active yeast doesn’t require mixing with water before using.