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.
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)
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.
200g more flour (Manitoba/strong white bread flour)
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.
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).
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.
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.
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:
5g yeast (fresh yeast, aka lievito di birra)
However, if I break down the leaven, more accurately this means:
As bakers’ percentages this is:
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!