Tuesday, July 17, 2012

What's The Biga Deal?

The Biga the Better

“Behind each and every memorable bite of proper Italian bread we’ve daintily nibbled, hungrily inhaled, or otherwise somehow consumed, we have a biga to thank. Much obliged.” Leite's Culinaria, an award winning food website

The real art of artisan breads: a fermentation starter that develops the flavor and texture and pumps up the flour.

Start at the very beginning. The use of a sour starter is a method of bread baking that goes back at least 6,000 years, since yeast had to be sustained from bread batch to bread batch. Legend has it that Columbus brought a starter with him to America, and the technique was a standard method of baking in the early days of the U.S. This is sometimes referred to in English as a 'mother' or 'sourdough' starter and in Italian as lievito di madre, madriga or pasta acida. Before beer yeast was readily available, each household made its own starter from airborne yeasts or those found in fermenting fruits such as grapes. This was kept in the fridge and ‘fed' regularly with flour and water. These starters are everlasting--some bakeries in America claim to have had their starter for over 100 years. With the advent of commercially available yeast and baking powder in the nineteenth century, the use of such starters was confined to those pioneers who moved farther and farther from settlements.

Why biga?  The availability of baker’s yeast spurred a shift away from sourdough by Italian bakers. The biga starter was created to recover the flavor which was lost and to reinforce the strength of the dough, making it ideal for products such as brioche or stolen. Made a day before the dough and left out to ferment at room temperature, biga produces a wonderful aroma, open texture, chewy crust and a slightly beery, acidic aroma inside. The risings are long and bring out the flavor of the grain, according to breadtopia.com. “Biga provides stretchy elegance and high volume to Italian breads,” says Chef Michael Kalanty of Kitchen on Fire, a Berkley-based gourmet cooking school.  In addition, breads made with biga remain fresher and longer.

What is biga?  The Bread Bakers Guild of America describes it as: “a substantial cultivation of yeasts and acids which is very firm to the touch (42-46% of water), cool (64-68 F), and made active by a dose of yeast (1%), which achieves multiplication of the yeasts, hydration and maturation of the gluten and formation of acid and aromatic substances.” Translation: a strong, active, and mature starter. 

You have to start somewhere. Since the Chefs Line™ biga formula and process is indeed a secret, there’s no better place than the biga recipe from Carol Field’s “The Italian Baker,” winner of the International Association of Culinary Professionals Award for best baking book and has been named to the James Beard Baker’s Dozen list of 13 indispensable baking books of all time.

Italian Biga Recipe by Carol Field
1/4 teaspoon active dry yeast
1/4 cup warm water
3/4 cup plus 4 teaspoons water, preferably bottled spring water, at room     temperature
2 1/3 cups unbleached all-purpose flour

Stir the yeast into the warm water and let stand until creamy, about 10 minutes.
Stir in the remaining water and then the flour, 1 cup at a time. By hand, 3-4 minutes; with mixer, 2 minutes at lowest speed; with food processor, mix just until a sticky dough forms. Transfer the biga to a lightly oiled bowl, cover with plastic wrap, and let rise at a cool room temperature for 6 to 24 hours (many bakers are happiest with the maximum amount of time when it truly becomes yesterday’s dough). When ready, the starter will be triple its original volume and still be wet and sticky.  If you like sour bread, allow your biga to rest for 24 to 48 hours, or you might even stretch it to 72 hours. Cover and refrigerate or freeze until ready to use. If freezing the biga, let it rest at room temperature for about 3 hours until it is bubbly and active again.

Next week, another notch…a look at some of the fresh ingredients used to raise the art of bread making to flavorful highs… sesame seeds, Moroccan black olives, whole cloves of garlic – sounds like Chefs Line™ in the making. 

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