Magazine article Sunset

Chewy Italian Bread Begins with a Biga

Magazine article Sunset

Chewy Italian Bread Begins with a Biga

Article excerpt

Creating a yeast-based starter is the first step in making artisan-style bread at home

Full of holes inside, often misshapen outside - you have to know these Italian breads to love them. But rip off a chunk, savor the complex wheat flavor and chewy texture, and you know why the West's artisan bakeries have created a huge following for the loaves. Breads of this style may be called pane pugliese, pane francese, ciabatta, or other names, but they all have three things in common: a yeast-based starter called a biga, a very wet dough, and a slow rise.

A biga is just flour, water, and a tiny amount of yeast stirred together several hours or a day before baking and allowed to ferment. Unlike a sourdough starter, which is replenished and kept going indefinitely, a biga is made fresh each time you bake (you can make enough for a couple of loaves and freeze the extra to use within two weeks).

Though a biga doesn't create a sour taste, it provides other benefits like those from a sourdough starter: well-developed flavor, moist texture, and good keeping quality.

The wet dough used to make this bread is responsible for its large, irregular holes and wonderfully chewy texture. The dough is so sticky you can't knead it on a board - you must use a food processor or a heavy-duty mixer.

Slowing down the rising process helps develop the bread's complex flavor and aroma. Professional bakers put dough in temperature-controlled retarders. At home, you use ice water in the dough to keep it cool, and let the dough rise at room temperature rather than in the warm spot recommended in most bread recipes.

For a classic Italian-style bread, try the basic recipe on page 156. For a nontraditional (and delicious) variation, add olive oil, a generous amount of basil, and tangy feta cheese.

Glenn Mitchell, owner of Grace Baking in Albany, California, helped us translate the bread-making process from the professional bakery to the home kitchen.

Italian Biga Bread

Cooking time: About 30 minutes

Prep time: 15 to 25 minutes, plus about 8 1/2 hours for rising

Notes: This recipe is best suited for a lazy weekend, but you can gear it to a weekday schedule. The biga can be made ahead and chilled or frozen, and the kneaded dough can rest in the refrigerator up to 24 hours before its first rise.

You can double or triple the biga for later baking (the biga will rise on the shorter end of the noted time). A baking stone (sold with gourmet cookware) makes the thickest, crispest crust, but you can use a large baking sheet.

Makes: 1 loaf: 1 pound, 7 ounces

1/2 cup lukewarm water 1 1/4 teaspoons (about 1/2 package) active dry yeast About 3 3/4 cups all-purpose flour 1 cup ice-cold water 2 teaspoons salt

1. Biga. In a bowl, combine 1/4 cup lukewarm water and 1/4 teaspoon yeast. Let stand until yeast is dissolved, about 5 minutes. With your hands, mix in 3/4 cup flour until evenly moistened; dough will be stiff. Gather into a ball, put in a glass measuring cup, wrap airtight, and let stand at room temperature until biga is bubbly and has tripled in volume, 3 to 5 hours. Use as directed below. (If making ahead, stir down biga after it rises, then chill airtight up to 2 days - stirring down once a day - or freeze up to 2 weeks; thaw to use. …

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