Biga – The Mother of Bread
Biga known also as la madre, or the mother of bread, is an important element in Italian breads. It is still part of the artisan process of fresh bread. Even industrial production breads of higher quality will use Biga as their primary leavening agent. It is possible to purchase biga in any bakery that produces its own bread. Biga adds the distinct flavor of Italian breads.
Bread is, and always has been, an important part of Italian nutrition. Each region, and often individuals, will have some special bread prepared with the materials easily available in that area or to meet some request of an ancient noble. The basis of good bread is yeast. Today industrial yeast is readily available however in past times, without refrigeration, it was an important part of every family’s survival to grow and maintain their yeast.
So important it was that when close friends or family members would visit they would bring part of their yeast and exchange it with the host family. This exchange was considered a bonding for the individuals involved. Since the yeast was naturally produced bringing in a new strain would strengthen the yeast colony and produce better results.
The process is relatively simple but requires some time. In a mixing bowl mix equal parts of flour and water, usually a tablespoon of sugar dissolved in two cups of water and 2 cups of flour and let sit in the open air for 3 days. A dark crust will form.
Scrape off the dark crust. This will reduce the volume by about ¼th. Add 1 cup of warm water, with a tablespoon of sugar, and 1 cup of flour and let sit another 24 hours. The following day, scrape the top again and reduce the mixture to ½ the original volume. Add 1 cup of warm water, with a tablespoon of sugar, and 1 cup of flour. Cover with a moist towel and let sit for another 24 hours. You now have your own yeast.
As long as you continue to remove ½ the volume every day and add additional sugar, warm water and flour, it is not necessary to refrigerate. Just keep it covered with plastic wrap and a towel. If you prefer, once the yeast is growing you can cover with plastic wrap and keep in the fridge for about 3 days but you must take it out of the fridge at least once every three days, allow to come to room temperature and add flour and water.
To make a quick Biga, you can substitute the first 3 days process by dissolving a package of dry yeast, not rapid rise, to the sugar water and add to the flour. Never allow salt or oil to entire your Biga, it will inhibit the growth of new yeast.
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