Pre-Ferment: Heavy on the Biga Boule

bouleBiga Boule

A pre-ferment is a piece of old dough (patê fermentée), a wet poolish or spongy biga that gets set in motion the day or so before baking, sometimes on the counter, or in the fridge, or some combination of both.  The use of pre-ferments is one of the keys to flavor, and also to loaves that last longer in storage than those which don’t contain pre-ferments.

The previous post, 24-Hour White Bread is such a flavorful concoction because it is itself in a sense a big bowl of preferment.  The difference here is that we’re going to make a biga that is 80% of the final dough volume, and just add a little more flour, water, salt and yeasts after 12-14 hours of counter fermentation.

The techniques for making it are the same, pincer method dough mixing and folding to develop structure, but the bread is left entirely on its own in the bulk fermentation which, combined with its relatively high hydration (~75%) make for an open airy crumb, and the hearth baking method, or using a dutch oven or cloche, develops a great rustic crumb.

This bread isn’t really conducive to a work schedule due to its rise time the second day, but as an example for a weekend, you might make the biga when you get home from work on Friday (or after dinner) and then leave it sitting on the counter until the next morning, 12-14 hours, at which time you would mix it and fold it.  The bulk fermentation, rise, will take 2.5 to 4 hours during which you don’t need to be hovering over it.  Once it is risen, it’s shaped and allowed to proof for an hour or so, then baked.  By afternoon (or dinner) you have bread better than anything you’re going to buy that day.

The Formula



  1. Mix the biga the evening before you want to bake and leave it covered with plastic on the kitchen counter 12-14 hours (it’s about an 18 hour cycle to bake time so plan accordingly).
  2. The next morning, mix the dough (sans biga) by hand, then incorporate the biga using the pincer method.  You will be able to feel when the dough is “whole” as opposed to the new dough mixture plus biga…they will come together and the dough will suddenly feel more extensible rather than lumpy.  This may take a few minutes.  Take note of final mix temperature and cover with plastic.
  3. Over the next 75-90 minutes, make three folds, keeping the dough covered in between.
  4. The entire bulk ferment (post mixture) will depend on the final mix temp of the dough, and we’re seeking a tripling or near tripling of volume during the rise.  At 78°F it would take a total of 2.5-3 hours.  At 74F maybe 3.5 hours.  In winter time my kitchen is colder than that in the morning and I barely achieve 70°F, and thus I go for a full 4 hours, and maybe then some.  This is not a problem as slow fermentation is a good thing.
  5. Shape the dough into a boule and place it into a banneton or bowl lined with a flour dusted cloth (a linen type cloth, not a towel!) and allow to proof for ~1 hour.  At this point you might want to go ahead and preheat the oven to 475°F (with dutch oven or cloche already in, or with pan and wet towels if you’re making your steam this way) so you don’t forget….this dough proofs fast, and is sometimes ready to go before the hour is up.
  6. The bread is proofed when you can poke a floured finger 1/2″ or so into the dough and it springs back slowly over 5 or so seconds.  If it springs back fast it’s not ready, under-proofed.  If the indentation just stays there, it’s over-proofed (bake it immediately).
  7. Carefully invert the banneton or bowl and ease the dough onto a lighly floured surface then transfer immediately to the dutch oven or cloche, or pizza stone if you’re not using either.
  8. For dutch oven or cloche baking, bake for 30 minutes with the lid on, then an additional ~15 with it off.  Don’t be afraid to let the bread get really brown.  You might also observe whether your oven browns evenly when the top is off.  I have to rotate mine about halfway through the second part of the bake (and I let it go about 20 minutes with the lid off!).  If you’re on a stone, keep careful eye on the bread and remove when you achieve a nice dark brown, taking care to also rotate if needed.
  9. When finished baking, remove the boule and rest on a wire rack till completely cooled.

Some Notes

  1. This recipe assumes that you’re familiar with pincer method mixing and folding, and either cloche/dutch oven baking, or the use of wet towels on a baking pan to develop steam – hearth baking.  If not please take time to read the Secrets and Tools pages, and the 24 Hour White Bread recipe.
  2. For me this bread embodies the earthy flavors of bread I always wanted to be able to bake.  You might find that where the 24 Hour White Bread has a nearly familiar buttery flavor, this has something much darker, more bitter, ancient.  This is one of the finest I’ve learned.
  3. If you wish to scale the final loaf to a different weight, ie., a smaller or larger loaf, or multiple loaves, scale the Dough portion first and this will inform you of the weight of Biga that you will need. You will occasionally see recipe bakers percentages with the the pre-ferments and doughs listed together.  This is confusing.

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