What is Biga and How does it Compare to Sourdough Starter?

Bread baking is an art that has been practiced for centuries. Over time, various techniques and ingredients have been developed to achieve the perfect loaf. Two such ingredients that have gained popularity among bakers are the Biga and the Sourdough Starter. While both are used as pre-ferments in bread baking, they have distinct characteristics and uses. In this article, we’ll delve into what a Biga is and how it compares to a Sourdough Starter.

Biga is a stiff (50% to 100% hydration) Italian pre-ferment using commercial yeast with no salt, yielding a mild, nutty bread flavor. In contrast, sourdough starter relies on wild yeast and bacteria as its leavening agent, producing strong sourish bread flavors. While the use of commercial yeast in Biga ensures consistent fermentation, Sourdough Starters offers diverse flavors and applications.

1. What is a Biga?

a. Origins of Biga

The term “Biga” is rooted in Italian baking traditions. While the exact origins are somewhat nebulous, it’s widely accepted that Biga was developed as a method to improve the texture and flavor of bread, ensuring a consistent result in the absence of modern, refined yeasts. Over time, as bread-making techniques evolved, Biga remained a staple, especially in Northern Italian bread recipes.

b. How to make Biga?

At its core, Biga is a straightforward mixture, but its simplicity is deceptive. Here’s a closer look at its components:

Typically, bakers use strong bread flour for Biga. This type of flour has a higher protein content, which aids in gluten development, ensuring the bread’s structure and chewiness.

The water activates the yeast and helps in the hydration of the flour. The ratio of water to flour in Biga can vary, but it’s generally on the stiffer side (ranging from 50% to 100% hydration) compared to other pre-ferments.

A small amount of commercial yeast about 0.25% the weight of flour is added to kickstart the fermentation process. The quantity is minimal, ensuring a slow fermentation, which is key to developing the desired flavors and characteristics.

Once the Biga mixture is prepared, it is left to ferment and it will be ready for baking when it reaches peak maturity after 12-16 hours. This slow fermentation process allows for a deeper flavor development as compared to straight dough method.

2. Comparative Analysis: Biga vs. Sourdough Starter

a. Origin: The Roots of Tradition


This pre-ferment has its roots firmly planted in Italian baking traditions. Historically, Italian bakers sought a method to enhance the texture and flavor of their bread, leading to the development of Biga. It’s especially prevalent in Northern Italian bread recipes, where the climate and local ingredients favored its use.

Sourdough Starter: 

The history of sourdough is as old as civilization itself. Ancient civilizations from Egypt to Greece have records of using naturally fermented dough to bake bread. Its widespread use can be attributed to the simplicity of its ingredients and the ambient yeast and bacteria present in different regions, giving rise to diverse sourdough flavors worldwide.

b. Consistency in Leavening (Commercial Yeast vs Wild Yeast)


The use of commercial yeast in Biga ensures a consistent and predictable fermentation process. This controlled fermentation is crucial for bakers who want a reliable outcome, especially in commercial settings.

Sourdough Starter: 

The beauty of sourdough lies in its unpredictability. Relying on wild yeast and bacteria present in the environment, each sourdough starter is a reflection of its surroundings. This natural yeast source results in a diverse range of flavors and characteristics, making each sourdough bread unique.

c. Flavor Profile: Mild vs. Tangy


The fermentation process of Biga yields a bread with a mild, nutty flavor. This subtle taste profile makes it a favorite for those who prefer their bread to complement, rather than overpower, other flavors in a meal.

Sourdough Starter: 

The lactic acid bacteria present in sourdough starters produce organic acids during fermentation, giving sourdough its characteristic tangy flavor. This distinct taste is cherished by many and is the hallmark of classic sourdough bread.

d. Bulk fermentation and Proofing Time


Given that Biga uses commercial yeast, the fermentation and rise times are typically shorter. Once the Biga is mixed into the final dough, the bulk fermentation can range from a few hours to overnight, depending on the recipe.

Sourdough Starter:

Sourdough fermentation is a slower process. The dough can require extended bulk fermentation times, often ranging from 6 to 24 hours. This longer fermentation contributes to the development of the deep flavors characteristic of sourdough bread.

e. Versatility in Use: Specialized vs. Diverse Applications


While Biga can be used in various bread recipes, it shines brightest in traditional Italian bread like Ciabatta. The specific characteristics it imparts—such as an open crumb and chewy texture—are highly sought after in these bread types.

Sourdough Starter: 

The versatility of sourdough starter is one of its standout features. From rustic loaves and baguettes to pancakes and waffles, the applications of sourdough starter are vast, making it a favorite among experimental bakers.

3. Considerations when Substituting Sourdough Starter with Poolish

a. Flavor Profile Differences:

Sourdough Starter: 

Sourdough starter is a mixture of flour, water, and naturally occurring wild yeast and lactic acid bacteria. Over time, as the starter ferments, it develops a tangy, sour flavor characteristic of sourdough bread. This unique flavor is a result of the lactic and acetic acids produced by the bacteria during fermentation.


Biga is an Italian pre-ferment that consists of flour, water, and a small amount of commercial yeast. It does not contain the lactic acid bacteria found in sourdough starters. As a result, breads made with biga will lack the tangy flavor of sourdough but will have a more pronounced yeast flavor and a slightly nutty taste.

When substituting sourdough starter with biga, expect a change in the flavor profile of the bread. If you’re aiming for a sourdough taste, you might be disappointed. However, if you’re open to a different, yet equally delicious flavor, biga can be a great choice.

b. Fermentation and Rising Times:

Sourdough Starter: 

The wild yeast in a sourdough starter is typically slower-acting than commercial yeast. This means that bread dough made with sourdough starter usually requires about double the fermentation and proofing times to achieve the desired rise.


Since biga uses commercial yeast, its fermentation rate is generally faster than that of sourdough starter. When substituting sourdough starter with biga, generally half the bulk fermentation and final proofing times to avoid over-proofing.

It’s essential to monitor the dough’s progress and make adjustments as needed, especially if you’re working with a new recipe or unfamiliar ingredients.

c. Hydration Levels and Dough Consistency:

Sourdough Starter:

Sourdough starters can vary in hydration levels, with some being quite liquid (100% hydration) and others being more like a thick paste (50-75% hydration). The hydration level of your starter can influence the overall hydration of your bread dough.


Biga is typically a stiff pre-ferment with a hydration level around 50-60%. When substituting sourdough starter with biga, you might need to adjust the amount of water in the recipe to achieve the desired dough consistency.

It’s crucial to consider the hydration levels of both the sourdough starter and the biga when making substitutions. You may need to add more or less water to the dough to get the right texture and consistency.


While Biga and Sourdough Starter serve similar roles as pre-ferments in bread-making, their distinct characteristics cater to different tastes and baking needs. Whether you’re drawn to the mild, nutty undertones of Biga or the tangy richness of sourdough, understanding these nuances ensures a more informed and enjoyable baking experience.


Hey there! I'm Sam, your go-to pal for all things sourdough. I've been baking and kneading for 10 fun-filled years, and I can't wait to share the joy of turning simple ingredients into heavenly sourdough bread with you. Grab your apron and let's dive into this amazing world of sourdough bread together on this blog.

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