The Fresh Loaf

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Ciabatta Experiment

alschmelz's picture

Ciabatta Experiment

I was curious to know how much a different preferment changed the final product of ciabatta bread, so I did a little experiment.  I wanted to see if using a poolish vs a biga changed anything (crust, crumb, texture, flavor, ect).  All variables remained constant (flour, hydration, salt content, rising periods, etc) except the preferments.  Each preferment contained the same amount of flour and yeast, and each were allowed to ferment for the same time periods.  As I hoped for, the final dough before baking looked and felt identical.  Even after baking they looked and smelled identical.  The crumbs, however, were slightly different!

The biga (above left) produced smaller holes, a slightly denser and spongier crumb, a softer crust, and a slightly nuttier flavor.  The poolish (above right) produced very large holes throughout the bread, a more tender crumb, a very crunchy crust, and a milder flavor.  My parents, siblings, and my neighbor with her 2 kids came over to help me test taste!  Overall the ciabatta made with the biga was the fan favorite.  Personally, I liked the poolish because I am very fond of the crunchier crust but they were both delicious either way!  I made a little olive oil dip containing olive oil, lemon juice, salt and pepper, and garlic along with some freshly shredded parmesan cheese for everyone to put on their slice (more like slices) if they wanted.  By the time everyone was finished, the olive oil and cheese were devoured and all that was left of the loaves were the ends!  Needless to say I think this was a success!

ElPanadero's picture

" All variables remained constant (flour, hydration, salt content, rising periods, etc"

Surely with the poolish there is more water in the mix. Therefore you have altered the overall hydration level and that would obviously result in a crumb with larger holes, no different to if you added that extra water to the main dough itself.

My limited understanding of starters/preferments suggests that both the poolish and biga will promote more acidity (due to the time they are left to ferment) and that acidity gives strength to the dough (it helps tighten the gluten) and provides additional flavour. In addition I believe that the hydration levels of starters/preferments affect the balance of the different acids involved. In the main they are lactic acids and acetic acids. Acetic provides the sharp vinegary taste whilst lactic is much milder.

In theory then your Biga ciabatta should taste milder than the poolish ciabatta which ought to have a slightly more tangy taste. The differences will be minimal though imo because the preferments were only fermenting a short time. When you apply this theory to sourdough starters which are maintained over many weeks, then the taste differences become much more observable.

Either way, both sets of ciabattas look great and I am minded now to make some myself !!

WoodenSpoon's picture

each batch to compensate for the different hydration preferments?


Behnam's picture

I think he has, he clearly states that:

All variables remained constant (flour, hydration, salt content, rising periods, etc) except the preferments.

so the overall hydration must have been the same for each batch.

Maverick's picture

The picture shows that the biga was 50% hydration and the poolish was 100% hydration. So the water of the final dough had to be adjusted to make the hydration of the two loaves the same. If not, then the there would be a huge difference in feel and the final biga loaf wouldn't look like it does.

alschmelz's picture


Maverick's picture

Can I ask how long the per-ferments were allowed to ferment? I have been playing with different pre-ferments in baguette recipes, so this post hits home with me. I am surprised the poolish wasn't more nutty. I thought the biga would be a little sweeter with a little less nutty flavor. But I haven't used a biga yet in my experiments. I just know that the poolish made a very nutty flavor with very little sweetness in my baguettes. Of course it was fermenting for at least 12 hours.

I wonder if the biga reached full gluten strength faster and therefore was overmixed compared to the poolish even though the amount of actual time mixed was the same (I assume they were). Or was this all done by hand?

They look delicious and I can see why you preferred the poolish one in terms of texture.

Unlike the comments above, I think it seems clear that you added more water to the final dough for the biga in order to make the two loaves the same hydration. After all you didn't say the water was the same, just the hydration.

Thanks for sharing... now I am craving ciabatta.

alschmelz's picture

They were fermenting for 14 hours.  I was surprised with the results myself!  I also expected the poolish to be nuttier but then I read something online that said a biga gives a nuttier flavor and a poolish gives a sweeter flavor.

All of my work was done by hand but I very well could have over mixed the biga!

sandydog's picture

Great experiment.

Both types of ciabatta look good to me - You have obviously got a high skill factor - The taste is subjective!

I have been baking a lot of ciabatta, on a commercial basis, recently and find that;

I agree with Maverick that the poolish version would be expected to have a more nutty taste - mine does.

I use a slightly higher proportion of prefermented flour in the poolish version which would help augment this (A possible extra experiment for you if you so desire) Additionally I find the poolish gives a more extensible dough/loaf with larger holes - Of course larger holes mean larger loaves, if all other ingredients are the same, perhaps the difference was too small for you to have noticed.

I also find that the biga version requires about 30 seconds more mixing, on second speed, than the poolish version to achieve a coherent dough.

Well baked experiment, I look forward to hearing about what you do next.

Happy baking,



alschmelz's picture

Yes the poolish itself was more hydrated than the biga but the final hydrations of each sets of dough were the same.  

In regards to the acidity... yes a preferment provides additional acidity into the dough.  A biga, however, is more acidic than a poolish leading to a more pronounced flavor.  Because a poolish is more hydrated there is more water to buffer the pH, making it less acidic.  Also with more oxygen available to the yeast (provided by the water) they are able to carry out aerobic metabolism, which produced more alcohol rather than acid.  Each preferment was allowed to ferment for about 14 hours at a cool temperature to allow for a better flavor development.  If the poolish was allowed to ferment for longer and use up more of that oxygen, then it would become more acidic and provide more flavor into my final dough.

In the big picture, though, the flavor differences were very subtle.

mwilson's picture

I used to obsessively make ciabatta before I was into panettone.

A general rule for pre-ferments;

Wet pre-ferments, eg. a poolish is used to add extensibility.

Firm pre-ferments are used to add strength.

So a poolish is suited to dough's that are lower hydrated such as a sandwhich loaf and dough's that require extending such a baguette.

A Biga was traditionally always firm. As well as improving flavour its main purpose was to reinforce / strengthen doughs made with the very weak flours native to Italy and Europe. But nowadays stronger flour's are easily available from the USA and Canada and other places.

Consequently the use of Biga has strayed slightly from its original purpose. But typical characteristics would be a 1% yeast (fresh) ratio and a long cool room temp rise.

Use of a biga is ideally suited to dough's that are enriched or highly hydrated like a ciabatta.

A standard formula for a biga would be:

100% flour
 45% water
 1% fresh yeast

16-18 hours at 16-18C.


How did you make your Biga? Percentage of yeast, time and temperature? A poolish would typicaly use far less yeast.

Maverick's picture

I totally forgot that the original reason for using a biga was to add strength to the regionally weaker flours. So the results make sense. I am still curious about the flavor and will have to do this experiment sometime. I am currently trying different pre-ferments for baguettes and was planning on using a 65% hydration pre-ferment (more what I would call a sponge), but maybe I will push the hydration down to 50% (or maybe that will be next time). Biga is really just a generic term for "pre-ferment" in Italy. Outside of Italy I think it tends to be more in the 50-60% range. BBA has it at 66.7% for the formulas. Hamelman uses 60% in his.

alschmelz's picture

I was wanting to try different preferments for baguettes as well.  There are just so many different techniques, ferments, flours, ect that I wish I had a bigger oven!!! And more free time outside of work to bake!

Maverick's picture

I have been trying to make 2 batches a week. I had been doing 1 bread a week and almost always it was a sourdough. Since I bought a large bag of flour that I really like, I have been interested in how flavor can change with the same simple ingredients outside of the sourdough world. Ciabatta is on my list and your pictures make me want to take the time even more.

As for baguettes, or me the poolish was the most nutty and not sweet enough. Actually the first time I did a poolish baguette I didn't have time to let the poolish ferment all the way because my house was too cold and 12 hours wasn't enough. So it was less nutty and more sweet. The next time it was done correctly and the poolish smelled totally different. Definitely nutty. I just made the Bouabsa baguette and the flavor is good even though I had some timing issues that made it so I didn't heat the stone long enough at the high temperature. Since the volume is dependent on the oven spring, this was a failure in terms of the desired end product. But it was still tasty enough to be enjoyed by all.

I was watching a video where someone was making a bunch of ciabatta and made it look so easy. I haven't tried to make one for years. It was the first non-pan loaf I tried and did not know enough to get it right. It was still pretty tasty though since I believe it came from BBA. Now I have more of the right equipment and should give it a go. Of course, I am now trying different ways of making pain de mie along with the baguettes so that might get in the way.