Pizza night in this house never goes unnoticed. The event has been planned in advance. Most likely we have just been on a hunt for a batch of good flour or other interesting ingredients. The kitchen is populated by notebook pages scribbled with the last method I’ll be testing after much study and deliberation. The dough has been fermented for 12 to 24 hours. Will I achieve the elusive perfect crust?
When the new-born pizza is finally served, we have a technical discussion about the consistency of the crust, if it “sings” when cut, if the crumb is airy and melts in your mouth. As you know I can’t eat it, but whatever the outcome of the new experiment, my family will wolf it down and tell me all about it.
What am I looking for?
I want pizza made of high quality and healthy ingredients, well fermented, rapidly and thoroughly cooked, deliciously rich and at the same time light and digestible.
For a long time I thought I had to improve the method so I abandoned my mum’s quick and easy recipe which was made with supermarket flour and the standard 1-2 teaspoon/lb of yeast recommended by the industry. I discovered that a slow fermentation of a highly hydrated dough with a minimal amount of yeast (1/4 teaspoon or less) yields much better crust and flavor. I felt I was on the right path but my results were not reliable. Then, I had a revelation: the key it’s the flour, I did not know my flour.
It seems obvious: pizza is mostly made of flour, so its quality is fundamental to a perfect crust. However what are the parameters defining a good quality flour?
Flour is different in every country in terms of protein content and composition, wheat cultivars, grinding. And if this was not enough, there are different styles of pizza. In Italy, flour used for thin pizza baked in a woodfired oven is not the same as the one for thick pizza by the slice baked in an electric oven. The first cooks at 450°C (840°F) the second 250-330 °C (480-620°F).
Mass produced flours are very high in gluten – especially in North America – they have been stripped of all nutrients and fiber and tampered with all sorts of chemical additives. Quality of mass-produced flour refers to its technological capability to yield bread that reliably looks as expected regardless of taste and aroma. So, the food industry favours flours which will make good-looking breads with the shortest possible fermentation. This is obtained with a combination of high amounts of yeast and other – often artificial – fermentation improvers. How many times have you had pizza in a restaurant followed by an uncomfortable night? Undercooked and poorly leavened dough is notably difficult to digest. Gluten is like glue, my friends. Nobody cares if you can’t digest it, nor that it tastes like rubber, not that it might cause intolerance or allergy.
Here is when I started to see the light. I did not want something with technological capabilities if this meant processed, manipulated, nutrient-stripped and “enriched”. I wanted something natural and if possible, fresh.
That’s why I now use organic whole grain stone-ground flour which I source locally so it’s always quite fresh. Traditional stone grinding is the most natural way to make flour. It retains bran and germ and – because of the low operational temperatures – preserves the taste and nutritional qualities of the wheat. I prefer sifted whole grain flour, also named buratto or farina nr.1, because it rises better than fiber-heavy flours and has a fantastic nutty flavor.
Buratto flour and I are getting acquainted. She has a low level of gluten and a curious way to absorb liquids. She responds to yeast very enthusiastically, sometime too fast. She does not always do well in the looks department. She is however a star in the flavor department.
Your artisan flour will also have a different character, less boring and predictable than her mass-produced cousins. And definitely, it will be different from my flour, so you must experiment.
Do you like a challenge? Have you been trying to improve a recipe and don’t know how to go about it? Have you become frustrated because all your attempts somewhat fail or are unsatisfactory?
Rather than following a recipe, try to figure out what your ingredients can do. To obtain reliable results, you will need a digital scale and a bit of time, say a weekend.
The same experiment can be applied to any method or ingredient you wish to test. However, it is essential that you only vary one basic parameter at the time: for example the amount of water, or the yeast, or the mixing method or the fermentation conditions and so on.
Here below is what I have done to assess how much water my new flour can take to make a good pizza. More water means easier fermentation and a more airy crumb, so it’s quite important. I have used a “stretch and fold” mixing method and a “cold fermentation” but you can do the same experiment with your own mixing and fermentation methods.
Make 3 batches of dough as follows:
1. measure ingredients
- 100 g (3.5 oz) stone ground artisan flour each
- 0.5 g (1/8 teaspoon) dry yeast
- 2 teaspoon extra virgin olive oil
- 2 g (1/2 teaspoon) salt
Mix the 3 batches of dough in a stand mixer, one after the other and each one for exactly 3 minutes which is enough to incorporate everything. Add first the flour and yeast, then a water to flour ratio of respectively 60, 70 and 80% in weight. After the first minute of mixing add salt and olive oil. Make sure to label each dough based on the amount of water.
3. rest, stretch and fold
Place the dough on a clean surface, cover with a towel and let it rest for one hour. Then take each batch, transfer it onto a floured worktop and stretch it in a square shape. Don’t roll it with a pin, just stretch it and dimple it with your fingertips to obtain the desired shape. Fold it in 3 parts and then again in 3 as shown in the photos. You might need a spatula to fold the 80% hydration dough because it is very soft.
The stretch and fold technique is very well known among bread makers as it reinforces the gluten and encourages the formation of air pockets in the cooked bread. You can repeat the stretch and fold 3-4 times resting the dough in between for 20-30 minutes. This is especially beneficial in low gluten flours like the one I am using.
4. cold fermentation
Finally, transfer your dough into an oiled bowl, cover with clingfilm and transfer in the refrigerator for 18-24 hours.
Fermenting dough in the refrigerator not only improves the flavor, but gives you more freedom of working on it when you can. I find that artisan flours tend to rise much faster than supermarket flours. If your dough has risen too much, fold it again once and put it back in the fridge until you have time to use it. The dough in my test has been fermented 18 hours.
6. stretch and bake
Remove your pizza from the refrigerator and bring it to room temperature.
Bring your oven to maximum temperature. If you are using a home oven, your pizza must always cook at the highest possible temperature which most often than not will be inferior to the one of a professional oven. For my test, I have chosen not to use topping but only to sprinkle the dough with a pinch of herb salt and olive oil. I wanted to see the dough’s full potential undisturbed by the moisture of ingredients such as tomato or cheese.
Stretch each batch of leavened dough into a lightly oiled pan, cover and let it rise again until puffy. Mark each pie with toothpicks as shown below. Top as desired, drizzle with olive oil and bake until golden underneath. My oven typically cooks small pizza/focaccia in 8 minutes at 290 °C (550 °F) but I had to cook the 80% batch 2 minutes longer than the 60 and 70%.
If you look at the photo above, even though the 60% is definitely more dense, visual differences between the 3 batches of dough were more apparent before than after cooking. Flours with higher gluten content (see photo below) would definitely show larger air pockets at higher hydration.
However, the 60% dough did not rise well and was a bit too firm to handle. The 80% was definitely too wet and sticky, it did rise quite a lot but collapsed a bit while cooking. The proportion of 70% water to flour is clearly ideal for this flour and produced the best looking crumb and crispy crust. My daughter Tea, who is the professional pizza taster of the family, said that the 60 % was dense and a little tough and the 80% was light but not very flavorful. She pronounced the 70% as the only one with the desired balance of crispy and melt-in-the-mouth texture we love.
You can repeat this type of experiment with any parameter you wish to refine, for example to compare different flours or mixing/kneading methods. It’s very instructive and you get to eat a lot of pizza, what is there not to love?