2012 November: Pizza Crust 101

Flour, water, yeast and salt. In the world of baking, these are the foundational ingredients for making most yeast-raised baked goods. Given these basic ingredients, a good baker can produce a New York-style bagel, a French baguette, an Italian ciabatta, or an Indian naan.

The same is true for pizza dough. Supplement these basic four ingredients with some type of sweetener (commonly sugar) and a fat source (commonly a vegetable oil) and you have the six main ingredients for just about any pizza dough formula out there.

Pretty simple, right? Essentially, yes, but understanding the role of each ingredient helps put you in control of your dough.

Flour. The flour used for pizza dough is milled from wheat, which has a significant amount of gluten-forming proteins. These special proteins, in combination with the starches in the flour, are the building blocks for the structure of the dough. Once the flour is mixed with water, it forms a “visco-elastic” gluten structure that gives dough the ability to stretch, balanced with the ability to hold its shape. So, flour is the foundation on which the dough is built.

Water. After flour, water is the next-largest ingredient in a dough formula. Water not only hydrates the proteins and starches in the flour, allowing us to form a gluten structure, but it also dissolves the sugar, salt and yeast to put them into solution when forming the dough. The other critical role of water is dough-temperature control, which affects everything from how the dough rises, to its texture, to the color and flavor of the crust.

Oil. The fat source for the dough, oil acts as a lubricant and reduces some of the friction developed as the gluten structure is formed. Within the dough, oil has a tenderizing effect; it increases the extensibility of the dough and helps add stretch. For the final baked crust, this tenderizing will affect the bite or the chew of the crust. More oil means more tenderizing, and more tendering means a softer bite.

Salt and Sugar. The twins. They pretty much look and feel the same, but they play very different roles, so don’t mix them up! Salt pulls out and amplifies the complex fermentation flavors being developed in the dough, taking your crust from a bland piece of cardboard to fantastically flavored flat bread. While sugar is commonly known as a sweetener, in the case of pizza dough it is a food source for the yeast, which consumes the sugar and releases carbon dioxide gas. This process allows the dough to rise. Sugar also plays an important role in crust browning.

Yeast. In talking about sugar, we touched on the smallest ingredient in pizza dough—the yeast. Besides producing carbon dioxide, the yeast also produces alcohol, flavor esters and increased dough acidity, all of which contribute to the complex tastes and textures of the baked crust. The products of fermentation also develop dough that is easier to stretch and shape. All of these things—flavor, texture, rise, workability of the dough—are attributed to yeast. While there are different types of yeast available, instant yeast is recommended because it’s ready to use and the most foolproof.

There you have it. The basics on the six common ingredients used in pizza dough. None of them are in there by accident, and understanding their roles is one key step in putting you in control of your dough.

So, what exactly do you do with them?

To make quality dough, there are three key steps and they should be made in a consistent manner: scaling the ingredients, combining them in the correct order and developing the dough.

Scaling the ingredients. For a baker, scaling means weighing the ingredients (not to be confused with measuring). If I measure a cup of flour, I will get different weights; in fact, five different people measuring a cup of flour could result in weights ranging from 120 to 135 grams. It’s no wonder that some days a pizzeria’s dough can be great and other days not so great! Weighing instead of measuring the ingredients is one of the quickest ways to eliminate some of the variability.

Combining the ingredients. The order in which we add the ingredients to the bowl is another factor in assuring consistency. Put water in the bowl first to ensure a quicker, cleaner and more efficient mixing action. Next, place all dry ingredients—flour, sugar, salt and instant yeast—on top of the water. You don’t need to pre-mix or pre-blend unless you are using active dry yeast, which first should be rehydrated in water.

Once the dry ingredients are added, turn on the mixer for about one minute to hydrate before adding any oil. Remember, oil and water don’t mix; instead, they compete to hydrate the flour, which is why some days your dough may be sticky and other days it seems fine. After one minute of mixing, the flour and dry ingredients have pretty well picked up all of the available water, so it’s safe to pause the mixer and add the oil.

Develop the dough. Dough development in the mixer is all about forming gluten structure. Once hydrated by the water and influenced by the mechanical action of the dough hook, the gluten-forming proteins in the flour start to form a gluten network. Dough development comes down to finding the right balance between extensibility, or the stretch, and elasticity, the snap back.

Of course, knowing your ingredients and the steps to making dough is just part of the equation to making perfect pizza crust. To learn even more about the stages of gluten development, the importance of selecting the right flour for the type of crust you’d like to create, and the ideal dough temperature for perfect crust every time, pizza operators are encouraged to join us at Pizza Crust Boot Camp at Pizza Expo 2013, March 19-21.

Tim Huff is national technical services manager for the Bakeries & Foodservice Division at General Mills. He and Bill Weekley, a corporate baker at General Mills, will conduct a two-part Pizza Crust Boot Camp at Pizza Expo 2013 on Tuesday, March 19, with the sessions repeated on Wednesday, March 20. Part I covers technical aspects of the dough and Part II teaches practical applications.

For more details on International Pizza Expo 2013, visit www.pizzaexpo.com.

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