Creative grains can make your dough stand out

Creative grains can make your dough stand out

Photo by Josh Keown

At 4:30 pm on August 15th, 2009, I made the best business decision I’d made since opening my pizzeria ten years earlier. I changed my dough.

I had been in business for more than nine years. That steamy day, I cruised up and down the undulating hills and steep ravines of Southeastern Ohio heading to the farm of my Amish friend, Joe Hirshberger, to get tomatoes. It wasn’t long before I saw Joe guiding four huge draft horses as they pulled what looked like a mediaeval cutting device through his field. He was followed by a non-Amish guy who was stacking up the bundles that Joe had cut.

“That job sucks,” I thought, and I stopped and got out of my air-conditioned comfort to greet them. Joe halted the horses, and flies buzzed around in a moving cloud of chaos. I now regretted getting out of my car, as the air felt like a sauna. A horsefly bit my neck.

“Hello John,” Joe said, stroking his long beard. Joe’s white collared shirt was soaked but still pulled tight around his neck. His black felt jacket, handmade pants and beard were coated with beige field debris. Joe had no shoes on, and as he walked around, I cringed at the thought of those sharp three-inch stalks stabbing my feet like punji sticks.

“Hi, my name is Brandon,” the dark haired guy said. His shirt was covered in sweat and field debris. “Who are you?’ he asked.

“I’m John, from Avalanche Pizza. I just stopped by to say hi to Joe,” I said, pointing at Joe. Then I realized that I had seen him in the paper. He was that back-to-nature, seed-and-wheat guy who was milling old world grains obtained locally.

“Are you interested in this spelt for your pizzas?” Brandon said.

“What’s spelt?” I asked. Brandon and Joe looked at each other quizzically then they both laughed. I thought they were going to fall down in shared hysterics. I then realized I was standing in a field of spelt.

That day, I got rid of my corporate whole wheat flour and started using only local spelt, which made fabulous pizza dough as well as great public relations. Since then, I’ve sold more than 10,000 local spelt pizzas as well as 4000 spelt breads.

Everyone who owns a pizzeria knows that separating yourself from the pack of other pizzerias is one of the few ways to find new customers, increase sales and keep your business fresh. When you have something that nobody else has, you’ve cornered your market. The only problem is finding out what new to introduce to get as much “bang for the buck” as possible. I calculated that small changes to my menu-mix would lead to a small, positive-monetary bounce-back. (Rule No.1: It’s ALL about the money!) I concentrated what I call “The Holy Trinity” of dough, sauce and cheese. Initiating a change to one of the three things on every one of my pizzas was bound to have a fabulous monetary effect on my sales without trying to re-invent the wheel, so I started with dough. Here are some of the grains I have found are new, innovative and work well:

  • Rye. I use this old grain for my pizzas and breads in a 30/70 mix with more of my 13-percent protein flour added because of the lack of gluten in rye. Because I am a rye fanatic, I have to pepper it with caraway seed. A rye pizza is great with pastrami, corn beef, roasted garlic, kielbasa, whole grain mustard, Swiss cheese, cheddar and even sauerkraut! u
  • Semolina. This is the middle of the durum wheat berry and in Southern Italy it is made into common Sicilian bread called pane rimacinato that is baked in wood-fired ovens. Semolina has higher protein content and turns a pizza crust into a cool rustic golden yellow. Great toppings for this crust are Calabrian chilies, olives, anchovy, chipotle infused onions, ricotta cheese or just bomb this crust with a cool agra dolce (sweet and sour) of figs, strawberries or apples paired with Romano, burrata and nuts.
  • Corn Meal or Polenta. My new love is infusing breads with hydrated corn meal or even cooked polenta. Just pour boiling water or very hot water on it in a bowl and leave it to hydrate overnight. Add it to your high gluten flour mix for creamy, porridge-like tasting pizza dough. When you cut the cornicione (crust), the specks of pure corn flavor can be seen clinging to the gluten strands in awesome defiance. This crust just begs for southwest toppings like salsa, black beans, jalepeño and roasted red peppers or cured ham and bacon. Adding a béchamel sauce or ricotta further enhances this great toasted corn-custard taste, and don’t forget cheeses like Manchego or Cotija for juxtaposed flavor brilliance!

Puddica for the Pizzeria
This bread is a Puglian specialty and is usually rolled into a flat, round focaccia topped with halved tomato, olive oil then baked in the oven. Over the years, I’ve made several variations of pizzas on this theme including adding fresh Calabrian chilies and cilantro to the dough or a killer cone-shaped pizza with ham, Gruyere, fresh spinach and leek. Yukon golds and Peruvian purple potatoes have the best gluten and add to the structure of the gluten net in this recipe, (the purples also lend a freaky-cool color to the pizza!)

Note: This recipe may seem brutal but it is formulated for use by a pizza guy in a pizzeria for speed and economy. You may take the safer route of boiling the potatoes if you wish.

2 pounds Yukon Gold Potatoes, whole
½ cup water
½ cup extra virgin olive oil
2o pounds high-protein flour
½ tablespoon yeast
½ tablespoon salt

Cut the potatoes thinly in a slicer and toss with a tablespoon of olive oil in a bowl. Place in your pizza oven for 8 to 9 minutes at 475 F until they are cooked. Let cool. Put the potatoes, the water and the olive oil in a container and mix with an immersion blender until they look like mashed potatoes. You may use a potato masher or blender if you wish.

Place the mashed potatoes, flour, yeast and salt into a bowl and mix until sticky. This may be stickier than your pizza dough but don’t worry, it will soak up the hydration with time. Brush with olive oil and place plastic wrap over the dough.

Place in a 74 F area for one hour to give the yeast a chance to feed.

After an hour, take the dough out of the bowl, place on a table and dust with flour. If it is still too sticky, re-knead with dusted flour. Cut four 19-20 ounce dough balls. Knead and ball up in your pizza fashion.

Either place the dough to ferment overnight or set aside for 45 minutes to use.

Form a pizza disc with your hands and top and bake as preferred.

John Gutekanst owns Avalanche Pizza in Athens, Ohio. He is speaker at International Pizza Expo and a member of the World Pizza Champions.