From time to time, I get questions from operators wanting to know what the secret is to making a decent thin-crust or thick-crust pizza. To answer this question, I’d like to share some tips for making both thin- and thick-crust pizzas.
Thick-crust pizzas always seem to be a bit problematic for those who haven’t made them before. The key to making a great thick crust pizza is to increase the dough scaling weight by 40 to 50 percent over that which you would use for the same size thin crust (and then incorporate plenty of fermentation into the dough, using only a medium strong flour rather than a typical, high protein pizza flour). The flour should have between 11.7- and 12.8-percent protein content. This would be better described as a bread flour rather than a typical pizza flour. The reason for using lower protein content flour is to provide the finished crust with a more tender eating characteristic, whereas a higher protein content pizza flour would tend to promote, if not be down-right responsible for, a tough, chewy eating characteristic in the finished crust.
Fermentation also plays a crucial role in making a great thick crust in that it helps to promote an open, porous internal crumb structure, which really helps the crust to bake out well while providing a great flavor to the crust at the same time. I’ve always found it amusing when a pizzeria has to include some type of dipping sauce with their thick crust pizzas so the customers can dip the edge of the crust to give it some flavor as opposed to just leaving it on the plate to go into the trash. When the dough is given good, solid fermentation –– 24-hours or more in the cooler –– the finished crust will develop a wonderful flavor along with a lighter eating characteristic, resulting in your customers devouring every last bite.
Additionally, fermentation also helps in the forming of the dough in the pan as it reduces or eliminates dough memory, or snap-back, while fitting the dough to the pan. The type of fat that you use in the pan also plays an important part in making a quality thick-crust pizza. If you use oil in the pan, your pizzas will achieve a more crispy characteristic than if you use shortening. But, be forewarned that the dough will slide around in the pan like a hockey puck on ice while you’re trying to press the dough into the pan. Before you give up and go back to making thin crusts again, just use the old trick of forming the dough to fit the pan outside of the pan, then placing the fully shaped dough piece into the oiled pan.
The only down side to using oil in the pan is that it imparts an oily texture to the finished crust. If you want a dry texture, no, you don’t use less oil — you just substitute the oil with shortening like Crisco. Wipe or brush the shortening into the pan and place a fully fermented dough ball into the pan. Press the dough ball out to fit the pan. This will be quite easy as the dough will adhere to the shortening like paper sticking to contact cement. We’re now ready to allow the dough to proof/rise in the pan. To get the actual thickness of the crust, now you’re going to need to set the panned dough aside in a warm place to rise for anywhere from 45 to 75 minutes. This “proofing” of the dough will provide the characteristic thickness to the dough that distinguishes it apart from a thin crust. For a little added appeal, my own personal preference is to add a sprinkling of shredded Parmesan cheese to the edge of the dough just before placing the pizza into the oven.
Making a great thin crust takes a few tricks of the trade, too. Flour selection is typically a high protein pizza flour and, again, fermentation is important as it helps to promote crispiness, flavor and ease of shaping the dough. Correct fermentation for most thin-crust pizza doughs will probably be in the 18- to 24-hour range, in the cooler. The amount of water adder to the dough (dough absorption) is an important factor in making a crispy crust as well as avoiding the development of a gum-line just beneath the sauce layer on the finished pizza. You want to have sufficient water in the dough to provide good handling and stretching properties while forming the dough and to allow it to rise a little during the first minute or so of baking. This provides both lightness and crispiness to the finished crust.
The method used to shape the dough will also influence the finished crust characteristics. For example, the use of a sheeter/dough roller to fully shape some types of dough can degas the dough to the extent that it has all of the unique properties of a piece of cardboard — and baking doesn’t do much to improve it. With cracker type doughs, sheeting is probably the best way to form the dough. Plus, it helps to provide the unique bubbly, crackery characteristics in the finished crust. When making a thin, crispy type of crust, it’s best to sheet the dough out to only about two-thirds of the finished diameter. Then finish opening the dough by hand. This helps to retain much of the gas from fermentation within the dough, which provides the desired lightness and crispy texture. Pressing the dough, as well as hand forming, retains most of the gas within the dough. So, once shaped, the dough is ready for dressing and baking.
The oven will also have a great impact upon the quality and eating characteristics of any pizza dough. Space does not allow me to go into baking of both thin and thick crust pizza in all of the different types of ovens we have available to us, so I will limit my discussion to just fast and slow baking. Fast baking thin crust pizzas at very high temperatures, with baking times of 2 to 3 minutes, will result in a crust that is initially crispy when first removed from the oven — but it quickly loses the crispiness and becomes soft and chewy. Slow baking the same pizza at a lower temperature for closer to 5 minutes, or a little more, will result in crispy crust that better retains its crispiness for a longer time. When it comes to baking thick crust pizzas, due to the thickness of the dough, there is only one way to bake it — and that is until it’s done throughout. A properly baked thick crust will be firm enough to support the weight of the toppings without sagging or collapsing, and it will have a soft, dry texture in the center while being crispy at the outer edges and across the bottom.
Tom Lehmann is a director at the American Institute of Baking in Manhattan, Kansas.