2012 August: Think Thin

Tips for making the perfect thin-crust pizza
Thin crust pizza is like the proverbial opinion ¬–– everyone has one, and theirs is the best. If you believe that your thin crust pizza is absolutely the best there is, take this opportunity to do something constructive like walk the dog, or empty your trash. Otherwise hang in there and we’ll discuss some things that might help you to improve the quality of your thin crust pizza. Or, if you’re new to the game, the attached dough formula will help to get you started towards making a respectable thin crust pizza.

Getting crisp
A high protein, high gluten content flour will provide the greatest potential for developing crispiness in the baked crust. In some cases, however, such as in a delivery or carryout operation where the pizza is liable to get steamed in the box or bag before it can be enjoyed, the same high protein content flour can result in undesired toughness in the finished crust. If you fit into this latter category, I suggest that you temper your protein content down to the 12- to 13-percent range. This will still provide the potential for great crispiness while giving a finished, delivered pizza.

The sugar content of the dough can also affect the crispiness of your pizza. Many believe that sugar contributes to crispiness. Actually, just the opposite is true. With higher sugar levels in the dough, you generally end up baking the pizza for a shorter time to prevent burning the crust than you would with a lower sugar level or without any sugar in the dough at all. This shorter baking time leads to the development of a thinner crispy portion of the crust, which soon becomes soft and soggy after the pizza is removed from the oven. When no or low sugar levels are used, the baking times are generally extended to achieve the desired crust browning. This longer baking time creates a thicker crispy portion of the crust, and overall, a lower moisture content throughout the crust, resulting in a longer lasting crispier texture. This is one of the reasons why commercial frozen pizzas made on a par-baked crust have such a crispy texture that is retained well after the pizza comes out of the oven.

Dough absorption
Water content (absorption) of the dough is another misunderstood aspect of producing a crispy crust. While many believe that adding less water to the dough results in a crispier crust, this is not always so. Instead, it is the textural properties of the dough that influence the crispiness of the crust. By increasing the dough absorption we can make the dough softer and easier to expand in the oven. By reducing the absorption, the dough becomes stiffer, and more difficult to expand during baking.

Dough that doesn’t expand during baking will have a dense, heavy internal (cell) structure, while a soft dough will expand easily by the application of heat. The result is an open, coarse internal cell structure with a light, airy texture. The dense internal structure of the low absorption dough will have much better heat transfer/conducting properties than the higher absorption dough with an open, airy structure. When the low absorption dough is baked, heat is more efficiently conducted away from the bottom of the pizza, up into the body of the dough where it dissipates through evaporative cooling at the top. The high absorption dough, on the other hand, has poor heat transfer properties, so the heat cannot be conducted away from the bottom of the crust. Hence, the temperature builds at the bottom of the crust, resulting in a thicker, crispier area on the bottom. These are the same principles at work that cause blisters or bubbles to turn darker than the rest of the crust.

Reduction
It is also possible to achieve these same characteristics without increasing the absorption of the dough. This is done through the addition of reducing agents or dough softeners, as they are sometimes called. These are ingredients consisting of dead yeast, l-cysteine, or deodorized vegetable powder, to name a few. These reducing agents work to relax the proteins in the flour, giving a softer, more relaxed and extensible dough feel, much like that which is achieved by increasing the dough absorption. During baking, the dough expands readily, creating that light, airy structure, conducive to creating a crispy texture.
Like dough absorption and reducing agents, fermentation also affects the creation of a crispy crust. During fermentation, the various enzymes present in the yeast, in combination with the by-products of yeast fermentation –– namely acids and alcohol –– work together to weaken or “reduce” the flour proteins causing them to both give up some of the water that they are holding and to become softer (weaker) and more extensible. The result is a dough that is more prone to expand during baking, once again creating that open, airy internal cell structure that is conducive to the creation of a crispy texture.

The actual baking of a thin crust pizza can either make or break it. There is a decided tendency today to short-bake our pizzas, sometimes it seems as if we will do just about anything to reduce the baking time of a pizza. Truth is, most of the time we do too much; we sacrifice the quality of our pizzas. It is important to allow a pizza sufficient time to fully bake and develop the desired crust and flavor characteristics. With most of the new, highly efficient ovens so common in use today, we are told time and again that we can significantly reduce the baking time. This is true, but in many instances not to the extent that is promoted. Sure, your pizza is brown on the outside, and crispy on the bottom, but does it stay that way? Why do you suppose so many people firmly believe that these new air-impingement ovens are not the equal of a deck oven when it comes to baking a quality pizza? I believe that overstating the reduction in bake time has probably done more harm to the reputation of these ovens than anything else. When set-up properly for a specific type of pizza, air-impingement ovens can provide essentially the same bake as a conventional deck oven. The key is to make sure the oven is properly set-up and sufficient time is allowed for the pizza to bake like it should.

What you actually put the pizza on in the oven can affect quality too. Remember, silver colored screens or disks will reflect heat away from your pizza, making it more difficult to bake on the bottom where we want most of the bake to occur. If you bake on disks, remember that the surface to air ratio (number, size and pattern of the holes) in the disk can be altered to meet specific baking or quality characteristic needs.

If you bake directly on the hearth (deck) of the oven you will be peeling your pizzas into the oven and some type of material must be used to allow the dough to release cleanly from the peel. Typically, flour (either regular pizza flour or semolina flour) or corn meal is used for this purpose. Which you use can make a difference in how the pizza bakes. For example, if you use flour, the dough will be in very close contact to the oven deck surface and you will have excellent and rapid heat transfer to the dough. This can shorten the baking time, because we normally bake a pizza in a deck oven to bottom crust color. When corn meal is used, the dough is actually held/suspended a little off of the deck surface, resulting in a slight insulating air gap between the dough and the deck. This air gap reduces the rate of heat transfer to the dough and effectively slows down the rate of baking slightly. The longer baking time, as discussed previously, can give a potentially, crispier crust. While on the topic of ovens, lately I have received a number of questions regarding oven deck material, namely steel or stone (composite). My preference is for the stone (composite) material due to its generally, greater heat sinking properties. I have seen too many steel decked ovens begin giving light colored, incorrectly baked pizzas when the crunch begins at 7:00 p.m. on a Saturday night. The stone decks seem to hold/maintain their heat much better during these times.

Lastly, what you do with the pizza when you take it out of the oven can have an influence of the quality of the pizza. If you put it on a stainless-steel table for cutting you might be forcing some of the escaping steam back into the bottom crust. It’s better to place it onto a screen for a minute to steam off before putting it on a tray for cutting and serving. Which brings me to my last point, how many of you put your pizza on a solid serving tray to take to the table? This can allow the pizza to get soggy while it’s at the customer’s table. I know first hand as I’ve had it happen to me many times. Give some thought to putting a sheet of ripple paper under that pizza to both allow the steam to escape and to help insulate it to maintain it’s temperature.

Like I said, this is not a road map to making a perfect thin crust pizza. It’s just a few tips that might help you achieve your perfect thin crust pizza.