Q: We get a lot of requests for a whole-wheat pizza, but all of our attempts to make one end up with dry, hard texture and poor flavor. What is the secret to making a good whole-wheat crust?
A: Like so many other things in life, once you know the secret, it really isn’t all that difficult. The thing to remember about whole-wheat flour is that it has two main components — white flour and bran/fiber. In rough numbers, 100 pounds of whole-wheat flour is comprised of 80 pounds of white flour and 20 pounds of bran. The white flour portion, for all practical purposes, is just like your regular white pizza flour, so it’s the bran portion that’s causing all the problems.
The white flour portion hydrates just like any other white flour, but the bran hydrates very slowly, and this is where the problem lies. When a whole-wheat dough is mixed in the normal manner (add water, flour and all other ingredients and begin mixing) the bran exhibits very little influence on the absorption properties of the dough while in the mixer, so the error is hydrating only the white flour portion and then, sometime later (about an hour) the bran portion begins to hydrate and absorb water. This is where things begin to get interesting. The dough now becomes very tight and dry feeling. It won’t press, can’t be tossed or slapped and, when passed through a sheeter, the rolls just shred the dough. Sound familiar? Pizzeria operators are not alone with this problem, bakers making whole-wheat breads and rolls face the same issues and address them in the same way that I’m going to propose.
The trick to making a decent whole-wheat dough and high-quality finished crust is getting enough water into the dough to satisfy the hydration needs of both the white flour portion and also the bran portion, but since the bran is so slow to hydrate, the resulting dough would be excessively soft and sticky after mixing, thus making any type of handling an impossibility. We could allow the dough to set in the mixing bowl for an hour to hydrate, but that poses two problems: one, it will tie up the mixing bowl and two, the dough will continue to ferment for that hour, thus making it more difficult to effectively cool after balling and boxing the dough and placing it in the cooler.
The best approach is to use what is called a “soaker.” A soaker, in this case, consists of nothing more than the whole-wheat flour and the total amount of dough water. A good absorption for most whole-wheat flour based doughs is 67 percent. Since the soaker doesn’t need to be mixed to any level of gluten development, it can be made in any suitably sized container. To make the soaker, first add the water, then add the whole-wheat flour and stir to thoroughly wet the flour, then set aside and allow the flour to hydrate for an hour or more.
For convenience, you can set the soaker ahead of time and store it in the cooler overnight for use on the following day. After hydration, the soaker will have the consistency of oatmeal. This is added to the mixing bowl along with the remainder of other dough ingredients and mixed just to the point of forming a well-defined dough ball in the mixer. You may need to experiment a little with the exact amount of water used in the soaker to get the correct finished dough consistency for your specific shop conditions and procedures.
When the dough is finished mixing, it should be slightly tacky. This is normal for a whole-wheat dough. The dough can then be taken to the bench for scaling and balling in the normal manner. It can then be used either as fresh dough or refrigerated for use on the following day. I’ve found that whole-wheat doughs do not keep very well much beyond about 36 hours in the cooler, so keep this in mind when making your inventory. To use the dough that has been managed through the cooler, remove a quantity of dough, keeping it covered to prevent drying, and allow it to temper at room temperature for one-and-a-half to two hours, then begin opening the dough balls up into pizza skins in your normal manner. This procedure will give you a finished crust during dine-in that is moderately crispy on the outside while soft and slightly chewy on the inside. My experience is that whole-wheat doughs lend themselves better to slightly thicker, thin crust styles as opposed to very thin crust styles, as well as thick and pan style crusts.
There are a few things to keep in mind when formulating whole-wheat flour dough:
Use butter to replace the usual olive oil or vegetable oil in the dough. This imparts a wonderfully rich flavor to the finished crust.
While not needed, if you opt to use sugar in your dough, try using either honey or non-diastatic (non-enzyme active) malt powder or syrup in the dough as this will provide for a very nice background flavor in the finished crust.
In addition to whole-wheat crusts, multi-grain crusts are also growing in popularity. Multi-grain doughs are made in a very similar manner to the whole-wheat dough in that they require the use of a soaker for best results. Typically, multi-grain doughs will contain 15- to 30-percent of a commercial multi-grain blend (available from any bakery ingredient supplier). The total dough absorption for a multi-grain dough will vary based on the type of multi-grain blend used, as well as the amount used. So some experimenting with total dough absorption may be needed to find what works best for you.
Here is a good way to get started. Lets assume you want to use 15 percent of a multi-grain blend (this is based on the weight of white flour you have in the dough). If you have 25 pounds of white flour, in this case you would be adding 15 percent, or 3.75 pounds of multi-grain mix. Place the multi-grain mix into a suitably sized container and add 75 percent of its weight in water (75 percent of 3.75 pounds in this case is 2.8 pounds). Blend the multi-grain mix into the water and set aside to hydrate as described for the whole-wheat soaker above. Then, add the hydrated multi-grain blend to the mixing bowl along with the white flour and remainder of dough ingredients. Add water to the dough at 45 percent of the weight of the white flour, mix the dough in your normal manner and assess the dough consistency after a few minutes of mixing (you will probably need to add a little additional water.)
Keep track of the amount of water used so you can add this to the amount of water initially added. When making future doughs you can now just add the full amount of water up front and mix the dough in your normal manner. As in the case with whole-wheat crusts, multi-grain crusts are enhanced by the addition of butter and honey or malt to the dough formulation. Unlike whole-wheat though, multi-grain doughs lend themselves well to making thin crust pizzas too. Pair these crusts up with vegetable and poultry toppings and you just might have what your health conscious customers are looking for in their next pizza.
Tom Lehmann is a director at the American Institute of Baking in Manhattan, Kansas.