Fermenting Dough

Like a fine wine, rum, bourbon or scotch whiskey, pizza dough is one of those things that just seem to get better when they’re allowed to age a little. There are times when aging, or allowing the dough to ferment, just isn’t an option — such as when you come into your shop one morning after a storm and you are greeted by the overpowering smell of a brewery. A quick trip to your cooler reveals the source of the smell as you discover your dough pushing out of the dough boxes and onto the floor. Your cooler was knocked out by an electrical surge during the storm, and now you’ve got to come up with some usable pizza dough before you open in just three hours, or you won’t be making any pizzas. This is the classical example where an emergency dough comes into play. This dough is based on your regular dough formula that you’re already familiar with (this is not the time to be tinkering with a dough formula).

So we just increase the water temperature by 15F, double the yeast level and mix the dough in your normal manner. After mixing, we take the dough directly to the bench for scaling and forming into balls, the dough balls are placed into dough boxes and lightly oiled as we normally would, but instead of taking the boxes of dough to the cooler (remember, it may not be working yet) we set the boxes aside to ferment at room temperature.

After the dough has fermented for 90 to 120-minutes, it will be ready to begin using. Be sure to dock the dough with your favorite dough docker, and keep a bubble popper near at hand. No, this dough won’t live up to the reputation of your time honored, secret family heirloom dough, but it will allow you to keep the doors open when you might not have otherwise had any dough to work with.

Emergency doughs typically have a useful life of about two hours after you begin using them, so you will need to be prepared to make more of them as necessary during the day. A pain in the neck? Sure, but it beats the alternative. Due to the lack of fermentation on our emergency dough, finished crusts will not have the same great flavor that our regular crusts have.

During the holding period in the cooler, the dough is being fermented (ever so slowly) and the gluten/flour proteins are being modified by the byproducts of yeast fermentation, namely carbon dioxide, alcohol and acids, as well as exposure to the enzymes contained in the yeast, which all work to degrade the proteins as well as develop the gluten. The effects on the gluten are what give the conditioned dough its great handling properties after a day or two in the cooler, and it is the overall degradation of the proteins that contribute to the development of the great flavor of our crust during the baking process.

Work that we have conducted over the years has shown that, for practical purposes, a well-formulated dough that is properly managed, can have a refrigerated shelf life of three days. This is not to say that the dough cannot be held under refrigeration for more than three days, but only that the dough will give consistent, quality performance for a three day period. For example, if we were to mix the dough today, it would typically be ready to use tomorrow (day 1) and on the following two days.

But what if we wanted to use the dough instead on days 3, 4, and 5 after mixing? We can accomplish this by lowering the finished dough temperature to the 65 to 70 F range. At this temperature, the dough will ferment at an even slower rate during storage in the cooler. However, the dough, in all probability, will not perform up to standard until the first day of use (which is day three … but it will then be good to use over the following two days). If you were to use the dough before day 3, you would find that the dough was excessively tight, exhibited undesirable “memory” characteristics, lacked flavor, and might even give you the opportunity to practice your bubble popping skills.

These results were based on the use of a typical, high gluten, pizza flour with a protein content of 13.2 to 13.7 percent. In many cases we have used a lower protein content flour, 12 to 12.7 percent protein content, and we find that the dough loses about one day in optimum shelf life. This means that we can mix the dough and use it quite successfully over the next two days, but things might become a little “iffy” by the third day.

Part of the dough management process that is difficult for most stores to control is the temperature of their cooler. Due to traffic in and out of the cooler, the temperature tends to rise over the course of the day, before dropping back to the set point again during the night when the store is closed. To help compensate for this, it is important to educate your employees of the importance of keeping the cooler door closed at all times, this includes when they enter to remove something. You might also want to consider installing plastic strip curtains on the inside of the cooler door opening. These have been proven to improve the operating efficiency of the cooler by as much as 15 percent, so I think they’re worth the low investment cost — plus they will go a long way in helping to keep your cooler at a more constant temperature over the course of the day.