I've watched a lot of people make hand-tossed pizzas, and I see that some people use plain flour and others use corn meal on their peels to help slide their pizzas into the oven. What is the best material to use as a peel release agent?
A good many things are used to help release the dough from the prep-peel to allow for event free transfer of the dressed dough skin. Some of the materials that are used are regular pizza flour, semolina flour, rye meal, corn meal and wheat bran. I've had experience in working with each of these and I can attest to the fact that they all work to some degree, but some definitely work better than others.
To begin, regular pizza flour can and does work well, but keep in mind that if there are any delays between placing the formed dough skin on the peel and peeling the dressed dough skin into the oven, you might discover one of its major faults: The dough can give off enough moisture to begin hydrating the flour, causing it to act more like glue between the dough and peel than a release agent. It is really interesting to see the lengths that people will go to get the dressed dough skin off of the peel. It can be a slow and tedious process, and it only works about a third of the time, so it's hardly worth the effort.
Semolina flour is somewhat coarser than regular pizza flour. As such, it is significantly more difficult (slower) to hydrate. This characteristic makes it a better candidate for use as a peel release. There is less of a tendency for the semolina flour to hydrate and get sticky/tacky, and the larger particle size actually provides for more of a ball bearing affect under the dough skin, making it easier to slide off of the peel. Due to the slower hydrating properties and larger particle size, more of the semolina flour comes off of the dough skin when it is peeled into the oven, thus reducing the incidence of burnt flour on the bottom of the crust.
Rye meal is another good peel release agent. Rye meal is essentially the same as "whole-wheat flour", except it is made with rye rather than wheat. The rye flour has a naturally higher water absorption capacity than wheat flour, and it has a larger particle size than regular pizza flour. Additionally, it also contains the bran (outer skin) portion of the rye berry to further slow the absorption properties. Combined, these properties make for a pretty good peel release agent, even when there is a delay in getting the dressed dough skin to the oven in a timely manner.
Corn meal is a long time favorite as a peel release agent. It has slow hydration properties that allow the dough skin to be dressed in advance of baking without experiencing problems with the dough sticking to the peel. Corn meal can be had in fine, medium or coarse granulation. Typically, the fine and medium granulations are used as a peel release agent. The coarse particle size just gets too hard and gritty during the baking process to work in this application. Due to uniformity in size and shape, corn meal acts as an excellent peel release agent. It is also unique in that a good deal of the corn meal that is attached to the bottom of the dough skin when it is peeled into the oven does not adhere as the crust is baked. Additionally, corn meal takes on a "crackly" eating texture when it is baked.
Wheat bran also works quite well as a peel release agent, but it can char and take on a very objectionable bitter flavor if it adheres to the crust for too long, so it’s best to shy away from this option.
The best choice, I have found, is to blend three parts fine-ground corn meal and one part semolina flour.
Just keep in mind that these peel release agents are just that. They are intended to facilitate the smooth release of the dough from the peel. Every effort should be made to minimize the amount of release material added to the peel since surplus material can remain with the finished pizza to affect the flavor of the finished crust. Also, residual release material must be regularly cleaned from the oven in order to maintain the flavor and baking properties of your pizzas. Excessive debris on the oven deck can act as an insulator between the oven deck surface and your pizzas, thus reducing the oven's baking efficiency. Besides, if you get too much debris built up in your deck oven, it could create a fire hazard inside of the oven.
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