Flour Protein

Flour protein is probably the most misunderstood thing about pizza making. For many of us our definition of flour is “pizza flour.” The prevailing thinking is that ‘If I’m making pizza, I need pizza flour to make it with.’ Well, not exactly.

You see, pizza flour came about in the mid to late ’50s when many pizzerias were making their dough by mixing it and placing it into a large container where it was allowed to ferment for several hours before and during use. As one might imagine, there were days when sales were slow and the dough was allowed to age to a significant degree before it was used. This fermentation causes significant weakening of the dough. If allowed to progress far enough it results in collapsed (or flat) pizza crusts.

It didn’t take long for both operators and flour suppliers to realize that flour with high protein content was better able to withstand the rigors of uncontrolled fermentation than flour with a lower protein content, such as that for making breads and buns. Hence, it became known that a very strong flour with a lot of protein is needed to make pizza dough.

Typically, pizza flour maxed out at about 14 percent protein content. As time progressed and we got better at making pizzas, we began to manage our doughs differently. Now, we manage it for shelf life. Out of this grew the present-day method of dough management, where the dough is formed into balls soon after mixing and taken to the cooler. The dough balls are efficiently cooled and can be kept under refrigeration for up to three days or more with this process. Gone are the days when we had to mix another dough in the middle of the day.

How has all of this changed our flour? For one, we no longer allow the dough to continue fermenting at an ever-faster pace until we use it. Instead, we control the fermentation rate through refrigeration of the dough. As a result, the process is not nearly so abusive on the dough/flour. Lower protein content flour is, in many cases, more appropriate for use in making pizza dough than the old traditional high protein pizza flour.

If you have ever found your dough exhibiting excessive memory/snap-back during forming, or almost impossible to hand form, this might be an indication that you are using flour with excessive protein content. Using these newer dough management practices, I have very successfully used strong bread-type flour for making all but a New York style pizza dough/crust. The reason for using the high protein, traditional pizza flour for the New York style crust is that it provides the characteristic tough, chewy eating properties common to New York style pizza crust. For just about every other type of crust, though, a strong bread type flour with 12- to 13-percent protein content works great. The doughs hold up well in the cooler for an extended period of time and possess excellent handling and forming properties. To booth, the finished crust has the potential to achieve excellent crispy characteristics. (As a side benefit, you may find that the lower protein content flour sells for significantly less than the super high protein content “pizza flours.” This should save you a few dollars in the long run.)

If you are making thick or pan-style pizza, you may find that your finished pizzas have a much more desirable, tender (not tough and chewy) eating characteristic when made with a typical bread flour having a protein content in the 11 to 11.8 percent range. While protein content is at least partially responsible for the crispiness of the finished crust, flour with 11 percent protein can give a finished pizza crust with a remarkably crispy characteristic. So it is not ideal to use a high-protein flour in hopes of achieving a crispy characteristic in the finished crust. That elusive crispiness might be more easily had through careful attention to the dough forming and baking process.

All flour proteins are not created equal. It is possible that in some cases, you can have a high protein content flour that acts more like that of a low protein content flour, and visa-versa. This is due to the issue of protein content as opposed to protein quality. It is completely within reason to have two different flours that have the same or similar protein levels end up performing very differently when making dough. This is a common problem, but one which flour millers/suppliers are well aware of and really go to great lengths to work out.
If you feel like you need to take a step down in protein content but don’t want to change your flour, an alternative is to add a reducing agent to help relax the dough. This is effective, but it also increases your dough cost. By contrast, a reduction in your flour’s protein level can actually decrease your overall dough cost.

When looking to purchase a lower or different protein content flour, you might need to go back to your flour milling company rather than the sales rep that sold you the flour. I’ve found in many cases that the sales people are just merchants in food and food ingredients, and they really don’t know the specifics of their ingredients – especially when it comes to things like protein content in flour or solids content in tomato products. A quick call to your friendly flour miller should give you the information you need on protein content to make an intelligent purchasing decision.