Working With Lower Protein Content Flour

Q: Our regular high gluten flour has gone through the roof cost wise. I’ve got an opportunity to buy some lower protein content flour at a much cheaper price. What do I need to do to allow me to use this lower protein flour?

A: I’ve been asked this question numerous times, and my stock answer is that it depends upon the amount of protein your present flour has and the protein content of the flour. We won’t even go into how you manage the dough as this could become a sizeable chapter in my book; instead, let’s look at the basic changes needed to effectively utilize a lower protein content flour in making quality pizzas.

Let’s assume that you’re using a high gluten flour with a protein content of about 13 percent. You want to be able to utilize a new flour, such as a bread type flour with only 11 percent protein content. You should be able to keep your dough formulation just the same as it is. After mixing the dough, take it directly to the bench for scaling and forming into balls, then place the dough balls into dough boxes or other suitable containers and get them into the cooler as quickly as possible. Do not allow the dough to set out of the cooler for any longer than absolutely necessary after mixing. Make sure to cross stack the dough boxes for at least two hours in the cooler, then down stack and nest the boxes.

Once you have the dough boxes nested in the cooler, don’t try to keep the dough for more than two days. The lower protein content of this flour will not tolerate three days of storage in the cooler nearly as well as did your regular high protein flour. To use the dough, pull about a three hour supply from the cooler about 90 minutes before you intend to use them.

As long as you don’t do any exhibition tossing/spinning of the dough you should not see too much of a difference in the way the dough handles, but if you do feel that the dough handles a little softer than you like, you might need to reduce the total dough absorption by 2 or 3 percent of the flour weight to give the dough something closer to your “normal” dough handling properties.

With regard to finished pizza quality characteristics, you might lose a little crispness, but much of this can be restored by adjustments in the baking time and temperature. By baking the pizza slightly longer, at a slightly lower temperature, much of the crispness can be regained.

Another approach is to consider the addition of vital wheat gluten (VWG) to the dough formula made with the lower protein content flour. Vital wheat gluten is nothing more than the concentrated gluten that is normally contained in the flour that we use every day. The rule to follow for increasing the protein content of flour with vital wheat gluten is as follows:

1) Decide how much you want to increase the protein content.

2) Divide this number by 0.60; this will give you the percent of vital wheat gluten (VWG) to be added to achieve the desired protein contribution.

3) For every 1 percent of VWG added, increase the water absorption by 1 percent. (Add additional water to the dough in an amount equal to the amount of VWG added)

Add the VWG into the dough by adding it directly to the dry flour and blending it in for a couple of seconds so it is dispersed in the flour.

If we are replacing a typical, high gluten flour with something like 13 percent protein content with a bread flour containing about 11 percent protein content, the difference in protein content that will be contributed by the VWG is 2 percent. If we divide this by 0.60, we will need to add 3.33 percent VWG based on the flour weight, so if we are using 50 pounds of flour, we would need to add 1.665 pounds (1 pound and 10.64 ounces) of VWG. Then, we would add an equal weight of water to the dough formula. This will give us a finished dough with essentially the same total protein content as we were previously using, and we could use this dough in the very same manner, too. The only down side to the use of VWG is its cost. It is extracted from flour, so its cost is tied to that of flour. But for some operators, there might be a cost or performance advantage to using a lower cost flour in combination with VWG to produce usable flour for their specific application.

Q: Is there any “magical” ingredient that we can add to a lower cost flour to make it perform the same as our regular flour, which is now just about priced out of our reach?

A: By lower cost, I an assuming that you mean a lower protein content flour, such as a bread or H&R type flour. The only thing that you can add to any of these flours to give them the same performance characteristics as a high protein/gluten flour is vital wheat gluten. There are additive ingredients, referred to as dough strengtheners, that can be added to doughs to help strengthen them, but not nearly to the extent that they would need to be strengthened in a pizza application, so the bottom line answer is no. Keep in mind though, that if the present day flour situation ever deteriorates to the point where we have to accept whatever flour is supplied to us, or not have any flour to work with at all, the best course of action is still to accept the flour. No, it won’t make the best pizza in the city, but it will keep the lights on and the door open. How would you use such a flour?

Here are some basic insights into what might be required to use such a flour:

1) Reduce the dough absorption to about 50 percent or slightly less, based on the total flour weight in your dough.

2) Mix the dough just until it begins to take on a smooth appearance, no more.

3) Adjust the temperature of the water that you add to the dough to provide a finished dough temperature in the 70 to 75 F range.

4) Immediately after mixing, scale the dough and form it into balls and get it boxed up and into the cooler as quickly as possible.

5) Be sure to wipe the dough balls with a little oil and make sure they’re cross stacked in the cooler for at least 2-hours before down stacking and nesting the boxes.

6) Try to make just enough dough to use entirely on the following day, keeping in mind that the dough will probably still show some promise for use on the second day (but don’t push your luck, it may not make it to three days).

7) In many cases you can improve the height/thickness of the crust by decreasing the baking temperature by about 25 F and increasing the baking time to achieve the targeted, finished crust color and characteristics.

Remember, they were making great pizzas in Italy long before we had high protein flours available to us.