The key to better dough is to understand what you’re working with
Truly memorable dough that produces a crust with just the right amount of crunch and an open, complex crumb structure is the Holy Grail for most pizza makers. I rarely meet a pizzaiolo who doesn’t think they make the best dough in the world. I also rarely meet a pizzaiolo who isn’t constantly trying to improve on what they are doing. Dough perfection is often seen as a complex and elusive subject. Understanding the components, variables and techniques of modern baking will demystify the process and put you on the path to creating a signature crust that will set you apart from the competition.
Exceptional dough begins and ends with the choice of ingredients. All pizza dough starts with but four ingredients: flour, water, salt and yeast. With such basic ingredients there is nowhere to hide. Using the very best products in your dough and understanding the contribution that each one makes to the finished pie will probably be the best investment you can make in your pizzeria.
Let’s start with flour. It’s critical that you select the right flour for your desired result. In the old days, the choices were limited by geography. Many regional styles of pizza were developed based on availability. Today, pizza makers can source flour from all over the world. So step one is to decide what your ideal crust will be and choose the right flour for the job.
In the U.S., flour is generally defined by protein or gluten content, two terms that for our purposes are used interchangeably. For pizza we see protein ranging from 12.5 percent to 14.5 percent. Most artisanal pizza makers are now using extended fermentation times, so higher protein flours will hold up better. All-purpose flour tops out at about 12 percent protein, so it will not give the best result for pizza. For lighter, airy pan pizzas most pizza makers will select a flour designated as “bread flour” (which has a protein level of around 12.5 percent).
For a classic New York-style pie you may want to go as high as 14.5 percent. In my pizzerias I use a three- to five-day fermentation process, so my flour selection must be on the higher end of the protein spectrum.
Of course, protein level is not the only consideration. Among other choices you must decide on bleached or unbleached flour. Some manufacturers will offer their more popular products in both versions. For some pizza makers the choice is aesthetic, for others it is a health perception. Keep in mind that dough made with bleached flour will tend to have a softer texture and more volume.
Many pizza makers — especially on the East Coast — prefer bromated flour because it results in a higher rise. On the West Coast bromated flour is not as readily available. Studies have hinted that potassium bromate can cause cancer at higher concentration. While bromated flour is not prohibited in the U.S., in California, baked goods that use bromated flour must be labeled, so it is generally avoided.
When properly baked, bromate will cook off and present no risk to guests. Still, clearly the trend is moving away from this type of flour and it is largely banned in many other countries. If you want to avoid potassium bromate but achieve similar results, I suggest you look for a flour with ascorbic acid and simply increase your mix time by around 25 percent.
Many flour types used in the American pizza industry contain malted barley. This will provide an accessible sugar as food for your yeast and will also promote browning. If you choose a flour that contains malted barley you may not need to add sugar. This type of flour will produce a crust that can be cooked at a lower temperature (typically between 525 and 600 F). Generally speaking, sugar or malt in your dough formula is not recommended or necessary for high-heat baking such as in a wood-burning oven.
Water is the next consideration. Much has been made of what I call the “NY Water Myth.” Here is a simple rule I’d like you to remember: If your water tastes good when you drink it, it will taste good when you eat it. There is no reason to use bottled water if your tap water or filtered water has good flavor and moderate mineral content. Hard water will produce tough dough. If your tap water is high in chlorine, don’t worry. It will bake off in the oven.
Now that that is out of the way, let’s move on to salt. I avoid iodized salt because it has a metallic flavor. My choice is kosher salt, but most quality-focused pizza makers prefer fine-grained sea salt. Either one works. Always measure salt by weight as opposed to volume. Volume is an inaccurate measurement and baking is a science. You will find that a cup of one type of salt will have a different weight than another type. Therefore, volumetric measurements will often yield a completely different flavor and texture in your finished dough. This is because different types of salt may have different density. Kosher salt, for example, is hollow. Therefore, a cup of it weighs considerably less than a cup of table salt.
Typical salt content in a pizza dough recipe will be between 1½ and 2½ percent of total flour weight. Occasionally you will see dough with as much as three-percent salt, especially on dough with higher hydration (70-percent water or more). In addition to flavor, salt will toughen dough (which can reduce oven spring and crispiness). Remember that changing salt content usually requires a change in yeast amount because salt inhibits yeast.
The final primary ingredient is yeast. The three most common forms of leavening for pizza are fresh yeast, active yeast and instant yeast. Let’s put the last one to rest. I never recommend instant yeast. Our goal is to maximize flavor development. You wouldn’t drink instant wine, so let’s not serve our guests instant dough.
Some bread bakers (and of course manufacturers) of certain types of yeast profess that all yeast is basically the same. I disagree. It may be that I am simply a creature of habit, but here is my thinking: beer brewing calls for different types of yeast for different types of beer. Why would baking be any different? It’s not accidental that in the old days many brewing schools in the U.S. also taught baking.
I use fresh yeast of a type that is suitable for lager beer because lager is cold-fermented just like my pizza dough. I treat yeast as a flavor component, not just an agent for producing CO2. If all yeast tasted the same, a sourdough from San Francisco would taste the same as a sourdough from Anchorage (and clearly they don’t).
The other acceptable alternative is active dry yeast. It’s predictable, easy to use and has a long shelf life. For many pizza makers this is the right choice. Dry yeast can be added to flour. It does not need to be diluted in water. Pizza dough usually calls for about .5 percent fresh yeast. Dry yeast is more concentrated, so formulas using dry yeast must reduce yeast amount by about one-third.
Regardless of which yeast you choose, less yeast and longer fermentation is the trend in both pizza and bread baking. Remember that excessive heat or salt will kill yeast, so keep your water temperature in the range of 75 F to 80 F and never combine salt and yeast directly.
John Arena owns Metro Pizza in Las Vegas.