February 1, 2018 |

Knead to Know: Be a Sponge

By Tom Lehmann

The Dough Doctor answers your questions on the sponge process and mixing times

Q: What is the sponge process and how does it fit into making pizza?

A: In my last article I mentioned using the sponge and dough process in making frozen pizza dough for use in a pizza trailer, truck or any other remote location such as a kiosk/express store. The sponge and dough process allows us to ferment the dough for flavor development while still having a dense dough for efficient freezing characteristics.

Tom Lehmann
Pizza Today Resident Dough Expert

This is a process commonly used by commercial bread and bun bakers to achieve the characteristics of a well-fermented dough while still maintaining excellent handling properties. In the sponge and dough process a portion (typically 50 to 80 percent) of the flour is fermented for three to five hours to condition the dough for improved handling (as well as improved finished bread flavor). Over the years I’ve found that using 80 percent of the total dough flour in the sponge provides the best results in pizza production. To make the sponge we will use 80 percent of the total flour (by weight) and mix it with all of the yeast and 60 percent of the total water.

I like to target the sponge for a finished temperature of 75 to 80 F, so the temperature of the water used in making the sponge should be 5 F less than the desired finished temperature. Put the water in the mixing bowl first and then add the flour and yeast. Mix just until the sponge comes together as a cohesive mass. More mixing is not needed or desired. Transfer the sponge to a suitably sized, lightly oiled container and set aside to ferment at room temperature for the time you have opted for. Remember that longer fermentation times will generally produce a better finished pizza. Cover the dough using a sheet of plastic to prevent drying and check it occasionally. If it looks like it might overflow the container, just knock the sponge dough as necessary.

To make the dough, place the remainder of the water in the mixing bowl (use ice water for best results) as well as the remainder of the flour. Add the rest of the dough ingredients on top of the flour and mix at low speed for a minute or so. The time is not critical as we are just trying to incorporate the ingredients. Once the ingredients are incorporated, add the fermented sponge in one piece or cut into smaller pieces and mix at low speed for two minutes. Then go to the highest speed your mixer will mix the dough at and continue mixing just until it takes on a smooth appearance.

For many of us this is the same appearance that we are looking for with a normal pizza dough when properly developed. Immediately after mixing, transfer the dough to the bench for scaling and balling, place the dough balls onto a lightly oiled sheet pan, lightly oil the top of each dough ball and take to the freezer. The dough balls will require about three to four hours in the freezer to freeze solidly. Once frozen, the dough balls can be packaged into corrugated boxes with a food-contact-approved plastic bag as a box liner. Twist the open end of the bag to close and tuck it down along the side of the box to secure. Close and seal the box and keep in the freezer.

Dough balls made in this manner can be kept frozen for up to two weeks. To use the frozen dough balls, remove them from the bulk packaging and place onto lightly oiled pans or trays in the cooler and allow to slack-out overnight. Then remove the dough balls from the cooler, cover with a sheet of plastic to prevent drying and allow to warm to 50 F before using on the line. This method of making frozen dough balls will provide a level of finished crust flavor not usually achievable with frozen dough unless special handling techniques are employed.

This method is not recommended for any operation that requires frozen dough that has a shelf life of more than two weeks, but it is an excellent option for any pizzeria or chain that maintains complete control over the dough and wants to have more flavor in their finished crust.

Q: I’ve read so many differing opinions on how much a pizza dough should be mixed. Can you shed some light on the proper mixing of a pizza dough?

A: Let me start out first by saying that pizza dough should not be mixed to full-gluten development. Instead, it should only be mixed to a point where a smooth skin is formed on the dough mass during mixing. The only exception to this is when commercially made frozen dough is being produced. Since we are making fresh dough, mixing just until the dough looks smooth is sufficient. If you have to err in mixing time, it is always best to under-mix as opposed to over-mixing. If the dough is under-mixed, the only issues experienced will be greater difficulty in handling the dough during the scaling and balling process. And you can overcome this by using more flour when you handle it.

By contrast, over-mixing can overly toughen the gluten and make the dough more difficult to ball. Even worse: it makes for a lot more wear on your mixer. Over time, that becomes an expensive proposition. I know that some operators like to use the “dough window” test where a piece of dough is stretched and opened between the hands to expose the gluten film. The exposed gluten film is then assessed for clarity. This procedure is an effective way to assess gluten development, but one must be trained and experienced in knowing how to open the dough and what to look for to be accurate. Instead, just looking for the smooth skin development over the dough ball during mixing is easy to do and easy to understand. Most importantly, it works.

Tom Lehmann
is a former director at the American Institute of Baking in Manhattan, Kansas and Pizza Today’s resident dough expert.