Once you understand your core ingredients, you can step into variations
Flour, water, salt and yeast are the basic ingredients of pizza dough. Mastery of these fundamental components can produce exemplary results and has served Neapolitan pizza makers very well for centuries. Over time bakers have developed alternative methods and formulas that add variations of texture and flavor to their bread. Pizza makers are now adapting these variations to produce crusts of character and versatility.
Selecting the correct options and understanding what each variation adds to the finished product will set you apart from the competition.
Oil or fat is the most common additive to pizza dough. Oil will tenderize dough, making it more workable and giving the finished pizza a softer chew. Oil can improve the color of the finished pizza. Depending on the selection and quality of the oil you choose, oil can be a great flavor enhancer. Most importantly, oil forms an effective barrier between your crumb structure and any moisture coming off of your sauce or toppings.
The most widely used oil for pizza dough is olive oil. But for some types of dough (such as Chicago-style pan pizza), butter, shortening or lard may be substituted. Each of these forms add unique characteristics to the finished pie. In a typical formula, oil or fat would be portioned at between one to three percent of flour weight. In baker’s parlance, this level of oil would classify pizza dough as a lean dough. For more of a biscuit-like texture, some formulas call for an oil or fat content of 10 to 20 percent of flour weight. This type of dough is in the enriched dough category. For best results, add oil or fat to your dough about ¼ of the way into your mix time. Adding too early may interfere with water absorption. Adding oil too late will simply coat the exterior of your dough, making it hard to work with and adding no significant benefit. When experimenting with adding oil to your formula, start by reducing water so that your hydration level remains the same. If your normal hydration level is 62 percent and you are adding two percent olive oil, reduce water to 60 percent. This will give you a good starting point.
Perhaps the most significant trend in dough formulation in recent years has been the use of pre-ferments such as biga, poolish, and pate fermentee.
The use of pre-ferments can seem like alchemy, but exploration of the fundamentals can easily add new levels of flavor, texture and color to your dough. The most important contributor to exceptional dough is time. The development of great pizza crust is dependent on the creation of enzymes through the process of fermentation. Quite simply, pre-ferments and starters allow you to manipulate time. Developing and nurturing a viable sourdough starter is a subject unto itself, so for now let’s examine the use of the simpler common forms of pre-ferment.
Biga is a pre-ferment often used in Italian bread baking. It consists of flour, water and yeast that has been allowed to ferment for up to 24 hours without any salt as an inhibitor. A typical biga formula would be flour (100 percent), water (65 percent) and yeast (.5 percent). Combine the ingredients and cover, letting the dough sit at room temperature for eight hours. Biga will have a consistency similar to standard pizza dough. Refrigerate for next-day use, removing the biga from the cooler one hour before use. Often, biga will make up a significant portion of your total mix. It is not uncommon to include biga in an amount equal to or even greater than flour weight.
Most often biga is supplemented by yeast in the final dough. When using biga, remember to include the flour and water weight in your formula calculation. Since the biga does not contain salt, you must adjust salt content as well. To add biga to your dough, cut it in small pieces and add to the mixture as dough begins the mixing cycle.
Poolish is a very easy pre-ferment to use in a pizzeria. It’s said to be named in honor of the Polish bread bakers who taught its use to their French counterparts. Poolish is the key ingredient used by many of today’s pizza champions. Like biga, a poolish consists of only flour, water and yeast. The difference lies in the proportions.
Poolish is considered to be a wet sponge. A typical poolish formula is 100-percent flour, 100-percent water and .25-percent yeast. Combine the ingredients in a bowl and let the mixture sit at room temperature for four hours. Refrigerate for next-day use.
Poolish will have the consistency of a batter. It can be used for up to three days. Remove from the refrigerator one hour before use. Experiment with adding poolish at 50 percent of total flour weight and modify from there. Poolish is very active, so you can reduce your yeast by half. Some pizza makers choose to add no additional yeast at all. Incorporate poolish by stirring it into the water before adding flour. Recalculate water and salt, accordingly maintaining percentages.
Finally, the easiest pre-ferment to use is pate fermentee. Basically, this is old dough that has either been made specifically to add in to your fresh dough or has been saved from a previous batch of dough. The common formula is flour (100 percent), water (65 percent), salt (two percent) and yeast (.5 percent). Combine ingredients and let the dough sit for two hours at room temperature. Refrigerate for the next day, removing from the cooler one hour before use. Cut pate fermentee into small pieces and add it to your flour before mixing. Pate fermentee is typically added as double the flour weight. So if your formula called for 10 pounds of flour, add 20 pounds of pate fermentee. All other ingredients would remain the same.
Incorporating these simple additions to your dough can vastly improve your results. And, with a bit of practice, these options will become a vital addition to your repertoire.
John Arena owns Metro Pizza in Las Vegas.
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