A New Cook

I’m out on a limb here. I’ve moved into unfamiliar territory and I feel like a novice. With a pizza oven in the backyard, I think I should be some pro, or something, but I have a lot to learn. Fortunately I found a great pizza crust recipe to work with, but I didn’t know different flours and yeasts behave differently. I’ve become a pizza crust chemist  running weekly experiments out of the kitchen. One day I try the yeast cold, another day I work with 105 degrees, and I’ve got gluten to think about. Am I using all-purpose for this batch or a bread flour? I never realized the tremendous amount of work that goes into bread diagnostics! However, once you get it figured out, pizza dough is pretty easy.

Easy if you don’t deviate from the rules: Rule number one: Cold Fermentation, Rule Number Two: Make your dough sticky, Rule Number Three, bread flour. If you like to improvise with recipes like I do, DON’T! It just won’t work. Did you know that if you use a warm fermentation you actually will use more flour to create the same dough consistency, and I have no idea why? With a warm bath for your yeast you’ll end up with a thick crust that is hard to stretch out. Instant yeast and a cold, delayed fermentation overnight in the fridge uses less flour, and gives you a lovely Nepoletana crust with a nice chew. I get similar results with a normal active yeast dissolved in cold water.

Pizza dough is sticky. By that I mean you need to flour the outside of each dough ball and your fingers to work it, but when it’s sticky, it can be easily stretched. I found out that if I make the dough dryer, it get’s springy and hard to stretch out. I also played around with adding more gluten to the recipe, but ended up with a tough dough. One time I left out the extra gluten when using a bread flour, and the gluten levels were perfect. Now I stick with King Arthur bread flour. Adding gluten helped all-purpose flour have a nice chew, but not as good as the King. A sticky pizza dough is so easy to stretch with a little flour on your fingers even a novice can attempt a pizza throw or two. We had a few hit the ceiling last weekend!

The other thing I’ve experimented with is proofing the dough, or giving it a second rise. Peter Reinhart’s recipe only calls for a single fermentation rise, but one lazy evening, I decided to put the dough straight into the fridge to shape the next morning, and it was great! With the first method, once the dough is finished it gets cut into pieces, rolled into balls, covered with a little olive oil and set in the fridge overnight. About two or three hours before baking, they get pulled out to rise and soften. This method makes an amazing crust, but something happened to the flavor when it needed an additional quick knead on the morning of baking day before shaping it into the balls. Is that possible? We now had an amazing crust in texture, but the flavor was nutty, yeasty, and lush. Before it was good, but a little bland. Now what I do is make the dough, place it in a covered bowl to slow-ferment in the fridge overnight. The next day I quickly knead the dough and then form it into individual pizza sized balls. Then it goes back into the fridge to remove two or three hours before baking. I’m not positive that this extra knead causes the dough to change, but my impression is: better!

In the midst of all this experimenting, I have been thinking about how wonderful the pizza stone is. Not everybody can have a pizza oven in the backyard, but most of us can have a stone or two, and they work great. Throw them in at 450 degrees an hour before you want to bake, make sure you have a pizza peel and know how to slide the pizza off using cornmeal or flour. With these little tidbits and the right dough recipe, pizza is really pretty quick and easy to make.

Dough Riff for Twelve

  • 2 cups whole wheat flour
  • 7 cups white bread flour
  • 2 tsp. (or 1 package) instant yeast
  • 2 1/2 tsp. salt
  • 1/2 cup olive oil
  • 3 3/4 cups cold water

Directions: Mix the yeast, water, oil and salt together until dissolved. Next mix in the whole wheat flour. (If using a stand mixer, switch to the hook at this point.) Add the white flour and knead for seven or eight minutes. If you are hand mixing be careful not to add too much flour. I have been using a stand mixer for this dough which makes for easy mixing. The trick with the stand mixer is to watch to see that the dough pulls away from the sides of the bowl yet sticks to the bottom. If the dough is too sticky, add a small spoon of flour one at a time until it is the right consistency. If it is too dry, add a few dribbles of water.

Once the dough becomes smooth and the gluten has lined up, rub the dough with olive oil, cover with plastic wrap and place in the fridge over night.

In the morning gently punch down the dough and give it a quick knead. With a pastry blade, cut the dough into twelve equal pieces. I form the dough into a round flat disk, cut it into fourths, and then each fourth into thirds. I can see where a scale might be nice if you want your pizzas uniform.

Roll or knead each piece into a ball, coat it lightly with olive oil and place it on a cookie sheet. Once you have all twelve pizza doughs prepped, cover the tray and return it to the fridge until two or three hours before baking. To give the dough its final rise, set it out on the counter at room temperature. The balls will soften and become very easy to work.