Note: While most of my posts tend to have short discussions, every once in a while I will tackle a topic that requires an extended discussion. Other blogs may tell you what steps you should take to create a dish, but they sometimes gloss over why you should do things that way. The recipes I have found for pizza crusts were frequently like that. It has taken me two weeks of research and struggle to untangle pizza gluten.
A few weeks ago, I was experimenting with a semolina pizza crust. As we were discussing this limited success over Sunday dinner, my son-in-law, Chris, brought up Binging with Babish and his YouTube video on making New York-Style Pizza. Babish had a radically different approach to making and baking pizza dough than I had learned from my mother.
The first difference is more a matter of preference than anything else. Babish put active dry yeast directly into the dry flour. I prefer to “proof” active yeast. This both guarantees that your yeast is good, as well as giving it a boost in reproducing itself.
The second difference is far more important and interesting. Babish used iced water for his liquid—this is as opposed to the warm water used by the recipe that I had based my semolina crust. This is another case of the seemingly minor different in the ways you treat the flour and water making a substantial difference to the flavor and texture of the bread in the end.
When you add water to dry flour interesting things happen. The glutenin and gliadin—two of the proteins in wheat flour—attaches to the water molecules and link up to form gluten—the long stretchy molecule that gives bread its structure. This process is called hydration and—if nothing interferes with it—continues until all of the available water has been absorbed.
When you add warm water to dry flour, a second competing chemical reaction occurs called starch gelatinization. The combination of water and heat breaks “down the intermolecular bonds of starch … allowing the hydrogen bonding sites [of the starch globule] to engage more water. When hot water is added at the beginning of the hydration of the flour, the starch absorbs some of the available water, stealing it from the formation of the gluten. The resultant reduction of gluten makes for a weaker bread structure and for a very tender crust when it is finally baked.
While for some breads this reduced gluten structure is a winning technique, it does not lead to the chewy crust you really want for a pizza. Hydrating your flour with ice water allows the maximum amount of gluten formation, because it is not longer fighting with the starch for the available water. As a result, the plentiful individual strands of gluten link up—as you then knead your dough—to form a strong network that will stretch without breaking.
Salt and yeast both introduce chemicals that inhibit gluten formation and also use up some of the water needed for gluten development. Babish let his flour and water rest for a period before adding them to his dough. This step caused me great confusion—not because I had never heard of making bread this way, but because of what I found in researching this bread making method. This technique is called the autolyse method—which was invented and named by Raymond Calvel in 1974. The reason for my bewilderment is that autolyse is actually a misnomer—the process that most people describe as happening during this step is actually called proteolysis.
Note: Other bakers have replicated Cavel’s original misnaming of the process. While autolysis can occur during bread making, it does not start until you have added the yeast. In fact, if you use the sponge method you may have them going on at the same time in separate bowls.
“Proteolysis is the breakdown of proteins into smaller polypeptides … Proteolysis is typically catalysed by cellular enzymes called proteases,” which is present in the flour. As soon as you add water to flour the glutenin and gliadin link up to form tight, random tangles of gluten. During the resting step that Cavel called “autolysis” the protease enzymes break some of the gluten apart, allowing the smaller proteins to re-link into a more organized gluten networks.
Salt and yeast
After the dough has rested you add the salt and yeast. Babish mixed his dough in a food processor and seemed to have little difficulty in incorporating them into his dough. If you are mixing your dough with a mixer or by hand it can be more problematical to get these additions evenly distributed throughout your dough.
A trick I have used to get around this problem, is to hold back about one quarter of the flour before I added the ice water in the first step. This technique has several advantages. It is easier to mix the salt into dry flour than into a stiff dough. Also, by having more water than the remaining flour needs, it both ensures that the at gluten formation in uninhibited and the resultant dough is loose enough to easily mix in the yeast and then the salted flour.
Note: You may also save some of the salted flout to dust your bread board while you are kneading.
Dabish’s third difference is in using oil to knead his dough. I have always used flour during my kneading. While I can see some sense in his method—it would introduce layers of oil between the gluten sheets and keep air out of the dough, I have yet to adapt to his technique.
Note: During the kneading process air/oxygen gets folded into the dough. While the yeast does not need oxygen to do its thing, other bacteria that may be in the dough do. You actually want to inhibit the growth of these bacteria, because many of them will produce “bad” flavors in your crust.
Baker’s yeast is a single-cell microorganism that “eats” sugar and produces carbon dioxide and ethanol (alcohol). A second enzyme amylase—present in both the dry flour and produced by the yeast itself—breaks down the starch in the flour into simple sugars that the yeast can use. However, over time the amylase breaks down the yeast’s proteins into simpler compounds—this includes the cell walls of the yeast—killing the yeast. This self-digestion process is called autolysis, which occurs during raising the dough—the ferment.
A long cold ferment
The fourth difference in Babish’s technique was in refrigerating his dough for a day before making his pizza. While he never fully explains why, it clearly produced a better tasting crust. My mother always raised her dough for two hours and then baked her pizza on the same day. This had produced a good crust—at least to my young taste buds—but as I got older it now seems one dimensional.
I had the thought that if one rise was good, two would be better. When I punched down my dough and raised it a second time, my pizzas came out of the oven with a sour “off-taste.” Thank God for the internet! No matter what your question—almost always—someone will have thought about it and posted their ideas.
Serious Eats has experimented with long, cold raises of pizza dough. During the process of rising the yeast reproduces and digests some of the carbohydrates (starch) and converts it to alcohol and carbon dioxide. During a warm rise the yeast—or other bacteria that may be present in the dough—may also produce other compounds—such as lactic acid. Lactic acid is what puts the sour into sauerkraut.
A cold rise does not prevent the yeast from doing its carbohydrate-sugar-gas-and-alcohol thing, but it inhibits the formation of lactic acid and other “off-tasting” flavors. A long fermentation gives the amylase enzymes time to produce the flavor enhancing compounds that we think of as “good” bread smells.
Babish cold raised his dough for only one day. The guys at Serious Eats have run experiments that have identified 3-5 days as the optimal time to let you pizza dough cold rise. While one and two days will produce a decent crust, beyond the fifth day you start getting more of the “off-flavors” that you want to avoid. A second problem is that, after six days the yeast will have produced enough alcohol to kill off most of remaining yeast. When you bake this dough, there is almost no carbon dioxide gas left to create the bubbles in a good crust.
Note: Babish also divides his dough into individual crusts after the long ferment. I found it useful to divide my dough before putting them in the refrigerator. by putting the crusts into individual baggies I was able to freeze them—after the fermentation time—so I could have a pizza crust ready whenever I had a sudden desire for pizza.
Forming the crust
Do not knead your dough after you remove it from the refrigerator—this will actually force the carbon dioxide—that you have spent day(s) building up—out of your dough. On a heavily floured board, gently stretch out your dough into a round shape with a raised edge. I use a third of a dough recipe, which produces a fairly thin crust 14 inches in diameter.
A stone’s throw
The final difference in Babish’s method for making New York style pizza is in how he used his pizza stone. Years ago, I bought a pizza stone and I have used it the way I am sure most people use them—heat the stone up while you are assembling your pizza and then tossing the dough on top of the stone. Babish don’t do it that way.
In a pizzeria, they usually use a brick oven that can reach temperatures of up to 800º F—a conventional house oven rarely has a temperature setting over 550º F. Using a pizza stone mimics the high sustained heat of a ceramic oven. The porous surface of the stone also wicks away any moisture so that the bottom of the crust becomes more crisp.
Babish sets his oven up differently. He sets the pizza stone upside down on the upper rack. He then puts a steel tray a few inches below it—creating a narrow oven within the oven. By having putting the stone so close to the top of the pizza you get an even high heat source to bake your pizza.
Note: An even heat is important in baking pizza, especially with an electric oven. When you set a temperature, the heating coils turn on until the thermostat reaches the set temperature. The coils then turn off, and remain off, until the sensors register a set drop in the oven’s temperature—this can be as much as 5-10 degrees. For most baking, this fluctuation in temperatures does not make a difference. However, a pizza’s cooking time is so short that the difference becomes significant. After the pizza stone absorbs the oven’s heat, it then radiates it evenly, even as the heating coils turn on and off.
What you put on your pizza is a matter of personal preference. In the weeks I have been struggling with writing up this crust recipe, I have made 8-9 different pizzas using my mother’s sauce, alfreado sauce, and zaatar sauce with various topping Hawaiian, pesto, zatar chicken, mushrooms. Your imagination is the limit.
Karl’s New York Style Pizza Crust
4 cups bread flour
½ cup semolina flour
1½+ Tbs. sugar, separate uses
1½ cups ice water
2 tsp Kosher salt
¾ tsp. active dry yeast
¼ cup warm water
1 Tbs. olive oil
1. Put the flours and sugar into a large bowl and mix it well.
Tip: I generally run it through a flour sifter several time, but stirring the bowl with a whisk will also work.
2. Reserve 1-1½ cups of the flour mixture and set it aside.
Note: Now is a good time to mix the salt into this reserve flour. Just do not forget and double salt your pizza dough.
3. Add the ice water to the flour in your large bowl and stir until you have a smooth batter.
Tip: You may have lumps of dry flour at first, you want to break these up.
Note: This is my own variation of the sponge technique. The batter will seem very thin, but you are trying to provide plenty of water for the gluten to form and it has a better chance of happening in a wet dough than in a dough that is too dry.
4. Set the dough in a warm place undisturbed for 30 minutes to up to four hours.
Tip: This gives plenty of time for the proteolysis process to combine the gluten into organized sheets.
5. While your dough is resting, put the yeast and a pinch of sugar in a small cup and add the quarter cup of warm water.
Tip: The water should be 105-110º F, any warmer and the heat will kill your yeast and you will need to toss it and start again.
Note: After about 15 minutes the cup should have a foamy top, up to half an inch thick. If it does not, your water may have been too hot or your yeast has gone bad. Start over.
6. When you are ready to proceed, fold in the yeast mixture and about ⅔ of the salted flour into the dough.
Tip: Mix fairly gently, the gluten sheets are already formed and you do not want to tear them to shreds.
Note: While you want to fully incorporate the remaining flour and the sheets will partially reform with that additional gluten in the new flour, you do not want to undo the whole point of the initial rest.
7. Dust your bread board with the salted flout and knead the dough until smooth.
Tip: “Until smooth” is a very imprecise term, but it is really a matter of “feel.” There are no real measures to tell you when a ball of dough is under- or over-kneaded. Over time—as you work and then bake a lot dough—you will be able to tell from the feel of the dough when it is time to stop kneading.
Note: If you wish to use Babish’s oil method, add all of the salted flour at once and then use olive oil on your bread board for the kneading.
8. Divide your dough into portions and lightly coat them with olive oil.
Tip: I find that this recipe makes enough dough for three pizza. If you like a thicker pizza you may divide the dough in half.
Note: Babish did not divide his dough until after the refrigerator fermentation. I find it more convenient to divide the dough first, so that I can freeze a crust or two—after the fermentation time—for later. Simply move the frozen do to the refrigerator the night before and it is “pizza ready” for the next night.
9. Put the oiled dough balls into individual sealable plastic bags and place them in the refrigerator.
10. Let the dough ferment undisturbed for 1-5 days.
Tip: How long you wait is determined by how hungry you are—3-5 days is best.
11. Remove the dough from the refrigerator about an hour before you are ready to form your pizza.
Tip: You want it to come to room temperature before you start handling it.
Note: Now is a good time to make any sauces and to prep any toppings that you are planning to use. If I am feeling inventive, I will make three different pizzas out of the dough from a single batch.
12. About half an hour before you are ready to start baking, set up your oven to your liking and preheat your pizza stone to 500º F.
Tip: You may use Babish’s stone over technique or bake your pizza directly on the stone as you wish.
Note: My oven reaches 550º F and I have found that this is a bit too hot. By the time the cheese is melted the bottom of the crust was right at the edge of burnt.
13. On a floured board, stretch out the dough into a 12-14 inch disk, with a raised outer edge.
Tip: Put the dough ball in the middle of the board and poke and stretch the dough slowly into shape. You may pick up the dough and let gravity gently pull the dough thin or if you are brave you may try to use the “pizzeria toss.”
Note: Do not use a rolling pin to flatten out your dough, as this will force out much of the gas that you have spent the last days developing.
14. Put you pizza crust on a well floured peel and add any sauce and toppings.
Tip: The flour helps the pizza slide off the peel without sticking and deforming your pizza. Course corn meal or semolina are good choices for this flour. While you may certainly buy a wooden pizza peel, I use cookie sheets—so I can set up several pizzas at a time. Modern cookie sheets are fairly thick and are good for sliding the pizza into the oven. However they are too thik to easily remove the pies. I have an old style cookie sheet which is simply a flat piece of steel with one turned up edge—perfect for sliding under a finished pizza.
Note: Do not use regular wheat flour to flour you peel—it is very finely ground and likely to burn and leave a bad taste to the bottom of your crust.
15. Bake the pizza for 8-10 minutes.
Tip: Rotate the pizza half way through, so that it cooks evenly.
Note: The back of the oven is always a few degrees hotter than the front.
16. Transfer the pizza to a wire rack to cool for 3-5 minutes.
Tip: It depends again on how hungry you are and how much you wish to burn your tongue.
17. Slice the pizza into wedges and enjoy.