Making pizza is undoubtedly an exciting adventure that if it ends up successfully gives great pleasure to the pizza maker and to everyone that will enjoy eating this great food
The successful outcome, similarly with most cooking activities, depends on two factors, love and knowledge. In this case, you need to add also patience since long fermentation, for many hours and up to even days, is a prerequisite for a flavourful and digestible pizza, independently if a sourdough culture or just baker’s yeast is used as a leavening agent. I take love and patience for granted and I focus here on the knowledge.
Pizza is a type of bread and as with other fermented foods its preparation does not rely on precise recipes. Following a pizza recipe without adequate knowledge of the ingredients, mainly the flour, and the underlying principles will lead either directly to fail or at best to a compromised outcome. We assemble a dough made of flour and water that it will run a life circle before dying proudly to a perfectly baked crust. During this journey, incredible chemical and physical transformations take place into the dough, and the more we know about them the better the chances to succeed making a pizza than we can be proud of.
But, what defines success, what means exactly a good pizza?
Even though there are different preferences, also in Italy, the motherland of this food, we can somehow find a consensus and ask for a good pizza to have:
1) A slightly crispy external and an airy, moist and chewy internal crust, so as fold easily. It should be in no way, too crispy and dry as to crack into pieces like a biscuit, and also not compact and stiff with a heavy catch in the hand.
2) A pleasant afterfeel with no particular sensations of heaviness and stomach disturbance.
Here, I discuss two topics that influence greatly crust properties using as an excuse two common notions that people have about pizza, which are not necessarily correct.
Notion 1: For a good pizza you have to look for a flour named ‘00’ that is commonly used by the pizzaioli in Italy.
Notion 2: It is not possible to make a pizza at home as nice as the one you eat in a good pizzeria.
Pizza is made of flour, water, salt, and a leavening agent, which can be either a sourdough culture (that is again flour and water) or baker’s yeast. Water and salt can affect fermentation and dough characteristics but in principle are just water and salt, so no need for special types of them. On the other hand, flour is a complex matter because it comes from several grain sources and exists in many types, with different features. For a pizza, it might sound the easiest to use a flour designated as pizza-flour. However, choosing such a flour without understanding what makes it to be named as such you lose the possibility of controlling the process to your liking. It is the same as using a camera to take photos in the auto-mode. The photos can be still nice but you miss all the potential the camera has to offer.
So, what flour then is proper for pizza?
A simple answer is a strong flour, which is a flour with a good amount, but also a proper type/ratio of two proteins (gliadin and glutenin) that in presence of water they form the gluten network. A well-formed and strong gluten network will keep inside the dough the gases produced by the yeasts and thus will give rise to a light and airy crust. In this regard, wheat is commonly used as a flour source for pizza since it contains the ideal blend of gliadins and glutenins.
But not all wheat flours are necessarily strong flours since the exact protein composition is affected by environmental and growing conditions, but also by the processing during production. In that sense, there are strong but also weak flours and unfortunately, in most cases, the strength of each is not indicated on the packages we buy in stores. The only information that is usually depicted on flour packages is the nutrient composition, including the total amount of proteins. The latter even though is not an accurate proxy of flour strength it can be still used as a good estimate.
Based on this, for a strong flour, we are looking for total protein content of at least 11.5-12%.
The quest for a pizza flour can be though even more complex since wheat flour exists in several types due to the gradual processing of the wheat berries via grinding as to transform them into flour. The grinding operation is followed by several sieving steps to separate the soft, white, internal material (endosperm) of the wheat berry from the hard parts, namely the external grain layer (bran) and the embryo-containing compartment (germ).
Unfortunately, every country uses a different system of letters or numbers to classify flours. Those numbers/letters on flour packages indicate the amount of the hard material of the wheat berry that the flour contains. Indirectly they indicate also the nutritional value of the flour since the more bran and germ the flour has, richer in minerals and vitamins is. These nutrients together with fibers and a few healthy fats are found mostly into brand and germ, while the soft endosperm contains the digestible carbohydrates in the form of starch, and the proteins, mainly the gliadins and glutenins. Italian flours have numbers like 00, 0, 1, 2 while German wheat flours have numbers like 405, 550, 1050 respectively. In both cases, higher the flour number more of the bran is in the flour.
In principle, all those flours can be used to make pizza providing that the total protein content is high enough. Which one or which flour combination we will finally use depends solely on us and on what type of crust we are aiming to get. If we want an easy to work dough that will produce a rather light, white crust with an airy interior but diminished nutritional value, we use a low-number flour. On the other side, if we aim for a crust with more character, deeper taste and higher nutritional value, we simply go to higher numbers.
Except for common/bread/soft wheat (weizen), we could use also other wheat varieties like hard/durum wheat (hartweizen), dinkel, kamut etc. From the above, durum is the easiest to find. It has a higher content of gliadins and glutenins than soft wheat and gives rise to well-developed gluten structures. Moreover, it is particularly tasty with a ‘rustic’ character. Durum due to its hard nature is not processed the same way as common wheat and normally it is milled to a coarse-ground flour with a sand-like texture and a yellowish colour. This flour product is known as durum wheat semola or semolina (hartweizengrieß), and it is the one that the Italians use to make mainly pasta. However, in the south of Europe where durum is grown in abundance and in good quality because of the warm climate, semola in its coarse or finer form is used also for breads and pizzas.
Pizza needs a relatively short time to cook, hence how and where we bake it plays an important role in the texture and consistency of the final crust. It comes out more appealing when baked in a super-hot oven. Higher the oven temperature, the shorter the baking time. This translates to less water loss due to evaporation and thus to a softer and more delicate and velvety crust.
Take for example the classic pizza Napoletana, which is baked in a wood-fired oven with a floor temperature of ca. 485°C. Under these conditions, it stays only 60-90 seconds in the oven and comes out soft, velvety, foldable, lacking any crispiness whatsoever.
At home, in a conventional oven that raises the temperature to 220-250°C, the pizza will take at least 10 min to cook. This prolonged baking time results in higher water loss, and thus in a rather dry and stiff crust (a common result for home pizzas).
Can we somehow overcome this issue and get a soft and tender pizza at home?
The answer is yes, or at least up to a certain point.
Because home ovens cannot reach very high temperatures what we could do to avoid dry crust is to add more water in the pizza dough, in other words, to increase dough hydration (percentage of water related to flour). For instance, the classic recipe for the pizza Napoletana baked in a wood-fired oven asks for a dough hydration of 55-59%. If we try to bake a pizza with such a dough hydration in a conventional home oven we will end up with a completely dry crust.
To circumvent this problem, we could increase dough hydration up to 70% or even more if the water-absorbing properties of flour allows that and our kneading skills permit to handle such a sticky dough. In this case, we need to devote more time kneading the dough to develop adequate gluten strength and we also have to be careful and gentler when opening the pizza disk, avoiding acrobatics, and use simple handling and adequate flour on the work surface to prevent sticking and deflating.
As an alternative to conventional ovens, they exist also small pizza ovens and pizza stones. These surfaces are raising high temperatures (more than 300°C) and thus can decrease baking times, as low as 3-5min. Some of them are affordable and do not consume a lot of energy, thus can be accessories worth purchasing.
Ingredients (for two pizzas with a diameter of ca. 28cm)
300 g flour *
210 g water (70% hydration)
5 g salt
40-80 g active sourdough **
* use a flour blend of your preference, my favourite is a mix of 40% white flour (type 550 or 1050 in Germany), 40% durum wheat semola, and 20% whole grain flour
** feed in advance your sourdough culture with roughly triple amounts of both flour and water and let it for some hours or overnight to fully activate.
- (Optional) Sift the flour in a bowl. This will aerate the flour and it will also remove any lumps or impurities that might contain.
- Add the water and mix briefly with your hand or a spatula until it is fully absorbed by the flour. Let the formed mash covered for at least 30 min and up to a few hours to autolyse.
- Add the salt plus the active sourdough, and mix them in the dough with your hand, using a series of stretch-and-fold movements. The dough will be sticky but do not add additional flour. Transfer the dough on a working surface and keep kneading it for a few minutes until it becomes relatively smooth and elastic.
- Place the dough back in the bowl, cover it, and let it ferment initially at room temperature for a couple of hours.
- (Optional) Every half an hour perform with wet hand a stretch-and-fold set.
- Transfer the bowl in the fridge to let the fermentation proceed overnight.
- The next day take out the dough from the fridge and scrape it out on a floured surface. Divide it into two parts and shape the pizza balls. Cover and let them rest for 2-3 hours.
- Preheat well the oven using the conventional function at 220-250°C, with the baking tray inside, on the lower level. If your oven has a pizza baking function, use this instead.
- Open each ball to a pizza disk using adequate flour to avoid sticking. Transfer carefully the disk on a baking paper.
- Add the tomato sauce or other toppings except for the sensitive ones that require less or no cooking at all, like mozzarella, herbs, olives, capers. Drizzle with some extra-virgin-olive-oil, sprinkle some salt, and when ready slide the baking paper on the hot tray. Transfer in the oven and bake.
- The pizza depending on the oven will take a minimum of 10 min to be ready. A couple of minutes before, take it out, and add the sensitive toppings, put it back, and finish baking.