Most of us identify a pizza by its toppings – “I’ll have a medium-size pepperoni, please” – but the foundation of any pizza is its dough. The handling and preparation of dough is essential to the various styles of pizza (see lingo sidebar), and every serious pizza maker knows a pie is only as good as its foundation.
Want to learn more than you ever expected about making pizza? Ask a chef how he makes his dough.
Brian Kelleher describes the typical 575 pizza has having a Connecticut-style crust. “That’s the lineage of our recipe. We strive for thin but chewy with a crispy bottom,” he says. “It’s a combination of the recipe of the dough itself as well as the oven and temperature and the amount of toppings we put on it.” Creating a delicious final product requires attention to everything from ingredients to temperature to final texture. “If you have too many toppings or too much cheese or too much sauce on the pizza, it doesn’t cook the way it should. It becomes more flimsy than we prefer.”
575 sources a particular flour and keeps close tabs on every pie to ensure quality control. Over the years, Kelleher noticed small changes in the dough that had to do with the activation of its yeast. “We’ve spent a lot of time over the last several weeks going back to our original recipe,” he says. “For one reason or another, we had to massage it a little.” He’s begun making his dough in smaller batches as a result. “We’ve been getting a deeper education on our own crust and what we’ve found is that the changes we’ve made have enhanced it.”
At Pizza Planet, Ronnie Inmon and his staff prepare and hand-roll their dough every morning. He still uses the recipe he learned from founder Kerry Evans, and says the hand-preparation means every pizza crust is unique. “It’s not out of a box,” he says. “I can’t promise you the exact same product each time. There will always be a certain degree of difference. It depends on the level of rise.”
After portioning the dough into pizza-size quantities, Inmon covers it with plastic to let the dough rise. “Once that yeast activates, it starts rising,” he says. The softness or lightness of a dough depends on the length of this process. “You’ve only got so long before it’s done. If it’s the end of the night and [you’re on] your last pan or two, you’ve got to be gentle with it. If you beat the crust up real bad, it’ll kill it. That’s how you get cracker crust is by beating the hell out of a risen dough.”
Fire Slice’s Brad Davis, who used to work for IBM, considers dough with a software engineer’s attention to detail. “There are only four ingredients: flour, yeast, salt and water,” he explains. “The trick is to try to get as much moisture in it as possible.” He prefers dough that is 70 percent water, by weight. After mixing the dough, he refrigerates it overnight, allowing the dough a slow, 48-hour rise – the industry term for this process is proofing – before portioning it out. “At 48 hours, we ball it out into the exact weight that we want. Then those proof at room temperature until they’re ready to bake.”
The rising action of the yeast as well as kneading the dough creates air pockets. Pizza-makers “throw” the dough to flatten and stretch it without damaging those air pockets. Once the dough begins to cook in a hot oven, the water in it turns to steam, lifting and stretching the air pockets. The result is a light, airy crust. “That’s what gives the crust structure,” says Davis. “They’re simple ingredients, but from the minute you start mixing it until it goes in the oven, there are lots of steps to get it to the point you want it to be.”
Jason is a journalist, copywriter, ghostwriter, and the author of more than a dozen books. His most recent is “12 World Religions: The Beliefs, Rituals, and Traditions of Humanity's Most Influential Faiths”, published by Zephyros Press. Learn more at jasonboyett.com.