Your dough is the foundation of your business and flour is the heart of your dough. One of the questions I’m asked most frequently is: “What type of flour should I use?” To determine the best answer, some questions must first be asked.
First things first. What type of pizza do you want to make? By that, I don’t just mean simply what style of pizza. I am referring to specific qualities you want your pizza to have. For example, there are a number of flour brands that will produce a New York-style thin crust pizza, but each type will create different characteristics and require slightly different formulas and methods to get the results you want.
So let’s begin with the basics: Your flour is made up of wheat berries that are crushed during the milling process. Wheat berries are comprised of the outer skin, or bran, the vitamin E rich germ, and the endosperm (which contains the starch and protein). Bread teacher and author Peter Reinhart likens these parts to an egg, composed of a shell, yolk and white. In the U.S. we largely define flour by its protein content. Cake flour has about six- to seven-percent protein. All purpose flour has about 91/2-111/2 percent. Bread flour has between 111/2 percent and 131/2 percent and high gluten has 131/2 to above 15 percent protein. Confusion sets in because Italian flour is rated differently. Generally speaking Italian flour is classified by how finely it is milled, meaning the degree to which the husk has been removed. A designation such as “00” will not tell you the protein content. This type of flour will feel more powdery regardless of actual grain size because it contains less of the course husk. There are type 00 flours with a wide range of protein levels for different applications. Usually protein content is the first thing that pizza makers look for in selecting a flour. Consider fermentation time when selecting flour. Longer fermentation will usually require higher protein.
In the past, most flour in America was highly regionalized — and to this day even giant manufacturers have products that are only available in certain areas. It is also very important to know that in some cases a flour sold under the same name may be different in some places. While in the old days the primary choice of flour was largely dictated by location, today’s motivated pizza makers are sourcing products from all over the world in the quest for authenticity or to create a unique signature product. The true greats such as Tony Gemignani may stock six or seven types of flour in order to produce accurate renditions of various regional pizzas and will often blend flour for different results.
Blending of flour types is becoming increasingly popular as pizza makers continue their quest to make signature dough that will set them apart from the competition. In the past the most common blending flour was semolina. Semolina is a coarse flour made from hard durum wheat. It will add a crunchy texture to your dough along with a beautiful golden color. Most importantly, semolina contains high levels of beta-carotene — which will contribute to aroma and add a delicate sweetness to your dough. Unbleached flour is also higher in beta-carotene and its use will contribute to a more flavorful finished crust. Semolina can be substituted for as much as 40 percent of your total flour amount. So if you typically use 50 pounds of flour you would reduce your regular flour to 30 pounds and add in 20 pounds of Semolina. I recommend that you start your experiments less aggressively and begin with 20 percent semolina.
You may have to adjust your hydration level when blending flour as different types of flour absorb water differently. Generally, high-protein flour requires more water. But if you have decided to blend in European flour you may find that a slight reduction in hydration is called for. Before deciding to blend flours, speak to the manufacturers. If you are simply blending to change protein content there is most likely a flour that is very close to what you are looking for. On the other hand, you may be blending in order to achieve specific flavor and textural components (in which case you must understand the unique characteristics of the flours you are combining).
Italian flour is known for what is often described as “clean” flavors. This is usually taken to mean a pronounced flavor of pure wheat with no lingering aftertaste. On the other hand, American flour is renowned for its ability to trap carbon dioxide within the webbing structure of the dough. Recently many pizza makers have been experimenting with a combination of the two types, resulting in a combination of improved flavor and light, airy crumb structure. An added benefit of this combination is that you can increase the length of fermentation beyond what is typically advised for European flour. When I blend Italian flour with American flour I can usually get best results at three-day cold fermentation. A blend of 50/50 American and Italian flour would be a good starting point.
It is also common to experiment with blending of whole wheat flour with conventional pizza flour. This is done because it is difficult to get strength in a dough made from 100 percent whole wheat. I recently worked with master pizza maker Giulio Adriani and he presented an amazing pizza dough that combined two types of high protein flour along with 30 percent organic whole wheat flour. The result was a gorgeous, airy dough with complex flavor and a crisp but delicate texture.
Don’t be afraid to experiment, but remember the golden rules of science. Document everything you do. Weigh all ingredients. Track temperatures. And never, ever change more than one variable at a time.
John Arena owns Metro Pizza in Las Vegas.