The International Pizza Consultant talks naturally leavened dough
Anthony Falco is an International Pizza Consultant, with projects on four continents and dozens of cities around the world. He was the keynote speaker at Pizza & Pasta Northeast 2018 in Atlantic City. He is the co-founder of Rad Times Pizza™, a pizza lifestyle brand. And when he is not trying to improve his pizza-making skills he is eating Ramen, illustrating T-shirts or hanging out with his family in Williamsburg, Brooklyn.
What are the unique characteristics of naturally leavened dough?
There are so many interesting and unique things happening with natural leavening that I am still learning and discovering on a daily basis. But flavor is the number one reason I use it. There is a depth of flavor and aroma that you just cannot duplicate with just commercial yeast even if you are using techniques like biga or poolish or pate fermentee. It just tastes better and more complex to me.
What drew you to using this method?
It mostly just came out of wanting to be better at making pizza. I liked the way it tasted and the way it made me feel after eating it, and the way people were using it in bread. I thought it would be great for pizza. Some people I respected were using it, and I wanted to try it.
Is natural leavening practical and manageable for high-volume pizzerias?
I do pizza consulting all over the world and I always bring my sourdough and we always include it. The simple fact is that stuff is hard. If you have integrity and are committed to something, you find a way. I’ve overseen operations where we are doing 5,000 pizzas a day with sourdough. I recently flew to South Bend, Indiana, and made 300+ 100-percent naturally leavened doughs in a kitchen I had never seen before. If you are committed to managing the beast and not letting it manage you then anything is possible.
Do you feel this method is a long-term trend in the industry? If so, why?
It’s interesting when I hear this question about whether sourdough is a trend or if it’s long-term. My Brazilian client, Braz Elettrica, uses my sourdough and there was an article about it because it has become all the rage and it was mentioned as a trendsetter. I just have to laugh because this is literally the only way bread was made for 6,000 years. “Is this commercial yeast trend going to be long term?” could be an alternate question because it’s only been 200 years since the Vienna Process. And in the last 50 years we’ve really come to see the negative health effects of consuming too much of these highly refined, quickly proofed breads.
Do you find that your guests are interested in your process?
Some are, but it’s not something that I like put front and center. I think pizza should be fun and delicious, so I don’t want to welcome my guest and then give them a lecture on natural fermentation. But if you eat the pizza and love it, I’m gonna tell you why it tastes so much better, and why it’s so much more digestible. If you aren’t enjoying the pizza and the experience, then what do you care about my ethos? You can’t eat ethos.
Describe your early experiments with natural leavening.
I first started using a starter eight years ago, but always as a hybrid with some small amount of fresh yeast. When I started my career as an independent consultant, I started doing a bunch of experiments at home with 100-percent natural leavening. I was doing Thin N Crispies for a client, pan pizzas for my kids and other styles just to try out new things. I used all kinds of flour combinations and percentages of starter. I just threw a bunch of stuff at the wall to see what would stick. It was really fun. I was also not as busy as I am now, so it really helped keep me from going crazy.
Describe your current method.
I feed my starter twice a day: equal parts flour, water and starter. I usually up the flour or down the water a little to keep the consistency a little stiffer than it would be for a true 1:1:1. I use 72-76 F water. I like to use my starter fairly young, anywhere from 90 minutes to four hours after feeding works well for me. For my dough recipes I use between 10- to 15-percent starter in relation to flour. I mix, rest, mix, then bulk for two to three hours at room temp. Then I ball the dough and proof for another five to 12 hours depending on the room temperature before I retard at 42 F for up to seven days.
What are the key points to succeeding with natural leavening?
Mainly, I think there are two main points. First, the maintenance and health of your starter culture, which is going to rely on being consistent while using your senses to make minor adjustments to encourage the correct microbiology. Second, the proper use of time and temperature in your dough recipe.
What are the particular challenges?
I think the main challenge is subverting your human needs to the needs of the feeding and dough schedule. For example, a refresh at an inconvenient time of the day or night. Things need to happen at certain time intervals and at certain temperature ranges and you can’t cheat that.
Please include a formula and method (in bakers %). Something that the average pizza maker can work with to get started.
What brought you to pizza?
It was an accident, really. I was bartending in Williamsburg, Brooklyn, in 2007 and was working with one of the future founders of Roberta’s. I had made pizza at home with my family, but never professionally. I started working at Roberta’s the first week they opened and got hooked on the wood-fired oven. I tried leaving and starting my own mobile pizza business but it got folded into Roberta’s. I think the challenges of constantly expanding and developing new concepts in combination with my background as an entrepreneur has really set me up as ideally suited to be an International Pizza Consultant.
Define yourself as a pizza maker.
I’m working really hard to not be so defined. I’m really all over the place using different ovens and ingredients and playing with different styles. I’m completely committed to the future of natural leavening. I always want to use the best ingredients but I want my pizza to be fun and accessible. I’m designing shirts and making videos with my partners in our pizza lifestyle brand Rad Times Pizza. I want to use pizza as the jump off point for so many ideas I have.
With all of your success what motivates you to keep experimenting?
I need to be challenged, I can’t be in a safe comfortable place, and I’m always being inspired by all sorts of things. Traveling always keeps me on my toes. Accidents and mistakes always shed new light on modes of thought that become too safe or routine.
What are your future plans and goals?
I’m working on some very exciting consulting projects right now in Kuwait, Bangkok, Denver, Las Vegas, Chicago and more, spreading the naturally fermented pizza gospel. Outside of consulting, I’m writing a cookbook to put down some of the things I’ve figured out over the years and lots of naturally leavened pizza recipes. I’m very excited about some video projects and the expansion of our apparel line at Rad Times Pizza. One of my big goals is to see the United States of America join the growing number of countries that bans potassium bromate and other bleaching agents in the production of flour, and I’m currently exploring options to move that forward.
John Arena co-owns Metro Pizza in Las Vegas.