How high hydration levels create artisan pizza dough
Probably the biggest change in pizza dough formulation in recent years has been the introduction of bread baking techniques into the process. Starters, natural fermentation, autolyze, indirect mixing method and bulk fermentation, once rare in our industry, have become common practice. But the biggest change that has taken place, and the one most challenging for old-school pizza makers to implement, is the ever-increasing hydration levels in pizza dough that have taken our craft to a new level.
So, what can higher hydration do for you? For modern pizza makers the holy grail is to create a dough that is crunchy on the bottom, light and airy on the inside with open crumb structure — and so delicate inside that it practically melts in your mouth. Increasing hydration, combined with proper technique, will put you on the path to creating the large, irregular internal holes and lace-like gluten structure that has become the benchmark of artisan pizza dough.
I recently spent a few days in the test kitchen/classroom of Noel Brohner, founder of Slow Rise Pizza Co. Besides being the pizza chef to an enviable list of entertainment superstars, Noel is one of the foremost advocates of what many consider to be extreme hydration dough. His demos at Pizza Expo, featuring dough with up to 100-percent hydration, have earned him a reputation as an innovator unafraid to explore the outer limits in search of improved results.
While 100-percent hydration may be a bit too unmanageable for most of us, I’ve found that hydration of 80 to 90 percent is workable and can create a great result. Let’s put that in perspective. Typical Chicago-style dough may be in the 55 percent hydration range. New York-style is usually 60 to 65 percent, and Detroit-style hovers around 70 percent hydration. This means that if your dough formula calls for 62 percent water and you bump it up to 85 percent you will be adding 37 percent more water! Not only will the end result be much lighter, you will also get a higher yield. While a 50-pound bag of flour was giving you about 83 pounds of finished dough (including salt and yeast), the 85-percent hydration method is going to produce about 94 pounds of dough.
Here’s a formula for you to play around with:
50 percent High Gluten Pizza Flour- — 10 pounds (4.53 kilo)
50 percent All Purpose Flour — 10 pounds (4.53 kilo)
85 percent Water — 17 pounds at 40 F
2.75 percent Kosher Salt — 8.8 ounces (250 grams)
2 percent Olive oil (optional) — 6.4 ounces (181 grams)
.5 percent Diastatic Malt (optional) — 1.6 ounces (45 grams)
.2 percent Instant Dry Yeast — .6 ounce (17 grams)
Water must be very cold. The goal is to have a completed dough at 65 F. We will be using a very aggressive mix schedule, so the friction factor will be quite high. Start with 40 F water and adjust temperature appropriately according to your mixer and dough room conditions.
Place water and flour (and oil and malt, if using) in mixer and combine on slow speed for 3 minutes. Let dough rest for 20 minutes.
Add yeast and resume mix on slow speed for 3 minutes. As the mix continues, add salt and continue mixing for 3 minutes. At this point the dough is going to be very wet. Resist the temptation to add flour!
Increase mixer speed to speed 2 and continue mixing until dough is pulling away from the bowl and climbing up the hook. Listen to your dough: it will make a slapping sound when it is ready. This can take up to 20 minutes or longer. Reduce to speed 1 for 2 minutes.
Place the dough in a well-oiled fermentation container. Check the temperature. If the dough is over 68 F, place it in the refrigerator and bring the temperature down. Remove dough from the refrigerator and let it rest for 45 minutes, covered. Stretch and fold dough (this will strengthen the gluten structure), then let it rest for 30 minutes. Repeat the stretch and fold. After 30 minutes, repeat the stretch and fold for the final time.
Be sure to keep the dough covered between intervals. Allow the dough to bulk rise for at least 6 hours. If you will be using the dough the next day, you will want to divide it and shape it at this point. Or it can be refrigerated for up to 4 days for later use.
Place the dough on a well-floured table. Divide dough into pieces at the desired weight. Shape the dough into tight balls. At this stage you may be handling the dough more aggressively than normal. If you are having trouble with dough sticking to your hands, keep a tub of ice water at your station and dip your hands in it as needed. The goal is to have a very tight dough ball that will have structure as it rises. A dough with this level of hydration will not be as sensitive to strong hands as lower hydration dough. Place the dough in trays and cover it. The dough can now be left out at room temperature until ready for use (at least 6 hours), or it can be refrigerated for 24 hours before use. If you choose to refrigerate the dough be sure to remove it from the refrigerator several hours before use. The dough should be a minimum of 55 F before using it. If the dough is difficult to extend and is snapping back it is not really ready. Properly aged dough will be relaxed and lack “memory” (which causes the dough to resist extension). This is true of all types of dough.
When extending this dough you will find that it requires additional flour for dusting. As you become more accustomed to it you can reduce the amount of flour needed. I recommend that when the dough is removed from the tray the bottom of the dough ball becomes the top of the pizza when placed on the peel. Because the top of the dough is drier it will require less flour to get it off the peel, keep the oven cleaner and get a better bake.
John Arena co-owns Metro Pizza in Las Vegas.