Art and Science of Making Pizza with Sourdough
“The future of dough lies in its past. Sourdough is back and its here to stay for two reasons:
more complex flavor and better digestibility. Its a twofer thats hard to beat!”
Peter Reinhart, James Beard Award-winning Baker and Author of Pizza Quest
When I was young and crazy, I endured the grueling training to become a Naval Aircrewman. This hellish school consisted of an amazing array of tortures like being pushed from helicopters into floating knots of parachute cord in the Gulf of Mexico. One morning our instructors lined us up on the beach in our bathing suits. I knew this was going to get ugly when I saw several rubber-clad Navy divers in boats loitering out in the roiling surf. Our instructor smiled and told us that this was a rip tide area. He then ordered us to jump in, swim out 20 yards and swim back. I, like the others, felt the
undercurrent pull my legs out to sea as I tried to swim back.
Exhausted, I eventually stopped as the current took me out to the rubber boats where the screaming crew threw nets dragging us to a safer surf. Later, as we all bellyflopped on the beach huffing, we were told that sometimes you must work with nature to succeed and if we had swum back diagonally to the shore, we would have made it. Now, after 23 years of owning a pizzeria, I know that sometimes you need control and sometimes you must work with nature. There’s no better example of this than making pizza with sourdough.
As restaurant owners and managers, we all strive to make the best product around. Our tolerance for uncontrolled behavior and actions is minimal. Sometimes our control leads us to create a product that is very predictable while running through dough shifts that are merely transactional. With sourdough pizza, we give in to nature, to the little bacteria and, like the tides of the ocean, we work with nature to get the best benefit of taste and digestion.
What is sourdough? Well, the short answer is that you rise your dough using natural yeasts and bacteria. Once you set a convenient sourdough schedule, you’ll see the oven spring puff of the cornicione (crust) and taste the heightened acidity and complex flavors. This will be your expression, your artistic edge. So, what is sourdough again? Here is the long answer.
Yeast lives everywhere, and the key is to capture the living yeast with flour and water. When flour and water are mixed, they trigger enzymes that break down the flour starches into simple sugars, producing carbon dioxide (gas) and ethanol alcohol. Once this yeast colony is fed continuously, it will rise and fall under the right conditions of time and temperature. It is then added to a batch of pizza dough where the gas makes the dough rise and the alcohol evaporates in the oven later.
Commercial yeast is named Saccharamyces Cerevisiae and is used because it is predictable, reliable, easy to package, and control. As it ferments, it converts sugars in the flours to alcohol and carbon dioxide. This makes the dough rise in the oven. It also generates a small amount of acid which the yeast does not like because it slows the yeast growth. As the dough ages, the acid slows the yeast activity down and eventually the yeast cells die.
“Sourdough,” or wild yeast can tolerate the acids that kill commercial yeasts. As you build your starter, you build a culture of millions of living wild yeast and bacteria cells which produce a distinct acidic flavor, hence “sourdough.” This starter grows by removing and replacing the starter with flour and water which is called “feeding.” Sourdough flavor has different tastes and tang depending upon where you live and how you grew your starter. (Fruit skins, nuts, milk, potatoes, morning dew or just the air where you live.) Like commercial yeasted pizza dough, sourdough starters and mixes can be slowed down with refrigeration.
There are three stages to build a natural yeast culture to use to make pizza.
First Phase: This is when you build the yeast strain with flour and water. As mentioned before, you can use fruit skins and/or different rye or whole wheat flours to make this faster because they contain more yeasts and sugars. This can take from four to six days.
Second Phase: This is making the “Starter,” “Mother,” or “Sponge” from the first seed culture above. This will be your base to keep feeding as well as nurturing its growth by taking away and adding flour and water to see the bubbling growth.
Third Stage: This is making the “Levain” to add to the final dough. A small amount of starter is added to flour and water and set aside in a warm environment for up to two days to increase fermentation activity. It will act as the basis for a rise in each sourdough batch.
Flour: All flours can work well with a natural starter depending upon the flour grind, mixing, temperature, PH levels, and holding time, but especially the combination of protein level as compared to the hydration you add.
Water: Adding flour to water will create gluten. This consists of a web of strands containing the proteins glutenin and gliadin. The water allows these protein strands to stretch, and mixing creates the structure of the gluten net. Pizza, as opposed to bread, needs a strong gluten net. But not too strong to stretch a pizza … and the hydration needs to be high enough for a good oven spring. Also, it must support toppings and the ability to slide the pie into the oven. Other factors are also in play with water, such as temperature, bulk holding, mixing speed, and when you add salt.
Salt: Salt slows down and controls fermentation growth. Because of this, there are more sugars left inside the pizza dough when ready to bake, which adds flavor, color, and wheat-like aroma. Salt also tightens the gluten net ensuring that the carbon dioxide is captured when baking. Most pizza aficionados will tell you that 2 percent salt is enough to regulate fermentation as well as giving your pizza dough time to develop flavor. Some pizza pros, especially in Naples, who do not use refrigeration, put 3 percent in their mix to facilitate a longer fermentation time. Some pizza makers use a bread bakers trick called the autolyze method and do not add salt to the already-mixed flour and water for between 20 to 60 minutes. This lets the hydrated gluten strands relax and thus strengthens the gluten net.
Simple Sourdough Starter and Levain
To make a simple sourdough starter, begin with an open mind. Know that this will take from four to six days. My first starter was made using the recipe from Peter Reinhart’s book, American Pie. Remember that your starter is different from the final Levain. The starter is your basis, the levain is a very active ingredient built from the starter to add to your batch of sourdough.
Day 1. Add 3/4 cup of water to 1 cup of flour, preferably whole wheat, or rye. Mix until well hydrated. Cover with a towel, paper towel or cheesecloth. Place on a countertop at room temperature or warmer.
Day 2. There will no or not much growth. Take out half the dough and throw it away replacing it with ½ cup high-gluten (pizza) flour and ½ cup water. Mix again and cover. This time, mark the container with tape or a Sharpie where top line of the dough is.
Day 3. There will still be very little or no growth. Repeat the process of Day 2.
Day 4. There should be a distinct growth of the dough and depending upon the temperature of the room, it may have doubled in size. If the dough has not doubled in size, repeat the process from day 2 and 3. If your starter has doubled in size, continue to train the starter.
To train your starter
Throw out half of the active starter and add 1 cup high gluten flour and 1 cup water. This will look like pancake batter and rise and fall as you feed this starter at the same time each day. The fragrance will change from ripe to sour to yogurt throughout the day. This regular feeding will build a sweet lactic acid character and the fermentation will become predictable after a few days. Start feeding your starter two times each day for two days to insure a very active starter. Now is time to either store your starter in the refrigerator to slow the fermentation process down or make a levain, which is a portion of the starter added to the final dough to rise your crust. You may scale up your levain to reach your ultimate need.
For the Levain
It is important to create a very active levain for a great rise in your final pizza. The percentage of starter in your levain build depends upon when you are going to bake with the levain next and the temperature the levain is kept at. A good rule of thumb is 20 percent starter in your levain for a 12-hour levain hold before final bake. You may need a smaller portion of flour and water for a 24-48 hour levain until you see the yeasts activities develop and the levain smelling sweet and looking bubbly.
Test your Levain
To test your levain, fill a cup of water and place a small amount of levain- it should float. Now you can add from six to 30 percent of your levain to your final batch depending upon the length of time you’ll hold the dough. (So, if you are mixing a 25-pound bag of flour, you’ll need at least 1.5 pounds of levain.) To save the levain, you can add flour to it to create a dry paste and refrigerate for later building.
John Gutekanst owns Avalanche Pizza in Athens, Ohio.