It all starts somewhere, and where it starts can make a huge difference
Everyone knows, or at least they should, that the most important part of a pizza is the dough. It is what defines the style of pie you are making, holds up the gorgeous sauce you spoon on top and the bubbly cheese you smother it in. Yes, I know some people judge a pie by the latter two, but without crust there is just a sloppy mess of ingredients. The dough is also what makes each pizzeria unique. Flour, water, salt and yeast. All staple ingredients. What your process is can set you apart from others that are doing similar styles. Are you using a direct or indirect method? Do you use a mother dough? If so, is it a sourdough starter, biga or poolish? I’ve played around with all of these methods and each creates a different final product.
By using a direct method, all of your ingredients are incorporated in a single stage of production. With an indirect method, a pre-ferment such as a biga, poolish or levan is mixed in advance of the dough and allowed to ferment. It is then added to the dough, using multiple stages.
John Arena, owner of Metro Pizza in Las Vegas, points out that the method you use is often determined by time and space. “Crucial to either method is an appreciation for time as a major component of dough flavor and structure. Each method is actually just a different way to manipulate time. Direct method has the advantage of simplicity. If you have the space to do extended fermentation, direct method can yield outstanding results that are very manageable. Indirect method is a way to add depth and complexity to dough by manipulating time. In essence, adding a pre-ferment gives your dough maturity in less time because the pre-ferment has been allowed to age without a yeast inhibitor (salt).”
The direct method seems to be more common in a lot of old-school places. And, when done correctly, it can make a fantastic dough. That’s not to say that the younger generation of pizzaioli can’t master the method. Last year at the Caputo Cup in Naples, Italy, Laura Meyer of Capo’s in San Francisco not only competed with a direct dough … but won the whole competition. Her pizza had everything you want in a dough: great structure, complexity of flavor and texture. While she is normally a fan of using a starter method, by utilizing time and fermentation she created an outstanding pie.
However, not every pizzeria has the time or space for extended periods of fermentation. Which is why a lot of the new artisan pizza makers are utilizing the indirect method of making dough. Why would you use one pre-ferment over another? They are all very unique in their own way, yielding different results.
Sourdough starters are probably the most diverse. A starter is basically cultivating the wild yeast that is in the air by mixing flour and water together. Each will be a little different depending on what bacteria is in their air, what kind of flour they incorporate and how often they feed it. Maintaining a sourdough starter also takes a little more attention than some of the other methods. They require longer bulk ferments and a watchful eye depending on the temperature and time of year. However, I feel that it is well worth the added effort.
While a sourdough starter is a natural yeast, bigas and poolish are both pre-ferments using commercial yeast. The difference in the two is the hydration level. A poolish is much wetter, using a 1:1 ratio of flour and water. Meanwhile, a biga is a little drier using a 2:1 ratio flour to water. You can use instant dry yeast (IDY), Active Dry Yeast (ADY) or fresh yeast, but Arena points out that it is helpful to be consistent in the type you use. In his own wise words, “Using the same ingredient over and over will develop an almost intuitive sense of how the ingredient performs. In time you will develop a rhythm and relationship with your dough and your methods.”
Even if you use a set type of yeast and method, it’s always great to play around and know how to utilize other methods. Especially in times as uncertain as the pandemic. Sourdough has seen a bump in popularity and curiosity from pizza makers and home bakers alike. The idea of a looming commercial yeast shortage may have contributed to that.
Tony Cerimele of New Columbus Pizza in Pennsylvania recently started incorporating a sourdough starter into his mix of already diverse doughs. While he still uses a direct method with yeast for his famed New Forge Style pie that his family has been making and selling since the 1950s, he is exploring using a natural starter for his other styles.
“What the pandemic has made us do is learn to become efficient with a natural starter,” he says. “I always wanted to learn how to use and maintain one, so there is no better time than now. I am sure we will not run out of yeast. But, just in case, we will be prepared.”
What method you use depends on what you’re trying to achieve in your final product. Meyer tends to lean towards using a poolish because she likes the acidic content and flavor that comes with it. “I like the starter method because you make it the night before and then mix it into your dough … and then, voila! With the direct method there’s a little bit more work on the pizza maker’s part,” she says. By taking this simple extra step your dough has layers of added complexity in both flavor and texture. You can also manipulate a direct dough into getting these qualities by giving it a longer bulk ferment.
I’ve found over the years that my process of dough making is what affects the final product the most. When I switched from using a poolish to a sourdough starter, my overall recipe didn’t change very drastically. What changed was how I manipulated the process. Instead of giving it a short bench rest of only 30 minutes, we now do a five-hour bulk rise. We also do an autolyse, which is basically letting the dough rest after combing the flour and water. This strengthens the dough, gives it elasticity and forms the gluten structure. These changes are not exclusive to using a sourdough starter. But making this change forced me to become more knowledgeable about my own dough process and revisit techniques that I forgot about in the daily grind of my restaurant.
Cerimele echoes my feelings. He has also evolved his dough process from when he started: “(It used to be) everything in at one time when the mixer was turned on,” he says. “Now we start with a 30-minute autolyse, and the ingredients are all timed for best hydration and temperatures. I feel that really improved the quality of the dough.”
I guess what I’m trying to say is that, no matter what method you use, your dough can be improved by small tweaks in the process without changing the recipe. Even if you don’t want to use a sourdough starter or poolish, you never know what you’re going to learn from just exploring something new.
Audrey Kelly is the owner and pizzaiola at Audrey Jane’s Pizza Garage in Boulder, CO.