Documenting and controlling variables is vital to batch testing your pizza dough
Practice makes perfect. As someone who has taken part in sports and pizza competitions for many years, this is a phrase that I have heard very often. In the beginning this used to frustrate me because if you take the phrase literally, it implies that after just a bit of practice perfection is achieved. But the thing that myself and everyone seems to miss is that the phrase does not specify how much practice is required to achieve perfection.
Perfection in the pizza game is so subjective that the definition of perfection probably changes daily. As you learn more about fermentation, you learn that there are multiple variables that can affect your final product. The change of any one variable can produce a dough or final pizza that is structurally very different or produces a very different flavor profile than intended. This is where practice comes in. Practice with the goal of perfection may be the intention, but practice for me is to learn how to manipulate every variable with the goal of consistency.
When creating something new, it can seem daunting and a huge undertaking. As an operator, new items can mean exciting times of change and growth opportunities, but it can also mean added stress if not executed properly. A big plus to doing test batches is being able to not only develop an amazing new item but also a time to develop all your processes from start to finish and fine tune your recipe. New items do not need to be cringeworthy. All you need is practice and a good
system of documentation.
When making a test batch of dough, all factors should be documented. Whether you keep a notebook or use photos or even record your voice, you should be getting in the habit of documenting, so you have a point of reference. For those who are not used to writing things down, it can be tedious as well as hard to know what information is important. For dough, the recipe with weights is a great first step. Just make sure to pick a single unit of measure for every ingredient. If you are using baker’s percentages, add those in. Big things to include are temperatures and times.
Most pizzerias only have one mixer, but knowing at what point during the mix are you toggling to a different speed if you have it? Knowing what temperature your beginning water and starter are and then your final temperature of the completed dough? How long are you bench resting and at what temperature? Are you bulk fermenting or shaping and going right into the fridge? How long is your dough sitting in the fridge for? Times and temperatures are critical to dough management, and documenting as many variables as possible is crucial to understanding why your final pizza turned out the way it did. If you do not document, it is easy not only to forget what you did but also lose track of the big picture. In fermentation, things don’t happen out of chance. There is always a reaction due to various factors that can explain it even if it is seemingly minute.
After you’ve successfully made your first test batch and documented everything, it is time to do it all over again. Can you duplicate what you did initially or are you looking to make changes? When reaching for perfection, you quickly learn that it is seemingly impossible to achieve because you are always changing which means your pizza is always changing.
One big mistake that I see with people when they practice is that they are trying to change too many things in one go. Since there are so many variables that can alter dough, whether it’s the structure, flavor or lifespan, I recommend making one change at a time. I know to an operator this can seem crazy because who has the time to make hundreds of test batches for one final product? The problem with changing too many things at once is that you’ll never know which change is what made it better or worse.
For most operators, we’re looking to make the best product possible with the least number of complications and the easiest process to follow and duplicate. I know of some great pizza makers that have documented every single batch of dough they have ever made. Although this habit is tedious to some, it is great because it always gives you a frame of reference to fall back on, and if you look close enough it will give you all the information you will need to make great dough. Forming the habit is the hardest part. On the operations side, having the history from the previous year is great so you can anticipate busy or slow days or pitfalls in the business. Having the same history for your dough is just as important. You learn where you made mistakes and how to not repeat them and you also learn where and how your successes happened.
Another thing I always take into consideration is my surroundings. I never make a batch in perfect conditions because perfect conditions rarely exist. If you are lucky enough to have a temperature-controlled dough room, I for one am jealous. Since I don’t have one, I try and mimic the conditions of my restaurant. Whether it’s making the test batch at the same time you make the rest of your dough or cooking the dough during normal service times, this will give you a true representation of how your dough will perform.
All in all, practice is necessary if you want to make great pizza for more than just a day. If you want to be a great operator and a success story, practice and practice often. In the beginning what you learn most during your test batches are all the things not to do and all the things you don’t like about pizza. Over time with consistency and repetition practice gives you knowledge that makes future test batches easier. With the right tools and proper documentation, practice will get you closer and closer to making that perfect pie.
LAURA MEYER is owner of Pizzeria da Laura in Berkeley, CA.