When you enter through the back of most small independent pizzerias, one of the first things you see is flour. Stacks of it. The brilliant irony of entering the dragon through the back is that this is the place where your pizza is born. That flour is the foundation of what your pizza identity is. Every pizza starts with flour combined with other ingredients to make a base. This base is what defines you and your business. It distinguishes you from your lazy and bloated corporate competitors whose flour is never touched by human hands. This base can bring more customers, employ more people, keep you in business and enable you to feed and clothe your family. The base is serious stuff and using a pre-fermented starter can only make it better.
Breads and their form had been thought to be baked for over 20,000 years until recent finds in a Neanderthal cave exposed a pancake style flatbread made with local seeds dating back 70,000 years. The use of natural yeasts has been common throughout history and made a big debut in the days of the Roman Republic. The bakers (called pistor or triticarius) preferred a pre-ferment made with millet flour mixed with must from beer making. This was set aside to ferment, then it was dried in the sun for use in bread dough. The Romans also used dough balls of barley and water baked brown in ashes and kept until it fermented. But the most common pre-ferment method that is still popular today —Pâte fermentée — was the use of a previous days’ dough to add into a new batch of panus, or bread.
Friend or Dough
The two types of flour mixes in any pizzeria are the direct method and the indirect method.
The Direct Method: This is flour that is directly mixed with yeast, salt and water. This method sets off an alcoholic fermentation leading to alcohol and carbon dioxide that raises the dough. There are many factors in manipulating the outcome of this dough including changing the temperature, mixing methods and holding time before using. This mix is less flavorful than the indirect or sourdough mix and may give you less dough strength.
Advantages of direct method in pizza making: The mixture can be highly predictable, less sloppy and may fit your schedule and staff’s attentiveness. There are many delicious examples of direct method like the Roman-style pan pizzas that use higher hydration and a long cold refrigeration method of up to 72 hours creating a large cell structure and a crisp and light pan pizza flavored with extra virgin.
The Indirect Method: This is a final batch of pizza dough that is made using another, smaller batch of commercially yeasted flour and water that has been aged. This method with a lower hydration is called a Biga. The French Poolish has a higher hydration and the Pâte fermentée is a salted, old dough saved from the last batch of pizza dough. Adding these pre-ferments to your final mix puts your pizza dough on “hyper-drive” enabling you to use it faster.
Advantages of indirect method in pizza making: Because the indirect method introduces an already fermenting bacteria into your pizza dough batch, it will enable a stronger gluten net, moister cell structure, better taste and browning of the cornicione (crust.) Each pre-ferment has its own qualities depending upon the hydration.
There is a BIG conversation in the pizza web and social media space about the consequences of using a pre-ferment or not. Much of the push back is that because it is “pizza” and not “bread,” that the change in taste, structure and bake of the crust is nominal and goes unnoticed by trusted customers. These excuses come from the belief that the cheese, sauce and toppings on a pizza tone down the importance of the crust and crumb. This business is hard and unforgiving so the backstory of some of these comments may come from the hardship of keeping a crew trained and dedicated to taking more steps to improve pizza dough. Shortcuts and the “easy ways” are hard to ignore both financially and for all our stress levels. As a business owner, I get it. It’s a tough call and it’s up to you which way to go.
Because each pre-ferment has differing qualities, you can choose to use one that matches best to the qualities that you want for your specific pizza crust. The following is just a guide for better tasting pizza dough — only you can match your best pre-ferment to your operation. I use all these and sometimes a combination of one with some sourdough starter in my pizza dough. Here are some specifics for each pre-ferment remembering that these may vary depending upon flour protein levels, the grind, PH levels, the environment and water temperature. Let’s take a deep dive.
- Pâte fermentée (old dough, or scrap dough): This is pronounced (pot fer mawn TAY) simply a piece of fermented pizza dough saved from the last batch. I chop this up and put it in warm water to create what is called a “soaker” which will better integrate into the final pizza dough mix. This is the only pre-ferment that contains salt as well as flour, water and yeast and is very forgiving. The usual amount is 40 to 50 percent based only on the total weight of your flour. So, if 10 pounds of flour is used, four to five pounds of old dough can be used. This old dough should be used at the end of the pizza dough mix because its gluten net is already developed.
- Poolish: (This originated in Poland.) Equal parts of flour and water (100-percent flour, 100-percent water) are mixed into a thin starter with varying percentages of yeast depending on the speed of fermentation you need. Because of the high amount of water, a poolish is very active. A long fermentation at room temperature with very little yeast will struggle and bubble, increasing in volume and at its peak will appear wrinkled and fragrant and start to fall back down and only be good to use for a few hours. A shorter fermentation using more yeast will create fermentation faster, but you may lose some of the pre-ferment benefits. For one percent of dry yeast to flour (three percent fresh yeast) the fermentation time is two hours, but this may not help with flavor or bake. Better pizza crust qualities are 0.5 percent of dry yeast to flour for four hours, 0.28 percent dry yeast to flour for eight hours, or 0.08 percent for 13 to 16 hours. It is important to know that because you are using so little yeast that you may need to add yeast to the final batch also.
- Biga: (This is Italian for starter or pre-ferment.) The typical formula for a biga is 100 percent flour, 50 to 60 percent water and 0.8-1.5 percent fresh yeast. This formula varies widely depending upon the hydration and room and water temperatures. This stiff dough ferments slower and can be fermented from 16 to even 48 hours depending upon temperature control. If it is too hot, this pre-ferment will exhibit too much lactic acid activity.
Catch Dough Starters, Part II where John details sourdough starters in next issue’s Knead to Know column.
John Gutekanst owns Avalanche Pizza in Athens, Ohio.