Herb infused doughs or crusts are one of those things that seems to keep coming and going. It gets popular for a short time — and then it disappears, only to come back again after a few years. For some of us, though, it has found a home on our menu boards as a variation to regular pizza crusts.
A few years ago, when herb-flavored crusts were all the rage with a number of large chains, we looked at what it took to make a great, herb-flavored crust. The first thing that we discovered was that if you opt to use dried herbs, as many of us do, the best flavor is achieved when using fresh stocks of dried herbs. As the dried herbs age, they lose a good deal of their rounded flavor profile. This results in the need to use more of the dried herb to achieve the targeted flavor characteristic and ultimately leads to increased cost of production and lower consumer acceptance. When the dried herbs are taken from fresh stock, the amount of herbs needed to achieve the desired flavor intensity is less, and the resulting flavor is more rounded (having a better “bouquet”) — while used at a lower, more economical level.
A couple things to keep in mind when working with dried herbs, whether it be for use in dough or sauce: they lose flavor intensity with extended storage time, especially when stored at room or elevated temperatures. The volatile flavor compounds that form the flavor profile of the herb(s) are steam distillable, meaning that they are quickly released in a hot, moist environment. This is why a sauce or dough made with herbs smells so good while it is being cooked or baked.
Another thing to keep in mind is that the flavor volatiles in the herbs are oil soluble, meaning that they are easily trapped in oil; hence the popularity of infused oils. We can use this characteristic to our advantage to achieve a better-flavored crust while using the herbs at a lower level for reduced cost. To accomplish this, simply put your dried herbs into the oil that you plan to add to the recipe/formula and allow them to absorb the oil for a few minutes before incorporating with the other ingredients. This helps to retain more of the volatile flavor compounds, resulting in a better, more rounded flavor profile at a reduced herb level.
The use of fresh, green leaf herbs, such as sweet basil and oregano, thyme, dill and rosemary, can also be used to replace their dried counterparts with excellent results. We’re all familiar with the pungent flavor of dried basil and oregano, but when the fresh non-dried product is used, the flavor is entirely different. Rather than being pungent, the flavor is best described as sweet, almost perfume like. All that is necessary to use the fresh herbs is to chop them fine. Or, one thing that I have done many times is to puree them in a food processor or blender with a little olive or salad oil and then add this to the dough or sauce. In this case, the smaller particle size of the herbs can improve the appearance of the finished crust when added to the dough. During the baking process, the heat will release the flavors of the herbs — but rather than allowing them to escape the product with the steam, they are entrapped in the oil and a greater portion of those aromatic volatiles remain with the product to be savored by the consumer when enjoying your pizzas or bread sticks.
In addition to flavor and aroma, some herbs may also bring along a little additional “baggage” in the form of dough softening. Such is the case with both onion and garlic. To reduce the dough softening effects of garlic and onion, the only course of action is to keep the total level of addition (for both dried onion and garlic) to not much more than .15 percent of the total fl our weight. This is roughly ¼-ounce for each 10 pounds of fl our. If you are forming your dough skins by the hot press method, or if you are using a commercial dough relaxer to reduce snap back at forming, you might be able to capitalize on this characteristic by using this dough softening effect to replace your commercial dough softener/reducer, thus helping to off set the cost of the flavoring materials.
One last trick that I would like to share: when using onion or garlic, use it in a chopped or diced form. As such, there is much less surface area exposed for any given amount, as compared to a powdered or small, granular form. This means that there will be less opportunity for the onion or garlic to interact with the dough and soften it. At the same time, the larger particle size will give a more significant burst of flavor when bitten into than we normally get when using these materials in a powdered or granular form. A little experimentation may allow you to add more of the onion and/or garlic directly to the dough without getting the excessive dough softening.
By using herbs, you can create some distinctly different flavored crusts that will complement toppings such as chicken, fish and seafood, just to name a few.
Tom Lehmann is a director at the American Institute of Baking in Manhattan, Kansas.