Leah Scurto blends art, science in dough making
The competitive pizza scene has proven to be a launch pad for some of today’s most successful pizzerias. In addition, competition has become a laboratory for innovation and a great way to stay on top of up and coming trends and innovations. Even if you have no intention of entering a contest, there is a lot that can be learned from the pizzaioli who are consistent winners on the competitive stage.
While there are now thousands of competition level pizza makers it’s clear that a handful truly stand out and are consistently called to the champions podium. Even if you are just a casual observer there is a good chance you’ve run into Leah Scurto, one of America’s leading pizza makers.
Leah has been honing her craft for over 22 years. Raised in a restaurant family, she began her pizza career slinging slices at the popular regional chain Pizza My Heart in Santa Cruz, California. She recently moved on to develop her own concept, PizzaLeah (opening soon in Windsor, California). Leah credits her first pizza employer, Chuck Hammers, as a major influence — along with her former Pizza My Heart colleague Lars Smith and her mentor, Tim Silva.
Her new pizzeria will focus on local ingredients and spotlight a plethora of artisan farmers, cheese makers, brewers, wine makers and butchers. Her dedication to craft, backed by years of experience and a masterful command of the dough making process, promise that her new restaurant will become a pizza mecca in Sonoma County.
So how does this happy pizza warrior use her competition experience to develop world class pizza dough? Leah starts her creative process by first forming a very specific vision of what the finished product should be. Once that is defined, experience and knowledge are applied to get the desired result. She will select a flour type or blend and choose a hydration level. Understanding how each variable — including ingredients, methods and technique — effect the completed dough is critical. She begins by using a formula she is familiar with and then starts tweaking to fine tune by modifying with pre-ferments and a variety of mixing methods. From there it becomes a matter of constant calculated experimentation. The process is particularly time consuming because in order to understand the cause of different results the pizza maker must discipline themselves to only change one variable at a time. Her rosemary-infused pan pizza dough took several months to develop and resulted in a second place finish at Pizza Expo.
Although dough making is an art, it is first and foremost a science — so the basic rules of scientific research should always be applied. Leah advises that strict control of time and temperature are crucial to creating consistent high quality pizza dough. As she states “time and temperature can be your best friend or your worst enemy”. This is especially true when competing, where conditions are often unfamiliar and less than ideal. One of the many benefits of this type of experience is that it prepares you to adjust to unavoidable challenges that will occur in the day to day operation of your pizzeria.
Leah describes her ideal dough by starting with particular tactile qualities. “It should be silky, airy and soft, but strong. It should be well fermented and have a scent that is buttery and more sweet than sour”. She strives for a “nice crunch that gives way to a nice chewy center. Balance is key.”
Leah began her career as a rare woman in the male-dominated world of NY-style pizza making. She has had to win over her share of skeptics, so it is no wonder that she is a bit of a rebel when it comes to tradition. However, she is emphatic that you must begin with fundamental skills before stepping out of the box and experimenting. Above all else Leah is a big advocate of collaboration in our industry and cites camaraderie and a sense of community as her primary reason for participating in pizza-making competitions. As she notes, “If you listen you’ll most likely learn a thing or two.” One of the things she’s learned is that “to have a great product you must start with the highest quality ingredients.” To this end she uses only filtered water, unbleached and unbromated flour and high-quality extra virgin olive oil.
Leah shared her base dough, which she uses as a starting point for her variations.
100% High Gluten Flour
63% Filtered Water
0.8% Fresh Yeast
2.5% Kosher Salt
Put water in mixing bowl and dissolve yeast. Add flour and mix on speed 1 for 4 minutes. Cover dough and allow it to rest for 20 minutes. Sprinkle in salt and mix for 3 minutes on speed 1. With mixer continuing to run slowly add oil over the course of 4 minutes. Finish mixing for an additional 2 minutes until all ingredients are incorporated. Bench rest for 30 minutes and then bulk ferment dough for 24 to 48 hours. Remove the dough from the cooler and let it warm to 55 degrees F. Divide and round dough and place dough back in the cooler for 18 to 30 hours. Bring dough back to room temperature before using.
John Arena co-owns Metro Pizza in Las Vegas.