Walk through the Pizza Process
Everyone’s ideal pizza will look, taste and feel differently. The key to building your perfect pie is understanding how to utilize different dough methods and how they will change your final product, picking the right tomatoes, cheese and toppings as well as when and how you add ingredients to your pizza.
Let’s start with the dough. Depending on what style of pizza you are making, the ingredients and dough process will be different. The one thing that all doughs should have in common though, is proper fermentation. It is when the proteins in flour combine with water to create gluten. Yeast (whether commercial or natural) is added and consumes the simple sugars in the dough to create carbon dioxide bubbles. With the addition of salt, a stronger bond and gluten net form, causing the dough to rise and age. If you think about it, the slower and longer this process is, the resulting crust will be more dynamic by creating lots of airy bubbles and flavor in the dough. That being said, you don’t want to over ferment dough. Once there is no more fresh flour for the yeast to oxidize, the dough will turn flat and sour, thus not rising. That is why it is important to pick the right flour and hydration for your fermentation process and time.
Certain flours are synonymous with specific types of pizzas, but there is so much more to a flour than just the company that produces it. A few things to look for are:
- Protein percentage: the higher the protein of a flour the longer the fermentation time can and will be.
- W Factor: the extensibility of the dough or the strength of the gluten in the flour. A flour with less gluten, or a soft flour will be between W180-250. A strong flour will be between W250-300.
- Grind of the Flour: Measured on a scale from 00-2 with 00 being the finest and 2 the coarsest.
- Bleached or unbleached: Bleached flour uses a chemical aging process whereas unbleached doesn’t.
After you settle on your flour, the next important decision in dough is whether you use a Direct Method (mixing flour directly with yeast, salt, water and any other ingredients in your dough) or Indirect Method (A two-stage process to making dough using either a Biga, Poolish, Pate-ferment or sourdough starter).
While a lot of thought and experimentation should go into finding the right dough, the toppings can be just as important since they are the first thing that hits a person’s taste buds while devouring a slice. I’m a big believer that your sauce will only be as good as the tomatoes that go into it. That’s because it you use a quality tomato you don’t need to add very much else. The flavor of the fruit speaks for itself. There are a lot of different types and brands of tomatoes available, each bringing a unique flavor and texture to your final product. Almost everyone is partial to one or another. This can be dependent on the style you are making, where you live or what dominant flavor you look for in a tomato. For example, if you make certified VPN Neapolitan pizza, you definitely want to use DOP San Marzano tomatoes. This particular variety is only grown in the fertile soil under Mount Vesuvius in the Campania region of Italy. If your pizza style doesn’t need a specific tomato, there are a few really great options that are grown in the USA or Italy. Whatever you choose, you want to make sure they have a bright flavor and color as well as a good mouthfeel. A few of the different tomatoes you can buy are: whole peeled, strips, crushed/ground with skins on or off, or tomato purees. Blending a few varieties can create a balanced sauce without having to add additional sugar. Almost all pizza sauces should be uncooked. There are, of course, exception, such as using a sauce that needs to be cooked down with other ingredients like onions or Guanciale. The reason that it should be uncooked is that it cooks in the oven and you want to retain the sweet, bright flavor of the tomatoes.
Cheese. Pizza people stand by their brand of cheese and will almost never waiver or change. I’ve used the same brand since opening, but every year we re-try other brands or new ones that have emerged. My brother and I will do a blind taste test but every time we land on the one we have always used. The reason for revisiting it every year? The price. Whether you use fresh mozzarella, blocks or even stretch it yourself, cheese is one of the most expensive components on your pie. Yes, tomatoes and flour are expensive these days too, but the quantity you use per pizza compared to cheese is much, much smaller. My brother jokes that we should have a market price for slices depending on how much the cheese is.
Aside from the brand of cheese, a few things to look at for mozzarella cheese are:
- Milk fat percentage: do you want whole milk, part skim or a blend? I am a big believer in whole milk mozzarella. That grease drip that comes off your folded slice? Pure goodness. However, if you’re looking for a cheese that gives a good pull (think Insta worthy), part skim will be more your jam.
- Pre-shredded or blocks: Pre-shredded is obviously easier and very consistent. The downside is that a lot of brands add an anti-caking agent to them which gives the cheese a grittier texture. They are also usually more expensive than block cheese but that also is determined by your labor costs. If you buy the blocks you can either shred it or slice it. Slicing has the advantage of being very consistent for portioning.
- Mozzarella or blend: Mozzarella is the most common cheese on pizza but obviously different styles have different cheeses. Certain brands are coming out with mozzarella blends (cheddar, provolone, etc.).
Once you’ve decided on your dough, sauce and cheese, it’s time to consider any additional toppings. When and how you put on toppings can change the way a pizza tastes and feels in your mouth. If you put cheese on top of the sauce it will taste different than if you put it on the bottom. If you pinch on fresh sausage rather than add on sliced links it will interact with the other toppings differently. Certain things should always go on before the bake: raw meats, certain veggies and cheeses. While others should go on after: Arugula, cured meats, finishing cheeses and oils.
The type of oven should also be a consideration when building your ideal pie. Whether you use gas, electric, wood or coal, the choice will affect the structure, texture and flavor of your pizza. Each type and brand bakes differently so it is a personal choice. You can manipulate it with certain things like what bench flour you use, the temperature you bake at (hot and fast or low and slow), whether or not you use a screen and how long your dough has been out.
As you can see, creating your perfect pizza really comes down to time and temperature, picking the right flour, tomatoes and cheese as well as toppings. There are a few other things that I live by when making a pizza, or really any dish for that matter. Never underestimate the value of a really good olive oil. Don’t forget to salt and as I tell my Little Slices, salt in stages.
Really, the bottom line is, stay true to your pizza and dough but take the necessary steps to make it properly fermented, structurally sound and acceptably topped. Most importantly, never stop learning and trying to improve your craft.
Don’t miss Audrey’s Demo at Pizza Expo 2024
Wednesday, 10:15 am -11:15 am
D05 Demo: How to Build a Better Pie
Audrey Kelly, Owner/Pizzaiola, Speaker, Audrey Jane’s Pizza
Type: Demo | Track: Demo | Room No: Show Floor Demo Area
Audrey Kelly owns Audrey Jane’s Pizza Garage in Boulder, Colorado.