Pizza dough contains the same basic ingredients that any bread dough would have; yeast, flour and water. Most good pizza dough recipes will contain some amount of salt and oil with perhaps a little sugar. Pizza dough is very basic and simple, also every one of these ingredients do more than just flavor the dough each one has an important effect on the finished texture as well. Slightly different proportions of the ingredients will cause a noticeable difference in the finished product through taste and texture. Knowing how each one of these ingredients affect the outcome will allow you to be able to understand what is happening plus the ability to alter dough recipes to suite your own taste and preference.
Flour comes in a few main varieties that will be available at most grocery stores; all-purpose, bread, whole wheat, cake, self-rising. For any pizza dough self-rising and cake flour should never be used. This leaves all-purpose, whole wheat and bread flour to choose from. The best flour to use for making pizza dough is bread flour or flour with at least 12% protein. Bread flour should be white unbleached flour. It has higher protein content than all-purpose flour which is typically between 10-11%, the higher protein content will create dough that is more elastic so it can be easily stretched without tearing and will rise better. We find many of the national corporate brands to leave something to be desired from a flour. Instead our choice is a artisan flour company such as King Arthur or Bob’s Red Mill bread flour. Out of the national consumer flours I have found King Arthur’s Bread flour to provide the best results and has a protein content of 12.8%.
All-purpose flour has a lower protein content than bread flour. Because there is less protein the dough will not be as elastic, will not stretched as far and can tear easier and possibly a bit denser than if you had used a higher protein flour. If you must use all-purpose flour for pizza dough or any yeast based bread products try buying unbleached flour as the bleaching weakens the existing protein.
Wheat flour has a high amount of protein, about 14%, but because it is heavier flour it will not rise as well as a white flour would. If you want to create 100% whole wheat dough a gluten additive would be helpful. Substituting 25% of the white flour for whole wheat will give you a nice whole wheat taste that will be similar to the consistency of white flour which will rise similar to a 100% bread flour dough. Although not a flour cornmeal is an extremely flavorful additive to you flour mixture in small amounts as it doesn’t play well with the development of gluten proteins. It can also be used as dusting on your pizza peel which some will end up on the bottom of the crust which is very delicious. Under no circumstance should you ever use cake flour or self-rising flour. Cake flour has a low protein content and is used to make light delicate cakes and pastries, not pizza. Self-rising flour contains chemical leavening and in my opinion should never be used. If you need chemical leavening for some baked good you should add what you need yourself to the appropriate type of flour. Also if you add yeast to self rising flour you pizza could much thicker and fluffier than intended. Also Chemical leavening leaves an odd taste to the crust and is not appropriate for pizza dough.
There is some debate on the internet as to if the chemicals contained in municipal water supplies have negative effects on your dough and yeast. We have used tap water from 6 different cities and have not noticed any difference in the rise of dough as a direct result of different water source. If you feel that this may be an issue for you please find out the chemical makeup of your tap water from your city and let us know so we can gather information as to what amounts can cause problems. If you have excessive amount of chlorine in your municipal water then you may want to try filtering it or using spring water.
Just remember to check to make sure that you are using good yeast and you have not subjected the yeast to too hot of water or mixed salt in directly with yeast.
When buying yeast there are three different forms yeast for baking are sold in, the traditional fresh yeast or compressed yeast, active dry yeast and instant yeast. As you probably guessed fresh yeast has a short shelf life and must be kept cold. I wouldn’t recommend using this unless you bake professionally or just generally like perishable goods. The second is active dry which is our personal choice although requires an extra step. Active dry yeast comes in small pellets which must be dissolved in warm water first with a pinch of sugar for 5 to 10 minutes or until foamy. The wonderful advantage to active dry yeast is that this process insures the yeast is good before it goes into the dough. Instant yeast is finer grain dried yeast that can be added directly to your dough without proofing. Since its not necessary to proof instant yeast it is possible that the yeast could be dead and you would only find that out after you dough should have been rising which is probably later than you like. The flavor of bread products baked with instant yeast to be a bit lacking in flavor.
Active dry yeast can be purchased in larger containers than the packets from your grocery (1 pkg = 2¼ tsp or ¼ ounce) Redstar and Fleischmann’s yeast are the two largest brands, Redstar and Fleischmann’s yeast can be purchased in 4oz jars, sold in many groceries, as well as one and two pound bags. The larger bags purchased online is your best deal. Remember though if you buy the larger bags they should be replaced after 12 months from opening and remember to refrigerate. So what can be done to ensure our yeast gets in there and does their thing with the dough? Well as any living organism would like yeast prefers a warm, about 75-85 degree F location and moist dough to thrive as efficiently as possible. For the purpose of pizza dough you should use just enough flour so when you touch the dough with your finger it feels tacky but none of the dough sticks to your finger (about 65% hydration if using scales). Recipes are just close guidelines and sometimes more or less flour is what is needed because the moisture content of flour varies.
Sugar does more than add a little sweetness to your dough. In fact those wholesomely delicious granules have quite a profound effect on the texture and color of the crust. With no sugar you would have to basically burn your cheese and toppings for a golden color crust. For a thin crust pizza about a tablespoon of sugar per cup of flour you will easily be able to obtain a golden crust because of the caramalization of the sugar on the surface. When finished baking it may look like it would be hard and tough your crust will be soft and tender with a light crispness to it as well as a very flavorful crust to keep those taste buds wanting more.
Sugar also provides food for the yeast to create carbon dioxide and multiply. Without added sugar the yeast would have to convert the starch to sugar first so added sugar allows the yeast to get started creating carbon dioxide faster. Keep in mind though too much sugar will retard the formation of gluten strands.
We would suggest not going over one tablespoon of sugar per cup of flour and not going under a teaspoon of sugar per cup of flour for pizza dough.
Salt adds a necessary flavor to the crust and also slows down the rate of the yeast allowing a fuller and richer flavor to be produced by the yeast for the crust. More salt in your dough also causes a finer crumb or texture on the inside. The salt slows down the yeasts creation of carbon dioxide to allow for more gluten alignment in the dough during the rising. The increased strength that the dough has as a result of this keeps small air pockets from busting to form larger ones with neighboring air pockets. The extra strength that the dough has carries over when cooked by making a bit more of a chewier curst like the great pizza from New York City.
Avoid making dough without salt as the yeast will just develop too quickly and the flavor of the crust will have a strange taste. In my experience a general rule of thumb is you should not add more than one teaspoon of salt per cup of flour (125g); more than this and the taste will be too salty. This ratio of salt to flour has a noticeable taste, but not over powering and really slows down the yeast action. A half of a teaspoon per cup of flour balances well with flavors and a general starting point. If you want larger air pockets in your crust then try a quarter teaspoon per cup of flour as a minimum amount of salt per cup of flour.
Oils, Shortening and Fats
Oils, shortening, butter or any other fats come in to play by coating some of the flour thus shortening the gluten strands or keeping them from completely developing together. Without fats the gluten strands created by the manipulation of flour and water would eventually completely develop to form dough that is quite tough and chewy when baked. Although this texture isn’t considered bad it’s not always desirable for this amount of development for pizza dough. A small amount of fats keep this from happening plus add flavor and moisture.
The order you add the fat to your dough affects the characteristics of the crust. If you add it to the flour before any other liquids then you can create a flakier crust depending on the amount of fat vs. water. If you mix the fats with the other liquids before adding the flour you eliminate the flaky variable and get the effects of the fat distributed very evenly. This order is preferred for pizza dough.
Oil is the most used fat for pizza dough. Oil is very effective at shortening the gluten strands however it does lack in its ability to trap air bubbles for this application that shortcoming will not cause an issue especially because of the small amount used. Shortening or Crisco and margarine does a great job of shortening the gluten strands and very effective at trapping air bubbles at the same time making a tasty and moist product. Since more fat is used in a Chicago style pizza, Crisco works out better than oils because of its ability to retain more air bubbles thus causing the dough to rise better under the weight of the toppings. Real butter includes fat and milk and is less effective than shortening/ margarine but has better flavor.