Whoever wants to make pizza not just occasionally, should occupy themselves with this marvellous thing made of just four ingredients. You should not take everything you hear for granted and spoon-fed, but on the other hand you can quickly reach spheres that belong to science – that would probably be too much.
So, here I would like to share some basic and newbie-friendly explanations of what happens inside a dough, which parameters have influence on it, and how they actually make an impact. I presume a very basic knowledge about what proteins, sugars (polysaccharides and simple sugars), enzymes and micro organisms are.
Beforehand, I’d like to explain some terms and abbreviations from the pizza slang, which you will meet later on.
Relative amount of water in a dough to the flour quantity, e.g.: 60% hydration are 600 grams of water on 1000 grams of flour.
Salt and occasionally yeast quantities are stated in percents, too, as it is advantageous when it comes to recalculating quantities.
Particularly when it comes to long maturation times, you will often notice a use of various temperatures. Important to understand is that not the temperatures around the dough are meant, but it’s all about the actual dough’s (core) temperature. Meaning that it has to be considered that it takes a while until those temperatures are actually reached, and this in turn is depending from the actual bulk size and of course the temperature difference.
Generally, these terms are used:
- Room Temperature (RT)
Actually clear, it’s the temperature in the room. This can fluctuate over the day and depending on the weather, thus I’d assume an average of 23°C / 73°F, as given in the regulations for the True Neapolitan Pizza.
- Controlled Temperature (CT)
You could “misread” this as “Cold Temperatures”, which wouldn’t be that wrong though. This is basically just the fridge’s inside temperature. In domestic fridges, it commonly lies around 4-7°C / 39-44°F.
- Room Temperature (RT)
- True Neapolitan Pizza (“Verace Pizza Napoletana”, “VPN”)
This is an internationally protected “brand”, more precisely a “Traditional Specialties Guaranteed” product. It may only be sold under this name from manufacturers licensed by the “Associazione Verace Pizza Napoletana” (AVPN). The license is granted only if you precisely stick to the international regulations, which can be found in a 14-pages strong document you can download here.
The pizza dough’s basic principle
A simple pizza dough consists of four components. Each of these has got at least one essential task and is therefore important for the dough. Bringing them together and correctly working them sets multiple processes into motion, which we are going to take advantage of.
Compressed into simple words, this is what occurs:
When two particular proteins (gliadin and glutenin) get in contact with water, they combine and form the infamous gluten.
Applying pressure by kneading the dough in a correct manner will cause them to “inweave” and build a kind of structure or mesh, which is very important for us.
The yeast in the dough feeds on sugars (polysaccharides like starch, which also gets decomposed to simple sugars over time). During the fermentation, the yeast accretes and excretes metabolites such as carbon dioxide (CO2), which is a gas. This gas will “aerate” (extend and loosen) the dough.
The gluten mesh meanwhile holds everything together. The gas cannot escape and forms pockets, the dough remains in shape. This works to a certain degree, underlining the importance of a very present and strong gluten mesh. Salt strengthens it as well, so it is not just a flavor component.
The fermentation is an essential (and a very quick) but by far not the only part of the maturation. Many other processes take place, among them several enzymatic activities. At contact with water, enzymes are “activated” such as:
These decompose sugars, e.g. starch to simple sugars, in turn favoring the yeast’s activity, and
These decompose proteins and basically work as a kind of predigestion. Thus, a long maturation eases the digestion work our stomach has to perform.
Indeed, gluten is a protein, but mostly does not get decomposed however.
Different parameters‘ influences
There are various changing paramaters, which have an impact in different ways on our dough, and these should be treated as a kind of “overall concept”. If you’re changing one, you must adapt the others. There are, in fact, calculators that consider nearly all parameters.
The temperatures are one of the keys for nearly everything inside a dough. With their help, we can more or less coordinate the processes in the dough and make some sort of magic happen. The principle again is simple:
Yeast loves higher temperatures. Its highest activity takes place around 35°C / 95°F. Above and below that, the activity level declines rather quickly.
However, at average room temperatures, the yeast still works much faster than the enzymes, and in order to limit its activity and at the same time to not damage the dough, lower temperatures are the key. The enzymatic processes do not get decelerated as much as the fermentation.
We all call an according device our own: The fridge! With its help, we can set the stage for a long maturation. The dough’s flavor/fragrance and the digestibility will strongly profit from it, at not least, the dough will become very stretchy, thus easy to spread.
Time is, as read above, another important factor. The dough maturation does not happen suddenly, but needs several hours. Of course we can raise temperatures and/or the yeast quantity, but then the dough will lack of taste (and digestibility) eventually.
For the True Neapolitan Pizza, the regulations recommend maturation periods of minimum 8 hours and maximum 24 hours. Let me mention that their temperature requirement is fixed at 23°C and thus the yeast quantities must be adapted accordingly – a good example for the parameter correllation.
Regarding the ideal maturation times, opinions collide! Some prefer 12 hours, whereas others swear by 72 hours. Well, it depends on nearly everything there is to consider: How much time do you have? What’s the temperature setting? Which hydration and which flour are being used? Which characteristics shall the final product have? And so on.
If you just want to make a decent pizza without totally wracking your brains, I’d recommend to play it safe and to go for a 24 hour maturation.
The case is clear: Plenty of yeast will lead to high activity – but as described above, we would veer away from the optimum. Yeast accretes relatively well at its feel-good temperatures, so that little yeast is absoultely sufficient for long maturation times.
Otherwise we run the risk that the yeast eats all the sugars and the dough gets into a state of overfermentation, or we have to proceed before the dough has reached the desired maturity.
The hydration does not really influence the processes inside the dough.
Depending on the flour, processing, and maturation times & temperatures, it will become noticeable during the further handling. The dough structure changes during long CT phases and a relatively high hydration might lead to a wetter, stickier dough.
A relatively highly hydrated dough will need longer cooking times to avoid a gummy consistency as final result. In order not to eventually burn the pizza in the oven, lower cooking temperatures should be chosen.
The kneading, similarly to the hydration, does not really have a direct impact on the processes inside the dough.
However, a good and correct kneading will help us gain a strong gluten mesh, which in turn keeps the dough in shape and the gas and water in, so it will not flatten out and not get wet and sticky.
Final tips for the handling
Please be aware that a dough reacts to each and every application of energy. Particularly when being stretched, the dough (or better the gluten in it) will get “nervous”, meaning that it becomes very tenacious and elastic and will tend to return to its original shape/size.
Therefore it is very important to let the dough sit for at least 10 minutes, better more, after it has been stretched in any way. For instance I would absolutely not recommend to cut a dough bulk into single portions right before “opening” (forming the actual pizza crust) it, no matter how little time you have got. And even if you opened the dough only after two hours rest, but overdo it, it might become very stubborn.
So, besides time, it is also a question of techniques and the right dosage of energy. More information on that to come!