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Pizza Part One: It’s All About the Crust!

Pizza Part One: It’s all about the Crust!
By Kevin McQuade
(for wood-fired oven recipes and more see

Pizza recipes are all over the web. Do it this way, that way, use this flour, that cheese, this oil, etc… it’s crazy! We are all nuts for a good pizza, and everyone thinks they have the secret recipe. So lets talk about the basics, and then I will recommend that you experiment a little – to find what works best for you.

Part One of this series begins with a discussion of three elements:

  1. Dough
  2. Pizza oven temperature
  3. Cooking surface

Of course this starts with flour, but before I get into the flour, we need just a little math. It’s easy, I promise. The final dough you produce is all about the ratio of flour to water, called the hydration ratio. A classic French Baguette for example, is about 65% water. The water percentage is determined based on the total flour used. So lets say you have 10 oz. (284.7 gm.) of flour, 65% of 10 = 6.5 oz. So if you use 10 oz. of flour + 6.5 oz. water, you will end up with 16.5 oz. dough ball that is 65% water. (Incidentally a 16 oz. dough ball would bake a 16-17 inch pizza! I usually make my dough balls about 10oz) Nice big Ciabatta (American style) type breads are often about 85% water, that’s why they are so floppy looking and have those nice big holes! Since they have so much water, it’s hard to shape them so they are formed loosely in a slipper shape.

What you will quickly realize is that if you want to try different dough hydrations – you need a scale! Get a scale. It does not work with volumes because1 cup of flour is not the same weight as 1 cup of salt, 1 cup of butter, or 1 cup of water. So you need to equate ingredients by weight. The lowest % hydration I have seen using Italian 00 flour is 50%, but more commonly its 60-65%, for All-Purpose and bread flours, they can handle more water, up to 70% is still workable – with some added effort. For me, I vary, about 60% for 00 and 68-70% for All Purpose (AP) type flours. Also the higher hydration dough’s seem to perform better in higher heat ovens. So for Experiment #1, use one type of flour and make two pizzas with different percent water. Otherwise keep everything similar and judge for yourself, under your hands, in your oven.

Flour types
Lots of options. All-Purpose, Bread specific flour, Italian 00 flours, etc … I was in Spain last year and made a pizza with fresh yeast and Spanish milled AP harina (flour) – it definitely had a different feel to it. These all have slightly different milling processes and different protein content so basically they will respond a little differently. The Italian 00 flours are milled very finely, absorb less water and perform well in very high heat wood fired ovens, giving a nice light airy crust. If you like more chew to your crust, try bread flour, which has a higher protein content. Then there is everything in between. The point is, that the flours will behave differently so no sense me dictating what to use. You need to try different ones. Also, its possible to mix and match – a little 00 + bread flour for example. I have not mentioned it but there are also Whole Wheat, Spelt, and other flours, which could be mixed in too. I do not recommend adding more than 10% of the total flour using these flours – it just becomes too dense in my opinion. But adding say 5% whole wheat results in a nice rustic taste.

Making the Dough
Once you have decided on the water to flour ratio, and you mix your dough – the first thing is to wait – give the flour some time to absorb the water (this is called autolysing) at least 20 min but some people recommend up to 45 – I am not that patient! Resist the temptation to add flour to make it easy to knead – you will end up with a very stiff and dry dough. Error on the wet side. Wetter dough is easy with a mixer, but if you are like me, I just mix all my dough by hand in a big bowl. There are special wet dough handling techniques that can be used such as the “stretch and fold”, but we will save that topic for another article. I generally knead my dough only about 5 minutes. This results in moderate gluten development but I don’t worry because I am going to rest the dough for 24 hrs. . More on that later.

Other Stuff in the Dough
The only other essential ingredients are Salt and Yeast. Many recipes call for addition of Olive oil – but like I say, judge for yourself. Make one pizza with 1-2 Tbsp added oil and one without.

Salt is generally 2% of the total flour so again if you are using 10 oz. of flour, .02 X 10 = 0.2 oz. (5.7gm) Active dry yeast or Instant yeast are most common in the US, and is usually about 1% of the total flour. But this also depends on the ambient temperature, and the time you are allowing for fermentation, generally the longer time you ferment the less yeast you need. Boy, don’t get me starter – because someone will ask “what about sourdough starters?” Yes, you can use a Sourdough starter too (see my NY style Sourdough Pizza picture below)

It’s like having a bottle of wine open for a while to breathe before drinking – it improves the taste. Letting dough slowly ferment develops the gluten for both structural strength, and flavor profile. At a minimum, you should make the dough the night before you are going to use it. How long can you keep the dough? – See the picture below I had this dough in my fridge for 5 days and it turned out great – but it was definitely different from the batch I made after 24 hours – the crust had more chew to it – but not in a bad way. It was still excellent. On the other hand, I have been rushed and made pizza dough in a couple of hours. They are edible, but don’t have the qualities of longer cold fermented dough. (One trick I found when in a hurry is to spike my dough with some of my sourdough starter – this makes up for the weakness of the dough and gives it some complexity)

The Oven
Not too much to say here except get it as hot as possible. My home oven gets to 550 deg F. Of course the wood fired ovens range from 650-900 deg F. For those ovens you need to find your sweet spot and what works best given the type of dough you make. There is a learning curve to using a wood fired oven, so have patience. I think it probably takes 20 pizzas before you really know how your oven performs, given the size, type of wood, and environmental conditions.

The Oven Floor
This only really applies to indoor ovens – get yourself a solid pizza stone and heat that sucker up! Remember just because your oven says 500 on the temperature gauge, the stone needs at least 30 min to get up to that temp, and will make the difference between a good crust or cardboard. Other options include – lining the oven with firebrick, terracotta tiles, or using two pizza stones, one below and one above. There are various combinations that will yield a pretty good pizza indoors in a home oven, but of course there is no substitute from the performance of a wood fired pizza oven! I am addicted to mine.

So now you have a great dough and the oven is prepared – all you have to do is let the dough come to room temp 1-2 hours and then shape it, top it and cook it. We will save these last steps for part two. (To be continued…)

Buon appetito from Los Angeles Ovenworks!

Yes, you can make Sourdough NY style Cheese Pizza 30% Sourdough Starter. ~70% hydration 16 inch pizza.

Five-day-old dough pizza dough – Still kicking! Caputo 00, 60% hydration.

Dr. Kevin McQuade is a scientist by training, a self-taught bread baker and metal art sculptor. He began with a search for superior pizza crust, which developed into Artisan bread baking about 5 years ago as a hobby. He has an experimental approach to baking and pizza making, always trying different combinations of flour and ingredients. He is a bread recipe formatter for the Bread Bakers Guild of America (BBGA), where he takes professional recipes and helps convert them into standard bakers’ math based formats to be published by the Guild. He lives in Seattle with his wife, (a gourmet cook from NY, who taught him how to cook) along with two dogs, and two cats. Kevin says, “After living in NY, I got spoiled by two things: NY pizza and NY bagels. We enjoy foods from all over the world, having traveled in many different countries including time working in Brazil and Spain. We tend to eat a Mediterranean style diet, low on meat, high on fish and vegies. In cooking, spices are our friends.”

For more on Kevin’s breads, pizza, wood burning oven recipes see his blog Flour, Water, Yeast, and Steel: A Wood Fired Addiction

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