In the epic pursuit of Modernist Pizza, all roads lead to the best pizza dough recipes for your homemade pie, Part 1...
The Ongoing Modernist Pizza Review, Volume 2, Chapter 6, "Making Pizza Dough" (Part I)
Written by Nathan Myhrvold and Francisco Migoya
Published by The Cooking Lab; First edition, October 19, 2021
Hardcover: 1708 pages, 32.7 pounds, 13.78 x 10.24 x 15.94 inches
List Price: $425.00
Amazon discount price as of 03/08/23: $294.99
After reviewing all of Modernist Pizza Volume 1, History and Fundamentals, Chapters 1-5, we continue the review with Volume 2, Techniques and Ingredients, Chapter 6: “Making Pizza Dough.”
This is going to interest a gaggle of pizza geeks. The keyword phrase “pizza dough recipes” has a monthly Google search volume of almost 246,000. And it’s interesting that there’s such a quest for pizza dough recipes when you consider the following observation from Modernist Pizza:
“Most pizza doughs are made more or less the same way but pizza’s diversity shines in the final outcomes, ranging from ultrathin, crisp and cracker-like to something that is almost as thick as a piece of bread.” It’s one of the things I find fascinating about pizza dough: so little difference between recipes. So much difference between resulting pizzas. And there’s a reason for that…
Modernist says, “Regardless of the dough’s thickness one of the most important attributes of any pizza is its crust…” People like to say that getting the dough right is the lynchpin. (I have a different take, but that’s a different screed for a different day.)
The also say that they met many pizzaioli who are still working on the dough, even after decades in the business. This is the other thing about pizza that fascinates me: the people who make it remain endlessly fascinated.
But possibly the best Modernist Pizza observation about pizza dough? “Don’t worry if your earliest attempts aren’t perfectly round… In the end, each pizza is a learning experience that will make you a better pizza maker.” 100% agree.
After 20 years of doing this, I’m still learning. It would be impossible to not be learning, what with reading this epically beefy book about pizza delights and disciplines. And for some reason, like so many others, I remain in pursuit of pizza. (Hence, my seven-part series about the pursuit of pizza perfection.) But I digress…
Naming the parts of the pizza is where it starts. By now, this is unsurprising and welcome. With Microsoft’s former CTO at the helm of Modernist Cuisine and as co-author of this book, a technical overview of even the simple pizza is fitting. It would be difficult to launch into a chapter about making a pizza if there’s no common denominator with regard to pizza orientation. We need the vernacular and the visuals.
When discussing the quality characteristics of pizza, Modernist Pizza acknowledges that there are different pizzas with different qualities. These qualities are not universal across styles of pizza. But there are universal negatives. Like the dreaded gum line. A gummy, unbaked gel layer beneath the sauce is a flaw. Period.
For me, this seems a little like wine tasting. Most people know nothing about wine. They start to learn about wine tasting, and they start to become critical—possibly even of wines they used to like. The same can happen with pizza.
The trick here is to know the difference between what’s objectively high quality and what subjectively you really like. The Modernistas don’t want to tell you what to like. But they’re telling you what the accepted aesthetic is. And they recognize there are things that they see objectively as flaws that are lovingly embraced by many, even professional food critics.
Modernist Pizza also shows us their recommended pizza tools. A guy can spend the mortgage payment buying all of those recommended tools. I’ve actually owned some of the more unusual items, back when I had a wood oven. But for the most part, all of these tools are a good idea—and many of them a luxury for the casual pizza maker.
(On the recommendation of the book, I recently bought my first spoodle. Yes, that sounds wrong. That word is a mashup of “spoon” and “ladle.” Still not sure how I feel about the spoodle. Did I waste nine bucks?)
PLANNING TO MAKE PIZZA. This is a big deal. While it’s easy to do, newbies can act like it’s an oppressive task. But it all matters, and it also depends on the kind of pizza you’re making.
And it’s not just the days leading up to pizza, when the yeast is doing its act in there. It’s also about the hours leading up to pizza, and when you need to start heating the oven and letting the dough rest outside of the fridge.
Weights and measures. Types and time. What pizza are you making and when are you making it? All these things factor into creating a timeline for pizza.
I’ve always been very loose about these things. The Modernistas are not. I also admit that there has been more than one time when I’ve started making pizza for a group, all of my dough and toppings are ready to go—and suddenly I’ve realized I don’t have any sauce. We are all susceptible. Planning matters. I’ve always believed this, but Modernist Pizza makes me look like a slacker.
And here’s the place where so many newbies are oddly indignant: Fermentation. I’ve literally seen reviews of pizza books where readers complain that “I don’t have three days to wait for this!”
Why the hell not? It’s not like you have to skip work or your son’s bar mitzvah to stand there watching the closed refrigerator for 72 hours. But as they say here, “You cannot rush fermentation without drastic effects on quality.”
Still, the book also recognizes that there can be a legitimate rush. That’s why “We include recipes for emergency versions of our master doughs that can suffice when you’re short on time, but there are undeniable trade-offs in flavor.”
Here now, fascinating trivia of the day: the reason that cold-proofed doughs (the kind that most of us make) take a long time to come up to room temp for shaping and baking. “This takes longer than you’d think because fermented dough is a foam, so it’s a good insulator.” Hello again, foam!
The “manage your dough scheduling” section speaks to exactly the kind of thing I attempted to avoid in my first book. As they portray it here, it’s a daunting task—but it seems more about professional standards and practices than casual home pizza maker decorum. I don’t disagree with it. But it’s exactly the kind of thing that makes Modernist Pizza a bad idea for a total beginner who just wants to try making pizza.
For the beginner, this book could feel like being thrown into the deep-end of the pool. That said, I did recommend Modernist Pizza to a man with a PhD in medicine. It was perfect for him. So newbie-ism is relative.
In a nod to how important timing is, the Modernistas tell us: “In pizzerias that do not cold proof, you can be sure that the pizzas served at 6 PM will not be the same as those served at 11 PM. In a hot pizzeria, the change could be drastic.”
At home, the laws of physics do not change. But I assert that the pizza maker’s responsibilities and liabilities change greatly. I’m making pizza for fun. And if it’s not 100% consistent, well, I might be frustrated. My guests will probably forgive me. And next time, I might work on being a better dough scheduler.
But yes, there are pizza doughs that can be made and are ready to bake in a couple of hours. Want advice on emergency doughs and how to temper them with a microwave? (Yes, a microwave. Sound dicey? Seems it’s not always easy…)
And for the mathematically baffled like yours truly? This chapter offers a good, clear explanation of baker’s percentages.
Force it! The Mixing section helps us understand what is actually going on when mixing ingredients. It seems the thing that allows a gluten network to form is not the kneading, but the hydration. Kneading forces the flour to hydrate and that is what causes a gluten network develop.
Pizza makers passionately endorse their respective methods of mixing. What’s important is not the method, but if it works well for you. During COVID lockdown, after years of using a stand mixer, I went back to kneading by hand. It works well, so I haven’t returned to the stand mixer—though Modernist says mixers are recommended. I may have to try. (FOOTNOTE: Since writing this, I have tried. I still hate the stand mixer. Perhaps therapy.)
Mixing dough is an exercise in “Intensity vs. Time.” And if you’ve ever made no-knead bread, this matter of flour hydration starts to make sense. It also starts to make sense why I (as an experienced amateur) prefer hand mixing and a 72-hour ferment. What my process lacks in physical intensity is made up for with time. Say Mhyrvold & Migoya, “The more time you allow, the less energetic the stirring can be.”
“What happens inside pizza dough.” Spread open the book, my friend, and behold! This double-truck spread provides enormous timeline diagrams of what happens to starch, yeast and gluten inside your pizza dough. I’m either fascinated enough or dumb enough that I could spend an entire day studying this.
THE SCIENCE OF HOW BUBBLES ARE BORN. Here’s a little head-trip for ya: “Although air is never listed in recipes, it’s a crucial ingredient.” Air is what makes all those bubbles. These bubbles matter.
It seems that researchers in the 1940s concluded (and it was later confirmed) that air bubbles created during mixing are essential to a proper crumb structure. In a single page of text here, you learn more about the science of bubble development than you ever imagined possible.
This is where Modernist Pizza starts to examine the science of why gluten-free pizza is so difficult. In essence, gluten is the building blocks of pizza. Without gluten, you’re building something that isn’t pizza at all, but must be made to function like pizza.
Mixing matters because “nearly every element of the mixing process can affect gluten’s development and the corresponding strength of the dough.” I know someone who’s been having problems with his pizza dough tearing. For this reason, I was curious to read the section in “Gluten Development” that discusses low, medium and full gluten development. I now have ideas. (A dangerous thing.) Maybe these tips will help him.
Are you of the belief that your pizza dough must always pass the windowpane test? Here’s a surprise: not all doughs want that. And this little section very efficiently talks about each stage and where it’s appropriate.
And now, DDT! (Not the chemical agent for controlling mosquitoes.) In this chapter’s Desired Dough Temperature section, the first sentence sets you up for success (or failure): “Controlling dough temperature is one of the prerequisites for great baking, and temperature affects the outcome at several stages of the pizza-making process.”
And to prove it, they did (surprise) an experiment! The book makes a big deal out of Desired Dough Temperature (DDT) and the quality of pizza. And there’s so much discussion out there in the land about the imperatives of temperature control during the mixing process, the Modernistas decided to find out the truth of it all.
Good news, home pizzamaker: “Our conclusion is that hitting the DDT on the nose isn’t important for most pizza makers in homes, restaurants, and small commercial operations.” They go onto say that any deficiencies in temperature control can be mitigated by extending bulk fermentation time.
People have a hard time understanding why I insist on a 72-hour ferment (though not always bulk). I do it because the pizza tastes better, and because it can help assuage a word of hurt. And herein lies some justification. Yay!
But what about autolyse, you ask? Yes, a headscratcher for everyone, young and old. And if you’ve been interested in autolyse, it doesn’t take long for Modernist Pizza to talk you out of it. If you don’t know what autolyse is, it’s taking the time required for allowing the flour and the water to get busy before adding salt and yeast (and anything else that might be going in there).
The word comes from the biology term “autolysis.” It refers to the “self-digestion that cells undergo as they die and are dismantled by the enzymes inside them.” (Sounds like a tiny sci-fi horror movie!) The idea is that water and flour sitting together for an extended period before mixing will soften the starches and proteins in the dough.
I’ve been dabbling in autolyse, and now I may just stop. The book says that while it works for some pizza doughs, they found “there was practically no benefit for doughs mixed to full gluten development—which is most of our thin- and medium-crust doughs.”
Nonetheless, there are times where they do use autolyse, and offer detailed instructions for the order of mixing ingredients. As for me, I admit that I’ve used autolyse and can’t say with 100% certainty that it matters.
The chapter moves on to machine mixing, and here I admit epiphany. Never have I considered that “The goal for any mixer is to emulate how the human hand mixes and which machine does that best depends on the pizzamaker’s preferences.” Ironic that many of us prefer to do it by hand, yet a machine is recommended, and the machine is trying to best emulate us.
The book discusses the common mixer types--stand, spiral and planetary, as well as twin-arm, fork mixer and food processor. There is, as always, comprehensive and concise information about how best to use the mixer. In their discussion, I often found myself thinking, Yep, I’ve had that problem.
And speaking of problems, there’s a page of “Common Mixing Problems.” Complete with photos, of course—and solutions for doughs you thought you’d destroyed.
But the big fun is in the “Experiment.” Of course, it comes complete with comparative cross-section photos of pizzas: “Does The Mixer Make A Difference?” SPOILER ALERT: Yes it does.
The mixing how-to section offers steps for various methods: the van Over method (for mixing dough in a food processor); a double hydration method for very wet doughs, which don’t mix well in most mixers; and a mixing methodology for an interesting dough they call “Compleat Wheat.” (Just a little Modernist geek humor there, I’m guessing. “Compleat” is an archaic spelling of “complete,” and since it parallels the spelling of “wheat,” it’s another but of pizza-geek editorial funnin’.)
If you’ve ever had whole-wheat pizza, it’s not such a great experience. The Modernistas tell us that’s because of how whole wheat flour is milled—which is great for extending shelf life, and not so great for making pizza.
In their discussion, it boils down to a hydration challenge. If you don’t know, when white flour is milled, the wheat bran and germ are removed. For whole wheat flour, the extracted germ is toasted for shelf life (otherwise it goes rancid quickly), and then the bran and germ are combined back into the white flour.
I admit it: I love that Mhyrvold & Migoya give us a recipe for whole-wheat pizza dough that does not use whole-wheat flour. Instead, they provide us a method for mixing white bread flour, germ, and bran. This method mitigates the hydration challenge. The result in their photo looks excellent. This recipe goes on my short list of new things to try.
There’s also a tee-up for mixing “Your Daily Pizza.” This is a riff on an “undemanding daily baking routine created by Jeff Hertzberg and Zoë Francois” in their book Artisan Bread In Five Minutes A Day.
Modernist Pizza adapts the technique in that book for pizza dough. The resulting dough can live in your fridge for up to two weeks so you can literally have a daily pizza. Another one for my short list…
And now, the part of the chapter that all Pizza Freeps have been waiting for: Hand Mixing! Three whole pages complete with photos.
Of course, they start by saying, “To be clear, we’re not proponents of mixing dough by hand. We prefer machine mixing because most pizza doughs need to be mixed to full gluten development, and letting machines do the work makes sense for both home cooks and pros. We recommend to mix by hand only if you don’t have an electric mixer, although mixing a few batches of dough by hand will give you a feel for how the dough comes together at different points in the mixing process.”
I have an electric mixer and this book is making me feel guilty for not using it. However, I heartily endorse their suggestion of trying out mixing by hand to understand what happens in the dough.
They also acknowledge that your willingness to knead by hand is related to your willingness to be doing things like getting sticky. If you’re only minimally willing, they provide a no-knead method based on the great Jim Lahey’s method for no-knead pizza dough.
If you’ve seen Chef’s Table: Pizza on Netflix, you may have seen Franco Pepe. He is in the province of Caserta, Italy, mixing the dough by hand in a wooden tub for his world-famous pizza. Very romantic and mystique laden, perhaps. But as scientists, the Modernistas are quite clear: There is zero benefit to mixing in a wooden tub, known as a madia. “There’s no special sorcery…There is just skill.”
Next time: Bulk Fermentation and Proofing! Are you so excited you can feel it in the tips of your toes? I am…
Want to know more about possibly owning a copy of Modernist Pizza? You can find it here. If you want a skinnier, simpler, sillier book that teaches only one kind of pizza, you can find Free The Pizza! here.
Blaine Parker is the award-winning author of the bestselling, unusual and amusing how-to pizza book, Free The Pizza. Also known as The Pizza Geek and "Hey, Pizza Man!", Blaine is fanatical about the idea that true, pro-quality pizza can be made at home. His home. Your home. Anyone's home. After 20 years of honing his craft and making pizza in standard consumer ovens across the nation, he's sharing what he's learned with home cooks like you. Are you ready to pizza?
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