In the epic pursuit of Modernist Pizza, all roads lead to the best pizza dough recipes for your homemade pie, Part 2...
The Ongoing Modernist Pizza Review, Volume 2, Chapter 6, "Making Pizza Dough" (Part II)
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
Ever wondered why some pizza doughs call for a bulk fermentation and others don’t? Strap in and hang on! It’s another wild ride inside Modernist Pizza.
The Modernistas recommend bulk fermentation for their bread-like pizza doughs. They also have an outlier Neapolitan recipe that includes bulk fermentation, which is not a traditional approach.
I use and recommend a bulk fermentation for my own pizza dough. It was inspired by Peter Reinhart’s Neapolitan dough recipe in American Pie. So, maybe outliers abound—but it seems you’re really only going to get full scoop on the science from Modernist Cuisine. That’s probably because, well, lots of people just don’t want lots of science. But you and I do, right?
In Volume 2's first chapter, you’re getting the dough nitty gritty and lots of it. You’ll get a quick explanation of the benefits of bulk fermentation and the factors that affect it, along with a couple of bulk fermentation strategies.
When making dough balls, if you’ve ever wondered about the most efficient way to divide up your dough, it’s here. (Put your scale on the left, all you righties!) There are basics for dividing the dough—and even instructions on how to accomplish evenly divided dough balls without a scale--this despite the fact that, ”At Modernist Cuisine, we are decidedly pro-scale.”
(SIDEBAR: In my silly little book, I do not encourage newbies to use a scale. People have such a gag reflex to weighing ingredients. My goal is to eliminate roadblocks standing between the newbie and their pizza. There is plenty of time for scales later on, once the pizzamaker has seen the pizza.)
The section about preshaping dough comes with a useful simile. I’m a sucker for a good metaphor that helps illustrate anything even remotely scientific: “Pre-shaping dough is a bit like making a bed. It’s not just a matter of getting things in the right place; you want to get the tension right, too. Tension is what maintains the shape through final proofing. Just as with sheets tucked around a mattress, the tension comes from pulling the dough tight and folding in the corners.”
One of the great mysteries about pizza dough is probably its consistency. I suspect a lot of casual bread and pizza makers think about dough as a lump of clay. But wet clay is just fine-grain particles and moisture.
Pizza dough has a network of gluten strands that are strong and elastic. That presents all kinds of challenges with regard to shaping balls of dough and making pizzas. That gluten is a beast, and it’s the reason why we get pizza. (It’s also the reason why gluten-free pizza is pizza in name only. Gluten is what makes pizza possible.)
Modernist Pizza is quite good at explaining how to make this gluten beast behave for our culinary fun (and profit, if that’s your endgame). Granted, unless you’re a pro making dozens of dough balls at a time, you probably won’t get a lot of mileage out of their FIFO (first in, first out) method of orderly dough ball shaping. It’s another half a page of a huge book that might make you glad you don’t have a pizzeria.
If very wet dough is your bag (as for al taglio pizza), preshaping it can be a messy hassle. Did you know that that this is where you might want to consider running down to Home Depot investing in a plaster knife? (Cooking show, meet home improvement show!)
And I admit that, after 20 years of making pizza, the section on “How To Preshape A Dough Ball” is a revelation. That includes the section on “How To Divide And Preshape Using A Plaster Knife.”
Thank you, too, Modernist Cuisine, for addressing “Common Preshaping Problems.” They’re detailed clearly and the section offers (yay!) solutions.
There’s a discussion of the options for proofing containers. Some of it is more than the home cook might care to think about it, but there are some universal tips and warnings. And the proofing container discussion includes comprehensive coverage of various baking pans that may be used for the final pizza. (Many pan pizzas are proofed in the pans used to bake them.)
Say hello to “The Science Of How Bubbles Grow In Dough”! This is a quick lesson in how those ever-important bubbles happen, how they’re formed, and how they’re affected by the dough proofing process and, later on, baking.
It’s also nice to see how the pros live even if you’re not going to be one. The section about proofing in professional-style proofing cabinets may not be the most relevant for you and me. But it is offset by a section discussing the challenges facing the home cook who lacks such resources—and who may not even have the temperature control that comes with air conditioning.
And yes, the Modernistas performed proofing experiments. For the kind of pizza most of us want to make (like artisan style or New York), cold proofing is strongly recommended. The benefit is flavor development. The results of the experiment for warm-proofed dough indicate just how dicey a proposition it is.
Timing is everything for warm-proofing dough. Cold proofed dough is more forgiving. It can work well with proofing anywhere from 24 to 72 hours. Warm-proofing is showing problems in the final product with a mere one-hour difference in the process.
“Calling Proof.” Yes, this could boil down to yelling, “It’s ready to bake!” Calling proof is about determining that your dough has done what it must do. And “doubling in size,” as so many recipes tell us to look for, is not a true measure of whether a dough is ready. And do you even know what constitutes "double" just by looking at a ball of dough and not actually measuring it and doing calculations?
Calling proof takes experience. It requires understanding fermentation. It means knowing what a dough should feel like. And as part of calling proof, there is no single tool that can help you. But here’s where non-science and non-tools come into play: The Fingertip Test!
No machine can replicate the human computer here. Using your finger, press the dough for 2 seconds and release it. The resulting indentation should spring back—but slowly. Mhyrvold and Migoya tell us it works “reasonably well because it integrates several different factors that change during proofing, including the water content of the dough, its gluten development, bubble integrity, and the amount of captured gas.”
If the indentation doesn’t spring back at all? That means you’ve overproofed. Is that dough now garbage?
Fear not! Modernist Pizza's "Dough CPR" is your friend. Overproofed dough can lead to a “pale, flat pizza that smells like an old beer.” Ick? But the Modernistas found they could revive an over-proofed dough up to 10 times and still make a good pizza.
And the process is so very simple! All it requires (like so much else with pizza making) is a touch of the skill they teach in Modernist Pizza, and a lot of patience (which you must supply yourself).
Next time: Chapter 7, “Pizza Recipes”! All the major pizza styles will be represented, along with the Modernist Pizza spin on a whole spectrum of pizza.
If the idea of owning a copy of Modernist Pizza attracts you like a moth to the candle flame, 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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