Is your homemade pizza great-tasting fun, or is it becoming an ongoing chemistry problem filled with fear and loathing?
NOTE: All writing at Free The Pizza and all the pizzas depicted are made with 100% human intelligence and not a speck of AI cereal.
Several years ago, I first peeked inside The Pizza Bible by Tony Gemignani. I was confronted with a daunting mystery ingredient: diastatic malt.
Tony Gemignani is one of the most highly respected pizza people in the world. And if he wants me to use diastatic malt—why? What is it? Where do I find it? Why didn’t my own favorite pizza preacher, Peter Reinhart ever mention it in American Pie?
I did the easy thing with diastatic malt: I ignored it. In the nine years since selecting ignorance on diastatic malt, I’ve run into it in various places. In the year since I wrote and subsequently published Free The Pizza!, I’ve continued to wonder if ignoring diastatic malt is a personal failing. In the six months since making endless batches of New York-style pizza, I have finally reached a conclusion about diastatic malt. Ready?
Diastatic malt is just one more chemistry problem that’s distracting me from making pizza. If you’re a pizza newbie, my advice is simple: ignore it. There are better ways to be tackling your craft than worrying about The White Powders.
Contrary to common belief, The White Powders are in no way related to the controlled substance that made Medellín famous. White powders are a category of ingredients used in baking once you get past the basics, like water, flour, salt, yeast, and perhaps sugar and fat.
Specifically, diastatic malt is a derivative of barley. Barley is sprouted, dried and ground into a powder. It contains diastase enzymes. (They convert starch into sugar, duh.) Diastatic malt is used as a sweetener and flavor component. It enhances browning of pizza crust, especially in lower-temperature baking. It is also used to give pizza crust more structure and the ability to support a heavier topping payload. Supposedly.
I say “supposedly” because I have finally used it, and have seen zero evidence of its efficacy. It’s not like I think it’s the emperor’s new pizza clothes or anything like that. I just think that there are way too many variables at work to decide how and when diastatic malt matters.
I’ve had chefs I admire and respect tell me it’s da bomb. I’ve had Modernist Pizza tell me that scientifically speaking, it’s a way to optimize the otherwise seat-of-the-pants madness that is my personal pizza life. I’ve seen dozens of self-appointed experts in Pizza Social tell me that it’s right up there with live fire as one of the things that makes the world pizza globe keep spinning on its axis free from catastrophic wobble.
I’ve also read the words of the late, great Tom Lehman. He reigned for years as the pizza industry’s vaunted Dough Doctor. He says that in all likelihood, one will see zero difference in their pizza dough if they use diastatic malt. That’s because so many flours already contain malted barley.
And the fact is that I’m eating WAY TOO MUCH PIZZA right now. (Who’d ever believe that to be possible? But trust me, it is.) Despite that, I’ve been doing side-by-side taste-test comparisons with NY-style pizza made with doughs that are identical—except that one includes diastatic malt.
The Fabulous Honey Parker and I stood there, in the kitchen, eating hot, fresh pizza, and agreeing: “This is really good pizza.” I’ve reached the point in my New York-style pizza proficiency that I can sling a pie indistinguishable from a competent New York slice joint.
But we also agreed: We can’t taste a single damn difference between the pizzas as pertains to the diastatic malt. I’m going to steal Peter Reinhart’s Flavor Rule, which is that flavor rules. And I’m going to say: screw the diastatic malt. For now.
It's too easy to get caught up in the fear and loathing. I've been there. There's a cycle of nonsense that happens when you abandon what's proven to work and begin wondering if you're doing things right. I just want to make pizza. And I am doing that, for sure.
The best way to make pizza is by keeping it simple. By telling anyone, but especially a pizza newbie, that they have to go track down a bag of diastatic malt to put it into their pizza for no discernable difference, I am committing pizza folly.
Start at the beginning with the basics: Water, flour, salt and yeast. Make those four ingredients into great pizza by adding tomato, cheese and toppings. Don’t get obsessed with mystery ingredients, fancy tools or holy grail ovens with the idea that they are The Answer.
Keeping it simple and working it is what makes your pizza better. There’s plenty of time to get into the minutiae of making a manna-from-heaven pizza that has you exploding in a flash of light and becoming one with the cosmos. Don’t get distracted by the arcane chemistry problems of pizza professionals.
In your pizza, be like Nike. Just do it. You’ll live to love it.
P.S. Like a moth to the candle flame, I will continue to dabble in the diastatic malt mystery. But don’t be surprised if, in a subsequent post, I finally offer a big bag of it for sale, slightly used.
Still waiting to start your homemade pizza journey? The silly little homemade pizza guide, Free The Pizza! (A Simple System For Making Great Pizza Whenever You Want With The Oven You Already Have), is ready and waiting to lead you astray.
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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