The Midweek Modernist Pizza Report: Worth More Than Its Weight In Flour, Water, Salt And Yeast, Part I
The Ongoing Modernist Pizza Review, Volume 1, Chapter 4, "Pizza Dough Ingredients" (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
Amazon discount price as of 03/08/23: $294.99
For the last few installments of the Modernist Pizza review, we’ve been traveling the world with the Modernistas. They’ve been eating pizza from New York to New Haven, Tokyo to Chicago, and pretty much anywhere else that pizza is a force.
Here’s where all that changes. Now, in Modernist Pizza, Volume 1, Chapter 4, "Pizza Dough Ingredients," we start getting into the hands-on, home-pizzamaker-relevant aspects of pizza. And it all starts with…
Pizza Dough Ingredients! Like so many of us, the folks at Modernist Cuisine are amazed that simple ingredients like water, flour, salt and yeast, and sometimes oil and/or sugar, can “yield crusts with incredibly divergent flavors and textures, from the chewy, wide-open rim of Neapolitan pizza to the crackerlike crispness of thin crust pizza.
I first started thinking about this myself when I began dabbling in Detroit-style pizza. I realized the dough recipe that I was using was not that much different from my regular, Neapolitan style dough.
Here are some of the most basic concepts that Modernist Pizza conveys to us about what goes into pizza dough. It’s so simple, you might find it complicated.
What is flour? Flour is proteins for structure, and sugar to feed the yeast.
Yeast drives fermentation. It produces gasses and alcohol that make dough rise and affect the quality of the crumb.
Salt is flavor. Salt affects gluten development and fermentation rate.
Water is the solvent for chemical reactions. Water also determines crust characteristics, as well as rapid rise of the dough in the oven.
You might be using oil, such as in New York-style or Neo-Neapolitan pizza. Oil can increase crust volume. It’s also used in crusts that are pre-baked, par-baked or reheated.
All these ingredients are so simple. Dough is so simple. Yes, it’s also so very challenging. To be clear (and this is my analysis, not Modernist’s), making pizza dough freaks people out.
If it’s so simple, why does pizza dough make people run screaming into the night? In my own, non-Modernist opinion, it exactly because it’s simple. It can seem like voodoo. These simple ingredients transform into something else that becomes the basis for a fantastic food.
Out of everything you can do in the kitchen, nothing seems quite as magical as pizza. And fortunately, Modernist Pizza is demystifying it for us all.
Once again, the Modernist photography is stunning. I’m saying this as I’m looking at extreme macro photography of wheat and a wheat kernel. THIS tiny little bastard is the thing that causes all of us so much trouble, yet it looks so rich and wholesome and good.
OK, get ready for this: There is no gluten in wheat flour. Gluten is developed when two components in the flour are hydrated. Those components are gliadin and glutenin. To quote from the source: “Until the proteins come into contact with water, there is no gluten.”
Here’s another tidbit about flour: The ever-mythical Caputo 00 pizza flour is indeed a good product. It’s certainly not necessary. But there is merit in it. However, for our purposes as home pizzamakers, several other flours will perform just fine at a lower price.
This leads to a thought I love: “There is a lot of mysticism surrounding flour.” Indeed. The social media metaphorical altar to various flours is extraordinary. That’s why we have Modernist Pizza.
The section of the book on “Demystifying Flour Labels” is a quick read. It’s also edifying in case you ever wondered what the heck is going on with flour.
“Flour By The Numbers” is brief, but more than you ever knew to look for or ask about in flour performance. And to their credit, the Modernistas tell us that their specs and tests are not the final word. The final word in flour performance is “the way flour behaves in your dough.”
There’s also a section of recommended flours. Of course, none of those flours are available in my area with any ease. That’s why it’s nice to see some more readily available products in their “good substitutes” section. Many of them I’ve never even heard of, and others are available in my supermarket (hello King Arthur Bread Flour!). Still other flours are available online at a reasonable price.
Some of these recommended flours are standard in professional baking. All Trumps from General Mills is a favorite for New York-style pizza—which is why you probably won’t ever find it in a bag smaller than 50 pounds. To paraphrase a friend of mine who’s a professional nut, “50-pound sack of flour makes a might big pizza!”
Ready for more about flour particle size than you ever expected? It’s in here. And the experiment they do regarding particle size is interesting if you’ve ever been taken by the idea that “Caputo 00 flour is the best because it’s such a fine grind that it absorbs water better!” The facts are telling vis a vis myth vs. reality.
Modernist Pizza sheds some light on the marketing vs. facts of “whole wheat” and “whole grain” labeling. Hint: the United States’ FDA has no legally binding definition. There is, however, “guidance.” Yay, Federal guidance!
There’s a tiny little section on rye flour. It gives you a world of detail on the challenges of using rye while making a case for its “distinctive flavor.”
There’s a somewhat larger section on gluten-free flours. It gives you a crash course on why gluten-free pizza crust is such a chemistry problem. It also promises recipes to come that produce gluten-free crust “similar to pizza made with wheat flour.” (I’m looking forward to that!)
“Water molecules never rest” is an early sentiment in the little section on water. The water section is also another place where they tee us up for the fact that pizza is unaffected by the water used.
If the water is ok to drink, it’s ok to make pizza. Nobody can tell whether the water came from New York. In short, “Don’t fetishize water.”
“While the type of water doesn’t matter, the hydration does.” There’s a lot of machismo out there in pizza social about dough hydration. In an “Experiment” section here, the Modernistas discuss “Determining the hydration levels in our master doughs.”
The ratio of flour to water in dough is expressed as a percentage. If you’ve used the dough recipe in my book, that’s a roughly 65% hydration depending on how you’ve measured your flour.
65% hydration seems like a decent place to start for homemade pizza. In their experiment, the Modernistas pushed the hydration anywhere from a low of 55% to a high of 110%. The pizzas they produced covered a range from great to not so good.
Have ever wondered about how so many pizza dough recipes could seem so close yet produce pizzas so different? If so, here’s where you start to get a peek into the minutiae that makes it all possible.
There’s a discussion of “Water Quality And Purity.” They explain how to attain the necessary quality and purity. Or, just buy bottled water and be done with it.
“Does Pure Water Make For Better Pizza?” Filtered? Distilled? Deionized? Does “high-quality” water make a better pizza? The 100-pizza experiment left the Modernistas preferring… Well, you’ll have to read it yourself. (But you can probably guess.) Again, some of the photography is very cool.
Yeast is an interesting section, probably because it’s the living compotent that makes pizza. Since yeast has its own dynamism, and it imparts dynamics to the pizza dough and makes an essentially living thing, there’s a lot to talk about.
“While guidelines are simple for working with, say, a chicken breast or an egg, yeast is unusual in that it must be nurtured as well as controlled, coaxed into thriving but not allowed to run amok.”
This is an important part of the book for the home pizzamaker. The Modernistas are revealing the secret of control: “The point is to make the process and schedule work for you instead of the other way around.”
They’re explaining how to manage fermentation so you can make pizza on your schedule. (I’m not that sophisticated. In my book, I just tell you to plan ahead.)
Fresh yeast: highly perishable. At temps higher than 113 degrees, “the yeast cells essentially cannibalize themselves. The carnage begins when temperature-activated…”
From the annals of, “Hey, how about that?!” It seems Fleischman’s Active Dry Yeast was invented so WWII infantrymen could bake fresh bread in their camps. After the live yeast have been bred, the water is removed. The cells become dormant.
THEN, “The particles of dormant yeast are coated with a protective layer of dead yeast cells.” I already knew that when substituting active dry yeast for instant yeast, I had to increase the yeast by 25% because of dead cells. But I never knew why the cells were dead. And now…the dead yeast cells have been lifted from my eyes.
“Boosting the yeast’s gassing power” They geek out enough to explain calculations for substituting instant, active dry and fresh yeast based on water content of the yeast, “even though it’s such a small amount of water that it might not be worth the trouble.” These guys are all about precision even if it’s gratuitous.
BTW, in their experiments, instant yeast is the clear winner over active dry yeast. It mixes better and has more active cells and, “frankly, it mystifies us that active dry yeast stays on the market.”
It also seems that fresh yeast is a total mystery. There’s never any detail on the package regarding its age. As I was reading this, I thought, Well this is a crap shoot. It wasn’t long before the book calls fresh yeast a “leavening lottery ticket.” Their metaphor wins if for alliteration alone. (See what I did there?)
It doesn’t matter what yeast you use. There is no difference in the pizza you produce. “We can assure you of this: yeast is yeast is yeast.”
They even did an experiment. They made a functional pizza dough adding no additional yeast. (There is some yeast present in flour.) They did it, and they do not recommend it.
The swinging, swirling world of preferments! This is another area where, in social media, there’s much machismo. A levain, or sourdough starter, is considered to be the only “real” fermentation by a subset of pizza bakers.
The Modernistas reject that purist view. They let us know commercial yeast is just as legitimate. Just as yeast is yeast, fermentation is fermentation. The real difference is in the taste. Levain brings a distinctive flavor. Make the choice that is best for you and your schedule.
There’s a very clear and easy explanation of poolish. Just in case you were wondering. (I was. But I’m obsessive that way.)
Get ready for levain. What you might know as sourdough starter is a complex and heavily debated undertaking. The plusses are depth of flavor and (if you’re a pizzeria) caché. The downside is complication and setting up a spare room dedicated to the care and feeding of your new infant.
There are instructions on how to handle levain based on your taste preferences. Do you like it more tangy or less tangy? Bonus: Levain offers a new use for the wine fridge!
Modernist Pizza also doesn’t assume you have air conditioning or live in the same climate they do. Climate and air conditioning changes all kinds of things related to leavening pizza dough.
There are basic instructions for starting a levain with flour and water. I’ve done that and it’s kinda cool. I’ve also seen instructions for making sourdough using commercial yeast, and that always left me scratching my head. (If that’s how you’re going, why would you even bother?)
Most commercial yeasts are a single strain within the species. The flour and water levain made without commercial yeast added relies on wild yeast and LAB (lactic acid bacteria) for its fermentation.
In a wild yeast levain, there are several strains, which is where the distinctive flavor comes in. If you’re thinking that you don’t like sourdough bread because it’s too sour, know that you’ve probably not had true sourdough. (I’ve dabbled in wild yeast pizza dough, and it’s a totally different animal. So to speak.)
I admit to not being mature. When I hear the William Tell Overture, I think of the Lone Ranger.
And when I read the section title, “Stages Of Levain,” I think of comedian Larry Miller and his routine, “The 5 Stages Of Drinking.” And in both of them, alcohol is involved. Just, not so much alcohol with a levain.
In case you didn’t know, yeast eat sugar and excrete carbon dioxide and alcohol. That’s how we get pizza crust and bread, as well as beer and wine, among other things. When you’re making sourdough, a levain has stages described as young, mature, and ripe. Also, they describe the appearance, the sourness and the bubble activity for each stage, and the flavors it will impart to your pizza crust.
Levain is a fussy thing. The flavor can swing from one day to the next depending on your environment and how you store it.
I’ve always maintained that one of the reasons homemade beer and homemade pizza are both fascinating is they’re each living things made from dead, mundane ingredients. Levain takes it to the next level and surprises can abound.
All those different strains of yeast are battling it out for food in there. And varying environmental conditions in your space can end up favoring one strain over another. Consistent care and feeding are crucial for consistent performance. And here’s an interesting note: If a levain gets too hot, it starves.
And they’re being scientific about all this. So they did experiments to determine the best methods for you to follow should you decide to dabble in the sourdough culture. (Ha!)
They also do some sourdough myth busting in the section called “Weird Stuff In Starters.” Seems I can stop keeping little cans of pineapple juice around the house for when I want to make sourdough. I’ve also used aspen bark to help raise a levain because it’s a rich source of wild yeast. Again, more folly. The strains of yeast thereupon are different. Same with those blueberries or grapes or yogurt you’ve been told to use. The best wild yeasts for making levain are (surprise!) the ones that live on grain.
To get beyond geeky about this, they sterilized raisins. Then, they used them to see if it was microbes or sugar that made their levain ferment. Surprise! Raisins sterilized in a pressure cooker so no live yeast were present still made the levain bubble sooner.
You get tips on storing yeast that will make them unhappy but keep them alive. And if you’ve ever wanted to dehydrate your starter so you can store it dry, that’s also available to you.
There are instructions for what they call “Second Chance Levain.” Dead or discarded starter has a place in flavoring dough even if it lacks leavening power.
People get very attached to their levain. (As we all know, during COVID lockdown, people started making sourdough and giving names to their starters. With that kind of emotional connection in mind, imagine a professional chef who uses a heritage sourdough and how he or she feels about losing it.)
When a levain begins to struggle, there are ways to revive it—but sometimes you might as well just start again. It’s just yeast is yeast is yeast again, albeit a more sophisticated yeast than what comes out of a packet. “And if you have to do too much to your levain to revive it, there’s a good chance you’ve made a levain with a different composition of yeasts and bacteria anyway.” Ah, science.
The yeast killer! Whether salt helps or hurts depends on how much you’re using. Unsalted dough is “slack and sticky.” Oversalted dough is “unpleasant,” and “has dire consequences for yeast and fermentation.”
Salt has a lot to do with helping form a strong gluten network. It also keeps the yeast in line. Yes, Salt makes it harder for yeast to grow because of osmotic pressure on the yeast cells. But it also prevents them from going on “an epic feeding frenzy” that creates rapid fermentation and compromises the dough’s structure.
Want a fun Modernist Pizza quote about yeast? “Coarse salt sprinkled on food creates crunchy pockets and explosions of saltiness in a way that fine salt cannot.”
Colorful salts can have interesting flavors, but only when applied at the last minute. Baked into a pizza crust, the interesting flavors are “impossible to perceive.”
Surprise! The size and the shape of the crystals make a difference in taste. A flatter salt flake tastes saltier than a more cubic grain of salt.
It’s most important for salt to be dissolved in the dough. For that reason, they recommend fine salt—unlike so many baking instructions I’ve seen that recommend coarse-grain kosher salt.
There are challenges in measuring salt. In discussing these challenges, they point out that coarse salt does not pack a measuring spoon the same way that fine salt does. Fine grains pack that spoon like “well-played Tetris pieces.” Coarse salt is irregular and does not. There’s more air.
It’s the difference between “packing a moving truck full of boxes versus sofas.” Thus, the importance of weighing versus volume measurements.
And speaking of volume measurements: Did you know measuring spoons vary in volume from brand to brand? (I just tried testing that out with no clear result. I’m not so science.)
Fresh sea salt sounds romantic and nice, right? It contains mud and sentiment. See the macro photo on page 312 to see just how unromantic it really is.
There’s a table for converting various brands of salt from volume measurements into grams. It gives you an idea of the discrepancies involved. A teaspoon of plain, non-iodized Morton table salt is almost twice as heavy as the same amount of Diamond Crystal kosher salt.
How much salt should you use? About 2% to 2.5%. Neapolitan pizzerias, depending on the season, often vary their salt for what the Modernistas call “a flavor roller coaster.” They want to control fermentation. Modernist Pizzas asks, “Why not just vary the amount of yeast?” I ask, Um, duh?
That covers water, flour, salt and yeast. Next time, we’ll finish up with sugar, fats and oils, ways to improve your dough, and (drum roll!) pizza ovens! (They have opinions.)
Want to see more about Modernist Pizza in it's natural habitat on Amazon? Click here! But if you're just getting started on your pizza journey, don't injure yourself beneath the weight of it. Consider instead, Free The Pizza! (A Simple System For Making Great Pizza Whenever You Want With The Oven You Already Have).
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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