The Midweek Modernist Pizza Report: Worth More Than Its Weight In Flour, Water, Salt And Yeast, Part II
The Ongoing Modernist Pizza Review, Volume 1, Chapter 4, "Pizza Dough Ingredients" (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
Welcome back to the epic Roller Coaster of Pizza Dough Ingredients. Last time, we were reviewing the Modernist Pizza discussion about water, flour, salt and yeast. In one short section of the chapter, this grand book pulls back the curtain on all kinds of mysteries related to basic pizza dough and the attendant water, flour, salt and yeast. They've covered the essentials. Next up, the incidentals…
Reading and quoting from Modernist Pizza is always interesting. They’re approaching pizza scientifically, but seem to be aware that this is not a college textbook. It’s hard to imagine anything like this appearing in a scholarly tome in any of my science classes:
“All organisms need sugar to survive, but yeast cells might have the biggest sweet tooth of all—it’s the only food they eat. Enzymes turn the starch in flour into an all-you-can-eat buffet of sugars, which the yeast cells metabolize into energy, alcohol and carbon dioxide, and the other byproducts of fermentation. The meal is a slow crawl that lasts hours—the concentration of sugar in the dough is limited by the pace of the enzymes.”
I’ve been making and reading about pizza for 20 years. That paragraph above is perhaps the single best description I’ve ever read about what happens between sugar and yeast in a pizza dough.
Sugars are also what make a pizza brown when it bakes. If you’ve spent any time dabbling in cooking, you’ve possibly conflated the two ideas of caramelization and the Maillard reaction. (I have.) So here’s the surprise: Modernist Pizza explains that they are not the same thing.
Caramelization happens by heating the sugars in a food. While the Maillard reaction requires sugars, it’s additionally an enzymatic process that involves amino acids. Modernist Pizza calls it, “The difference between a tuning fork and a symphony.” (They offer, as always, a succinct explanation to go with that.)
FATS AND OILS
Once again, for those of us who are not seasoned bakers, useful tidbits abound. For instance, lean breads are often crispy. Fatty breads? Not so crispy.
And when it comes to pizza, fat makes a difference. Fat can increase the volume of a baked pizza.
Since I’ve lately been taking a deep dive into New York pizza, this was interesting: “Pizzas that contain some oil do better when they’re re-heated.” And there you have just part of the secret of the mythical New York pizza.
We’re talking about a kind of pizza usually re-heated for purchase by the slice. It seems that most pizzas sold by the slice contain some oil. (That would include pizzas like Detroit style and Sicilian, as well as Roman-style al taglio, or pizza “by the cut.”)
Something else happens when you put oil into pizza dough. It makes doughs easier to handle and more extensible, or stretchable.
I know some newbie pizza geeks who get very deep into things like this. They’re usually curious people who do things like architecture or astrophysics, so they’re always asking “What if…?” And for them, they might want to know things like the effects on pizza dough related to the kind of fats used. What if you use a liquid fat like olive oil versus a solid fat like butter, or instead of butter, ghee, or…
Well, the fat section is only four pages long. It also has lots of photos. You’ve never seen so many photos of pizza crumb dedicated to a detail area like fat in pizza dough. Wow. If you're that kind of person, you can spend an hour just focusing on such minutiae. (I almost did.)
THE PIZZA DATABASE
I have an overly large collection of pizza books--for a normal person. The people of Modernist Cuisine are not normal. Accordingly, the Modernist Pizza pizza-cookbook collection makes me look like a wannabe. Their database is huge—and they include a photograph of their pile of pizza books.
They’ve clearly researched the literature that preceded them. That’s a good thing. There’s a respect for the past and for the craft. Tradition is good to know—both for following it when it’s a good idea, and for knowing when it’s a good idea to be an iconoclast and smash the idols.
The interesting result of researching all of these pizza cookbooks? The Modernistas have discovered that almost everyone has their own way of baking pizza. They found no absolute rules for any particular style.
They also felt like this lack of concurrence gave them a kind of permission: Modernist Pizza was now free to abandon tradition. They could essentially write their own rules. How American is that? (It’s hard to imagine the officials at The True Neapolitan Pizza Association in Naples reading this paragraph without choking on their limoncello.)
IMPROVING PIZZA DOUGH
If you're a home pizzamaker, you may have learned that Pizza Social is a dangerous place. When a pizza newbie goes to Facebook or Quora and asks, "How do I make my dough better?", the mob responds. The mob loves to give answers—often without ever actually knowing the real question.
Modernist Pizza points out a useful tactic when you’re trying to make better dough. It helps to ask a simple question: What particular quality am I trying to improve? And understanding dough facilitates this process. For instance…
Did you know that pizza dough is both a viscous liquid and a solid? It is viscoelastic. Depending on the ratio of water to flour, it handles more like a liquid or like a solid.
Do you want to improve dough volume? Make it easier to shape, easier to handle? Improve its structure? Make the crust crispier or more brown? Here now, new possibilities...
In baking, there’s a category of “Purified ingredients” or (the more dubious sounding) “white powders.” These ingredients are natural if less common additives for controlling dough.
Bakers are often put off by white powders. But as Modernist Pizza points out, they’re not much different than flour, sugar or salt. They’re all derived from natural ingredients and provide control of dough behavior.
I have to admit that after making pizza for over a decade and reading various books, the great Tony Gemignani made me worry. I picked up his Pizza Bible--which is another epic pizza cookbook, though only one, less-daunting volume. Almost immediately, Tony was telling me to use diastatic malt.
“What the heck is diastatic malt,” you ask? Well, maybe you aren’t asking. But I was. I also didn’t really comprehend the answer from Tony’s book. (Perhaps I was less cogent and not so deep in this pizza hole, so: blissful ignorance and operator error?)
Now, the Modernistas are making a more comprehensive case for diastatic malt. I’m ready to hear and understand. What diastatic malt does is hydrolize starch into sugars. The yeast can then ferment those sugars. The result? A softer, stickier dough that, in the oven, gets brown faster. Hello, shorter baking times!
White powders are not to be feared. They’re just as processed as the rest of the ingredients we’re using. They’re not evil. There is no witchcraft afoot. (This may be more of a lesson for the professional reading this book. I don't know that many of us amateurs ever think about white powders--but now we can.)
IMPROVING DOUGH VOLUME
White powders can be good for turning up the volume. If you’re making thick crust pizza, is it going to be dense or airy? Dough improvers can help you make lighter, less dense crust.
Diastatic malt will work here, and so will purified amylase. Either helps make sure the yeast have enough food. With enough food, the yeast produce more gas.
If you’re having volume issues related to a weak gluten network, send in the white powders! Ascorbic acid or vital wheat gluten will help you here.
Another volume enhancer is the less well-known GENU pectin—which happens to be the best of the volume enhancers they tested. Can’t find it? Pure pectin, pumpkin powder, fruit purée or fruit jam are viable substitutes.
Sometimes, volume of your dough is decreased by adding other ingredients. Rye, wheat germ or bran, ancient grains or gluten-free flours all contribute to decreased volume.
If you’re trying to come up with your own pizza dough blend, these kinds of things matter. This entire discussion may also be at a level of geek you’re never going to attain. Nonetheless, it still helps to understand what’s going on in there.
If just having this conversation makes you feel queasy, I get it. This goes way back to the challenge of weighing ingredients. Americans just don’t want to do it. I suspect that’s because all of this feels a little like science class, and it imparts a feeling of dread.
That feeling of dread should dissipate when you see the Modernist Pizza photography. They show the results of their experiments in improving the volume of bread-like pizzas. The proof is in the pictures, which make it all relatable and somewhat less mystifying. Reading Modernist Pizza is a revelation in so many ways you never anticipated.
IMPROVING DOUGH HANDLING AND SHAPING
Want your dough stretchier? Increase hydration or add a conditioning agent—either of which can weaken gluten, but for different reasons. What to do? If you're a Modernista: Experiment!
The experiment here: Dough relaxers. They had such great luck experimenting with bromelain, they included it in some of their master recipes. It helped with stretching Neapolitan doughs, as well as pan pizzas that are difficult to stretch into the corners of the pan.
If you’re scratching your head over bromelain, think: Adolph’s Meat Tenderizer. It’s a white powder, it looks scary, but it’s not. It's made from the stems of pineapples.
If you didn't know, the inside part of the pizza crust is called the crumb. (That’s a very bread-head technical term. There’s even a bread geek book by Peter Reinhart called Crust And Crumb: Master Formulas for Serious Bread Bakers.) The crumb can be altered and made softer by using dough modifiers.
All told, this chapter of Modernist Pizza offers several simple yet potent paragraphs that tell you more than you ever imagined possible about the chemistry of improving your bread. And here’s a surprise: Bean flours work. But they’re not recommended by Modernist Pizza. That’s because (surprise!) they have “a strong, beany flavor.”
No, this is not about being inclusive. Yes, it’s about adding fun things to your dough. Just about anything goes. Cooked or dried fruits, cured meats, dry cheeses, herbs, nuts, grains, seeds…? You name it.
However, they can be tricky. They also depend on your personal tastes. (I personally won’t be doing it anytime soon.) But here’s an overview of what Modernist Pizza tells us about inclusions.
There’s a comprehensive overview of grains. This includes a giant photo plate of relative grains shown 5.5 times their actual size. (Admit it: now you want to see the IMAX film adaptation of this book.)
How to prepare grains and seeds. This includes soaking, sprouting and cooking—and introduces a nifty sounding trick called pressure caramelization. They also discuss making porridge or purée.
You can also make flavored liquids for your dough. Purées and purée substitutes are on the table as well.
This is a great place to stop because next week, we enter the dragon. We’re going to be reviewing the Modernist Pizza conversation about the physics of dough and sauce, the dreaded gel layer problem and (here it comes) Pizza Ovens!
Until then, Merry Christmas, Happy Hannukah, Happy Kwanzaa, and/or whatever holiday(s) you celebrate between now and then!
(You can see previous installments of the epic Modernist Pizza review at FreeThePizza.com by clicking here. Free The Pizza! (A Simple System For Making Great Pizza Whenever You Want With The Oven you Already Have) is no longer shipping in time for Christmas, but is still available by clicking here. I’ll also gladly send you an autographed book plate to go inside that copy of the book. Just click here and fill out the form and provide both the signed-to name and your snail mail address.)
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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