The Midweek Modernist Pizza Report: What do you know about oven science and that viscoelastic we call pizza dough? (Part 2)
The Ongoing Modernist Pizza Review, Volume 1, Chapter 5, "Pizza Ovens" (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
Modernist Pizza gives a comprehensive and scientific look at oven behavior in Chapter 5. What’s interesting is the recommendations for ovens, which are all about the type of oven relative to the style of pizza. And the things they don't say seem equally as telling as the things they do say. (If you missed that earlier part of the review, you can find it here.)
But once you’ve got a pizza oven hot and you put a raw pizza inside, what actually goes on in there? This is where the Modernistas offer one of the more enlightening explanations of pizza physics for the layman
THE PHYSICS OF DOUGH AND SAUCE
Modernist Pizza now starts getting into the behavior of dough in an oven. They explain the gelatinization of starch, the unraveling and coagulation of proteins, and other chemical changes being created in the dough. This is where a hot oven begins giving us crust.
Convection is believed to be the main force here, not conduction. They actually give us a little tour of heat going through a pizza crust. (More photos and diagrams!) And this might be the first time since high school science class that you’ll find yourself thinking about joules. (If you don’t remember, a joule is a unit of energy. Best that I leave it right there. To say more would reveal my ineptitude with matters of science.)
The inside of a baking pizza is a little steam factory. When the water inside the dough reaches 212 degrees, “steam starts to blow out of the fissures, large and small, that formed in the crust.” When the crust dries out and reaches 350 to 400, “it creates the browning zone where the Maillard reactions take place.”
That quoted passage above is so simple, yet it explains so much about an excellent pizza crust. The fact that the passage is accompanied by macro photography of a pizza cross section with a diagram is so good. It’s like each tiny section of this massive work is a complete lesson that unlocks some other mystery of pizza.
And the intel just keeps getting better. For instance, “Water vapor leaves the pizza through the fissures in the crust, like lava out of tiny volcanoes.” Or put very simply, it’s about “Bringing the dough to a boil.”
There’s a lot happening inside an oven that we never consider. First, conduction happens between the steel or stone and the dough. “Second, infrared rays stream off the oven walls and heating elements, injecting heat into the dough by radiation.” Then, there’s the natural convection that’s pushing warm air over and around the dough. Thermodynamic madness!
You already know that dough is full of water. What you may not consider is that from the moment the dough goes into your oven as a pizza, that water is evaporating.
That pizza is sweating. The sweat is cooling it down.
Perhaps you’ve had this experience. I have. When I open the oven door during the bake, there’s a big blast of humid air. If I’m wearing my glasses, the lenses fog right up. For a moment, I’m blind. That’s the moisture that’s been leaving the pizza and hanging around inside the oven.
After the dough boils sufficiently, the crust begins drying. We start getting all that nice brown of a Maillard reaction.
Next up, Modernist Pizza takes us into what happens when the sauce bakes. It goes through a series of chemical changes. You end up with a higher viscosity sauce than when you started.
In the oven, the sauce is being cooked from above. Essentially, the sauce is being broiled.
They also offer a simple test for how a sauce is going to behave in the oven. You’ll quickly learn whether you need to adjust the sauce’s thickness. And the test does not involve assembling and baking an entire pizza.
The Modernistas also discuss the myth about why pizza stays flat and doesn’t bubble up in the middle. People have long insisted it’s the weight of the toppings. The Modernist Cuisine experiments prove otherwise, and then explain the real reason. Their experiment includes an unsauced pizza, aluminum foil, aluminum plate, black foil and aquarium sand. Mmm, tasty!
Naturally, you’ve always wondered what would happen if you had dark toppings on your pizza. So they figured it out for us. They baked a pizza on one half with regular, white béchamel sauce, and on the other half used a béchamel sauce that had been colored black. Get ready for some pizza fun! (Hint: The black bechamel absorbs more heat, so think about bubbles...)
THE GEL LAYER PROBLEM
Yes, the Modernistas address The Big Problems for us. You know that uncooked layer of gelatinized dough that happens, especially on thick-crust pizzas? It can be combatted. They experimented on 120 pizzas to help solve this problem for you.
You want to see something fascinating? Look at their macro photo of a marinara pizza cross section. The gel layer looks like a layer of non-existent melted cheese.
THE PIZZAIOLO EQUATION
Dough + Sauce + Cheese + Toppings = Pizza
One of the reminders you see periodically through this book is it’s not just for you and me, the enthusiastic amateurs. It’s also for the pros. And that's made clear when they say things like, “Pizzaioli have a lot to juggle on a day-to-day basis. From menu development to training their staff to monitoring the quality of the pizzas they serve their guests. At a minimum, they have to contend with the different cooking rates of the dough, the sauce, and the cheese in the pizza. And that doesn’t even take into account the different toppings that they are likely to include, which add another wrinkle to the already complex process of baking a pizza.”
I’m so glad I don’t run a pizzeria. Yet I’m still fascinated by the minutiae of how pizza works, and for the first time I’m getting a peek behind the curtain of pizza science. Things I was figuring out on my own now have an actual explanation for why they work.
Now, we need to take a glimpse at the very end of this chapter. In Part 1 of this chapter review, I jumped ahead to talk about the outdoor pizza oven, which does not appear anywhere in their recommended ovens. The other things that are good to know (if you're a geek) is that the discussion includes ovens you've never heard of. The relative merits of wood fire, gas and electric all come into play.
And perhaps the single most important page for you and me: Improving Pizza Baked In A Home Oven. Yes, the page you've been waiting for. And you're going to find there are no real surprises.
Here's what I will also confess: I'm a little surprised at their diplomacy of singing the praises of the outdoor pizza oven for cooking pizza in "the great outdoors." This in spite of the genre not being recommended for any particular kind of pizza.
There are also a few more arcane pizza ovens you've never heard of. Some of them range from very expensive to outrageously so. But my personal favorite part of the oven conversation regards the oven that evokes chain pizzerias.
The impinger oven, also referred to as a conveyor oven by some of us, is the kind of thing you see in Domino's. A pizza goes in one end raw, goes through a tunnel, and comes out the other end fully baked. What I find fascinating and isn't mentioned here is that there's a subculture of impinger oven hackers.
Yes, there are guys who are making artisan pizza in a machine that looks like it came from Domino's. And while Modernist Pizza doesn't mention them specifically, they do extol the virtues of impinger oven technology. As I like to say, beware oven chauvinism. It is often a trap.
One of my favorite parts of this chapter is a two-page spread that's a kind of anatomy diagram of a NY pizza and what happens to it while it bakes. If you wonder why the huge format of these volumes, consider a spread like this one. You just can’t do it in a normal book format. This is coffee table material. It’s an epic book for an epic treatment of deceptively complex topic.
We've come to the end of Volume 1, so it's time to prepare for Volume 2: Techniques and Ingredients. In the meantime, if you 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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