Food & Drink

Flavorful pizza dough requires a skill (almost) lost to the digital age: Patience

Pizza dough fermentation - 2 hours. MUST CREDIT: Photo by Tom McCorkle for The Washington Post; food styling by Lisa Cherkasky for The Washington Post.
Pizza dough fermentation - 2 hours. MUST CREDIT: Photo by Tom McCorkle for The Washington Post; food styling by Lisa Cherkasky for The Washington Post.
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Patience may be a virtue, but the digital age has all but killed it. Speed is the new patience. Everything must move faster and with more efficiency: computers, customer transactions, home deliveries, recipes, you name it. We live in the Instant Pot Era.

Like practically everything else, pizza dough has bowed to the will of speed. You can find plenty of sources that promise quick dough or basic dough, and, yes, the recipes will produce a serviceable pizza base in a matter of hours. The resulting crust will ferry your selected toppings with no problem, but it won’t provide much flavor, at least not the deep, complex kind that comes from extended fermentation. In the universe of good pizza - a subgenre of the good bread family - flavorful dough requires that you revive your patience, a practice sacrificed long ago to the gods of 21st-century electronics.

“Great bread makers intuitively understand that the key to making world-class bread from flour, water, salt and yeast is to draw out the natural sweetness trapped in the complex carbohydrates” in flour, writes Peter Reinhart, the award-winning baker and educator, in “American Pie: My Search for the Perfect Pizza.”

“This takes time,” Reinhart adds.

How much? That’s one thing I sought to show with this 48-hour exercise in dough fermentation. For the dough, I relied on one by Andrew Feinberg, the chef and co-owner behind Franny’s, the beloved Brooklyn pizzeria that closed in 2017. The dough requires only all-purpose flour, salt, cold water and dry active yeast. (The recipe can be found in “Franny’s: Simple Seasonal Italian.”)

Even with such limited ingredients, the dough showed a significant range of flavor, depending on the fermentation.

(Note: All of this applies to wheat doughs.)

Two hours

The two-hour dough sat on the counter of a warm kitchen for two hours, often the minimum amount of time recommended for quick pizza dough.

You’ll notice it has not risen much, nor are there telltale craters on the surface that indicate the yeast is doing its thing. Reinhart explains that fermentation requires at least five hours for enzymes to free up sugars in the complex carbohydrates. Two hours simply didn’t give the yeast enough sugars to turn into alcohol and carbon dioxide; the latter is what gives dough its lift.

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When I baked the dough (sans sauce and cheese) on a pizza stone in a 500-degree oven, it produced a crispy crust with few air pockets and little browning. The flavor was crackerlike. It tasted mostly of flour.

12 hours

The 12-hour dough was also fermented on the counter at room temperature. Clearly, the yeast has gone on a feeding frenzy to Flavatown. In fact, professional bakers might say the yeast has fed on too many sugars. The surface is riddled with craters, signs of carbon dioxide release. And the dough would have overflowed the edges of the bowl if not for the plastic wrap holding it in place.

The problem with such uncontrolled fermentation is that the yeast leaves few sugars that can contribute to the flavor of the crust. (Alcohol, I should note, is mostly burned off during the bake.) When I baked this dough, the crust was as crackerlike as its two-hour cousin, with a tad more complexity, perhaps the result of whatever flavors had not been cooked off or fermented out of existence.

24 hours

All the finest bakers and pizza makers will tell you the same thing: To control and slow fermentation, refrigerate the dough. You can see evidence of this in the 24-hour dough. Even though it was fermented twice as long as the 12-hour batch, it has not expanded nearly as much.

Here’s the important thing about slow fermentation: Enzymes continue to free up sugars, but the yeast just does not consume them at the same rate as with the 12-hour, room-temperature dough, so fewer sugars are converted to carbon dioxide and alcohol.

When the 24-hour dough was baked, the undigested sugars gave the crust a natural sweetness - or more like an aftertaste of sweetness, far more subtle than the saccharine quality that added sugars or honey can sometimes impart to a dough. The residual sugar also helped brown the crust as those sugars caramelized in the oven, creating a pie appetizing to the eye and the taste buds.

48 hours

After 48 hours in the fridge, the dough has more than doubled in size, but it has not overflowed the bowl. The air pockets indicate that the yeasts, while busy, have been too slowed by cold temperatures to gobble up every sugar molecule in sight. It’s worth mentioning that author Harold McGee, whose “On Food and Cooking” is considered the last word on kitchen chemistry, says it takes yeast “10 times longer to raise bread in the refrigerator than at warm room temperature.”

When this round came out of the oven, it looked like crust should: browned and puffy. If the crust based on the 24-hour dough had a suggestion of sweetness, this time it was noticeable, which would lead you to surmise that the enzymes continued to produce sugars faster than the yeast could consume them. What’s more, the slow, cool fermentation, as McGee points out, allowed both “yeasts and bacteria more time to generate flavor compounds,” which explains why this round had more depth of flavor than any one before it.

If this experiment proves anything, it’s that speed kills good pizza dough. Or, to say it another way, great pizza rewards patience.

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