Experiment Seven: Is it better to be strong, or plain?

In our last experiment, we learned that adding in a lot of strong-tasting rye flour can change the flavour of your pizza. Corks! Who knew? Perhaps soon we’ll be able to figure out what religion the Pope is. But as well as changing the flavour of your dough, your choice of flour can also substantially change the texture of your dough. This potential texture difference is seen most clearly in the baking section of your local supermarket (or, if you don’t have a local supermarket, it’s seen most clearly in the baking section of someone else’s local supermarket). When we buy white flour, we have a choice between strong flour (which is high in gluten), and plain flour (which has less gluten, and is generally less well educated than its posher cousin). Plain flour also happens to be much cheaper. But what does this mean for the average domestic pizza consumer?


Where have all the flours gone?

To answer this, we need to delve deeply into the technical aspects of baking. In essence, gluten is a kind of magic invisible string made of pure science. When we hydrate flour by adding water and kneading, two proteins called gliadin and glutenin, which love each other very much, come together to form gluten. This gluten forms a stretchy, ethereal network throughout your dough. As the yeast starts to eat the sugars in the dough, it then farts out carbon dioxide. The gluten traps this carbon dioxide in little pockets, which become fixed as the dough bakes, to form the lovely bubbles in the crumb of your baked good. The more gluten in the dough, the more structure to your crumb. Structure of this kind is a good thing if you want a firm mouthfeel and a robust structure, or indeed if you’re baking an enormous house to live in. Structure is less good if you’re trying to make something soft and crumbly, like shortbread or cookies. So depending on what you’re aiming for in your final product, you may or may not want a lot of gluten cluttering up the place.

This is clear enough: we know what gluten is, and we know we have to pay extra for it. But what difference does it make to our pizzas? And is the extra cost really worth it? We’re about to find out. In the following experiment, we compare our standard dough – which uses strong white flour – with an experimental dough that uses only plain flour.

Standard dough:                                                   Plain flour dough:

500g strong white flour                                         500g plain flour                                    330g water                                                            330g water
7g instant yeast                                                     7g instant yeast
10g salt                                                                 10g salt

Doughs were mixed and kneaded for five minutes, then coated with a little olive oil and left to prove for two hours. They were then shaped into pizzas and dough balls.

Eyeball test: Um… they look like dough. No enormous differences here. Both doughs feel fairly similar, though the strong flour dough feels drier, presumably as it absorbs more water than the plain flour.


Obviously not strong enough.

Pizza test: The strong flour pizza tastes… normal. It’s the control pizza, and I’ve eaten it dozens of times. Mmm. Nice pizza. But as for the plain flour pizza, things are less positive. It looks like a normal pizza, though perhaps slightly less brown than the control pizza. (Whether this is because gluten contributes to colour changes during cooking, or whether the plain dough was slightly wetter and needed a little longer to cook, I do not know.) But as soon as you take a bite of plain-flour pizza, the difference becomes apparent. It’s cakey. Soft. Less resistant to the bite. Slightly namby-pamby. Insubstantial. It reminds me of crap sliced white supermarket bread, where the crumb of the bread is like a mousse, coming apart at the least contact. This was not a positive. It did, however, make obvious to me why you should use plain flour for cakes and strong flour for bread. Cakes are supposed to be crumbly and yielding, and a lower-gluten flour achieves this much better. Bread is supposed to have a firmer structure and a bit more bite to it. For pizzas, it may be a matter of taste as to where on the soft-to-firm continuum you want your pizzas to be. But the plain flour pizza had a very insubstantial mouthfeel, and it was just not as good as the control pizza.

Dough ball test: The two dough balls looked pretty much identical, and their taste was nearly identical. However, the strong flour dough ball was much more resistant to pulling apart – when I pulled it open, the crumb had some resistance to it. In contrast, the plain flour dough ball yielded without putting up any kind of a fight. That kind of moral laxity and weakness of character was also apparent in the mouthfeel. Whereas the strong dough ball tasted… well, the same as usual, the plain flour dough ball quickly became a sort of fudgey goo. There was negligible difference in taste – perhaps the flavour of the strong dough lasted slightly longer – but the overall experience was clearly different, with the softness and lack of structure to the plain flour dough being much less appealing than the strong dough.

The Verdict

Mr T

A keen baker, Mr T pities the fool that makes a pizza dough that’s low in gluten.

We have a winner, folks. Strong flour makes much better pizza than plain flour. Yes, Waitrose aren’t messing with you just for their own entertainment – it turns out the extra 50p they charge for strong flour really does make a difference. Not so much in terms of flavour, but when it comes to chewing, it’s pretty stark: strong flour gives a robust and pleasantly chewy pizza, whereas plain flour gives a pizza that’s soft and cakey (not, unfortunately, in a good way). It’d be interesting to see whether adding in a little plain flour – say 20% – to a base of strong flour would be an improvement over the standard dough. That’s a question for another day. For now, save your plain flour for cakes, or for hurling at miscreants. Having said all that, it’s important to keep a sense of proportion here: if I only had access to plain flour, I would still make pizza with it. Plain flour may not be the optimal way of making pizza, but it’s miles better than no pizza at all – tomato sauce and melted cheese are still delicious even without a firm crunch to back them up. So if money’s tight or your supermarket’s out of strong flour, fear not – go ahead and use plain flour, and you’ll be fine. But if you want to have a better pizza, go for the strong stuff.


Experiment Six: Rye… will always love yooo-oohoo-hoooh…

I MISS WHITNEY HOUSTON.    That’s how Whitney Houston used to introduce herself.

Flavour. Flavour flavour flavour. FLAVOUR!! In the world of the pizza, flavour is extremely important. Just how important is it? It’s so important, top 1980s rap singer Flavor Flav actually named himself after it, one-and-a-half times. And when it comes to pizza, the ingredient that conveys the most flavour to the finished dough is flour. So if we want to tweak the flavours of our pizza, then playing around with flour is a route we just have to explore. However, unlike Flavor Flav’s no-compromise approach to genre-defining politically conscious rap singing, I believe there really are some basic limits as to how far one ought to push things. Otherwise, things will just get ridiculous. A case in point: the reason our standard pizza dough is so soft and stretchy and airy and delicious is because of all the strong white bread flour in it. This type of flour is high in gluten, and has had all the coarse, healthy husk sieved out, so the resulting dough isn’t weighed down by boring old dietary fibre. No sir, it’s light and frisky, and rises like Our Lord Jesus Christ. Any changes we make to the dough recipe should still strive to retain the lightness that the strong white flour brings. Fo’ shizzle.

Though unpopular with the other members of the group, Texture Text made an invaluable contribution during the early days of Public Enemy, including going out to get the coffee during the recording of “Don’t Believe The Hype”.

Now, if we suddenly went all mad like, and decided to make pizza dough entirely from a heavier, less gluten-rich “speciality” flour (such as rye or spelt), we’d still get a perfectly edible bread-like product. However, the lack of gluten and the added grain husk in the flour would give us a dough that was dense and heavy, and just generally a bit po-faced. It’d be the sort of dough that would peer at you disapprovingly from behind its net curtains, and complain loudly about your “lifestyle”. However, whilst these kinds of speciality flour lack a certain youthful spring and vigour, they compensate for it with their extra flavour. Wholemeal flour retains the husk from the wheat grain, which gives a nice variety to the taste and texture of a standard loaf. Rye flour has a taste variously described as “fruity”, “spicy”, or “earthy” (though ancient moaner Pliny the Elder opined that rye had a bitter, unpleasant taste, and was only mildly preferable to starvation). And spelt flour is a tasty ‘n’ ancient variety of grain that contains no gluten; as such, it’s suitable for people who find gluten annoying, or for people who enjoy chewing plywood.

So, funky speciality flours contribute flavour on the one hand, but take away lightness and springiness on the other. This makes the challenge of tweaking the flour in our recipe pretty clear: we want to retain enough strong white flour in the dough to ensure a supple, springy dough, yet we also want to include enough specialist flour to bring added flavour to the pizza. In an attempt to walk that line, we made an experimental pizza with one-third rye flour and two-thirds strong white flour. Will this transport us to new pastures of tasty delight, or dump us unceremoniously in the middle of the Gritty Housing Estate of Despond? We’re about to find out.

Standard dough:                                                   Rye-enhanced dough:

500g strong white flour                                         340g strong white flour + 160g rye flour 330g water                                                            330g water
7g instant yeast                                                     7g instant yeast
10g salt yeast                                                        10g salt

Doughs were mixed and kneaded for five minutes, then coated with a little olive oil and left in the fridge for ten hours (that’s what happens when you do a pizza experiment on a work day). They were then brought to room temperature for an hour, before being shaped into pizzas and dough balls.

Eyeball test: Well, this is a pretty clear difference. The standard dough was all white and blobby and wobbly and responsive, like a friendly ectoplasmic amoeba. The rye dough looked much greyer, with visible flecks of grain throughout. It was much less responsive to touch, and noticeably less extensible and less elastic (that is, it stretched out less easily, and unlike the standard dough, it didn’t spring back to a smaller shape after it was rolled out). Both doughs had risen well, and were comparable sizes, but they handled so differently that it would have been possible to tell the differences between them even when blindfolded. The extra suppleness in the standard dough would suggest rye flour absorbs more water than strong white flour – the rye-enhanced dough felt drier and firmer. For future flour experiments, it may be worth using wetter doughs.

Pizza test: The visible differences in the raw doughs were also apparent in the finished pizzas. The standard dough baked to an attractive pale golden colour, whereas the rye-enhanced flour baked to the colour of wholemeal toast. It was slightly more brittle than the standard dough, and had risen a little less. This combination made for a less enjoyable overall experience, one not entirely compensated for by the taste, which was distinct but not amazing – the description “wholemeal toast” actually captures the experience pretty well. It wasn’t a bad pizza, but it was less good than standard. In a serendipitous accident that may or may not become part of future methodology, I made too much pizza. This meant everyone could eat their fill, and I could then count how many slices of each type of pizza were left. By that measure too, the rye pizza lost out – it had twice as many leftover slices as the standard. Talk it up all you want, rye pizza. They’re just not that into you.

Dough ball test: Unlike some previous dough ball tests, in which I had to squint and scry to try to discern any difference, the dough ball test pretty much encapsulated the difference between the doughs. The standard dough ball was slightly larger, most likely due to a better oven-spring, and had slightly less coloration. It tasted perfectly good – the crust was pleasant, and the crumb was sweet and soft and indulgent and lovely, like getting a nice cuddle from a chubby lady made of doughnuts*. The rye dough ball tasted great – better than the standard dough in terms of taste. It was more interesting, and had a much wider range of flavours to it. However, in terms of mouthfeel, it was less pleasantly fluffy and melt-in-the-mouth. The crust was more brittle, and there was a slight graininess. This wasn’t a terrible thing, but it certainly wasn’t desirable. So while the rye dough had a more interesting flavour, and made for a very interesting experience – not unlike having an impromptu chat with a professor of Egyptology in a country pub – the standard dough balls were overall more enjoyable.

The Verdict

Hey, Alanis Morissette! Look, Jeffrey Archer is sitting on a jury. That’s much better than your rubbish examples.

Well, this was pretty much a hands-down win for the control dough. Cutting your flour with around 33% rye gives you tasty-but-austere dough balls, and flatter, crunchier, wholemeal-toast-ier pizzas. I’ve never eaten a pizza and thought “It’s good, but I wish it tasted more like wholemeal toast”, so this is not an entirely useful discovery. From this, the conclusion seems to be that subbing out one-third of your white flour for rye flour loses a lot of the lightness and softness that’s appealing in the standard dough. It adds flavour, but not in a way that makes the overall experience better. Strictly speaking, it may be that the final decision really depends on your individual beliefs about the relative importance of flavour and texture. But overall this is a pretty clear result: if someone’s coming round for tea tonight, and you wonder whether it’s worth adding in a lot of rye flour to your pizza dough – it isn’t.

*I am aware that if this actually happened in real life, it would be deeply sinister, and probably unimaginably terrifying. So try not to imagine a real-life version of getting a cuddle from a chubby lady made of doughnuts. Imagine it happening in a charming Tim Burton cartoon. Also, if you’re ever looking for a picture for your blog, do not type “chubby lady made of doughnuts” into Google Image. I did, and I regret the decision immensely.

Experiment Five: Is Pizza Worth Its Salt?

In Scotland it used to be a Hogmanay traditional to offer a heated spoon of salt to your neighbours to wish them a prosperous new year. Due to health concerns, the salt is now generally replaced with heroin.

It is a truth universally acknowledged that, of the four ingredients in pizza dough, salt is definitely one of them. And how true that is. As you’d expect for an ionic compound produced by reacting an acid with a base, salt contributes a lot of the yumminess in the foods we eat. However, its wonderful, flavour-giving yin is balanced by the galling, stroke-inducing yang that when taken in excess, salt can do pwoper nasty things to your health. It’s like a tiny, powdered, gastronomic version of Ray Winstone in “Scum”. Whilst a bit of salt won’t kill you, the proliferation of high-salt processed foods means it’s very easy to consume far more salt than we intend. This is bad news, because too much salt brings with it risks of diseases such as… er… I can’t remember. Google it if you want. From memory, I’m pretty sure too much salt brings with it risk of Witzelsucht, bad AIDS, and the Jumping Frenchmen of Maine. So how can we reconcile the inherent duality of salt, being on the one hand a flaky powder of deliciousness, and on the other, a lurking white killer? I have absolutely no idea. But inspired by a general sense that reducing the amount of salt we eat is probably a good idea, I’m going to do an experiment to see what pizza tastes like when you take out all the salt.

Standard dough:                                                   Salt-free dough:

500g strong white flour                                         500g strong white flour
330g water                                                            330g water
7g instant yeast                                                     7g instant yeast
10g salt

Doughs were mixed and kneaded for five minutes, then coated with a little olive oil and left to prove for an hour.

Eyeball test: There is absolutely no visible difference between the two doughs, neither before nor after proving. That isn’t all that surprising, though it’s mildly interesting: one other property of salt is that it’s even worse for microbes than it is for humans. Indeed, salt is used to preserve food such as salt beef, which lasts much longer than regular beef simply because microbes think it’s disgusting too. In this experiment, the regular and salt-free doughs rose the same amount, which tells us that the amount of salt in the regular dough isn’t sufficient to noticeably impair the yeast’s performance.

Pizza test: As always, the flavour differences between the doughs have to be perceived above and beyond the (usually more pronounced) flavours of the tomato sauce and mozzarella. However, while both the regular and salt-free pizzas are palatable enough, the regular pizza really is much better: it has a longer-lasting and more rounded taste. The salt-free pizza isn’t nasty tasting, but it’s a little cardboardy. The cheese and sauce combine well with the crunch of the crust, but next to the regular pizza dough, it’s obviously lacking a certain je ne sais quoi. Though actually, je do sais quoi. It’s salt. That was the whole point of this experiment.

Nein! Ich lichten nichten!

Dough ball test: Eeeuuggh! Bleeeugh! Me no like! The normal-dough dough ball tastes fine. Like a normal dough ball. The salt-free dough ball tastes like warm cardboard. The flavour is flat, and even though it tastes of little more than cooked flour, it also feels somehow out of balance. Maybe if I tasted it on its own it would seem a little more palatable. But as a side-by-side comparison, it’s markedly much less pleasant. It’s as if a nice dough ball had died, and then came back to life as an awful, shambling zombie dough ball. Superficially you can see the resemblance, but the quintessence is absent.

The Verdict

Gah! Put the salt back in, you idiot! This was a stupid idea, and I can’t believe you all let me do this. No no no no no no no. Just wrong.


Standard dough:                                                   Reduced-salt dough:

500g strong white flour                                         500g strong white flour
330g water                                                            330g water
7g instant yeast                                                     7g instant yeast
10g salt                                                                  5g salt

Eyeball test: The two doughs looked alike. Only a fool would attempt to seek out differences in these two. No way, José. Same.

Pizza test: There is a slight but perceptible difference in the two pizzas. The regular dough has a nice flavour that pops out; the reduced-salt pizza is also good, but with close scrutiny, it does lack a certain something in comparison to the regular dough. The crunch and texture of both pizzas is comparably good, and when tasted in isolation I probably wouldn’t notice any difference between them. But in a side-by-side comparison with the regular dough, the reduced-salt variant is a little flatter and less exciting. That said, it has to be noted that picking up these differences did require a good amount of chewing, thinking, and multiple comparisons, so it’s a much less clear-cut difference than entirely omitting the salt.

Dough ball test: Perhaps more than any other experiment, this one has the closest accord between pizza test and dough ball test. Both dough balls looked and tasted fine, and if I’d been a bit drunk and unaware that there were two different doughs, I would happily have chomped through them blissfully unaware. But with close scrutiny, the 10g of salt in the regular dough produced a dough that was very slightly preferable to the 5g in the reduced-salt version. The difference is that the regular dough has a more rounded, and perhaps slightly sweeter, flavour.

The Verdict

Removing all the salt from a pizza dough is not something that I’d recommend, on grounds of flavour. If you have guests coming round who you really dislike, then by all means omit the salt, and snigger behind your hand as they have to chew through mouthful after mouthful of cheesy cardboard. And if you need to cut down on your salt for reasons of health, you might want to first try the lazy pragmatist’s option of just avoiding any kind of salty topping while keeping some salt in the dough. However, the intermediate step of halving the salt content (from 10g to 5g of salt per 500g of flour) happily yields an end product that’s still pretty good. It really wouldn’t be a terrible route to take if circumstances necessitated it. But if you want to make the best-tasting dough you can, I’d leave all the salt in. It’s remarkable how salt changes the way we perceive the other flavours in food. The bready, nutty taste of dough really benefits from an addition of salt; without it, otherwise pleasant flavours can seem much flatter and less interesting. It’s like beer at a works do. You could omit it, but you know you’ll regret it if you do.

Experiment Four: Out With The New, In With The Old

Until 1954, all pizzas in North America were made in black and white.

If there was one life lesson that I’d wish to pass on to my descendants, it would be that eating old stuff that you happen to find lying around is a bad idea. Food that’s been sitting around tends to undergo a variety of decay-related processes, many of which lead to noxious odours and sometimes quite profound digestive infelicity. Eating a Mr Kipling French Fancy that was made, unwrapped and accidentally dropped behind a sofa in a previous calendar year is a decision that’s unlikely to end well. And we all remember the salutary lesson of Homer Simpson eating buckets of expired food from the Kwik-E-Mart. In the light of the culinary truism that fresher is better, we might even go so far as to ask ourselves what kind of depraved sickos would even want to eat smelly old food products that have been lying around going off for ages?

The answer to that question is, of course, “The French“. Smelly consumables really are their bag, whether it be eating a runny helping of stinky cheese, or eating a runny helping of a slightly different kind of stinky cheese. And why not? There are all kinds of delicious things that can only be made through controlled aging coupled with judicious use of yeasts or bacteria – delicious things such as beer and cheese, two of the key ingredients in beer cheese soup. In fact, I would go so far as to say that if there was one life lesson that I’d wish to pass on to my descendants, it would be that eating old stuff that you happen to find lying around is a really good idea. Thanks to what I imagine is either a long-running nationwide programme of systematic food experimentation, or a by-product of their inherent sloth, the French have acquired an expertise that’s second-to-none about what sorts of things are better to eat when they’ve been left lying around. Great work, guys. Great work.

Somewhat implausibly, Kim Jong-il claimed to have invented pâte fermentée in 1988, and ordered that 17 million recipe books containing the recipe be distributed among North Koreans. This move greatly angered the French; to this day, diplomatic relations between the two countries remain strained.

How is all this relevant for pizza making? Well, one of the things that the French have tried ageing for culinary reasons is bread – or to be more specific, bread dough. They even have a name for bread dough that’s been sitting around for a while – pâte fermentée, or fermented dough – which French bakers claim makes bread taste better, and also allows French bakers to charge a lot more than if they just called it “old dough”. Dough that’s allowed to age for a day or two undergoes some intriguing changes: by adding water to bread flour, enzymes in the flour become activated; they then begin to break down the long-chain carbohydrates in the flour into shorter, simpler sugars. We perceive taste when receptors on our tongue bind with the ends of molecules, and the more molecules there are in a dough, the more taste we perceive. So allowing the long-chain carbohydrates in the dough to be converted into more shorter-chain carbohydrates should lead to tastier baking. That’s the theory, anyway. But whether this is a purely technical difference that is imperceptible outside a laboratory, or whether it is a real difference that’ll make our pizzas tastier, remains to be determined. Bring on the experiment.

In this experiment, we want to find out whether ageing a portion of the pizza dough overnight will bring any noticeable benefits to our pizza making. We’re therefore going to make two doughs each containing exactly same amount of flour, water, yeast and salt, but with the sole difference that the prefermented dough (that’s “old dough”) contains an amount of dough that was made the day before. Note that the enzymatic process that breaks down carbohydrates is relatively slow-acting; for that reason, we don’t want to add much yeast to the preferment, for fear that the yeasties will consume the sugars before the enzymes have had a chance to go to work. That’d probably piss the enzymes off. And once an enzyme gets a sulk on, you can basically never cheer them up.

Prefermented dough:                                                   Standard dough:

350g strong white flour                                                500g strong white flour
200g water                                                                   335g water
2g instant yeast                                                            7g instant yeast
for the preferment, plus…                                        10g salt
150g strong white flour
135g water                                                                                                                                    5g instant yeast
10g salt

The ingredients for the preferment were mixed together, but not kneaded (that’s because we wanted to hydrate the flour, but not to develop gluten). The resulting dough (or “preferment”) was then wrapped in clingfilm and placed in a fridge overnight. The following day, the preferment was removed from the fridge and left to return to room temperature for an hour. It was torn into small pieces and mixed with the additional flour, water, salt and yeast. The dough was then kneaded for five minutes. (Note that if you do this yourself, it takes a little work to mix in the preferment – it’s a fairly firm dough, but after a little kneading it does merge quite well into the new “hybrid” dough). The standard dough was also made at this stage, and also kneaded for five minutes. Both doughs were then covered with a small amount of olive oil and left to prove at room temperature for an hour. They were then made into pizzas and dough balls.


The old dough is on the left, the young dough is on the right. Note the v-shaped notch in the control (i.e. young) pizza.

Eyeball test: The doughs looked very similar. The old dough rose slightly less, perhaps because it was slightly colder than the younger dough, from having been kept in the fridge overnight. Otherwise, the two doughs looked and smelled very similar.

Pizza test: This was a tough one. Given the faff involved in making the old dough, I was torn between expecting big things, and hoping it’d make no difference so I wouldn’t have to go through the bother in future. When tasted blind, I found it difficult to judge which pizza was which. Both were perfectly good pizzas, but next to the taste of the tomato sauce and the nicely cooked mozzarella, any difference between the doughs was slight. If pushed to make a judgement then I’d say the pizza made from prefermented dough tasted slightly better, with longer and complex bready notes. But to be honest, it was not a striking or obvious difference – I was trying hard to find a difference between the two, and compared to the more noticeable flavours that the toppings provided, together with the within-pizza differences attributable to the different degree of browning of each pizza’s crust, the dough didn’t seem to make a very obvious difference. Having said that…

The prefermented dough is on the left, standard dough on the right.

Dough ball test: Well, this was a surprise. All that blather about enzymes breaking down long-chain carbohydrates, yadda yadda yadda – there was, I confess, a part of me that thought all that was a load of old crazy talk. Yet when I made two dough balls, each weighing 50 grams, and each cooked in the centre of the same oven for the same duration, a couple of inches apart, one turned out slightly more golden than the other. When I did the same thing again a few minutes later, there was once again a noticeable difference between the two. In both cases, the prefermented dough ball came out slightly darker. It would appear that the prefermented dough has a higher rate of caramelisation than the standard dough, consistent with the idea that it contains a larger proportion of sugar, formed when enzymes break down long-chain carbohydrates (greater colour = more sugar molecules caramelised). In terms of taste, there was also a clear difference. The standard dough ball tasted fine. But the prefermented dough tasted of… more. I’m struggling to describe the taste exactly – it was slightly bready, perhaps with a hint of nuttiness, and a pleasant, slightly unctious texture (I had originally written “creamy mouthfeel” here, but rejected that wording to avoid disappointing the sort of people who might type those words into Google). The flavour also lasted longer – the regular dough’s taste died away after a second or so, whereas the prefermented dough’s taste was still noticeable after a few seconds.

The Verdict

“For best results, make an enormous amount of dough when you’re in your mid-twenties, and then whenever you feel like pizza, just break a bit off, every week, for the rest of your life.”

Normal pizza is fine, and if you just can’t face the faff of having to start making dinner the night before, you can look away now and live a happy and contented life. But if you want to make your dough as tasty as possible, I have to say that, annoyingly, making a preferment really does make a difference. It’s true that the difference is more noticeable when the dough is tasted on its own; if you top your pizza with strongly flavoured ingredients like olives, chillies or pepperoni, then the difference in the dough might well be masked. But if you wanted to make a simple margarita taste as good as you possibly can, using a preferment does make a noticeable difference. It seems to coax more flavour out of the dough. Given the simplicity of most dough recipes, containing as they do only four ingredients, that strikes me as pretty impressive. It’s also worth restating that when the two pizzas in this experiment were compared side by side, both were perfectly good, and the overall difference between the two was slight. But if we’re looking for small ways to make improvements, then prefermenting the dough fits the bill. Nice one, the French.

Pizzalicious: Red wine pizza dough

Always take the time to choose a wine that matches the occasion. Do you want something light and fruity, like a Gamay, or would a more full-bodied Cabernet be a better match?

The aim of this blog is to chart the experiments that are carried out with the aim of  improving the pizzas we make. However, it’s also a good opportunity to record the more esoteric tweaks that can be made to a basic dough recipe. One of my favourite ways of transforming pizza dough into something overtly pretentious is to replace the water in the dough with red wine. This gives a pale pinkish tinge to the dough – so if your dough needs to double as a cheap imitation plasticine, it’s a real winner. More pertinently, it contributes an added richness to the finished pizza that complements the tomato flavours of the sauce well. Mmm.

As with most wine-based cookery, you’re eventually going to heat the bejaysus out of the wine, so there’s not a great deal of point in using an expensive bottle – any subtle and delicate aromatics will evaporate in the oven, and the real contribution from the wine will be residual fruitiness. For that reason, if you’re all proper classy like Loyd Grossman is, you might want to choose a robust wine such as a Cabernet Sauvignon or Shiraz. Though every time I’ve made this, I’ve just used whatever wine happened to be left over after I didn’t manage to finish a whole bottle the night before. And that’s always worked fine. Just avoid Vimto, because apparently that isn’t a type of red wine.

Red wine is also useful for getting malevolent demons out of cats.

It’s a pretty straightforward recipe, though there’s one caveat to keep in mind: red wine usually contains alcohol, and mixing baker’s yeast and alcohol can stress your yeast a little. Although yeast’s greatest talent is its ability to turn boring old sugary water into magical booze, the sad truth is that leaving your yeast in a liquid that’s 13% alcohol will mean it’s a little more sluggish, and will rise a little less, than if you used water. This isn’t a big problem in the greater scheme of things, as pizzas tend to be pretty flat – so a pizza that’s fractionally more flat than usual isn’t going to ruin anyone’s dinner. But if you like to leave your pizzas out for a pre-bake rise to ensure a large doughy crust, or if you want to make dough balls as well as pizza, then using red wine will slightly diminish the rise and subsequent oven spring you’ll get. If you’re really concerned about this, there are three options available to you: (i) you can boil down the red wine before making the dough, to reduce the alcohol. If you do this, make sure you let the wine cool to body temperature before you add the yeast, or else you’ll kill your yeasties; (ii) you can increase the amount of yeast you use, using two sachets of instant yeast instead of one. This will increase the number of viable yeast cells in your dough, and will improve the lift your dough gets; or (iii) you can drink a glass of the red wine. This will help to relax you, so you won’t be that bothered about barely perceptible differences in pizza inflation. Of these options, (iii) is the best.

Red wine pizza dough. Note the slight pinkish hue to the crust. Or don't. Up to you.

Here’s a picture of a pizza made with red wine dough. Given the rich deep colour of the wine, I’m always slightly surprised the dough isn’t more vividly coloured than it is. It smells boozy though, and rises noticeably less during the proving stage than water-based dough. The recipe is as per the standard dough: 500g strong white flour; 325g red wine; 7g instant yeast; 10g salt. If you don’t have that much red wine left over, it’s perfectly fine to make up the additional liquid with water. The extra flavour in the dough adds a nice twist to the usual recipe, and gives a new flavour component to the basic pizza that can be paired with particular toppings or sauce ingredients – as an example, I find mushrooms taste better with red wine pizza dough than with regular dough. And most importantly, as wine is made from grapes, making red wine pizza is an excellent way to help get your five daily helpings of fruit and veg.

Experiment Three: More Hydration

A pizza with 60% hydration

In our last episode, we explored the effects of varying the amount of water in the dough. We ate a lot of pizza. We learned that a dough with 60% hydration gives a dough that, whilst being perfectly edible, is, dull, unresponsive and inert – not a million miles away from Plasticine. In contrast, a dough with 70% hydration – that is, where the amount of water weighs 70% of the total amount of flour in the recipe – is much more responsive and fun to shape, but is sticky as hell and can’t easily be shaped without adhering to your entire kitchen, in an almost needy sort of a way. You could make it more manageable by dusting everything it touches with flour, but then it would absorb the flour and wouldn’t be a 70%-hydrated dough anymore, which would rather defeat the purpose of the exercise. 

A pizza with 70% hydration. Note the slight difficulties with handling and adhesion.

It was an informative experiment, sure enough, but in terms of making our pizzas taste better, the practical implications of it were not immediately obvious. It’s nice to know that both 60% hydration and 70% hydration doughs weren’t ideal for making pizza, but that knowledge only helps us to avoid making bad pizza, rather than helping us make good pizza. In an attempt to find out something that might be more directly useful, we’re going to try a second, follow-up, experiment, in which we vary the amount of water in the dough in a more nuanced way. This time, we’re comparing 63% hydration and 67% hydration. Ah, the joy of obsessively tweaking tiny percentages – you cannot get more rock and roll than this.*

Wetter dough:                                                              Drier dough:
500g strong white flour                                                500g strong white flour
335g water                                                                   315g water
7g instant yeast                                                            7g instant yeast
10g salt                                                                        10g salt

The doughs were made up by hand, kneaded for five minutes, covered with oil and left to prove for two hours. They were then made into pizzas and dough balls.


Eyeball test: Visually, there was very little to choose between the doughs. Both rose well. The wetter dough felt perhaps a fraction more aerated than the drier dough, and was a little more tacky to the touch, but overall, any differences were slight. When shaping the pizzas, it was easy to tell which was which; the wetter dough felt slightly sticky, but was still quite readily rolled out with a rolling pin. The drier dough was also easy to shape, but wasn’t at all sticky. It had a decent amount of give to it, and was more responsive than the 60% dough from Experiment Two.

Visual differences between the two pizzas were minimal. To symbolise this, here is a picture of two other things that are visually quite similar. Note, however, that I did not want to punch the pizzas in their stupid, gormless faces.

Pizza test: Again, differences were not particularly pronounced. If anything, the drier dough had a slightly crisper crust, with a little more colour to it. That said, the wetter dough still made a perfectly good pizza. In an improvement from Experiment Two, I managed to roll out both pizzas to equal thicknesses. There were no discernable differences in flavour, and very little noticeable difference in texture or mouthfeel. As with Experiment Two, the drier pizza caramelised slightly more. I had thought this was due to the drier pizza last time also being thinner, but it may in fact be that wetter doughs need to be baked longer or hotter to get the same degree of colouring in the crust.

Flatbread test: Having done quite a few flatbread tests recently, I couldn’t face another one, so I didn’t do one. It’s a real burden having to eat two whole pizzas myself for these experiments, and the idea of stuffing two lots of plain dry dough into my face on top of that in the name of science really did not appeal. I have let down science and I feel bad. Please don’t tell Richard Dawkins.

Dough ball test: Each dough was shaped into a dough ball weighing 50 grams, and baked until lightly golden brown. Unsurprisingly, the wetter dough was a little easier to form into a ball, as it stuck to itself quite readily (this quality can be a pain in the neck when you’re trying to roll out a pizza without using flour, but it’s great when you’re trying to shape dough balls). Both tasted very nice. There was no differences that I could notice in terms of rise, colouration, or crust. However, there was a real difference in the crumb quality. The drier dough tasted – and you won’t believe this – drier. As a result, it was fractionally less enjoyable, and tasted a little more cardboardy. The wetter dough ball had a softer mouthfeel, presumably due to the additional water which hadn’t been baked out, but which was still present in the crumb. It also seemed more tasty and more pleasant to eat.

The Verdict

"You have been found guilty of not eating two identical pieces of dry pizza dough. The penalty for this is having to eat two identical pieces of dry pizza dough."

This experiment looks at quite a small difference to the recipe – the only thing that’s different between the two recipes is about 20 grams of water, which is barely more than a tablespoon. With that in mind, perhaps it shouldn’t be all that surprising that there wasn’t any noticeable difference in taste. The pizzas were also quite similar to each other – unlike Experiment Two, both sets of dough could be rolled out quite easily, though for a complete novice, the 67% hydration dough might have been a little sticky. If you wanted to shape your pizzas by hand, which is much more fun and skillful than using a rolling pin, I’d recommend the 67% dough. It was easier to manipulate than the 70% dough from last month, but more pliable than the 63% dough. For pizzas with a raised crust, I also expect there would be benefits to the crumb, with the additional water providing improved flavour and mouthfeel (I think it’s unlikely you’d notice much crumb difference on pizzas that are rolled out thinly). The 63% pizza was perfectly good, very easy to shape, and would make decent pizza anytime. But if it were up to me, I’d opt for the slightly wetter dough. 70% water was rather unmanageable, but 67% water strikes a nice balance between pliability and manageability.

*Oh. Apparently you can get a lot more rock and roll than this. Apologies for misleading you before.

Experiment Two: Hydration

Like bad 1980s football, baking is a game of percentages. When listing bread recipes, it’s common to see them expressed not in absolute quantities, but written in baker’s percentages – with each ingredient expressed as a percentage of the total weight of flour. As an example, my standard pizza dough would be written as follows:

  • 100% strong white flour
  • 65% water
  • 2% salt
  • 1.5% yeast
You’ll notice that the total adds up to much more than 100%. This is always the case with baker’s percentages, and it’s just one of many things that people can find offputting about writing recipes like this. When I first saw a recipe set out in this way, I thought it was needlessly obscure – if you need 10g of salt to make a loaf, surely the simplest way of
Chris Waddle's pet mullet

1980s football was a game of percentages. And also mullets. Percentages and mullets.

writing that is to say “you need 10g of salt to make a loaf”? Stating that you need 2% of your total weight of flour in salt seemed deliberately obtuse. However, there are two big advantages with this notation. First, and of most use to bakers, is that it means you can easily make any amount of a particular bread: whether you want to make one loaf or a thousand loaves, the formula will let you figure out precise amounts for each ingredient easily. The second advantage is that it makes it very easy to compare different bread recipes at a glance. Once you’ve learned to interpret BP, you can quickly work out what sort of loaf a recipe will produce. (For more on baker’s percentages, see the excellent Wild Yeast blog.)

Arguably the most informative line of a recipe is the percentage of water a loaf contains. Changing the hydration of a dough – that is, how much water it contains – can have major effects on the crust and the crumb; wetter doughs tend to give a more open texture with bigger holes, whereas drier doughs tend to have a tighter crumb structure. Drier doughs are generally easy to work with, whereas very wet doughs can tend to spread, slowly and menacingly, like a horrifying yet delicious B-movie monster. What all this means for the pizza maker isn’t immediately obvious. Pizzas, being flat, aren’t really noted for their crumb, so aiming for a ciabatta-like dough would seem to be a bit of a waste – if your pizza rises sufficiently high to show off your wonderful lattice of large air-holes, it’ll be much too bready to be a decent pizza. Nevertheless, changing the hydration of the dough will change the final product, somehow. Precisely how it changes it will be what we set out to discover in Experiment Two.


It's important to get the amount of water exactly right

Given the rather arbitrary amount of water in the baseline pizza recipe, a useful first question to explore the effect of changing the amount of water would be to compare two doughs with different hydration. One dough, which I am going to call the “Wetter Dough” includes 70% water. The other dough, which I am going to call “Dame Margaret Harrington”, includes 60% water*. Both amounts feature in plenty of bread recipes, so both should give perfectly edible pizzas. The aim of this experiment is to put down a marker to show how different hydration affects the final products: our experimental question is “Which is preferable for pizza – a wetter dough or a drier dough?”.

[*On second thoughts, I’m not going to call this dough “Dame Margaret Harrington”. I’m going to call it the “Drier Dough”, as this may be slightly clearer for some readers. You may, if you wish, continue to call it Dame Margaret Harrington.]

Wetter dough:                                                              Dame Margaret Harrington:

500g strong white flour                                                500g strong white flour
350g water                                                                   300g water
7g instant yeast                                                            7g instant yeast
10g salt                                                                        10g salt

The doughs were made up by hand, kneaded for five minutes, covered with oil and left to prove for two hours. They were then made into pizzas, flatbreads, and dough balls.


Eyeball test: There was a striking visible difference between the doughs. The wetter dough had risen more, felt a little cooler, and looked more glossy. Although the surface of both doughs was relatively dry after proving for two hours, the wetter dough was noticeably stickier under the surface than the drier dough. It had also risen more, and had more obvious air pockets inside. The drier dough felt more putty-like, and tighter – when it was pushed, it had much less give. With the wet dough, in contrast, when it was pushed, the whole top of the dough moved, not just the part of the dough immediately local to the prodding. In other respects, the doughs look identical. This difference was so obvious that even when I accidentally mixed up two dough balls I made from these doughs, it was easy to work out which was which.

70% vs 60%

From the air, the two pizzas looked almost alike. (70% water on left, 60% water on right.)

Pizza Test: When making the pizzas, the wetter dough was noticeably more stretchy. The drier dough did stretch a little bit, but tightened up after it had been rolled. But the difference between them was most noticeable when I tried to roll out the pizzas: the drier dough was easy enough to form into a flat disc, whereas the wetter dough was too sticky to roll properly. However, the wetter dough was supple enough to be pulled out into a pizza shape without using a rolling pin. My skills as a pizzaiola are non-existent, but I still managed to form a decent-looking pizza – it had a raised outer crust (what Peter Reinhart assures me is called a cornicione), and generally looked cool. My impression from forming the pizzas is that the wetter dough was much more alive. It’s much more responsive and fun to work with. The dry dough is like Ed Miliband. It’s prim, and dull, and you want to try to like it, but it’s a struggle.

Whatchoo talking about, Willis?

My pizza-shaping skills are so refined that the differences between the two pizzas are barely perceptible to the naked eye. Ahem.

After baking, the pizzas were visibly different. The wetter dough pizza had risen more (partly because my shabby efforts in shaping it by hand meant that it was much thicker than the drier dough pizza, but partly too because it showed more oven-spring). It tasted a little bready, chewy, almost naan-like, because of its thickness. It had risen nicely, and I liked the shape of the pronounced cornicione, though I think it would have been better if I’d managed to make it thinner. The drier pizza was flatter, and because the edges were thinner, they had browned more. It had a crunchier texture, and I liked the flavour added by the slight caramelisation of the crust. This aside, the pizzas tested very similar. The major differences were in the texture and thickness.

Ed Miliband is 60% water

A picture is worth a thousand words. In this case, seven hundred of them are "Noooooo!".

Flatbread Test: As with the pizzas, the drier dough was much easier to work with. It behaved itself, held its shape, and didn’t stick. The wetter dough was much more delicate – it took a good spray of olive oil on the work surface and rolling pin before I was able to roll it into a disc. During baking, the drier dough puffed up and was more pitta-like, whereas the wetter dough was a little tighter and less puffy. As a result, the drier dough was a little more crunchy. The wet dough had a softer texture, a little like untoasted pitta. That aside, there was no great difference in taste, and only a slight difference in texture.

Dough Ball Test: The wetter dough was easier to shape into a boule than the drier dough; the extra stickiness helped when trying to seal the base of the dough balls. After proving, the wetter dough seemed to have risen a little more. It was more airy, with a little more give when you squeeze it. Both looked and tasted fine after baking, though the wetter dough had risen a little more, and had a little more airiness to it. The dry dough was a little tighter, and more claggy due to the tighter crumb. Both tasted good though, and any differences between the two doughs were pretty minor.

The Verdict

The Verdict

"Mr Waddle, you have been found guilty of crimes against hair. Also, 'Diamond Lights' was shite."

Changing the amount of water in the dough doesn’t seem to make much difference to the taste. It does, however, change the physical qualities of the dough a lot. The wetter dough, with 70% water, rose more during proving, and was stickier and more elastic during shaping. The drier dough, with 60% water, was stiffer, less adhesive, and could be rolled out more easily. Because of this, there were some interesting incidental differences in flavour between the two pizzas: the drier-dough pizza had a thinner crust, and so it caramelised more, was more crunchy, and had a more varied mouthfeel. The wetter-dough pizza had a thicker, raised crust. This tasted quite bready, which wasn’t unpleasant but didn’t seem so appropriate for a pizza. For the purposes of these side-by-side experiments, a drier dough actually has the advantage that it’s easier to make into two identical pizzas, using a rolling pin – the wetter dough is harder to shape consistently (at least with my shaping skills), as it needs to be formed by hand. But I think that if you were able to shape the wetter dough into a thinner pizza, that’d be the best of both worlds – it’d give you a crunchier raised crust, and would be easier to shape into the classic raised-crust pizza shape than the drier dough.