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.

Results:

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.

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