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.
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
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.
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…
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.
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.