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.
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.
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.