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.