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.