Experiment Five: Is Pizza Worth Its Salt?

In Scotland it used to be a Hogmanay traditional to offer a heated spoon of salt to your neighbours to wish them a prosperous new year. Due to health concerns, the salt is now generally replaced with heroin.

It is a truth universally acknowledged that, of the four ingredients in pizza dough, salt is definitely one of them. And how true that is. As you’d expect for an ionic compound produced by reacting an acid with a base, salt contributes a lot of the yumminess in the foods we eat. However, its wonderful, flavour-giving yin is balanced by the galling, stroke-inducing yang that when taken in excess, salt can do pwoper nasty things to your health. It’s like a tiny, powdered, gastronomic version of Ray Winstone in “Scum”. Whilst a bit of salt won’t kill you, the proliferation of high-salt processed foods means it’s very easy to consume far more salt than we intend. This is bad news, because too much salt brings with it risks of diseases such as… er… I can’t remember. Google it if you want. From memory, I’m pretty sure too much salt brings with it risk of Witzelsucht, bad AIDS, and the Jumping Frenchmen of Maine. So how can we reconcile the inherent duality of salt, being on the one hand a flaky powder of deliciousness, and on the other, a lurking white killer? I have absolutely no idea. But inspired by a general sense that reducing the amount of salt we eat is probably a good idea, I’m going to do an experiment to see what pizza tastes like when you take out all the salt.

Standard dough:                                                   Salt-free dough:

500g strong white flour                                         500g strong white flour
330g water                                                            330g water
7g instant yeast                                                     7g instant yeast
10g salt

Doughs were mixed and kneaded for five minutes, then coated with a little olive oil and left to prove for an hour.

Eyeball test: There is absolutely no visible difference between the two doughs, neither before nor after proving. That isn’t all that surprising, though it’s mildly interesting: one other property of salt is that it’s even worse for microbes than it is for humans. Indeed, salt is used to preserve food such as salt beef, which lasts much longer than regular beef simply because microbes think it’s disgusting too. In this experiment, the regular and salt-free doughs rose the same amount, which tells us that the amount of salt in the regular dough isn’t sufficient to noticeably impair the yeast’s performance.

Pizza test: As always, the flavour differences between the doughs have to be perceived above and beyond the (usually more pronounced) flavours of the tomato sauce and mozzarella. However, while both the regular and salt-free pizzas are palatable enough, the regular pizza really is much better: it has a longer-lasting and more rounded taste. The salt-free pizza isn’t nasty tasting, but it’s a little cardboardy. The cheese and sauce combine well with the crunch of the crust, but next to the regular pizza dough, it’s obviously lacking a certain je ne sais quoi. Though actually, je do sais quoi. It’s salt. That was the whole point of this experiment.

Nein! Ich lichten nichten!

Dough ball test: Eeeuuggh! Bleeeugh! Me no like! The normal-dough dough ball tastes fine. Like a normal dough ball. The salt-free dough ball tastes like warm cardboard. The flavour is flat, and even though it tastes of little more than cooked flour, it also feels somehow out of balance. Maybe if I tasted it on its own it would seem a little more palatable. But as a side-by-side comparison, it’s markedly much less pleasant. It’s as if a nice dough ball had died, and then came back to life as an awful, shambling zombie dough ball. Superficially you can see the resemblance, but the quintessence is absent.

The Verdict

Gah! Put the salt back in, you idiot! This was a stupid idea, and I can’t believe you all let me do this. No no no no no no no. Just wrong.

OK-but-what-about-halving-the-amount-of-salt-then-follow-up-experiment:

Standard dough:                                                   Reduced-salt dough:

500g strong white flour                                         500g strong white flour
330g water                                                            330g water
7g instant yeast                                                     7g instant yeast
10g salt                                                                  5g salt

Eyeball test: The two doughs looked alike. Only a fool would attempt to seek out differences in these two. No way, José. Same.

Pizza test: There is a slight but perceptible difference in the two pizzas. The regular dough has a nice flavour that pops out; the reduced-salt pizza is also good, but with close scrutiny, it does lack a certain something in comparison to the regular dough. The crunch and texture of both pizzas is comparably good, and when tasted in isolation I probably wouldn’t notice any difference between them. But in a side-by-side comparison with the regular dough, the reduced-salt variant is a little flatter and less exciting. That said, it has to be noted that picking up these differences did require a good amount of chewing, thinking, and multiple comparisons, so it’s a much less clear-cut difference than entirely omitting the salt.

Dough ball test: Perhaps more than any other experiment, this one has the closest accord between pizza test and dough ball test. Both dough balls looked and tasted fine, and if I’d been a bit drunk and unaware that there were two different doughs, I would happily have chomped through them blissfully unaware. But with close scrutiny, the 10g of salt in the regular dough produced a dough that was very slightly preferable to the 5g in the reduced-salt version. The difference is that the regular dough has a more rounded, and perhaps slightly sweeter, flavour.

The Verdict

Removing all the salt from a pizza dough is not something that I’d recommend, on grounds of flavour. If you have guests coming round who you really dislike, then by all means omit the salt, and snigger behind your hand as they have to chew through mouthful after mouthful of cheesy cardboard. And if you need to cut down on your salt for reasons of health, you might want to first try the lazy pragmatist’s option of just avoiding any kind of salty topping while keeping some salt in the dough. However, the intermediate step of halving the salt content (from 10g to 5g of salt per 500g of flour) happily yields an end product that’s still pretty good. It really wouldn’t be a terrible route to take if circumstances necessitated it. But if you want to make the best-tasting dough you can, I’d leave all the salt in. It’s remarkable how salt changes the way we perceive the other flavours in food. The bready, nutty taste of dough really benefits from an addition of salt; without it, otherwise pleasant flavours can seem much flatter and less interesting. It’s like beer at a works do. You could omit it, but you know you’ll regret it if you do.