A few months ago I began noticing that my pizzas weren't tasting as good as they usually did. This was quite disconcerting. I hadn't changed my process, I was still using the exact same flour, the exact same sauce, the exact same yeast, and the exact same oven. But my pizzas tasted wrong.
A couple of weeks ago I brought Marvin out to a party on Bainbridge Island and made a bunch of pizzas. It was off. I doubt anyone noticed, but I did.
Last weekend I had the in-laws and some other folks over for pizza, and after everyone had gone home I mentioned to Kirstin that the pizzas didn't seem to taste right. She agreed but she wasn't sure what was wrong either.
What the heck was going on? Nothing had changed, except… time. Had my yeast gone bad? I didn't have any real reason to suspect it. It raised the same as it always has and that's how you know it's gone bad, right? If it isn't raising, throw it out.
The test is easy. Just order some new yeast and make two batches of dough using the exact same ingredients— but give one the older yeast and one the newer. So that's what I did and set aside the dough till the next morning.
Seventeen hours later (after the first raise) I couldn't tell any difference between the old and new yeast based on the amount it raised overnight. I was really expecting the newer yeast to raise higher. Doubt began to creep into my mind.
I balled the dough into individual pieces, set them in their little buckets, and waited another eight hours till pizza time.
Again, I was really expecting the newer yeast to raise more than the old— but the opposite happened. The older yeast balls were actually taller than the newer ones.
W. T. F.?
OK, OK. It's the taste that matters. So lets shape one of the old balls first, make a margarita pie, cook it, and taste. And… yep, it's still missing something. But that's expected— it's the yeast I've been using for months.
Margarita with the older yeast
OK, now onto the smaller but newer yeast ball. Why is it smaller again?
Right away I noticed something different. The dough ball was smaller because the gluten strands were holding tighter. It certainly had more spring to it as I shaped it for toppings. Is this good? It'll certainly cause more bubbles on the edges if the gases have a harder time getting out. So yes, it's possibly a good thing.
This is not the second margarita. The second margarita was eaten.
How did it taste? Holy shit— this is what I remember. This is the good crust and this is what I was missing for months. The crust on this dough was lighter and had better structure to it. And it tasted so much better. You can see in the pic above (which is not the second margarita because I forgot to take pictures of it before it was eaten up) that the dough has more pop. It even seemed to leopard better.
Yes, my yeast had gone bad. It was still raising, but it was doing something wrong to my dough.
Kirstin's vegan-o-tastic pie
I'm so glad I got this figured out. It was really starting to worry me.
So how old was the yeast I was using? It was from May of last year. Clearly 12 months is much too long, and I think I'll be ordering new yeast every 6 months. And what yeast do I use? 16 oz Saf instant yeast.
I know this post might seem a bit neurotic, or crazy, or just kind of "really Gus, water?", but stay with me here.
A few months back when I was playing with a starter, I found out that the water in our pipes had enough chlorine in them to seriously effect the the starter I was trying to get going. I then began using bottled water, and then eventually water taken from a local aquifer* (I really don't want to be buying bottled water). Eventually I gave up on the starter, but I had still had a bunch of the aquifer water siting on my counter so I thought… well, maybe it'll have a positive effect on the yeast for my pizza dough. It worked well enough for the starter, right?
So I tried it out, not really thinking it would make much of a difference. But when I took the first bites from the pies came out- whoa. I could tell right away that it made a significant difference in the quality of my dough. Subsequent pizzas all had the same characteristics, and now I always use the non-chlorinated water for my pies.
I'm not ever sure how to describe the difference - it just tasted better to my palate. Am I crazy? Will the average person not even notice? Probably. But it might be worth trying this out with your pizzas if you're uncertain about the quality of your tap water.
Next up - old vs. new yeast. Just as soon as the new yeast shows up…
* Here's a short and amusing article about the aquifer I get the water from in the Seattle Times. The locals don't want too many folks to find out about it, lest the lines get too long.
What's the "best" kind of pizza? This question has always been a very touchy subject for people, most likely to regional loyalties. Is it Chicago style or New York? Neapolitan, or thin crust? And then what kind of thin crust? And do you use a starter in that Neapolitan dough or yeast? Moz or Buffalo Moz or Provolone or Provel? Etc.
This question is silly. You might as well try and pick a "best" color or try and define art. The best pizza is entirely subjective to what you like. For me, that's Neapolitan style pizza, and it's probably going to be different for you.
Then what's a perfect pizza? This question is remarkably easy to answer. I can distinctly remember the first perfect pizza I ever made, and I also remember the first perfect pizza made using Dante (my outdoor oven). Before today I'd only ever made 5 or 6 of them, but I just made 3 in a row so I figure now is the time to write down my definition.
So here's my definition of Perfect Pizza: A pizza that when eaten either makes you physically dance, jump around in joy, or brings an honest to god tear to your eye.
I've come remarkably close to getting a real tear in my eye after eating a perfect slice, but it's always been the jumping in joy that made me realize I had just tasted a perfect pizza.
I like this definition. Any style of pizza can fit in here, and it doesn't even box you into your favorite.
Perfect pizza #3 from today
And I have a little theory to add as well. It is going to be easier find a perfect pizza if you make it yourself. It took me years of trying to finally begin making pizza that I absolutely love, and I think it's part of the searching and experimentation that will let you know when you've found it. So if you want perfection, it might be easiest to go grab some flour and get to work.
I've never really sat down and committed to paper to a way to make dough. This is partially because I'm always changing it up quite a bit, and also because I'm kind of lazy. Lately I've been sticking to the same flour and process and I seem to be overcoming my laziness today, so now is as good a time as ever.
It should be no surprise that the flour I've settled on is Caputo Pizzeria Flour. You can order it online, find it in some grocery stores, and sometimes even in neapolitan pizza restraunts. Big John's PFI in Seattle has it in bulk for a buck a pound, and also in 55lb bags.
When measuring ingredients, I do things a little backwards- I always start with water and base the amount of flour to put in off that. I generally use about 110g of water per pizza, which is about a half a cup.
To start off I put a mixer bowl on top of my digital scale, reset it to zero, and put in 1.5 cups of water which usually comes out to around 330 grams. I then multiply that number by 2.55 and in this case I'll get 841.5. I always round down to the nearest ten so in this case it'll be 840. 840 grams is now the target weight of our all ingredients together, including the water that's already in the bowl.
Next, I'll add 1/4 teaspoon of instant dry yeast (IDY) for each half cup of water. So in this case It'll be 3/4 teaspoon, maybe a little less just depending on the weather or solar flares. Add the yeast and use a whisk to mix things up.
Now I'll put in a little bit of flour (1/8 cup maybe?), and whisk things up again. This is so it's not a pure water + yeast only mix for the next step- which is salt. I'll add 1% of the target weight in salt, which in this case will be 8 grams. Whisk that guy up as well. And I'll probably whisk in a little bit more flour until it starts to stick to the whisk. Once the flour starts to clump on the whisk, it can be a pain to clean. (I'm lazy- remember?)
And finally I'll pour in the rest of the flour until the digital scale reaches 840 grams.
I'll then attach the bowl to the mixer (which is a KitchenAid in my case), attach a dough hook, and let it mix till there's an even texture along all sides of the dough ball. If there's any of the mix sticking to the sides, I make sure it's incorporated into the larger ball.
Then after that is done I put a cover on the bowl and stash it away somewhere overnight. Generally I'll let the dough raise in a 60-70 degree temperature range. I make sure to let it raise at least 12 hours if not a full 24. Letting all the dough to be used raise together like this is called "bulk raising". This is one of the big secrets in making good dough. So don't tell anyone.
The next day, about 4-6 hours before I'm going bake the pizzas I'll split the big dough ball up into even parts (3 in this case), knead it a bit, and spray a little bit of trader joe's olive oil spray into the bottom of some translucent cambro buckets and plop the final dough balls in there. I'll put the lid on, and then in 4ish hours time, we're ready to ready to go. You can also keep the dough in the buckets for another 24-36 hours if you have a quick change of plans. If you're going to go longer than that, I'd put the dough in the fridge and maybe even re-knead it again before using it (again, 4-6 hours ahead of bake time).
This is of course only one way to make dough. There's no perfect way, and when you make pizza long enough you'll eventually find a different process that works even better for you. I'm willing to bet within a year I'll be doing things slightly differently.
I don't use oil in my dough anymore. It's unnecessary for neo dough and just complicates things. The same with sugar. OK- occasionally I'll add a little bit of sugar, but only because it's the way I've done it for years and habits are hard to break.
You can get away with a shorter raise time if you keep your dough in a warm area. I'll sometimes put a seedling heat mat under my dough buckets to help it out. You can also add a bit more yeast to help out. But nothing beats a longer bulk raise, so try and plan ahead.
Different flours will require different amounts of water. If you mix in whole wheat, you might want a little bit more. You might have to come up with a different multiplier than what I did. Just always err on the side of adding too little flour. It's easier to add more later on if needed.
Where the heck did I get 2.55 as the multiplier for the water to flour ratio? Lots and lots of experimentation. I used to just go by texture as the dough was mixed, but this was taking up too much time so I started measuring exactly how much flour and water I was putting in, and tada- the ideal number ended up being 2.55.
"Buffalo mozzarella is the Great White Whale of American cheesemaking: a dream so exotic and powerful that it drives otherwise sensible people into ruinous monomaniacal quests. Despite all the recent triumphs of our country’s foodie movement (heirloom-turkey-sausage saffron Popsicles; cardamom paprika mayonnaise foam), no one in the United States has, as of yet, figured out how to recreate precisely this relatively simple Old World delicacy"
I've tried Buffalo mozzarella a number of times. It's a bet wet for my tastes, but that won't keep me from using it again in the future.
I kid you not, this was Madeline's reaction earlier tonight upon having her first taste of pizza. She is truly my child.
For the record, it was one of Kirstin's vegan pies- so the toppings were a simple olive oil + crushed basil and garlic sauce, and the bit she was chewing on had a little bit of mushroom on it. The dough was a blend of Caputo and high gluten, with a little bit of wheat in there + a 36 hour raise.
It was cooked in Dante of course, at around 900 degrees.
Dante is coming along as you can see. Once the siding is picked out and I figure out what to do with the front, I think I'll be calling it done. I'll also have to cleanup the stonework as well.
The pizzas are turning out pretty fantastic as well, as long as the wind is blowing the right direction. A couple of weeks ago the winds shifted and was blowing right into Dante's mouth- and wow does that make it hard to keep him hot on the inside. At least the changing winds brought some rain, which hadn't happened for months.
For dough, I've pretty much settled on a blend of 60% Caputo pizzeria flour and and 40% Pendleton's high gluten Power Flour. I make it in bulk at least 12 hours in advance, and then 6-4 hours ahead of baking, I'll ball it and let it raise again. It's been pretty much flawless using this procedure.
I've also started making my own sauce! And after trying about 5 different types of canned tomatoes, I've settled on San Marzano crushed tomatoes, which I add a tiny bit of sugar to and then cook on low for a long while. I'll also use an immersion blender to make it saucier, and optionally add a little bbq sauce or aardvark jerk sauce if I'm in the mood. It's super easy, and I don't know why I didn't do this years ago. If you're not making your own sauce- you should at least give it a try.
And here's something else to try- if you have some fresh plums (which we have from a tree in our back yard), try slicing one up into thin pieces and then put it on your pie before baking it. We did that for the first time today, and it was pretty good.