Handmade and homemade: how to do pizza dough bases from scratch

Twenty years ago, I used to buy Napolina pre-cast pizza bases from the supermarket.  I’ve checked and strangely they still exist.  Now if you want to eat glyceryl monostearate, glyceryl distearate (E471), if you want to consume palm oil and glucose, and if you couldn’t care less how your food tasted – go ahead, at 85p per base is cheap.  However, I don’t consider mono and diglycerides of fatty acids to be “food”, glucose has no place in a bread product, and as for palm oil – isn’t that “the hidden ingredient causing ecological disaster“?  Besides oil is not an ingredient in pizza dough, not according to my foodie dogmatism in any case.

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The poolish prior to overnight fermentation

There are plenty of guides as to how to make pizza, I published some tips and tricks last year in my post September pizza from my wood-fired oven – the tricks I’ve learned by trial and error.  I’ll assume you’ve read that if you are reading this, if you haven’t – consider reading that post first!  I’m going to include links to various bits of equipment, but you can substitute anything I recommend with what you already have at home.

But cooking is very much a visual activity, so I’m going to include a few pictures about what things should look like along the way, visual tips so to speak. First off is the poolish.  If you want to make pizza dough that stretches without ripping, and a cornichione (crust) that puffs up nicely with a membrane-like skin that caramelises and chars deliciously, dough needs time.  This doesn’t cost you any time net, but it takes planning.  I make my poolish 48-72 hours in advance.  The poolish will be a mixture of 00 flour and water in equal weights (eg. 200g of each), the water will have been left to stand and “de-gas” with a loose covering for a few hours and will be 24ºC.  You can adjust the water temperature with a dash of boiling water.  If the water is too cold, the yeast’s fermentation will get off to a poor start, which will have downstream consequences, if the water is too hot, you can kill your yeast. I invested £10 in a digital catering thermometer which works just fine.  Good for yoghurt making too!  You are going to mix the flour and water quickly in a mixing bowl with a wooden spoon, I prefer something like an Araven Polypropylene Mixing Bowl which seems to help insulate my concoctions in my cool kitchen. Once all the flour is mixed in and wet, and there are no big lumps, add a sprinkle of yeast. I use about one quarter teaspoon of Doves Farm Quick Yeast, which is probably one quarter gram. Yes, this is the least scientific thing you’ll see on this blog, and apologies. This yeast doesn’t require any activation step, and there is no need to add sugar. Now mix in your yeast, and cover the bowl with clingfilm and leave it overnight on the kitchen counter.  Ideally, this environment should be above 16ºC.  You can also fridge this ripe poolish for 24-48 hours prior to use.

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Dough balls prior to rising

The next morning you will make the 55% hydration dough, taking into account the weights of water and flour already present in your poolish.  You can let your dough develop for 3-6 hours at room temperature, then form (220g) dough balls which can be let ripen for 2-6 hours.  My experience is that dough balls which have been let ripen for a longer period are easier to work with to generate a really thin pizza base that doesn’t rip.  You can also fridge the developed dough balls and use them in the following days, though the quality of the end product will diminish over time. Use olive oil to prevent them sticking, I like to lightly coast them in olive oil using my hands prior to rising.  I use a cheap plastic BPA-free box for the rise, of the kind you can get in a pound shop,  and keep the lid on tight to stop a dry crust forming on the dough balls.

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Risen dough balls

If you are in an almighty rush you can use the dough balls within an hour, but that is somewhat of a wasted effort. I’ve included a picture of the risen dough balls so you know just how big they get.  The thin sheen of olive oil is helping to prevent them sticking together.  The alternative is stackable pizza dough proofing boxes, which are just a bit big for a domestic kitchen.

In previous posts, I’ve talked about my enhanced pizza sauce, which has been evolving.  Get some tinned  San Marzano tomatoes, and fish just the tomatoes out of the tin with a fork.  I no longer use the juice in my sauce because the product is too watery, and requires heating to cook off the excess moisture, or you end up with a watery pizza. Yuck! Use the tomato juice for something else.  When you mash your tomato fruit, you’ve got the pizza sauce, no heating required.  I sometimes add garlic oil made by lightly frying very thinly sliced garlic, filtering out the garlic with a tea strainer.  The photographs below gives you an idea of what colour the garlic should be, and illustrate the separation of the tomatoes.

Some unfinished business for me is weighing exactly how much tomato sauce to put on each pizza.  But we’re talking between about between a one and two ounce ladle, which is 30-60 grammes in metric.  I use the underside of the ladle to gently spread the sauce out, in a circular spiral movement from the centre of the pizza outwards.

A nice touch with fresh mozzarella balls is to drain the mozzarella really early on, and wrap it in four or five layers of kitchen roll.  As it warms up in your kitchen, it will give up more moisture than straight from the fridge.  If I’ve more time, I shred it into 15-20 pieces by hand, and dry it between layers of kitchen roll.  Again, we are limiting the addition of moisture.  I don’t rate supermarket pre-shredded mozzarella, which is supplied very dry, even if you sometimes see a similar product being used in pizzeria videos on YouTube.  You gotta wonder what effect the anti-caking agent (eg. potato starch) will have on your pizza, including flavour effects as the cheese caramelizes.

In terms of cooking, you can either cook your pizza full blast in a domestic oven – yes 260ºC is just fine, or if you have one cook it in a wood-fired brick oven for best results at 310ºC – 500ºC.  For best results use a baking stone which needn’t cost more than £10. The function of the stone is to simulate the pizza oven hearth, which stores so much heat that it can cause a steam burst, which gives you “oven spring”.  The water in the dough gets turned into steam in the first few moments of contact with the cooking surface, causing the dough, and therefore the cornichione to expand rapidly.  The electric pizza ovens in most pizza shops and even artesan pizzerias seem to be set at 310ºC, but  you do get far better results above 450ºC in my opinion.

So let’s take a look at a finished product cooking in my wood-fired oven:

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Then also worthwhile looking at a finished product:

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Happy pizza baking!

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About jonnyr9

I'm an enthusiastic amateur "scientific" cook and baker, and former scientist, and I like to bring scientific thinking to my cooking: thinking about what might be happening at a chemical or biological level during food preparation (including its growth, and preservation), and applying exact methods of mass and volume to core recipes, before varying them. I use an accurate weighing scale (to 0.1g). I like growing my own herbs, constructing my own raised beds, and constructing my own wood-fired pizza oven. I bring a certain level of OCD to the kitchen, and therefore my baking includes sourdough, and my pizza-making includes "reference" to the protected specifications for true pizza. If I can source "the right" ingredients for a dish, I will at almost any length (within reason) - before I find an equivalent in-country supplier. Therefore - if you've never eaten Lancashire cheese bought at Bury market near Manchester - you've never eaten Lancashire cheese. I'm going to try to include links to the same products I use in my blog, so my readers don't end up using sub-standard alternatives - "experimental replication" is key to scientific cooking. I was born in the North of England, but I live in the South, though I would prefer to live on an island in the Ionian Sea.
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