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Don't let the pizzerias fool you. There's no mystery to making a great pizza.

November 12, 2003|Emily Green | Times Staff Writer

Had Marie Antoinette been American, she would have said, "Let them eat pizza." So much better than brioche. When you think about it, pizza's so much better than most things. Slice after slice, time after time, it's our most reliable pleasure. No matter the thickness of the slice, everyone understands the basic architecture: the toasty notes from the outside of the crust, then the layer of sweet, elastic dough, with its teasing tug against the teeth. Pit this against the acidic topping of tomato sauce and caramelized mozzarella, and you have the national dish.

But there's something odd about our love affair. While most of us eat pizza, few of us cook it. Pizza comes from pizzerias, which guard their monopoly with tales of secret ingredients and high exertions. Real pizza must contain flour from Italy, or water from New York, and be cooked in ovens fired only by timber felled along the Appian Way.

It makes a $1.25 slice taste even better, until the realization sets in that it has to be gastro-hooey. There can't be pizzerias on every corner because making pizza is difficult. The ingredients aren't rare, but common, and, it merits stressing in these hard times, they're dead cheap too. It's not even like pizzerias spare us drudgery. Making pizza at home is easy. The biggest surprise is that, for good clean fun, it's genuinely fun.

Until recently, I was typical: a pizza eater, never maker. What prompted a conversion, I can't say. Maybe a bump on the head. As I set out to learn how to do it, this much I knew: commercial pizzerias use flour that is unusually high in protein, as much as 14% or 15%. This accounts for the remarkably elastic doughs. But working with high-protein flour is hard. So I phoned Sue Gray, director of product development at King Arthur Flour in Norwich, Vt., to see if I needed to go to the gym before kneading. She assured me that a good all-purpose flour was fine and working it would not be difficult. Her use of "good" merits stressing here. Most flour packages don't list protein ratios, so go for flour from a reputable producer. King Arthur all-purpose has one of the highest standards, with 12.7% protein.

My second question concerned flour age. When overtaken by the impulse to bake, I tend to forget that I already have flour, and buy more, meaning I have cupboards full of flour of indeterminate age. What about that sack that might go back to last Thanksgiving? Gray assured me that if it hadn't attracted pests, or absorbed funky smells, it was probably fine.

White flour is produced only from the milled endosperm of wheat grain, she explained, and not the seed coating, so there are no oily constituents to become rancid. But whole-wheat flour, which contains the milled seed coating and its protective oils, goes rancid within three months, she warned. She quickly added that whole-wheat flour wasn't right for pizza anyway. It's too bitter and the bran interferes with the elasticity of the dough. If you see whole-wheat pizza on a pizzeria menu, it's pandering to whole food masochists. Just say no.

It's all about the five basics

And so to the recipes. Pizza recipes, like most formulas in baking books, tell us what to do, but rarely why, so I went to Danielle Forestier, a Bay Area baking instructor recommended by a wheat physiologist at UC Davis. Forestier was only too happy to explain how pizza dough works, starting with the roles played by each of the basic ingredients -- flour, yeast, water, oil and salt.

The flour, yeast and water start fermentation, she said. Flour consists mainly of starch (along with that 12% to 15% protein). When you add water and yeast, the yeast will begin to ferment the starch, forming gas bubbles, which make the dough rise. It will also convert a certain amount of the starch to sugar, transforming a dull, starchy taste into the sweet, wheaten notes that we associate with good bread.

As the yeast works on the starch, it's the pizza-maker's job to go to work on the protein, she said. We do this by kneading. The water converts the protein into an elastic, gelatinous state. As we knead, these protein gels, or glutens, will form the bonds that make the dough elastic, and then extensible into pizza shapes. When it comes to kneading, it is just like bread. We should not knead by pinning dough with one hand and pulling with the other. This will tear the glutens. Instead, we should fold it to trap air, then press and roll -- fold, press and roll.

The water and added olive oil also serve to keep the dough supple. The best way to understand what water does is to picture what happens as it evaporates during baking, when the crust becomes firm, and then what happens as bread becomes stale: Those proteins are heading back to their original grainy state.

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