Mixing dough for both bread and pizza can undoubtedly pose challenges, which can leave aspiring pizzaioli and bakers feeling discouraged. Dough that’s sticky, dried out, overmixed, or undermixed might seem disheartening at times. But remember, even seasoned pizzaioli and bakers have faced these hurdles. We say embrace the learning process and experiment with different techniques and recipes. Over time, you’ll develop a keen understanding of dough mixing and how to troubleshoot issues when they arise.
Mixing is an essential part of the dough process. Although gluten is a self-organizing protein, that doesn’t mean you can pour water on flour and walk away, hoping the dough will develop. You have to give it a little jump start to distribute the ingredients evenly. That jump start involves mixing. The most important function of mixing is to force the flour to hydrate, which unleashes a cascade of chemical reactions. Hydration, not kneading, is what allows the gluten network to develop.
Hydration can be accomplished slowly by simply combining the ingredients and allowing the flour to absorb the water over time, or faster by manipulating the dough by hand, or in minutes by machines. The faster the mix, the faster the hydration, the faster the dough develops. You can learn more about both in chapter 6 of Modernist Pizza.
Although combining a few ingredients seems like a simple thing, there are often still many challenges and problems that arise. Once you understand what not to do, you’ll also understand what sorts of things can go wrong.
Below, we cover some common mixing problems, why they happen, and how to fix them.
Problem: Undermixed dough won’t fully hydrate because the water is unevenly distributed. Properly mixed dough should look homogenous, with no noticeable clumps of flour or pools of liquid.
Solution: Continue mixing to remedy this problem.
The Dough Has Dried Out
Problem: Dough exposed to air will begin to dry on the surface and form a skin. This reduces the extensibility (stretch) of the dough, forcing it to crack as it ferments or is manipulated.
Solution: To avoid this, keep the dough covered at all times. You can use a slightly damp kitchen towel, a plastic tarp, or even a large, clean plastic trash bag to protect your dough. If you’re using a plastic tub, cover it with a lid.
Climbing the Hook
Problem: Dough wrapping up the hook happens if the mixer is left unattended.
Solution: Be sure to keep an eye on the mixer so that you can stop the machine and push the dough down the hook, then continue mixing.
Problem: If you’ve overmixed your dough—that is, if you’ve gone beyond full gluten development but the dough hasn’t quite broken down—your dough might be salvaged.
Solution: For doughs raised with levain, simply let the dough relax for a long time in the refrigerator.
For yeast-raised doughs, it’s a little trickier because the yeast will continue to ferment the dough even in the refrigerator. (This will occur in a levain-based dough as well, but to a lesser extent.)
If the dough is overmixed to the point that it’s leaching water and has become ropy, try this method: mix a half batch of dough, minus the salt. Allow your dough to autolyze for 20 minutes, then add the salt. Add this new dough to the overmixed dough, mixing on low speed until just combined. Proceed with bulk fermentation (if applicable); it may take longer than planned. The final pizza won’t be exactly as you had mixed it correctly, but it will be close.
The Complete Disaster
The only remedy for some mixing errors is to simply start over. Luckily, dough ingredients are relatively inexpensive, and the mixing process is fast enough that you’ll probably still have time to make your pizza. Fatal errors like these usually stem from human fallibility: the pizza maker might have misread a measurement, transposed a number, or otherwise strayed from protocol. To avoid such mistakes, the first time you make a recipe, check off each step when you complete it. At the very least, this will show you later where you went wrong.
Most importantly, don’t get discouraged during your baking journey. Mixing dough does not come without challenges, even though it may seem that combining four ingredients is a simple thing to do. Learning to mix dough can be a journey of trial and improvement. You’re enhancing your skills and knowledge every time you make pizza or bread. Even if it doesn’t come out the way you’d hoped, it’s a chance to improve your technique; every attempt brings you closer to consistently making outstanding doughs.
Try out some of our recipes below:
As always, please share your homemade pizzas and bread with us on social media! Let us know if any of these tips helped save your own dough.