Mastering Dough Handling and Shaping for Improved Pizza - Modernist Cuisine

Mastering Dough Handling and Shaping for Improved Pizza

MC, MPMay 3, 2024

If you’re a pizza enthusiast, you know that achieving the perfect crust is an art. That’s especially true when it comes to the handling and shaping of your pizza dough. A supple, extensible dough is easier to shape or stretch to fit a pan. But some doughs tear or break so easily that they seem actively stubborn.

Here are two ways to make your dough stretchier, either by increasing hydration or using a conditioning ingredient (or dough relaxer) that will make the dough more extensible. Both approaches weaken gluten, but each does so in a different way. Let’s consider the hydration strategy first.

Option 1: Increasing Hydration for Stretchier Dough

One approach to make your dough more extensible is to increase its hydration. Simply put, adding more water to your dough recipe can strengthen the gluten network up to a certain point. Beyond that threshold, which depends on the flour’s gluten-forming protein content and other variables, excess moisture can flood the proteins and hinder the formation of long gluten chains. As a result, high-hydration doughs become far more relaxed and extensible than drier doughs.

However, there’s a trade-off. While increasing hydration can improve stretchiness, it can also make your dough sticky and challenging to handle. Dealing with high-hydration doughs that cling to your work surface and fingers can be frustrating. That’s why we’re happy to present an alternative solution.

Option 2: Weakening Gluten with Ingredients

The second option for enhancing your dough’s stretchiness involves weakening the gluten. This is typically achieved by adding ingredients like eggs and fats to the dough. These components limit the length of the gluten chains, making the dough more extensible. Unfortunately, most pizza doughs don’t contain eggs or use only minimal amounts of fats, which might not have a significant impact on dough extensibility.

However, there is another method to achieve this without altering the dough’s basic ingredients. Enter dough relaxers, also known as reducing agents. These additives can help your dough relax and stretch, making it more manageable. In our experiments, ingredients such as meat tenderizer, bromelain (enzyme found in pineapple),* and papain (fruit protease enzymes) have proven effective in improving dough extensibility. Meat tenderizers, in particular, work surprisingly well for dough. They function like chemical cleavers, cutting long strands of gluten into shorter pieces by breaking certain bonds between protein molecules. While this process is temporary, it results in a more flexible gluten network that promotes the growth of larger gas bubbles, giving your crust that sought-after light-and-airy texture.

Another option is deactivated yeast, which becomes accessible through the deactivation process. This also happens when yeast is frozen, which is why freezing baked pizza is preferred over freezing pizza dough for long-term storage.

*Bromelain can be found in drugstores, some grocery stores, and online, often in the form of a supplement.

Using Fruit Juice as a Dough Relaxer

If you’re considering using dough relaxers, you might encounter challenges when it comes to sourcing purified versions of protease enzymes as a noncommercial dough maker. While fruit juices can serve as a wonderful alternative, they come with their own set of considerations.

First, some fruit juices are so potent that they are practical only when making large batches of dough—even just one drop more can be too much in a smaller recipe. Second, the enzyme content in fruits can vary significantly, as it depends on the fruit’s ripeness. This means you may need to experiment to determine how much enzyme a particular fruit contains. Using fresh fruit juice is essential since canned and bottled juices deactivate the protease enzymes. Fortunately, only a small amount of juice, extracted from a chunk or two of fruit, is usually sufficient for your pizza dough needs.

Our Favorite Dough Relaxers

To address the challenge of shaping pizza dough, we tested various dough relaxers to find the sweet spot where the dough was both malleable enough to shape and strong enough to bake as pizza. Dough relaxers can be divided into natural (unpurified) and purified types. The latter is preferred for their consistency and precision.

While we wouldn’t recommend using dough relaxers for rye and whole wheat pizza doughs, we found several options that worked wonders for different types of pizza dough:

  • Meat tenderizer—This made a significant difference in Neapolitan pizza dough, making it easier to shape consistently.
  • Bromelain—A proteolytic enzyme found in pineapple, bromelain worked well with high-hydration al taglio dough, making it easier to extend to the sides of the pan.
  • Fruit protease enzymes—Fruit juices, such as kiwi, can be used as a delivery vehicle for protease enzymes, though their potency can vary. Experimentation may be required to determine the optimal amount for your dough.

You can find a more in-depth recommendation in Modernist Pizza, vol. 1, page 327.

It’s worth noting that the influence of dough relaxers on focaccia and New York square pizzas was minimal, and the final baked results were similar to the original recipe. For thin-crust pizzas and Detroit-style pizza, using relaxers is optional. And for deep-dish pizza dough, it typically rolls out easily without the need for relaxers.

In conclusion, improving your dough handling and shaping skills is essential for achieving the perfect pizza crust. Experiment with hydration levels and consider using dough relaxers to strike the right balance between strength and flexibility in your dough. With the right techniques and additives, you’ll be well on your way to creating the pizza of your dreams.