Remember how last week I had mentioned that I don’t have an Italian nonna to impress? Well, now I wish I did, because this pizza dough recipe would make her proud!
Traditional New York style pizza dough was adapted from Neapolitan pizza dough, which is the simplest of them all. Neapolitan-style pizza dough is known for being composed of very few ingredients, long fermentation as opposed to yeast, and baking at super high temperatures of about 900°F. NY-style pizza dough, on the other hand, is adapted for the commercial oven (I don’t know about your oven, but mine can’t go up to 900°F), utilizes more ingredients, and contains yeast.
Although the origin of NY-style pizza dough is widely debated (how many pizza restaurants in New York claim themselves as “The First and The Best”?), it has been commonly accepted that the first pizza restaurant in New York was Lombardi’s of Gennaro Lombardi from Naples, Italy. Although the exact lineage of how Lombardi began with the Neapolitan-style dough from his hometown of Naples and ended up with what is now known as NY-style pizza dough is not exactly clear, it is thought to have come about from a few key reasons: 1) the demand for Lombardi’s pizza sky-rocketed, and there wasn’t enough time to perform the long fermentation periods that Neapolitan pizza dough requires, 2) commercial ovens became more popular and efficient, but could not achieve super-high temperatures, and 3) he needed a pizza dough that could stretch better so as to make bigger pies to accommodate more hungry customers. Whatever the reason for Gennaro Lombardi’s transition into modern-day’s NY-style pizzas, I’m just thankful he did it.
There are two key scientific elements in this recipe that make it work: the oil and the sugar source (notice that I said “sugar source” and not “sugar”). The oil is a bit easier to explain whereas the sugar source requires a more thorough explanation, so let’s start there. Gluten is a complex protein that is formed when certain flours are mixed with water. The oil molecules literally coat some of the flour molecules, which prevents them from forming gluten when they are mixed with water. This causes the dough to have less gluten, which produces the thin, chewy texture that NY-style pizza is known for.
Now, let’s take a closer look at this sugar source I mentioned. Using active-dry yeast requires a process called proofing, which technically means “to prove that the yeast is alive”, but this process is also very important for getting the yeast awake and ready to do its job, which is to release carbon dioxide into the dough. Proofing involves mixing the active-dry yeast with warm water (around 105-115°F; note: that does NOT mean boiling water, which is a temperature of 100° Celsius and would kill the yeast) and a sugar source. The warm water dissolves the dry coating around the yeast granules so that the yeast is exposed, and the sugar is the yeast’s food source. In this chemical process (known as fermentation), the active-dry yeast is activated by the warm water and converts the sugar molecules into carbon dioxide.
The reason that I specified “sugar-source” as opposed to simply “sugar” is because the chemical makeup of the sugar source will yield different results. There are many different types of sugar molecules, some of which are one molecule on their own (known as monosaccharides) and some are two molecules bonded together (known as disaccharides). Simple white sugar is made up of a molecule known as sucrose, which is two monosaccharide molecules bonded together, making it a disaccharide. Honey, on the other hand, is made up of those same molecules as monosaccharides, meaning they are not bonded together. This lack of bonding between the sugar molecules in honey is very important for proofing yeast because it will require less energy from the yeast to break them down. Hence, honey allows a more robust proofing of the active-dry yeast in this recipe, which then results in chewier texture in the pizza dough.
In short, every ingredient in this recipe has a key role to achieve the perfect NY-style pizza dough: warm water will dissolve the dry coating around the active dry yeast to expose it and coats the flour molecules to produce gluten, honey will be used as the sugar source to provide the most energy-efficient food source for the yeast, the active dry yeast will convert the sugar molecules into carbon dioxide in the dough and allow it to rise, the olive oil will coat some of the flour molecules to prevent excessive gluten formation, bread flour will result in a chewier texture than all-purpose flour since it is higher in protein, and the salt will provide just the right amount of seasoning.
Whew, that was a lot of science for one blog post. Let’s take a deep breath and remember why we’re all here: PIZZA.
I chose to top off my pizza with a bit of brushed olive oil, thick-cut plum tomatoes, smoked buffalo mozzarella, and fresh basil. You can dress up this pizza any way you’d like, there really is no wrong way to go about this. Go ahead, get crazy; I won’t judge you! (But an Italian nonna just might…)