The Role of Fermentation in Pizza Dough (The Proof is in the Pie!)

When it comes to making exceptional tasting pizza dough, one of the key factors that contributes to quality flavour, texture, and overall grooviness is without doubt the process of fermentation. Here, we’ll prove it to you.

Fermentation, also known as proofing or proving, involves allowing the dough to rest and undergo a controlled breakdown of the sugars in the flour, which occurs thanks to the actions of yeast and the release of carbon dioxide gas into the dough. By leaving pizza dough alone to do absolutely nothing, is the thing that creates something really special.

If done right, fermentation should lead to a light, airy, and epic tasting pizza crust (assuming that’s the style of pizza you’re looking for). The process of fermentation itself has a huge role to play in how pizza turns out, although it’s the timing and temperature of that fermentation which significantly impacts the outcome of the dough and, ultimately, the final slice.

So let’s talk about the role of fermentation in dough and what this brings to the pizza party…

Flavour Development

Firstly, fermentation simply plays a vital role in developing the complex flavours that are characteristic of great pizza dough. During fermentation, the yeast consumes sugars present in the dough and produces carbon dioxide, alcohol, and various flavour compounds. The longer the fermentation time (within reason), the more time the yeast has to metabolise the sugars and create great tasting dough (and the cooler the fermentation conditions, the longer the dough can prove).

Gluten Development

Gluten, the protein network formed when wheat flour comes into contact with water, is responsible for providing structure and elasticity to pizza dough. Fermentation allows gluten to develop fully, resulting in a dough with a desirable texture and that’s easier to work with. During fermentation, the enzymes released by the yeast break down the proteins in the flour, making the gluten more extensible and elastic. This elasticity helps the dough stretch without tearing.

Texture and Crumb Structure

Aside from the type and amount of dough ingredients used, the way in which pizza dough is fermented (i.e. for how long and at what temperature) is what really influences the texture and crumb structure of the final crust. In general, a longer fermentation period encourages more gas production from the yeast, resulting in more air pockets and a lighter, more open crumb structure. This creates a crust that is airy, tender, and easier to bite into. 

On the other hand, a shorter fermentation period would typically lead to a denser, tighter crumb structure. Not only that, the temperature at which you decide to ferment your dough will affect the rate of yeast activity (i.e. how much and how quickly it releases those gases); cooler temperatures slow down yeast activity, allowing for an extended fermentation period and promoting a softer crumb, whereas warmer temperatures speed the process up, but the final texture (and flavour) isn’t as developed.

Let’s look into the key topics of time and temperature a bit further…

Timing Fermentation: How Long Should Pizza Dough Proof?

The duration of pizza dough proofing can vary depending on the recipe and type of pizza you’re making, the desired flavour & texture, and the temperature at which you’re proving. As a general guideline, pizza dough is typically proofed for at least 1 to 2 hours at room temperature, but many recipes may call for longer proofing periods, such as overnight or up to 72 hours in the refrigerator, otherwise known as cold fermentation.

It’s worth considering the specific instructions provided in your chosen recipe for the best results, or, just understand that longer fermentation generally produces better tasting pizza (again, within reason). You might find some pizza enthusiasts online carrying out fermentation experiments lasting up to a week or something, but in the real world, 72 hours in the fridge is probably as long as you’d want to proof for.

What happens if you let pizza dough rise too long?

Allowing pizza dough to rise for too long can result in over-proofing. When dough over-proofs, the yeast becomes overactive and produces an excess of carbon dioxide, leading to an overly airy and fragile dough. The texture may become weak, lacking structure and elasticity. Additionally, the over-production of carbon dioxide can cause the dough to collapse or develop overly large air pockets. The crust may also become excessively sour or develop a yeasty taste. It’s crucial to monitor the dough during the proofing process to avoid over-proofing.

How can you tell if pizza dough is over-proofed?

There are several signs that indicate that pizza dough is overproofed:

  • The dough appears excessively puffy and has lost its elasticity.
  • It feels sticky and slack when touched.
  • The dough collapses or deflates easily.
  • The surface of the dough may have visible bubbles or air pockets.
  • The dough has a sour or overly yeasty smell.
  • When shaping the dough, it does not hold its shape and feels weak.

If you suspect that your pizza dough is overproofed, it may be best to discard it and start with a fresh batch. Monitoring the dough closely during the proofing process and considering the recommended proofing times in your recipe will hopefully help you avoid overproofing and achieve the desired texture and flavour in your pizza crust.

The Impact of Temperature on Pizza Proofing

Temperature is another crucial factor in the fermentation process, as it directly affects yeast activity. Higher temperatures accelerate fermentation, while lower temperatures slow it down. It’s important to find the right balance to achieve the desired results. Warmer temperatures, around 24 to 27°C (75 to 81°F), can seriously speed up fermentation, allowing you to produce a pizza dough in a shorter amount of time (but with less flavour and textural quality).

However, be cautious as high temperatures can cause the dough to over-ferment, resulting in a dough that is overly sour and lacking in structure. On the other hand, cooler temperatures, around 4 to 10°C (39 to 50°F), promote a slower fermentation, allowing for more flavour development, better gluten structure and final crumb consistency. This method is particularly useful for those who prefer a more complex and flavourful crust. And then there’s room temperature fermentation, which should give you results somewhere in between.

Cold Fermentation

While there’s benefits to using room temperature fermentation (for instance, being able to eat pizza quicker), cold fermentation, where the dough is refrigerated for an extended period, is a popular technique in pizza making and considered the holy-grail by many. Not only does it offer enhanced flavour development and better gluten structure, but often easier dough handling too. 

Cold fermentation allows the dough to ferment slowly, which develops a more sophisticated flavour while keeping the dough from over-fermenting and becoming too acidic. It also gives the gluten proteins more time to relax and strengthen, resulting in a dough that is easier to stretch and shape. Generally, a cold fermentation of 24 to 72 hours at a temperature range of 1 to 4°C (34 to 39°F) is recommended.

If you haven’t got time for all that, let’s look at some examples of fermentation times and temperatures that you could use to make your pizza…

Example Fermentation Times and Temperatures

Quick Fermentation at Higher Temperature:

Fermentation time: 1 to 4 hours

Temperature range: 24 to 27°C (75 to 81°F)

If you’re short on time and need to make pizza dough relatively quickly, increasing the fermentation temperature can expedite the process. However, be cautious as the dough may not develop as much flavour or structure compared to longer fermentation times.

Standard Room Temperature Fermentation: 

Fermentation time: 8 to 12 hours

Temperature range: 18 to 24°C (64 to 75°F)

This is a common approach for many pizza recipes. Allowing the dough to ferment at room temperature for several hours allows for adequate flavor development and gluten formation. This method provides a good balance between convenience and flavour.

Extended Cold Fermentation:

Fermentation time: 24 to 72 hours

Temperature range: 1 to 4°C (34 to 39°F)

This technique involves placing the dough in the refrigerator for an extended period. The prolonged fermentation time enhances flavour complexity and leads to a dough with improved handling properties. It’s ideal for those who are happy to plan ahead in order to achieve the most groovy flavour in their crust.

Remember, these are general guidelines, and you can experiment with different fermentation times and temperatures to find the balance that suits your preferences. It’s important to monitor the dough’s progress visually and through touch to determine when it is ready for shaping and baking. Factors such as dough hydration, yeast type, and recipe variations can also influence the optimal fermentation conditions.

What is Bulk-Fermentation?

Bulk fermentation refers to an initial stage of fermentation where all the ingredients, otherwise known as the yeast, water, flour, and salt, are mixed together to form a dough and then left to rest/rise as a whole single mass (i.e. before the stage of creating  individual dough balls and leaving them to ferment). You might find that some pizza people only say ‘fermentation’ when referring to the bulk phase, and use the word ‘proofing/proving’ for the subsequent ‘final fermentation’ process.

Carrying out bulk fermentation as well as proofing your individual dough balls is generally considered good practice, or even essential, in order to create the best pizza possible. Then again, it’s entirely optional and down to you how you choose to ferment your dough. The durations and temperatures used for both bulk fermentation and final proofing can vary, again, depending on different recipes and personal pizza preferences.

Should you let pizza dough rise twice?

While it is not entirely necessary to let pizza dough rise twice, it can contribute to improved flavour and texture. The first rise, known as bulk fermentation, is usually sufficient to allow the dough to develop reasonable flavour and rise adequately. However, some recipes or techniques may call for a second rise, often referred to as the secondary or final proofing. This involves dividing the dough into individual portions, shaping them, and allowing them to rise again before baking. The second rise allows the dough to relax further, develop more flavour, and improve the structure of the final crust. It’s a matter of personal preference and the specific recipe you are using.

What Happens if you Don’t Proof Pizza Dough?

Proofing pizza dough is an essential step in the pizza-making process that involves allowing the dough to rise before baking. If you skip the proofing step or don’t allow the dough to properly rise, several things can happen:

Dense and Tough Crust: Proofing helps develop gluten in the dough, which gives the crust its desirable chewy texture. Without proper proofing, the dough may be dense, tough, and lack the desired airy and light quality.

Poor Texture: Proofing allows the dough to expand and capture air bubbles, resulting in a soft and airy texture. Without proofing, the dough won’t rise adequately, leading to a flat and tough texture.

Reduced Flavour: During the proofing process, the yeast ferments the sugars in the dough, releasing carbon dioxide and alcohol. This fermentation process imparts flavour to the dough. If you skip proofing, you might miss out on the improved taste that comes from allowing the dough to ferment.

Uneven Cooking: Properly proofed dough bakes more evenly since the gas produced by the yeast creates a network of air pockets in the dough. Without proofing, the crust may cook unevenly, resulting in a subpar pizza.

Diminished Rise: The dough’s rising time directly affects its final volume and thickness. If you don’t proof the dough, it won’t rise as much during baking, resulting in a thin and unappetizing crust.

Lack of Digestibility: Proper proofing breaks down complex carbohydrates, making the dough easier to digest. Skipping this step may lead to a heavier and harder-to-digest crust.

In Summary

In conclusion, fermentation or proofing/proving plays a vital role in the creation of exceptional pizza dough. The timing and temperature of that fermentation significantly impact the flavour, texture, and overall quality of the dough. By understanding these factors and experimenting with different fermentation techniques, you can elevate your pizza-making game and enjoy a crust that is flavourful, airy, and truly groovy.