The Science of Pizza Dough (The Basics Behind The Perfect Base)

Creating the perfect pizza is both a science and an art, or you might say, a scientific art. Here we’re focusing on the basic science bit behind making pizza dough, by exploring the roles of flour, water, salt, yeast, plus time and temperature, all so you can conjure up the crispy, chewy and downright groovy crust you crave.

Let’s get straight to it. Pizza dough is mainly about four key things: flour, water, salt and yeast, followed by two more: time and temperature. Here’s some of what you initially need to know on your quest for the perfect pizza base…

Flour: All About That Base 

At the heart of pizza dough is flour, the primary ingredient responsible for its structure and texture. The choice of flour greatly impacts the final result. The most common type used is some form of high-protein wheat flour, such as bread flour or tipo “00” flour. 

The proteins in flour, specifically the gluten-forming ones named glutenin and gliadin, play a crucial role in developing a pizza dough’s elasticity and structure. The more gluten formed during kneading, the stronger, more stretchy and chewy the crust becomes.

Water: The Hydration Game

Water is the liquid component that hydrates the flour and activates the yeast in pizza dough. The amount of water used compared to flour determines the hydration level of the dough, influencing its texture and crust characteristics. For example, using 600g of water compared to 1000g of flour means the dough is 60% hydrated.

A higher hydration level leads to a lighter, airier crumb, while a lower hydration level yields a denser, chewier crust (low typically being classed as 50-59%, mid-range 60-69% and high hydration being anything above 70%). Achieving the right hydration is a delicate balance that varies depending on the type of flour you’re using, but also the type of pizza you want.

Salt: The Enhancer and Regulator

Salt serves multiple purposes in pizza dough. Firstly, it obviously enhances the dough’s flavour, boosting the overall taste. Secondly, it helps to regulate the fermentation process by controlling yeast activity and enzymatic reactions (as salt hinders yeast growth, it can slow down the fermentation, or speed it up if you use less).

In other words, more salt equals slower proving, whereas less salt contributes to quicker dough being made. Additionally, salt helps strengthen the gluten structure, leading to a more robust and manageable dough. Finding the right salt-to-flour ratio is crucial, as too little can result in a lack of flavour, while too much can inhibit yeast activity (between 2-3% of flour weight is generally recommended).

Yeast: The Leavening Agent

Yeast is the magic ingredient that makes pizza dough rise, or “leaven.” To get really scientific about it, yeast is a single-celled organism that consumes sugars (from the flour) and produces carbon dioxide gas through fermentation. This gas is what creates bubbles in the dough, causing it to expand and rise.

The three types of yeast used in pizza dough are either fresh yeast, active dry yeast or instant yeast (unless you’re going for sourdough pizza). A very small amount of yeast is needed to create great puff from a pizza, although longer fermentation periods allow for better flavour development as the yeast breaks down the complex sugars into simpler ones, which creates a depth of taste.

Time: Fermentation and Patience

Time is a critical factor in making groovy tasting pizza dough. By this, we’re mainly referring to the time taken to ferment and transform your dough (with the help of the yeast) into a great tasting base. The longer the dough ferments, the more that flavour compounds develop, resulting in a more complex and all-round epic taste.

Prolonged fermentation also allows the gluten to relax, making the dough easier to work with and resulting in a superior texture. Balancing fermentation time with the desired flavour (not to mention when you actually want to eat your pizza) is key to achieving the perfect dough. Time is obviously a key factor when cooking your pizza too, as is temperature…

Temperature: Controlling The Environment

Both fermentation and cooking temperature have a significant impact on pizza dough. During fermentation, maintaining the ideal temperature range ensures optimal yeast activity and enzymatic reactions. For room-temperature pizza that you can eat sooner, you’ll usually want between or 21-27°C or 70-80°F. However, cooler temperatures slow down fermentation, allowing better flavours to develop more slowly.

On the other hand, higher temperatures accelerate fermentation but can potentially compromise flavour. When it comes to actually baking the pizza, a high heat oven, such as a wood-fired brick oven or a good purpose-made pizza oven, is preferred. The intense heat creates rapid oven spring in the dough, contributing to a crisp exterior while maintaining a soft and chewy interior.

In Summary

Crafting the perfect pizza dough is a blend of science and artistry. Understanding the basic science behind flour, water, salt, yeast, time, and temperature is what allows pizza makers to fine-tune and perfect their own signature crusts. 

So, the next time you’re at a pizza party, remember the science that goes into that seemingly simple but mind-blowing base, otherwise known as the dough. And if you decide you want to learn how to make your own groovy pizza, check out our ‘all you need to know guides’ on doing just that.