Pizza lovers know that there are two things that make a perfect pizza, the toppings, and the quality of the base. The perfect pizza base is thin and crispy on the outside, yet soft and airy in the centre. For this, we need the pizza dough to stretch nicely. If your pizza dough won’t stretch without tearing, let’s look at this together. I’m going to cover each element of making the perfect pizza dough in a moment, but if you’ve got the dough on the table, here’s a quick solution:
If pizza dough doesn’t stretch it probably needs more time to ferment. If it’s too firm, leave it on a floured table for 15 minutes, then try again. If it’s tearing it needs more development, leave it to rise for a few hours or in the fridge overnight. The gluten will strengthen and allow you to stretch the dough.
But, back up a minute! If you are wondering why your pizza dough is not rolling out, many home bakers come across the same problem. The answer is in a good recipe that utilises the methods Italian pizzerias have been using for years. The choice of flour, amount of kneading, rest (fermentation) time, use of temperature, (and more) have an impact.
Before we cover how to make pizza dough more stretchy, you’ll find it helpful to take a moment and understand how the dough forms. When water hydrates the coiled up protein in the flour it unwinds and forms long and stretchy strands of gluten. Gluten comes in two forms:
Glutenin is what gives bread its strength and elasticity. It gives the dough the ability to hold its shape as it rises.
Gliadins give stretch to the dough structure. It allows the air pockets to expand in line with gas production.
For a quality pizza base, we need both types of gluten for the right amount of development. Elasticity from glutenin returns the dough back to its original shape when shaped. It also retains the gas in the dough as the pizza bakes so it’s still important. Extensibility from gliadin allows the dough to stretch without tearing or contracting. A dough with plenty of healthy gliadin is vital for stretching into pizza discs. We can improve the amount of extensibility and elasticity by:
Every flour brand varies in the quantities of the two types of gluten. For the right balance of gluten development in pizzas, the choice of flour is important. A specially selected pizza flour is best for making pizza.
Pizza flour typically comes from Italy and is selected for its pizza-making ability. The performance of the gluten in these flours is optimum for stretching. They tend to be derived from soft wheat and perform well during long, cool bulk fermentation to provide plenty of sweet flavours. We don’t necessarily need pizza flour to make pizza. However, it’s likely that you’ll find many issues disappear if you make the change.
With the flour chosen, we now need to understand what to do with it. For this, I’ve selected 3 core areas that have the biggest impact which all affect one another.
For pizza to have a signature crispy outer layer and a fluffy interior, the amount of water in the recipe is important.
Pizza doughs are very dry doughs. It makes them hard to knead, even with a dough mixer sometimes! We don’t add much water as we want a compact gluten network.
A wetter dough would stretch too easily and cause the dough to puff up like focaccia when baked. 55% water to the weight of the flour is a great starting point. It’s just enough to hydrate the gluten.
Add some more water when kneading if the dough is too dry to combine into a mass, but remember it’s supposed to be tough!
Ever wondered why long-fermented pizza crust tastes so sweet? It’s because the starch in the flour gets broken down into simple sugars during fermentation. These sugars include sucrose (table sugar) which appeases our palettes and tenderizes the dough.
When baking the raised sugar content has advantages for the bread. “Enzymatic browning” increases as the intensity of the Maillard Effect browns the crust faster. This reduces the baking time by darkening the crust with a moist, lightly baked centre.
Yeast cells absorb many of the simple sugars to produce alcohol and carbon dioxide. As gas is produced through yeast respiration, so does the production of organic acids. Ethanol and organic acids develop flavour, keeping quality and enhances the gluten in the dough. Carbon dioxide produces gas which the pizza needs to puff up in the oven.
The combination of these factors is essential to developing a quality pizza. We’ll come back to the optimum conditions for dough maturity in a moment.
Kneading pizza dough is a lengthy process that pizza “wannabe” artists overlook. Poorly kneaded pizza tends to have a dense crust, dry crumbs and an uneven crumb texture. Experienced pizza bakers will take up to 20 minutes to knead their dough. If you’re looking for light airiness in your pizza, knead by hand or in a dough mixer with a slow setting for at least ten minutes.
Pizza dough must be kneaded gently. Professional pizza mixers only have one speed as high-speed mixing increases the amount of oxygen intake drastically. Oxygen initially provides strength for the gluten, but during a long fermentation, it will have a negative effect. If you are kneading by hand, you shouldn’t have to worry!
The windowpane test will tell when kneading should end. Contrary to other baking sites, you should not be aiming to reach the full translucency stage with pizza dough. If it is to bulk ferment for several hours it’s going to overdevelop and collapse.
Aim for stage 2 on my windowpane guide which is where the dough holds when initially stretched, yet tears easily with pressure. The gluten will continue to develop as it rests. The longer the intended fermentation period, the less you want to work it.
Resting the dough in a long bulk fermentation stage is crucial for quality pizza. It’s in this period that the organic acids build up, alongside gas and ethanol. The breaking down of the starch also occurs and the gluten will strengthen its bonds.
After kneading, the dough is covered and left to ferment for several hours. After, it’s divided, left to rest again before stretching, left to rest again, stretched for a final time and finished with toppings before baking.
The total resting time will vary between recipes. It will be between 2 hours to 3 days though most professional pizza makers say that you can’t rush it. Most traditional pizzerias insist on a minimum 24 hour total development time.
Authentic pizza dough is kneaded for 20 minutes and then rested for at least 12 hours, often in the fridge. It is then divided into pizza-sized portions and left for another 12 hours until ready to use. The pizza bases will keep in the fridge for a further 6 hours before deteriorating.
Pizza dough resting time is a variable that every pizzaiolo has an opinion about. Some people swear by a 24-hour rest, others say it’s only good after 48 hours. I’ve even heard of some recipes made in only 30 minutes which turned out great!
If the dough is warmed up, yeast and organic acid development increases which quickens the rise. This will be to the detriment of the dough as the gluten development will not speed up to match.
The temperature of the bulk fermentation also affects the taste of the dough with complex starches being broken down in the cold. These provide sweeter flavours and aromas. If we chill the dough it will take longer to develop which really improves the taste!
An overnight fermented pizza the dough is left in the refrigerator for its first rise at 3C (37F). Once in, the dough can be left in the fridge for up to 48 hours. At a room temperature of 25C (77F), for 6-8 hours is generally sufficient.
Often, the first rise happens in the fridge. Afterwards, the dough pieces are divided and left at room temperature for the second rise. Other pizza makers leave the dough in the fridge for both stages. Some extend the length of the first rise to 24 hours and after dividing leave the bases for just 2-3 hours at room temperature before baking. It depends on your routine, a popular pizzerias routine might not work for you.
Lactic acids, oxygenation (of the flour) and gas production play a big part in developing a strong bread dough. They are generally welcomed in bread production, but for pizza, it is vital that we control their levels of development.
When lactic acids and oxygenation levels get too high they destroy the extensible properties of the dough. We don’t want the bread becoming too gassy either as it would be hard to shape and end up more like a focaccia.
To slow these threats, it’s important to reduce air exposure by kneading it gently, covering it and dropping the temperature. Lowering the temperature slows down Lactic Acid Bacteria and yeast activity. This simple trick allows the pizza dough to continue developing the gluten and breaking down the starch.
After kneading, I recommend that the first rise happens in the fridge and lasts for around 12 hours. If before dividing the dough lacks strength, either extend the time in the fridge or warm it up next time. If it’s gassy or sticky, the dough is over-proofed and needs less time next time.
After dividing into portions, the second rise should be at room temperature. Cooler temperatures are great for pizza but can slow dough fermentation so much that it ends up being bad for the bread. Once the dough pieces are soft and starting to feel a little gassy they are ready to use. Don’t let them rise too high as they will be over-proofed.
They can now be stretched onto a peel, topped and baked or they can sit in the fridge for 4-6 hours until it’s time to bake. Before the toppings are added, the pizza doughs often benefit from being stretched, then left to rest on the table for 5-15 minutes before being stretched again. This gives time for the gluten to relax and stretch without tearing.
There are 2 reasons why a pizza recipe only uses a tiny amount of yeast.
We don’t really want too much gas production in pizza dough. Apart from the expected “PUFF” of the crust, as it bakes we want to keep gas production to a minimum. Using just a small amount of yeast (or sourdough) in the recipe slows gas production and organic acid development.
The time range for pizza dough to be ready for baking has to be quite vast. A busy pizza restaurant’s service period spans several hours. This wouldn’t be possible with a really active dough, so we must slow the development time down to extend the window that the dough is at its peak.
Autolyse is a stage where the dough is left to hydrate without the addition of salt. It takes place before the dough is kneaded. As it strengthens the extensible properties of the gluten it makes sense to consider using this method for pizza dough. I first thought that it would be used by all pizza makers, but it isn’t.
For a quick, 1-day pizza dough, a 30 minute autolyse will help the dough stretch when shaping. But when a 24 hour+ fermentation time is followed, autolyse is not advised.
Pizza dough is a dry dough that’s kneaded gently for a fairly long time. It will take quite a few minutes of kneading to bring the dough together before the autolyse can start. After the autolyse the yeast and salt are worked into the dough and the slow kneading continues. It is hard to disperse the additions in a semi-developed dough, and we risk over kneading the dough.
The other reason we don’t do this is the process of developing a pizza dough is perfect already. Strengthening the gliadin gluten makes it peak too early and will deteriorate by the time it is ready to shape.
Making pizza is a balancing act between gluten strength, dough maturation and preventing over-oxygenation. To achieve the perfect pizza we need to develop the dough to reach its peak at the point that it is to be baked.
Being able to stretch the dough is a great indicator if it’s ready or not. If you have followed the steps above and it still won’t stretch, give it a little more time for the gluten to strengthen and try again. I’m sure you will get there!