Choosing the perfect flour:
I have always been of the opinion that although it is often overlooked, the crust is really the engine that drives the flavor of the pizza. Sauce, cheese, and toppings are all important to be sure; but the crust is the one thing that you have the most control over. I would rather have mediocre toppings placed atop an amazing crust than flavorful toppings and cheese melted onto a cardboard crust. It is the foundation of your pizza and it is probably what people stress over the most. So to get the best results – it’s important to make the best decisions before the battle is even fought. The road to great crust starts with flour.
There is no shortage of options when it comes to flour at your local supermarket. Add the wide expanses of world wide electronic commerce and the choices get even broader. How to choose the right flour for the right job? Let’s start with an introduction to the player behind the scenes: wheat gluten.
Gluten is a complex protein that can be found in wheat and other foods. It is formed in the flour when it is mixed with water. Two simple proteins bond together to form gluten. It is rubbery and elastic and gives the dough it’s shape and texture. When you make a yeasted dough the fermentation process produces carbon dioxide which is trapped by the strands of gluten. This is what makes the dough rise. When you bake the pizza, the gluten along with starch in the dough coagulates, which stabilizes the final product that comes out of the oven. Those tiny little bubbles you see in the crust when you bite into it? That’s caused by gas trapped inside of pockets of gluten.
The point of all this is that the gluten content is important. The higher the gluten content, the chewier product you will get so this type of flour is ideal for products like pizza, bread and pretzels. The higher the gluten content, the more of those little bubbles are going to be produced and the more your crust will have a nice, airy and crunchy texture. Lower gluten content will produce a texture that is more delicate, making it ideal for pastries and cake.
All purpose flour is the most common form of flour available on the market. As the name would suggest, it is very versitile and can be used for bread, pizza, pancakes, pies, biscuits, etc. Most cookbooks will call for the use of all purpose flour, probably because it is so easy to find. If you are planning on making more deep dish or thick crust pizzas, I find all purpose flour to be the best choice because in this case, you want the flour to have more of a chewier crumb to it.
Bread flour differs from all purpose flour in that the gluten content is higher. This is a little harder to find. It may also be marketed as flour for use in bread machines. The increase in gluten development helps in giving a thin crust pizza a more crisp texture. So if you are more interested in the thin crust pizzas with some crunch to it, then bread flour might be the way to go. Keep in mind that dough made with higher gluten flours will be harder to work with my hand.
In addition to bread flours – there are also high gluten flours, which are even higher in gluten content. Sir Lancelot flour by King Arthur is one example. Unless you live in a larger market with specialty shops, these will likely only be available online.
Keep in mind that if high gluten flour is not something that is available to you, an alternative would be to purchase straight wheat gluten, which is a little easier to find. You can add this to your all purpose flour and come pretty close to getting the same effect. The standard ratio of wheat gluten to flour is one tablespoon of gluten for every cup of flour. DO NOT make your dough out of just wheat gluten, you will not be happy with the results.
There are other specialty flours which can be used from time to time when making pizza. Semolina flour is made from durum, which is in the same family as wheat, but on a different branch. Semolina is traditionally used to make pasta. It can be used in small amounts along with wheat flour or, as you can see in the Sicilian recipe, it can be used by itself. It produces a crust with an interesting texture and nutty flavor.
Another specialty flour is “OO” Flour, or Caputo flour. This is imported from Italy. Caputo flour is a popular choice in making traditional Neopolitan style pizzas. It is a little tricky to use in the home oven. Because the professional ovens get so much hotter it is harder to get crusts made with Caputo flour to brown the way we might like. Caputo flour is also much harder to find. There are sources online of course, but you will end up paying a fair amount for shipping. If you are lucky enough to live in a larger urban area – I would suggest exploring for smaller independently owned Italian Grocers. For example, if you live in St. Louis, the Hill District is one place where you can find Caputo flour for sale.
I am asked from time to time about the use of whole grains in pizza crusts. If this is something you would like to pursue, my advice would be to start with a relatively small ratio. Three parts white flour to one part whole wheat is a good starting point. Try it out and see how you like it. If you don’t, you can adjust the whole wheat up from there. Just keep in mind that the more whole wheat you add to the dough, the heavier it will be. The jagged edges of the whole grains literally slash open the gluten strands and gas pockets in the dough which prevents the crust from springing up as much as you might like.