Canadian Pizza Magazine

Features In the Kitchen Ingredients
Put some tang in your crust


November 26, 2010
By Julie Fitz-Gerald

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Pssst, did you hear? Original pizza crust can taste great with a “sour” twist.

Pssst, did you hear? Original pizza crust can taste great with a “sour” twist. This crust vying for oven space has a history all its own. It comes from something known as the “mother” dough and applies one of the world’s most ancient forms of bread-making to pizza crust. I’m referring to sourdough crust, and while it’s definitely not a new invention, it’s a treasured technique among pizzaiolos across the country. Sourdough crust varies from pizzeria to pizzeria, each with its own unique sour taste as a result of every starter having different acidities and PH levels. The mother is nurtured by its owners, being fed and watered at exactly the right times, kept at precisely the optimum temperature, and never left to die. Portions are gently removed from the starter to create mouth-watering sourdough crusts and then replenished in the same delicate manner. The tangy taste and chewy texture of each slice is definite and one bite proves that this is not your regular pizza crust.

There are two types of starters to consider when creating your initial dough. For those short on time, there are commercially available starters that cut down significantly on the fermentation time. But for those who really want to experience the satisfaction of growing their own culture, there’s the old-fashioned way. Creating a sourdough starter is as simple as combining flour and water. Try starting with one cup of each. The mixture will attract naturally occurring yeasts in the air and will begin to ferment. As the flour and water interact, naturally occurring bacteria known as Lactobacillus sanfranciscensis (named after San Francisco, where it was discovered) exist symbiotically with naturally occurring yeasts and the fermentation process begins.

The mother then needs to be fed regularly with flour and water and monitored closely. Spiros Drossos, co-owner and head chef of Chicago Pizza Kitchen in Vaughan, Ont., is creating a buzz among restaurant-goers for his unique sourdough crust used for his Chicago-style deep dish pies and thin crust pizzas. He says: “I feed it about once a week, with unbleached, untreated flour and unchlorinated water.”

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Once you have a thriving starter, you can incorporate portions into your pizza dough. Drossos’ dough has a specific process that has to be followed in order to achieve that tangy, chewy crust that his customers rave about.

“I have to age the dough for at least a day and a half. Every dough ball that I use for a pizza is kept in its own environment, with a little bit of oil. It’s refrigerated and we rotate them, so the fresh dough goes in on the left and the older dough that’s ready to use comes out on the right, so it’s a continuous clockwise rotation with the dough. There’s a lot of science to this, actually,” he explains.

You can also customize the flavour of a sourdough crust by extending the rest time before cooking.

An extended rest time will create higher levels of lactic acid, which breaks down the sugars in the flour, resulting in a stronger sour taste. The taste is also controlled by the proportions of starter added to the dough. If you’re looking for a pronounced sour taste when the crust touches your palette, you should use a higher ratio of sour starter to dough. If you’re looking for a mild sour flavour, then you lower the ratio, using less of the sour starter. Drossos describes his sourdough crust as “crispy on the bottom and softer on top, just like bread that comes out of a wood burning oven and was baked on a stone. The bottom of the bread where it was baked is slightly harder, it has slightly a bitter, sour taste for the bottom of the crust and it’s soft in the middle with lots of air holes. The air holes are made by the gas in the dough.”

With the nurturing and dedication that goes into the mother and resulting dough, it’s no wonder they are so dear to their owners. Bakers and chefs alike travel the world to find the perfect starter. They know that it could be used for generations, just as it has been in some of the oldest bakeries in San Francisco. Drossos uses a 30-year-old starter that he sourced from a bakery in the San Francisco Bay area.

Apart from the unique and unrivalled taste, there is another reason for foodies to fall in love with this trendy crust. A study conducted by the University of Guelph and published in the British Journal of Nutrition has found there are health benefits as well. The study found that sourdough breads containing lactic acid lowered glycaemia (the presence of glucose in the blood) when compared to whole wheat bread. The overall glucose response to sourdough bread was significantly lower than both white and whole wheat breads, meaning carbohydrates in sourdough breads are broken down more slowly in the digestive system, releasing glucose more slowly into the bloodstream. This is of particular interest to those with diabetes.

New research is also being done with sourdough and gluten-free grains. John Michaelides, director of Research & Technology at Guelph Food Technology Centre, explains that “this is an opportunity for people that suffer from celiac disease to eat sourdough bread. The bacteria that are present from those grains are slightly different from the ones that you find in rye.” He adds that they are still in the research stage.

With the continuing research and development for new sourdough applications, the future of this ancient art looks promising. There are a few important tips to remember when baking with sourdough. Always use unbleached, unbromated flour, as it contains more micro-organisms, allowing for increased fermentation and growth. Never use hot water when replenishing the starter, as this will effectively kill the living culture. Always use cold, filtered water for best results. Do not let the dough get too warm. Drossos advises that sourdough is extremely sensitive to climate, so you should always be aware of your room temperature and be monitoring the temperature of the dough. One last tip to remember is to be consistent with feeding the starter.

These tips will keep your sourdough mother thriving, allowing you to craft a one-of-a-kind pizza crust that’s unique to your pizzeria.

“One of the most important things in making a proper pizza is the crust, the bread,” says Drossos. “If the crust is not good, then no matter what you put on that pizza, it’s not going to taste right. The crust is what complements everything else that goes on top.”

Having your own sourdough starter can be likened to having a relationship. If you nurture your starter, giving it the time and effort it deserves, you will be rewarded with a pizza crust all your own.