Canadian Pizza Magazine

Rolling in Dough – Pizzeria Style!

By Bob McDougall   

Features In the Kitchen Ingredients

Rolling in Dough – Pizzeria Style!

Last time we managed to keep from
getting mixed up as we discussed dough mixers for pizza operations.
This month we again deal with mechanical dough manipulation,
specifically dividing, rounding and sheeting.

Last time we managed to keep from getting mixed up as we discussed dough mixers for pizza operations. This month we again deal with mechanical dough manipulation, specifically dividing, rounding and sheeting.

A large lump of well and freshly-mixed dough is basically a resilient network of moistened or “hydrated” wheat gluten protein strands. These strands contain inclusions of partially-hydrated starch granules; dissolved and undissolved ingredients such as salt, sugar or whey; and non-solubles such as wheat bran or fibre. There is often some form of fat or oil layered along the surfaces of protein strands or starch granules. These can appear as little bubbles of fat dispersed throughout the mix.

This complex material must be transformed into “shells.” Tradition-ally, dough is portioned by eye or weight, cutting dough, never tearing. Tearing destroys the gluten, whereas cutting neatly separates it. Next the dough is rounded into balls and rested – sometimes for many hours or through transportation or freezing and thawing, in the case of pre-prepared dough.


Eventually, the dough is rolled out or stretched – “sheeted” – by grasping and stretching or by gentle tossing. Placed into pans or onto peels, the base is ready for sauce, cheese and toppings. Now, in our modern, mechanized world many of these steps can and must be applied faster, more uniformly or to a much greater volume of dough.
With the speed of an experienced dough master, it’s usually not economical to invest in a dough divider for fewer than 250 or 300 pies a day. However, if you operate a commissary, or if your volume is so highly skewed that you sometimes can’t keep up with dough production, you may be able to justify a divider anyway, on a Friday and Saturday basis, yet enjoy the benefit all week!

The Great Divide
Pizza dough dividers are usually … um … divided into “batch” dividers or “continuous” dividers. Batch types split a three to five kg dough mass into a specific-sized pan or plate in equal portions, using either manual or motorized force. They are best suited for small baking or pizza operations. The weight of each portion is determined by the thickness of the dough placed into the dough holder. The horizontal shape and number and size of the cuts doesn’t change, only the thickness. Such dividers can be heavy, motorized devices, but one of the most useful is a simple wedge-cutter, home-built on a flat metal disk that is pushed into dough placed in a straight-sided round “cake” pan.

Continuous dividers “chunk” or “chop” individual portions of dough from a large dough mass placed in a feed hopper. They continue to run until the dough is depleted. A few older designs are manually operated using a fly-wheel, but most are motorized. As a result, they can be fairly expensive and you need to evaluate your economics well before making the investment.

One nice benefit with a continuous divider is that it can be purchased as a “divider – rounder”, which rolls up the dough balls as each is portioned. This may be a critical time or quality factor in your operation, and should be assessed. Remember though, that complex equipment requires training, complex cleanup and often special tools. Sometimes simpler really is better!

Sheeters and Sheeting
Probably no image more defines the traditional pizzaiolo than that of pizza dough spinning high in the air and touching down ever so briefly on the master’s finger tips before being launched upwards again. On each descent the dough is a little wider, a little thinner, a little closer to perfection.

OK – reality time. While this picture is what we all wish we could do, perfectly and fast enough to satisfy each and every customer on slam-night, it’s probably not gonna happen. So … we need a way to make sheeted dough fast enough to keep the customer satisfied, good enough to bake up just how we want it to, and not so expensive that our pies aren’t affordable. And maybe on a slow night, or when the new staff really want to see how it’s done, there’ll be time to “toss one up.”

Sheeters come in all shapes and sizes – literally. The basic function is to take a reasonably uniform dough ball and turn it into a quality round sheet of dough. To accomplish this, dough needs to be gently but firmly spread without tearing or damaging the gluten network of the dough. This is usually accomplished by running the dough through a series of rollers to flatten and expand its diameter smoothly. Claims of superiority are made for stainless or chromed-steel rollers, plastic rollers, even the hard rubber and wooden rollers of decades ago. It might be suggested that the best rollers are those that most gently do the most acceptable job for your dough.

One of the largest issues is dough damage caused by rupture of the gluten network by sticking or when dough is extended too far in one direction. This can lead to dimpling, rough spots and even tears in the dough. Some sheeters are single stage, with one rolling or pressing step. These are quite suitable for many mid-range thin and mid-thickness crust styles.

However, overextending dough in a single action can give rise to the issues listed above. This can occur if a thick dough puck, ball or piece is sheeted through a small gap (between the rollers) in one operation. Very firm dough, or dough that tends to adhere to rollers can both suffer damage when forced “too far, too fast” like this.

Some sheeters are designed to avoid these problems by using two or even more “stages” where a short interval separates successive stretches, either by requiring a second insertion of the dough patty thorough the second, closer-spaced roller assembly, or automatically using a transfer belt. Also, the second stage can stretch the dough at 90 degrees to the first stretch. This delivers a rounder, less oblong product that requires less recovery time or manual manipulation to achieve a good shape on the peel or in the pan.
Heavier flour usage on the dough ball or on sheeter rollers can be very useful in preventing damage due to sticking.

There are other key properties of sheeters. In addition to adjustable roller gaps, consider the width of the final set of rollers. This will determine the largest diameter pizza producible. And roller speed control is important (remember faster tends to be rougher as well as faster).

Many sheeters are top or front feed but can have front, left, right or far-side output or delivery – know your preference or you’ll spend years catching dough with your wrong hand!

Sheeters are an investment in productivity, but make sure you test any that you are contemplating with all your dough types. Top, proof and bake off the product, because some defects are only obvious in a finished pie. Don’t learn the hard way that your new sheeter only does 20 per cent of your crust types well! Most manufacturers are quite willing to assist, and even provide references from working pizza operators to support their claims of superiority.

The good news is that with many domestic and imported sheeter suppliers around, and many, many used ones available, you’ll probably be able to find just what you need for a lot less than the “new” price. Just bear in mind that unless you are the owner and are only going to use it yourself, it will need to comply with local regulations for safety and guarding.

An older, cheaper sheeter may end up costing you more to add appropriate safeguards than a newer one with those items built-in.

Just like with any other equipment or process change, you can evaluate effectiveness by changing one thing at a time and noting what it does. Plan your experiments and record your results. Get independent opinions as to which product variation is better. More consistent product, better and more competitive product and happier customers will certainly result.•

Bob McDougall is a microbiologist, with postgraduate training in biochemistry and food science. He has held senior operations, quality and product innovation roles in meat, dairy and other sectors, and is a veteran of the pizza wars of the last decade of the second millennium. For seven years, Bob managed all quality, R&D and technical services for the Canada division of the world’s largest pizza chain. He is principal consultant
with RJMA – The Food Technical Consultancy, and freely admits to having pizza sauce in his veins. Contact Bob at

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