We Used Science To Make Better Pizza: Small Chemistry Tweaks With Amazing Results

This week our host, Sam, chats with renowned baker Peter Reinhart and learns how a couple of small chemistry tweaks can transform a terrible pizza into an amazing one.

This week we show you how two simple changes can turn cardboard-y pizza into award winning pie (okay, award-winning might be a slight exaggeration, but we awarded ourselves a win, so deal with it).

Here’s our simple recipe for making stellar pizza at home:
Mix 1 package (0.25 oz) of dry yeast into 1 cup of warm water
Let sit for 5 minutes.
Add 2.5 cups of bread flour and 1 tsp of salt. Mix.
Knead the dough for a few minutes.
Dust your hands with flour and form your pizza dough into a round ball. Transfer to a bowl.
Let the dough sit, covered, in the fridge overnight. THIS IS KEY!
Remove the dough from the fridge, let sit at room temperature for 30 minutes, then using your hands or a rolling pin spread out the dough.
Set your oven as high as it can go (for many ovens that’s 550 degrees F)
Add sauce and toppings
Put your pizza in the oven until the crust starts to brown (should be around 9 minutes, maybe a little longer if you like it crispy!)
Let cool and enjoy!

Video Transcript:

(Women singing Bella Ciao)

Oh my gosh, that is so much better than last time.

(dramatic music)

So how did I, a scientist I’ll add, not at all a chef, get from that cardboard-y stuff to this on just my second attempt?

That actually tastes like pizza.

By doing the only thing that I know how to do, go way too deep into the science of it. So if you wanna learn about the science of pizza, or just wanna know how to pretty easily make a great one without a fancy oven, let’s go.

(upbeat music)

My biggest issue with the first attempt was the dough.

The key to a great pizza really does come down to the quality of the crust.

Peter Reinhart is a well-known baker and professor of baking, and he’s written a bunch of books about it, including “The Bread Baker’s Apprentice” and “American Pie: My Search for the Perfect Pizza.” So he was definitely the guy to talk to.

It really is about the crust. And if you were disappointed, you know, in the one you made or in any pizzeria that you’ve been to, it usually starts with not loving the crust.

So for this video I’m gonna forget about the sauce and the cheese and really focus on the dough.

Dough is essentially four ingredients: flour, water, salt, and levin or commercial yeast, which is the most common form of doing it.

The recipe that you were following, was it a one day recipe? Did you make the dough and try to make pizza on the same day?

Yeah, it was the same day.

The biggest mistake I think that home cooks make when they try to do pizza doughs is that they usually encourage going fast as opposed to going slow. And slowing things down when it comes to bread dough is a game-changer.

So what’s the difference between letting dough rise for 45 minutes at room temperature, which is what I did, versus leaving it overnight in the fridge?

Let’s take a look at those ingredients again. What’s actually happening when I mix together flour, salt, water, and yeast?

Water might not sound like the most exciting ingredient, but as soon as you add it to yeast and flour a lot of stuff starts happening.

First, water activates the yeast. Yeast are single-celled fungi. Each of these tiny blobs is millions of yeast.

Most baker’s yeast is dormant, meaning it’s just sitting there not doing anything. But when you add warm water, the yeast becomes active and the yeast’s enzymes get to work, along with some enzymes in the flour breaking down flour starch into sugars.

First, the enzyme amylase breaks starch into maltose, and then the enzyme maltase breaks maltose into glucose. Glucose is a super simple sugar molecule that yeast can metabolize, producing carbon dioxide and ethanol.

This is called fermentation and it’s the same process used to make beer, kombucha, sauerkraut, all sorts of things.

At the same time, the proteins in flour are starting to do their thing.

These proteins are generally glutenins and gliadins, but we usually lump them all together as gluten-forming proteins.

I’m sure you’ve heard of gluten because people are obsessed with it.

Once water is added, these proteins begin forming hydrogen bonds and disulfide bonds with each other, giving you gluten.

Kneading the dough gives them even more opportunities to interact, forming more gluten, creating dough that’s even more elastic, something my last dough definitely was not.

These gluten networks working with other proteins, starches, and lipids in the dough will trap the CO2 coming from fermentation. That trapped CO2 forms bubbles that make the dough rise.

And putting the dough in the fridge overnight allows all of these reactions to happen slowly, which Peter says is really important for the flavors from fermentation to develop. That’s not something that you wanna rush or cut short.

Sometimes people try and save time by adding a bit of sugar or extra yeast. The dough does rise faster and you do get something that looks and feels like pizza dough, but it’s just not gonna taste as good.

So there was my first problem. 45 minutes wasn’t nearly enough time for all of those reactions between those ingredients to happen.

So now that this has sat overnight, I’m gonna try to figure out what I messed up with the baking part because I’m sure I screwed something up.

Typically in a home oven, we can usually get to at least 500 degrees and maybe in some home ovens 550. Most pizzerias are baking in the New York-style pizza somewhere around 600 degrees.

Ooh, I definitely set it to like 400 last time. I’m not at the stage where I’m gonna buy a pizza oven yet, but I can crank this up as high as it goes.

As the temperature of the dough climbs, a lot happens really quickly. And this is great because Peter told me that we want a high enough temperature for these changes to happen before we lose all of the moisture in our dough and end up with dried out pizza.

First, the ethanol trapped inside the dough will evaporate and the carbon dioxide gas will begin to escape. Then once the dough is at around 180 degrees Fahrenheit, starches in it will start to gelate or turn into a gel.

And then at around 300 degrees Fahrenheit, sugars and amino acids in the dough will undergo what’s called the Maillard reaction, which is actually a series of reactions that produce a bunch of different compounds that give pizza dough flavor and a nice brown color.

In the interest of doing an almost controlled experiment, I stuck with the same ingredients as my original recipe, only changing the time and temperature.

(women singing in a foreign language)

Mm. That is so much better than last time.

The recipe is in the comments.

And I’ve added a link to Peter Reinhardt’s site Pizza Quest where he searches for the perfect pizza.

How much sauce is on my teeth?

? La la la ?

American Chemical SocietyFood SciencePopular
Comments ( 8 )
Add Comment
  • Forest Davenport

    I didn’t see the recipe.

    • Mike O'Neill

      The recipe has now been added below the video. (It was on the video description on youtube, but not in the article.)

      Thanks for the comment!

  • Herbert Miller

    No recipe?

    • Mike O'Neill

      Sorry about that. The recipe has now been added below the video.

  • Steve

    That is how you make any pizza dough. My god all bread using yeast needs to be left to rise. They uncovered nothing.

  • Randall FakeName

    The author should check out J Kenji Lopez. He does a lot of videos on similar subjects for a wider variety of foods. As an engineer, these kinds of articles are exactly how I learned to cook.

  • Matt

    Leaven not levin

  • Charles

    That’s amazing. Everything handed down from grandma to mom minus the scientific explaination now fully explored so smart people can understand it. Cheers