Want a Perfect Pizza Crust? You’ve Got to Hydrate.

You wouldn’t build a house on a faulty foundation. So, why build a pizza on a subpar crust? Think back to some great pizza you once ate, and I’ll bet the crust was a big reason why you liked it. A good crust is the cornerstone of a good pizza, and to build a good crust, you need a good pizza dough.

I’ve tried a lot of pizza dough recipes over the years, but the resulting crust was never as good as that of my favorite local pizzeria. So instead of going to the trouble of making my own less-than-spectacular dough, I decided I’d buy my pizza dough directly from the pizzeria.  To my surprise, the crust wasn’t much better. In fact, instead of the puffy outer crust and soft foldable center which are the hallmark of pizzeria pizza, my crust was too crisp and too dry. Something was definitely wrong, and I was beginning to suspect that a home oven just wasn’t hot enough to make the kind of crust I coveted.

It wasn’t until I read “The Elements of Pizza” by Ken Forkish that the secret was finally revealed to me. The key to good homemade pizza dough is in the ratio of flour to water, or what bakers refer to as hydration. Furthermore, the correct level of hydration is dependent on the temperature of your oven. It turns out that the hotter the oven, the less water you need. 

To understand why, let’s compare a professional pizza oven to a typical home oven. Professional ovens, particularly those you find in a Neapolitan pizzeria, reach temperatures of 905º F, whereas your home oven probably maxes out at 500 or 550º F.  In the heat of a professional oven, a pizza will bake in as little as 60 seconds, but in a home oven, it will take about 7-8 minutes. 

While baking, the water in the dough evaporates rapidly. The longer you bake a pizza, the more water it loses. A pizza dough baked at 550ºF for several minutes will lose more water than one baked at 905ºF for 60 seconds. That’s why my homemade pizza, when made with dough from a pizzeria, had such a lackluster crust. There just wasn’t enough water in the dough. 

So what is the right amount of water for the home oven?

All pizza dough is essentially bread dough, and bread dough starts with flour. Professional bakers express the amount of water in dough as a percentage of the weight of the flour used. So if you have a 200 grams of flour and 100 grams of water, the baker’s percent of water is 50.  In other words, it has a hydration level of 50 percent. 

The hydration level in dough cooked in a 905ºF oven should be between 55 to 58 percent. For the lower temperatures of a home oven, Forkish recommends a hydration level of 70 percent. As soon as I adopted this ratio, the crust on my home made pizza went from just “okay” to something amazing. When I first tasted it, I couldn’t believe that a crust so good had come from my humble home oven.

The recipe that follows is an adaptation of Forkish’s 24- to 48-Hour Pizza Dough. It makes enough dough for 3 10-inch pizzas and needs a minimum of 18 hours of fermentation. So you’ll need to plan your pizza at least one day in advance. Ingredient amounts are provided by weight and volume, but I cannot stress enough how much better and consistent results you will get by weighing your ingredients. 

INGREDIENTAMOUNT BY WEIGHTAMOUNT BY VOLUMEBAKER’S %
Warm water, 90º to 95ºF350g1½  cups70%
Salt, preferably fine sea salt13gScant 2½ tsp2.6%
Instant dried yeast1.5g¾ of ½ tsp0.3%
All purpose or ’00’ white flour500gScant 4 cups100%

Method

  1. In a large bowl or 6-quart dough tub, combine warm water and salt and stir until dissolved. Add yeast and allow it to hydrate for about a minute. Swirl the water in the bowl until yeast completely dissolves.
  2. Add the flour to water mixture and mix with your hands until it becomes a cohesive mass. Use a bench scraper or spatula to scrape any excess dough from your hands. Cover bowl loosely with plastic wrap or a damp towel and let dough rest for 20 minutes.
  3. Pour the dough onto a lightly floured work surface. Wipe out the now empty bowl, lightly grease with oil or cooking spray, and set aside.Knead the dough for a minute on the floured work surface and then shape into a smooth tight rounded mound. Transfer dough to the greased bowl with the bottom side of the dough facing down. Cover tightly with plastic wrap or tight fitting lid. Let the dough rest for for 2 hours at room temperature. 
  4. Flour your hands and the top surface of the dough and gently move the dough out of the bowl and onto the work surface. If the dough sticks to the bowl, gently pull it away with your hands trying not to tear it. Using a kitchen scale, break the dough down into three equal portions. 
  5. Working with one portion, shape it into a flat round disc. Stretch the top third of the round away from you and fold if back to the center. Then stretch the right third of the dough away and fold back to center. Repeat this action with the bottom and left third. Turn the dough seam side down and shape into a round ball. (See photos.) Repeat for the other two portions.
  6. Place the three portioned dough balls onto a lightly greased baking sheet leaving room between them to allow for expansion. Flour the tops of the dough balls, cover the pan with plastic wrap, and refrigerate for 16 to 48 hours. 
  7. Before making pizza, remove the dough balls from the refrigerator and allow them to rest for 2-3 hours.
Shaping pizza dough balls (see step 5 above).

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