FAQ #2: Why Do We Make the Dough a Day Ahead

I get asked this one a lot. Or, more accurately, I get lots of e-mails asking some variation of the following question: What do I need to do to make the best pizza dough? Since that's a loaded question, subject to subjectivity and regional bias, I usually punt and focus on a couple of general tricks that seem to bring best results for nearly any kind of pizza dough.  The two most valuable tricks, in my opinion are, one, to crank your oven up as high as you can get it and, two, to make your dough at least one day ahead. The reason for the first suggestion is pretty simple: the faster you can bake the pizza, with both the crust and the toppings finishing up at the same time, the more moist and creamy (yet snappy) your crust will taste. Of course, if your oven is generating too much top or bottom heat and only half of the equation gets baked before the other half, all bets are off. Or, you may have to make some adjustments as to which shelf you use. Baking is a balancing act between time, temperature, and ingredients and it's usually possible to fix an uneven bake by simply adjusting one or more of those cardinal points. In most cases, it's usually the shelf but sometimes its too strong a convection.

But first you need a good dough and next week I'll provide three master recipes for pizza doughs based on my book, American Pie: My Search for the Perfect Pizza. But, in the meantime, assuming you already have a dough recipe that you like or want to improve upon, perhaps from another source, the first change you can make, if you haven't already, is to make the dough the day before (or, at the very least, early in the morning that you plan to make the pizzas). A few years ago very few people knew about this trick and most cookbooks provided recipes that treated pizza dough just like sandwich dough: mix, rise, shape, and bake. This made dough for pizza but, sadly, not for memorable pizza and, as our regular readers know, this site is all about shooting for great (i.e., memorable) pizza experiences.

This little trick begs the questions, why make the dough so far ahead? Why does it make better pizza? If you haven't asked these questions and are just taking my word for it, then I have failed you because another of our goals here is to explore how to cook, not just how to follow a recipe. What I mean is that ingredients have a certain functionality as well as having flavor, and the difference between a real cook and a recipe follower is that the former, after following recipes for awhile, develops an intuition about the functionality of ingredients so that you can cook without recipes because you know what the ingredient, or the technique, provides to the process. Sometimes, it just takes one piece of new information to trigger that aha moment in which everything becomes clear, as if for the first time. Making dough ahead of time is one of those pieces of information and I'm going to tell you why and, if you don't already know what I'm about to say, this may change your baking ability forever:

Flour consists of mostly starch, with some protein and a small amount of minerals and enzymes. Starch is, when push comes to shove, just sugar -- that is, it consists of complex weaves of various sugar chains such as glucose, fructose, maltose, dextrose, and the like,  that are so tightly woven together your tongue can't access the sweetness, and bacteria and yeast can't get to the sugars to ferment them. Fortunately, the amylase and diastase enzymes that also exist in the grain (and sometimes additional enzymes are added at the mill in the form of malted barley flour), act upon the starches and begin to break off some of the sugar chains, especially the glucose and maltose, and free them up for the micro-organisms to feed on, and also for our palates, and also for the oven to caramelize them when they bake. But it takes time for all of this to happen, at least 8 to 12 hours, so the refrigerator becomes our friend, slowing down the rate of fermentation so that the yeast (and, to a lesser extent, the bacteria) don't digest all the newly available sugar threads but leave some behind for our tongues and for the oven. The colder the dough, the slower the rate of fermentation and also the enzyme activity. If we hit the balance point just right, by the time we bake the pizzas (and also breads, to which this technique can be applied, as I show in my book, "Artisan Breads Everyday"), we can produce the most beautiful golden crusts (caramelization of the sugars), and the sweetest, nuttiest tasting crusts due to the acidity created by the fermentation, and the deep roasting of the protein threads caused by the high heat, as well as the remaining sugar threads still remaining for our own pleasure.  It's all about hitting that balance and, fortunately, while it is science, it is not rocket science and most of the work is done for us by the use of refrigeration and letting the ingredients work it out for themselves.

Next week, three pizza dough recipes.



#1 Jon 2012-06-15 07:32
Peter, your description of the metamorphosis of pizza dough as at matures overnight just about brought tears to my eyes. It certainly made me hungry.

I had been tinkering with my pizza recipe for years, and I just couldn't get it to turn out how I wanted until my wife bought me The Bread Baker's Apprentice for Christmas a couple years ago. My pizza went from pretty good to downright awesome, and I owe it all to you.

As you said, the two biggest changes were to make the dough the night before, and to crank up the heat in the oven.

I think I'll make up some dough tonight, and enjoy some pizza goodness tomorrow.
#2 Peter Reinhart 2012-06-15 17:43
Thanks Jon! Yes, I think those two tips are about the most important ones in my arsenal and they have changed my life too. Of course, many pizzerias already use the overnight method, most do, but it took me a long time to figure out why it makes a difference -- and what a difference!
#3 Andy Trottier 2012-06-16 13:15

Great post, I have been using the refrigerated fermentation method since 2003, when I bought American Pie.

The winner of the pizza competition at the 2012 Int'l Pizza Expo was from Italy and said he uses a three day refrigerated fermentation. Would that be better?

In Stan Ginsburg's, A Tale of Two Flours he mentioned the VPN requires individual dough ball fementation as opposed to bulk fermentation. You have not mentioned this practice, I have been experimenting with it for a month and am uncertain it makes a difference for me with King Artuer UAP flour. How would this enhance the crust?

Keep up the good work.

Many Thanks
Andy Trottier
#4 Peter Reinhart 2012-06-17 19:19
There are so many ways to ferment dough that I don't believe you can say one is the absolute best method. Sometimes, when a dough is bulk fermented first before it is divided you end up over fermenting it if you don't watch it carefully (but then again, this bulk rise can be also be controlled by using less yeast -- like I said, many ways to get to the mountain top). In the end, it still comes down to proper fermentation and enzyme activity in relation to the type of flour you are using. There is no rule that covers every type of flour other than to find the right balance of time and temperature for that particular flour. That's what makes it a craft and not just simple following of a recipe. The recipe just gets you into the ballpark -- the rest is up to you.
#5 Dave Adams 2012-06-26 16:15
Thanks Pete

Have always had the oven cranked up 280-300 celcius and making the dough about 4-5 hours before making pizzas. When does the dough go into the fridge - after the first kneeding or the second. Would like to try.

#6 julia stutz 2012-06-27 06:10
When making a larger batch of dough (I have a 30 qt mixer) do I need to increase the mixing and resting times?
#7 Pat Collins 2012-06-27 08:51
Thanks Pete.

I lived in Italy for six years (in Abruzzo) and learned this technique there. In fact, most good restaurants have three batches of dough going: oggi, domani and dopodomani (today, tomorrow and day after tomorrow). So the dough rises over two nights.

In addition to the taste and texture, dough allowed time to properly rise is also easier to digest, something the Italians take very seriously. Anyone who has eaten a lot of "rushed" pizza and a couple beers knows how it can be.

Dough is finicky ... no one method will be perfect each time. Ambient temp, humidity, quality of the yeast, etc, etc all cause variation from one batch to another. Just like wine, if it was exactly the same every time, it would not be as fun.
#8 Peter Reinhart 2012-06-28 05:00
Couldn't have said it better myself -- that's great info about the oggi, domani, and dopodomani. I hadn't heard of that before. Thanks Pat!!!
#9 Andy Trottier 2012-07-03 11:44

When you were in Abruzzo, did the dough bulk ferment or ferment in individual balls for two nights?

#10 Pat Collins 2012-07-03 16:57
I only had "behind the scenes" experience at one restaurant, and they divided the dough on the day before it was used. In my experience at home, I have started the dough the day before in bulk and let rise overnight at room temp. Then in the morning, punched down, formed balls and let rise in the fridge until evening. Usually turns out great.

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