Sunday, May 6, 2012

50 Shades of Grey In Mark Bittman’s Pizza Recipe

A couple of weeks ago, the NY Times food section was devoted to pizza and there was a basic pizza dough recipe by Mark Bittman. I’m always in the market for a new one, so I took a look. At first I thought it was similar to a recipe I usually use, except there was no sugar - not even a 1/4 teaspoon to help the yeast along. But as I started to follow the recipe, more and more issues began to come up.

Bittman throws everything in the food processor, which is fine, but that includes the DRY yeast. In other words, he doesn’t proof his yeast, which is one of my guiding principles in dough-making.

The dough ingredients in the food processor
I ALWAYS proof my yeast. It doesn’t make sense to me to skip that step and risk wasting perfectly good flour and good olive oil (or GREAT olive oil, if you’re lucky enough to have it) on the chance that the yeast turns out to be flabby. 

No matter what the recipe says, I always measure out ½ cup of water, stir in ¼ teaspoon of sugar and then sprinkle the envelope of yeast over. I make sure each grain makes its way under the water. I leave it to sponge for 5 or 10 minutes, which gives me the peace of mind that so much else in life doesn’t! So WHY oh WHY doesn’t Mark Bittman proof his yeast?

I decided to cede control (for once) and do what Bittman says.

WAIT, sorry, the title of this post notwithstanding, this is NOT a closeted reference to anything other than cooking! Anyway, I closed my eyes and added the dry yeast, WITHOUT any proof of its viability, to the flour and salt in the processor.

Poor, uncared for yeast... 
Another concern I had was that there was no mention of water temperature. I decided to take a deep breath and try to be easy going about that too. I ran water straight from the tap into the measuring pitcher. I felt it. It was cool. I was about to pour it in and…I just couldn’t bring myself to do it. I poured out THAT water and measured warm (to the touch) water to add to the flour mixture. Some things are just so ingrained…

Oh, there was ANOTHER thing about the yeast. The recipe says to use 1 teaspoon of yeast or 2 teaspoons if you want things to go a little faster. Why is this a problem? A packet of yeast contains 2 1/4 teaspoons and just what exactly are you supposed to do with the extra yeast? 

I know myself well enough to know that I am NOT going to bother to measure out a teaspoon or two and then carefully close up the packet to keep the extra yeast fresh. I'm just going to use the entire packet. And no matter what the recipe says, I figure that a packet will work just fine, since it has the 20 million other times I've used 1 packet of yeast to 3 cups of flour.

I processed the ingredients for 30 seconds as Bittman said.

THEN he adds yet another questionable step to the finished dough. He has us wrap the ball of dough in plastic wrap and tells us to let it rise THAT way. WHY?


Isn't wrapping it up tightly going to inhibit the freewheeling nature of the yeasty molecules, striving to be set free and puff up and out? After a lot of internal conflict, I followed that step too, as written.  
Letting the wrapped-up dough rise
Pizza dough after one hour of rising

The rest of the recipe posed no problems. (Of course, I was almost at the end.) I like that Bittman mentioned pre-baking the crust if you want more crunch. I almost never DON’T do that. I throw the pizza dough on my stove top grill, but baking it in a hot oven before you add the toppings would be okay too.

Dough punched down and ready to be rolled out
So at the end of the day, how was his pizza compared to the ones I usually make? Was there a huge difference? Do my picayune precise steps make a vastly superior pizza dough? 

Not really.

I wish I could say that Bittman’s dough ended up as flat as a pancake from the lack of testing the yeast. Or that the rising went badly because of the plastic wrapped ball of dough. But none of that happened. The dough was similar to what I usually make. Not better, but not in any way worse. So I guess I like his recipe just fine, but I can’t see myself being as freewheeling as Bittman and ditching the proofing step.

Unbaked Pizza with Fig Jam
Baked Pizza with Fig Jam
Unbaked Pizza with Tomato Sauce 

Baked Pizza with Tomato Sauce
I do realize that Bittman was writing the recipe in a kind of easy breezy way, so as not to intimidate his readers. He just wanted folks who normally don’t make pizza dough to see how easy it is. He wrote the recipe so they could just put everything in the food processor and get it done in 30 seconds.  I appreciate what he was trying to accomplish, but it’s just not in me to be so cavalier. I like shortcuts as much as the next person, but the particular one involving the yeast is far too extreme for me.

It’s amazing how many issues come up with a single recipe. I guess that shows just what a serious business cooking me, at least. And it also shows that I, apparently, have a lot of rules in the kitchen. And when they’re tested or questioned, it makes me a squirm a little.

You know a few of them – always cook warm spices in the onions and oil BEFORE adding any liquid. Never add salt to beaten egg whites. In most cases, toast nuts before using…Stuff like that. And when it comes to yeast, I have a few “guidelines” from which I never stray like Bittman the first two lines of his recipe.  

Change is good, I guess, but there has to be a good reason for it. And I have no clue what the reason is for not paying adequate attention to the poor little yeast before it meets its pizza dough accomplices.


IndianaAnna said...

I read recently that proofing yeast is no longer necessary because the yeast available nowadays almost never fails.

Sue said...

Hi Indiana Anna,

I agree that usually, there's no problem. BUT "almost never fails" isn't good enough odds for me. Plus the efficacy of the yeast is also dependent on how it's stored and when you bought it. And another reason to dissolve it in water first is that it is more evenly distributed in the dough.

Anonymous said...

I guess MB buys his yeast in a jar or at least in greater quantities than packets, but you're right, most people will just use a packet of dry yeast. I don't think you need to worry about dispersing it with this recipe, though, because of the food processor mixing. (I have to admit I use SAF instant yeast in a 1-pound brick package and as long as it's before the use-by date I don't bother proofing it.)

The Short (dis)Order Cook said...

My diet has left me so pizza-deprived that just the mere mention of the stuff sends me into a frothing frenzy. I'm sure you could tell me this dough is terrible and I'd still want it (on the good side, I'm down 15 pounds, so life isn't all clouds and dog poo).

Sue said...

Good point about the food processor mixing it well. It still gives me a feeling of unease, though. I kept checking the dough to see if it was really rising. Unproofing is just too much stress for me.

That's amazing. Who needs pizza when I'm sure you're looking so great??! (Not that you didn't before by the way...)

Anonymous said...

Also, I remembered how much the food processor heats up dough -- so starting with cooler water is probably a plus, that way the dough doesn't get too warm by the time it's all mixed up. Or maybe that's just a problem for bread dough. I always heard (maybe it was Rose Levy Beranbaum) that you don't want the dough over 80 degrees F because it will develop off flavors.

Emily said...

I wish this recipe had been the best pizza crust you'd ever eaten. At least it worked! I've had trouble in the past with old yeast I just purchased from the store.

I always thought you didn't have to proof the rapid rise yeast and and you did with active dry. But it couldn't hurt! Better safe than sorry.

DanM said...

The recipe calls for instant yeast instead of active dry. I've heard that instant does not need to be reactivated the way active dry does. Does that explain the cool water maybe? Also, the small amount of yeast just varies the rising time. In "no-work" bread, there is a minimal amount of yeast but about 12-18 hours to let the dough double.

Sue said...

Hey Em and Dan M too,
Yeah, the rapid rise yeast is supposed to work without proofing. In fact, to me, that's absolutely no help. In fact, it's even worse. You still don't know (for sure) if you have good yeast. So if you proof it, you risk ruining it and if you don't, you risk ruining your dough with dead yeast. Proofing regular active yeast is so much easier and, in the end, more worry-free.

And yes, the temperature of the water is not critical if you're not trying to get the yeast to bubble up and prove its worth.