This November I spent 5 days in deep, intensive pizza education. I attended a pizzaiolo certification class led by Leo Spizzirri at the North American Pizza & Culinary Academy in Chicago. Before I go into details, I’ll just let you know up front that it was INCREDIBLE! I learned so much about the science of fermentation, preferments, dough formulas, oven operation, topping preparation, and beyond. It really was eye opening and my pizza is already way better than it was before.
Here are some highlights from the class…
We started every day at 9am in the classroom. Leo went over a pretty dense curriculum derived from the main school in Italy. Our first lesson dealt with the biology of wheat, the milling process, and fermentation basics. Subsequent classroom sessions concentrated on dough formulas, including calculations for preferments and water temperature control. This might sound strange if you haven’t made much bread or pizza, but some simple math could be the difference between good pizza and bad pizza.
After a couple hours in nerd mode, we’d head into the dough room for some practical work. Believe me when I saw this: the dough room is THE feature of Leo’s school. It’s climate and humidity controlled so he can match the conditions of any location. It’s useful for Leo’s consulting gigs because he can develop a dough method with accurate environmental cues. He also has a bunch of different dough mixers (fork, diving arm, planetary, spiral) so we were able to play with each and learn the ins and outs of each unit. This room alone is such an incredibly valuable learning tool for any pizza maker, amateur or professional.
Our initial lessons concentrated on direct method doughs but on Day 3 we jumped into the deep end of indirect method doughs, which include a preferment. The photo above is a finished biga. It’s a dry preferment that adds tons of flavor and structure to the finished product. The biga is made of flour + water + a touch of yeast. It sits out overnight to ferment and gets chopped up and added to the dough mix the next day. We played with a poolish, also made a day in advance with flour + water + yeast but at 100% hydration (same weight of water and flour). Two different approaches with completely different results.
Leo is all about technique but he ALWAYS includes an explanation of the science involved with each step of the dough process. There’s not a lot of gadgetry involved, but devices like this pH meter showed with hard numbers the chemical differences in different dough processes. In the photo above, you’ll see the poolish on the left and the biga on the right.
Beyond all the excellent science talk, the most valuable moments of the week were our pizza making sessions. Since we were in practice mode, we were able to criticize each other’s attempts. Had we been making pizza for customers, there wouldn’t have been time for that. In the photo above, Jon Porter (of Chicago Pizza Tours) inspects the bottom of his pie.
Leo demonstrates how the the windowpane test reveals an underdeveloped dough.
We practiced on four different ovens, including wood-fired, rotating floor, and electric. Each had its own pros and cons. The garage doors behind us in the above photo open to the street for Pizza Fridays, in which the class makes pizza for the neighbors.
I concentrated on making pizza marinara all week. It was pretty much my specialty. I figured it was worth concentrating on a really simple pizza so I could hone my skills before amping up.