If you asked me about making my own pizza around this time last year, my response would have been something along the lines of “I deal exclusively in O.P.P. or Other People’s Pizza.” To be fair, I knew that pizza making would lead me down a strange and mysterious path that would exponentially grow my pizza obsession, for better or for worse. I had plenty of excuses but the real reason was simple. I was afraid. Dough is so simple to make, yet endlessly challenging because of all the variables associated with its production. But once you get your hands on a good batch of dough, you just never go back.
The point of no return for me came in the form of a pizza making class I took at Pizza a Casa in the Lower East Side. It amazed me by simplifying the entire process into a form that was – both literally and figuratively – digestible. Fast forward ten months and now I’m experimenting with different dough hydration and yeast varieties. I have become exactly what I was afraid of and I couldn’t possibly be any happier.
I’ve made good batches and I’ve made bad batches, constantly in search of the perfect crispy-chewy texture and a salty-smokey flavor. Some batches would have the flavor while others would have the texture. I felt like I didn’t have control of anything and my life was in a tailspin – until my pal Brooks showed up with a batch of dough and an Ischia starter. WHAT THE HECK IS AN ISCHIA STARTER? That’s easy. Yeast is a fungus that floats through the air looking for a nice place to live and sometimes people build little yeast traps and put the little guys to work. The “nice place to live” can be a grape skin or apple peel and the trap is a cup half filled with a mixture of flour and water. Once the yeast start moving into their new watery-floury home, they get “put to work” on the fermentation plantation, where they feed on the natural sugars released by the reaction of water and flour and produce carbon dioxide and alcohol.
See those bubbles in the cup? Those are the product of yeast burps! Anyway, this bubbling goo is your “starter” and the particular one I am using came from an island off the coast of Naples called Ischia. Hence, ISCHIA STARTER. You can make a starter anywhere and name it as you wish. There’s an amazing step-by-step guide to starter cultivation on Slice. DO IT!
So what do these yeasty creeps have to do with pizza? Yeast is necessary for fermentation, which results in the gassy leavening of dough as well as flavor development thanks to bacteria and alcohol. It’s very easy to open a packet of yeast and pour it into your dough, but natural yeast forges an even closer bond between pizzaiolo and pizza. It also gives you a unique flavor that is often more developed than commercial yeast. You use this starter in the same way that you use a packet of yeast, but the measurements are not the same. I experimented with a recipe Brooks gave me and ended up making three batches of dough, each having a different amount of dry yeast. Here’s the winning recipe, which gave us a perfectly airy crust with rick flavor and a good dose of crunch.
595 g flour (I used King Arthur All Purpose)
381 g water (I used cold tap water)
91 g Brooks’s Ischia starter
1.5 g dry yeast
12 g salt
Mix those and let it sit for 40 minutes so the flour can fully hydrate. Then knead the dough for about 4 minutes and let it rest for 5 minutes before one last kneading session of roughly 3 minutes. Separate into four balls and store in sealed containers (just like the first picture above) on the counter for about two hours, then refrigerate until you’re ready to bake.
You can use the dough after letting it sit overnight, but I left mine for just over four full days (about 100 hours). I let it rise at room temperature for about 5 hours prior to baking and they were extremely soft and gooey. My pies didn’t come out all looking picture perfect, but the flavor and texture is by far the best I have ever made. Here are a few selections from last week’s pizza session. I just wish you could bite into your screen.