Everything You Need to Know About Kneading Dough
A great crust is the secret to great pizza. Crispy and deeply golden on the outside while being soft a chewy on the inside, it seems like an impossible combination of textures to fit into one thin layer of bread. This is accomplished through carefully balanced ingredients, carefully cooking the crust and lots of kneading the dough.
But why do we knead pizza dough? What does it accomplish? And how do we knead pizza dough properly? This guide will provide everything you knead to know!
Why Do We Knead Pizza Dough?
Kneading is the process of massaging or squeezing a substance, usually done with one’s hands. Kneading pizza dough has two primary purposes, mixing and gluten development. Mixing ingredients is easy to understand, so let’s start there.
Most baked goods should have a smooth, homogenous texture. Achieving this uniformity can only be achieved when dry and wet ingredients are thoroughly mixed. Flour doesn’t like to absorb water evenly – if you just dumped water on top of a bowl of flour, the water would only penetrate an inch or two without mixing. Thorough kneading ensures the flour is entirely and evenly hydrated.
But why do we knead pizza dough? Why can’t we just mix it together? We need to spend some time getting to understand gluten development.
What is Gluten? How Is It Related to Kneading?
While many know that gluten is found in wheat, few understand why it is so important in the texture and taste of food. Gluten is actually a class of protein. About 75% of the protein found in wheat is gluten, which means high-protein flours (such as bread flour) are often over 10% gluten by weight. The two main types of gluten are called “glutenin” and “gliadin.” When they are mixed, they create an elastic protein network. This is shown very clearly in a demonstration from America’s Test Kitchen.
Kneading dough allows the glutenin and gliadin to mix together and create bonds, developing the gluten network. Kneading maximizes the agitation but without breaking apart the gluten strands. As the dough is kneaded, it transforms from a shaggy, sticky mass into a springy ball.
An interesting point to note: oil can interfere with gluten chain development! Many pizza recipes use a tiny bit of oil in the recipe. While this does lovely things to the flavor and crispiness of the crust, the gluten structure will be less developed. This leads to a thinner, crispier crust.
Next, the dough is allowed to rise, a step where gluten and fermentation come together to create the soft, bubbly crust adored by pizza lovers.
Why You Knead Pizza Dough Before the Fermentation Step
To achieve a soft and pillowy pizza crust, you need to include a yeast fermentation step known as proofing. This needs to be done after the kneading step to get your desired texture. To understand why, you need to understand the role of yeast and how it interacts with gluten.
Most high-quality pizza doughs use yeast as part of the recipe. Yeast is a microorganism that digests sugar and turns it into alcohol, CO2, and various other chemicals that contribute to bread’s tangy flavor.
Yeast accomplishes a lot in baking, but here we are most interested in CO2. CO2 is a gas at room temperature, which means bubbles form in the dough as the yeast ferments. That CO2 is captured inside the dough, which causes the dough to increase in size. These air bubbles become the bubbles in the cooked pizza crust, giving the pizza its soft and airy texture. The gluten network traps CO2, which is why the kneading step must take place before the fermentation step. When the crust is eventually cooked, the bubbles expand to create air pockets, which carry on to the final pizza.
Note: some recipes include two fermentation steps, one which happens before kneading, and a second after kneading. The fermentation before kneading tends to be more responsible for flavor rather than texture.
How to Knead Pizza Dough
Kneading pizza dough can be done in various ways, depending on your equipment, your experience, and how lazy you are. Every method works on a similar premise – agitate and mix the dough, but without breaking up gluten strands. Each technique should give a similar final product, assuming it is done correctly.
How to Knead Pizza Dough by Hand
There are several ways to knead pizza dough by hand. Pick one that works for you and practice. Here are a few simple methods to get you started.
Press, fold, turn – place ball of dough on a well-floured surface. Push it out with the heels of your palms. Fold the top over the dough, and repeat. Then lift the dough, give it a quarter turn, and repeat. Keep this up for about 8-10 minutes.
Press, pull, scrap, and flip – place the ball of dough on a dry surface. Use one hand to push it out with the heel of your palm. As you pull your hand back, grab some of the dough and fold it back on top of the mass – this doesn’t need to be a full fold. Do this about a half dozen times, then scrape up any bits of dough stuck to your surface, and flip your dough. Repeat this for about 8 minutes.
Slap, fold, turn – pick up your dough, and slap it down on your work surface. Fold it over, give it a quarter turn, pick it up again, and repeat. This method depends heavily on your speed and strength, so it can take as long as 15 minutes.
In all cases, you can know for sure that your kneading is done when it forms a taut, supple, springy ball.
How to Knead Pizza Dough by Stand Mixer
What is the best way to knead your pizza dough without having to knead your pizza dough? Use a stand mixer! Dough hooks are a popular attachment that can be used to gently knead your dough. Add the ingredients, turn the stand mixer to its slowest speed, and let it run until the dough comes together. When the dough is ready, take it out, roll it into a tight ball, then get it ready for proofing.
It is also possible to use a food processor to mix and need your ingredients, though these are somewhat suspicious. Food processors tend to get hot, which could kill your yeast. This may be why some food processor recipes use ice water rather than room temperature water. Run the food processor until the dough comes together in a ball, take it out, fold it in on itself, and get it ready for the proofing step.
There are some recipes for kneading pizza dough in a blender, though I wouldn’t try them unless I wasn’t very attached to my blender.
How to Knead Pizza Dough at a Large-Scale
If you have ever made pizza by hand, you know it takes considerable elbow grease to knead pizza dough. Now imagine you run a pizzeria – how on earth will you knead and stretch dozens, if not hundreds, of pizzas a day?
In most cases, you don’t. Small-to-medium-sized pizza joints tend to use massive mixers for kneading their dough. These fundamentally work like a dough hook or a pair of hands that are gently working the dough. They allow you to make the dough for dozens of pizzas at once, though you will still need to portion out the dough, proof it, etc.
For pizza franchises, pizza crusts actually arrive at the restaurant frozen. They are allowed to sit in the fridge, where it thaws and undergoes a proofing step. When it is ready, it can be pulled out of the fridge, topped, and cooked. This approach will improve the consistency of the chain’s pizza.
Presumably, the pizza crust is kneaded at a factory before being sent to the restaurants. Some pizza chains may use fresh pizza dough, but the two most popular chains – Domino’s and Pizza Hut – seem to use frozen crusts.
Kneading is an essential step in the pizza-making process, but don’t let that intimidate you! Take your time, practice, and you will be handling dough like a champ before you know it. Even if you don’t plan to cook pizza yourself, you can at least appreciate the intricate science behind a centuries-old baking technique.