We currently hand-toss our dough, but with new stores opening we want to automate our dough forming operation. What is the best way to form our dough so it still looks like hand-tossed?
The two best methods to use for a machine to produce a formed dough skin that gives a finished crust, which looks like a hand-tossed dough will be either hot-pressed or a modified sheeted/rolled dough. The hot press will do a very good job of producing a nice, open internal cell structure in the finished crust that looks a lot like that of a hand-tossed crust. The secret to getting the desired internal cell structure in the crust is in allowing the dough balls to proof/rise prior to pressing. Short rising times will produce a finished crust with a smaller, almost cake-like internal cell structure, while longer rising times will give finished crusts with a more open, porous internal cell structure. These rising/proofing times will range from 10 to 15 minutes on the short side to as long as 30 minutes or more on the long side. The exact time necessary for the desired porosity will vary with yeast level and finished dough temperature so a little experimenting will be in order.
When selecting a hot press, there are a number of options to choose from. Some will have temperature controls only for the bottom of the dough skin, while others will have temperature controls for both the top and bottom of the dough skin. Some will press out only a flat skin, while others will press out a skin with a raised edge. Some presses will have top die heads that can be easily replaced to produce a different size or shaped dough skin, while others may have only a fixed die head meaning that a separate press may be needed for different types of dough skins (for example, raised edge/no raised edge).
The reason why hot pressing does a good job of duplicating hand-tossed dough is that the process does not de-gas the dough like a typical sheeter/roller does. Hot pressing, in effect, only redistributes the gas cells/bubbles already in the dough so they are distributed fairly evenly throughout the dough skin. This is similar to hand tossing except that in this case the gas bubbles are not evenly distributed throughout the dough. Hey, I didn't say it was going to be exactly the same as hand-tossed.
Moving on, the other method for duplicating hand-tossed dough is to use a sheeter/roller. But wait; didn't I just say that a sheeter/roller degasses the dough? That I did, but this is a modified sheeted dough method that we are talking about now. This forming method is modified in that the dough piece is not sheeted out to the full diameter, but instead, it is sheeted out to approximately two inches less in diameter than desired, and the dough is stretched by hand to achieve the full diameter. While this is not a one-step forming method as the hot press is, it is a way of duplicating a true, hand tossed dough without the need to train employees in the skill of hand tossing dough. Also, if you are of marginal talent in the dough-tossing event, as I am, this is a great way to open the dough up with a uniform thickness and still get some of the showmanship of hand tossing. As a side benefit, I've found that I can train a person to hand toss using this method in substantially less time than I can train them to hand toss from a dough ball.
The reason why this method works well is because we are not using the sheeter to open the dough ball up to full diameter. Instead, we are just opening the dough ball up enough to allow for hand-tossing or stretching to the finished size. This does not severely de-gas the dough, and the greater thickness allows for the development of a substantial raised edge on the finished skin/crust if that's what you are looking for. By simply handling and stretching the partially sheeted dough closer to the edge, you can control the dimension of the raised edge. Like I said, this is a little more work than simply pressing a dough ball, but is also easier to master for new employees than fully shaping the dough by hand.
We would like to have a sweeter taste to our sauce but we have heard that adding sugar can cause the sauce to scorch during baking.
You are correct in your understanding that the addition of sugar to the sauce will increase the possibility of the sauce scorching during baking of the pizza. I've used fine grated baby carrots to sweeten a sauce with some success, but several years ago, when flavoring a sauce, I stumbled across something else that seems to work pretty well too. That is the addition of powdered Parmesan cheese to the sauce. Actually, I've started adding both Parmesan and Romano cheese to my sauce as a flavoring material, but in addition I've found that I was able to significantly reduce the perceived acidity of the sauce, giving it a smoother, sweeter taste. This all makes sense as tartness is the opposite of sweetness, and if you can reduce the perceived tartness (acidity) you underscore or enhance the sweetness perception. With the addition of powdered cheese to the sauce, we have not observed any increased tendency for the sauce to scorch so that is no longer a problem. The amounts of powdered cheese to be effective in this regard are 1.25 ounces of Parmesan and 0.5 ounce or Romano cheese per #10 can of tomato product.
I've heard you recommend that the yeast not be put into the water with the salt and sugar, why is this?
Both salt and sugar can exert a great osmotic pressure (they impede the ability of the yeast to absorb nutrients through the yeast cell wall/membrane). This effect can impair the ability of the yeast cells to feed, and under certain conditions (high salt and sugar and little water) it can actually exert a very damaging, evicerating affect upon the yeast cells where the liquid contained within the yeast cells is pulled out into the salt/sugar water. If this isn't bad enough, contained within that liquid is the amino acid, glutathione. Glutathione is very similar in its effect upon dough as is L-cysteine, the active ingredient in many dough-relaxing agents such as PZ-44. So, by mixing your yeast, salt and sugar together in the water you stand a good chance of impairing the ability of your yeast to function at its best plus you also stand a chance of possibly getting a softer dough than you had bargained for if any glutathione should be leached out from the yeast cells. This is why we like to "play it safe" and recommend that the yeast always be kept separate from the salt and or sugar until they are all incorporated into the dough. The only real exception to this is in the case where active dry yeast (ADY) is used. In this case it is sometimes recommended that just a very small amount of sugar be added to the warm water in which the yeast is being hydrated/activated. In these small quantities, no harm will come to the yeast.