Food & Ingredients

In Lehmann's Terms: cornmeal use and the art of undermixing

QUESTION: I am new to the pizza industry and have seen that cornmeal is occasionally used on the bottom of some pizza crusts, but not on the bottom of others. Can you explain why?

ANSWER: Cornmeal has been traditionally used on pizza crusts as a slip, or release agent to allow the formed dough piece (crust) to be easily slid from the pizza or oven peel onto the deck of the oven for baking. However, with the ever-increasing popularity of the new, conveyorized ovens, the use of corn meal is becoming less and less. The main exception to this is in the use of wood-fired ovens.

Wood-fired ovens are essentially a look back in time. They make pizzas the old fashioned way and require the pizzas be peeled into the oven; hence the need for cornmeal. There are also a number of pizza bakers who still use the traditional deck ovens to bake their wares. While not everybody uses cornmeal in combination with a deck oven, some operators choose to bake their pizzas on a screen, pan or even on special baking paper. The use of cornmeal still has a strong following among users of deck ovens.

When cornmeal is used, a good deal of it will be lost in the oven. It chars and must be regularly removed from the interior by using an oven rake (to loosen adhering particles from the deck surface) or an oven broom (used to sweep away the residue cornmeal from the oven's deck surface). If the cornmeal isn't removed in a timely manner there exists a possibility that it might ignite and create a fire hazard.

Because of this potential fire hazard, the use of cornmeal has been primarily at the pizzeria level. One of the more current reasons for using cornmeal is to produce a pizza crust on a high speed, automated processing line, which possesses at least one of the dominant stereotypical characteristics of a pizzeria pizza.

We are finding a growing use of cornmeal in some of the most current offerings from the wholesale pizza industry. In addition to providing the appearances of a pizzeria pizza, the cornmeal also imparts its own unique flavor, even when charred.

So, how does the wholesale pizza industry get all of that cornmeal through their ovens without having it get all over the place, or worse yet, start a fire? The answer is simple. Some manufacturers simply put the cornmeal into their dough, rather than onto it. This way it can't fall off the crust and create problems. But at the same time, it isn't as visual so much of the perception is lost.

Then we have the manufacturer who does put the cornmeal onto the crust bottom where it really needs to be. Their way of coping with the problem is simple. They manufacture take-and-bake crusts, or oven-rising frozen pizzas. In both cases, the cornmeal serves its purpose very well and at the same time does not present a significant problem to the consumer, as the consumer's home oven is easily cleaned out with the wipe of a damp towel.

QUESTION: Why is it that pizza doughs are usually under-mixed, as compared to bread doughs which are mixed to achieve a high level of gluten development?

ANSWER: The mixing of a dough is a means of developing the gluten forming proteins present in the wheat flour into the somewhat sticky, elastic material that we call "gluten". As the gluten is developed, it first becomes somewhat sticky and then it begins to lose its stickiness and becomes more elastic in nature. It is at this stage of gluten development that the dough can be stretched between the fingers to form a thin film. It is also at this stage that the dough is most resistant to any change in its shape due to the elastic character of the gluten. If we were to mix a pizza dough to this stage, it would tend to be rather difficult to form the dough to the desired shape. The dough would want to snap back to its original shape (possibly a dough ball?). Does a dough that shrinks in size or is difficult to form sound familiar? Many of us have experienced this problem more times than we care to admit I am sure.

However, if we stop mixing before the gluten is developed to the point of being elastic the dough will be much less elastic and easier to form. The only drawback to this is that the crumb structure will not be as fine and cake-like. Hey, who wants their pizza crust to have a cake-like appearance anyway? That open-crumb structure gives our crusts that hand-made and pizzeria appearance that we so dearly want.

So, what happens if you continue mixing the dough beyond the elastic stage? In this case, the dough now begins to loose its elasticity and is more easily stretched to form the shape. However, the dough is also softer and generally a bit more sticky, or tacky, making it more difficult to handle without the use of dusting flour. This isn't a problem in bread production since dusting flour is a common part of the make up of bread. Additionally, the bread dough will be sheeted to size then molded to shape and then possibly placed into a pan for shape retention until the dough can be proofed and baked.

In pizza production, the dusting flour may be objectionable due to its appearance on the crust surface and the soft dough characteristic might create problems with handling the formed crusts while trying to retain their round shape.Just remember: keep your pizza doughs on the under-mixed side and you shouldn't have any problems with dough forming.

QUESTION: We have noticed that our pizza sauce seems to have a much better taste if we cook (simmer) it for several hours before using it on the prep-line, but we don't see anyone else doing this. Is there a problem with cooking our sauce before using it?

ANSWER: A cooked sauce does taste better than an uncooked (cold process) sauce. But, before you make a firm decision to go with the cooked sauce you should be aware that there are some potential problems with cooking the sauce before use. First, there is always the chance that the sauce will be accidentally scorched during the cooking process, thus ruining the flavor. Then there is the possibility of dehydrating the sauce during cooking. This can lead to scorching of the sauce, especially around the edge of the pizza during the final baking. And lastly, there is a potential microbial issue. Once you have cooked the sauce it must be cooled down, quite rapidly, to 40F or below for storage either in your cooler or on the prep-line. Rapid cooling of a large quantity of sauce is generally difficult to achieve on a consistent basis with the equipment that we have available in a typical pizzeria. My advice is to play it safe and don't pre-cook your sauce unless you absolutely have to. Then, be sure to keep an eye on that cooking pot and watch your temperatures during both cooking and cooling.

If you're into serving pasta you can produce a very acceptable pasta sauce by merely cooking your regular pizza sauce to develop the full flavor before it is added to the cooked pasta dish. However, as many of us do, it is usually customary to add a little extra flavoring to the pasta sauce to distinguish it from the pizza sauce.

Tom Lehmann is the Director of the American Institute of Baking in Manhattan, Kansas