There are so many different factors which can affect how homemade pizza will turn out, from how the dough is prepared, to the amount of toppings added, to the temperature of the oven, that finding a technique that works best for each individual kitchen becomes a practice in both repetition and experimentation. This week I decided to have a little fun testing one small, but important, variable in pizza preparation — how much water should I add to my pizza dough?
In bread baking ‘hydration’ refers to the amount of water relative to the amount of flour in the dough. For example if a recipe called for 100 grams of flour, adding 70 grams of water would make a dough with 70% hydration (7:10 ratio). This is relevant to pizza because varying the level of dough hydration directly affects the qualities of a finished crust. Too little hydration and the crust will be dense and dry, while too much water will result in a dough that is sticky, too fluid to shape and difficult to slide into the oven. In between those two extremes the general rule is that increased dough hydration results in better oven spring, a more open, airy and porous (bubbly) structure, and crispier crusts. Through a little trial and error anyone can find the perfect water-to-flour ratio for their own homemade pizza dough; the hydration Goldilocks zone, if you will.
The style of flour used is a primary factor in determining what hydration is necessary for the perfect pizza crust. Depending on how they are created, variety of wheat and the fineness of the grind, different flours absorb water at different rates. This means that each flour variety (all-purpose, whole wheat, bread flour, etc.) may require a different amount of water to achieve the same degree of wetness in the dough. A low-absorption/high-protein flour like Italian 00 might require just 60% hydration to make a soft, pliable dough perfect for a bubbly pizza crust, while an all-purpose flour based dough might require 75% hydration to achieve the exact same result. If you’re interested, J Kenji López-Alt over at The Food Lab provides a really great primer on flour styles as they pertain to pizza crust.
Some flour varieties are more specific for pizza creation but, from the perspective of this blog, making higher quality pizzas at home for the non-specialist does not require the purchase of anything new or fancy. You can still achieve a great pizza crust using what is already have on hand:
- Italian 00 flour — try 55%-60% hydration.
- Standard all-purpose white flour — try 65%-70% hydration.
- High-gluten bread flour — try 70%-75% hydration.
- Or perhaps you’re into 100% whole wheat — try the 70%-80% hydration range.
Keep in mind these ranges are simply a place to start. The right hydration is what works best for you and you can determine that through simple testing. For myself, I use a locally grown and milled all-purpose flour from Wheat Montana that is around 13% protein. This is akin to an American brand, high-gluten bread flour and for that reason you’ll notice the hydration levels in this trial are on the higher end.
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I tested three different pizza doughs at 60%, 70% and 80% hydration. Each dough was mixed, kneaded, and set to rise for about 1.5 hours at room temperature before being transferred to the refrigerator for an additional 23+ hours cold-ferment. On the day of baking I balled each dough and set them on the counter to come back to room temperature before baking.
- 180 grams flour (1 cup all-purpose baking flour, ¼ cup white whole wheat flour)
- 10 grams olive oil
- 7 grams coarse-grain salt
- 2 grams yeast
- 108 grams water (60% hydration dough)
- 126 grams water (70% hydration dough)
- 144 grams water (80% hydration dough)
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The 60% hydration dough provided the most resistance when stretching into shape. The dough was firm and each time I stretched it to the diameter pizza I was aiming for the gluten bonds retracted and pulled it back to a smaller size. A perfect candidate for a rolling pin. Once baked, the crust was the densest of the three and was crunchy and crisp in the way a cracker is; because of this it was also the easiest to slice. The internal crumb had the smallest air pockets of my three pizzas but it was still pretty good to eat. The following morning when the pizzas were sampled cold, for those who enjoy a slice of pizza for breakfast, the density of the 60% hydration crust had toughened in a way that makes the jaw sore while chewing.
The 70% hydration dough was much easier to stretch using traditional hand-stretching methods. It also had the perfect amount of elasticity and firmness to enable dough tossing for anyone aiming to impress their dinner guests. When baked the results of this pie were far and away better than the 60% dough. The internal structure was light, bubbly and chewy and it retained that feeling right through to the morning after. Not at all hard to chew when cold.
The differences between the 70% and 80% hydration doughs after baking were not so dramatic as the change from 60 to 70% but they were still noticeable. The crust was slightly chewier and with larger internal air pockets. The undercarriage, or bottom crust layer, was crisp and firm enough to hold shape when lifting a slice with your hands while at the same time the internal crumb was bread-like in its softness. It was, however, also the most difficult of the three doughs to work with. Hand stretching was doable on the counter but the dough was too fluid to attempt tossing and, despite my efforts to combat its stickiness, I had a lot of difficulty sliding it smoothly off the peel into the oven.
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Many online pizza dough recipes suggest hydration in the range of 60% to 65% without ever mentioning the type of flour that is meant to be used. If we assume most people are working with all-purpose or bread flour then it’s highly likely such a hydration will produce a tough crust. When paired with the poor baking technique touted by those same recipes it’s no wonder so many first time homemade pizzas are bad. My personal favorite result from this trial was the lightest, chewiest pizza crust created by the 80% hydration dough but I’ll also admit that one was the most difficult to knead, shape, and get into the oven. If you have experience with wet doughs a super-high hydration can produce great results in a pizza crust but for everyone else it might not be worth the trouble. Based on this trial, using my variety of flour, the hydration Goldilocks zone is probably around 70% to 75%. That creates a perfectly light and bubbly crust while also retaining enough structure to make dough stretching easy enough for any home baker.
In measuring hydration ratios if you don’t have a kitchen scale to weigh your flour and water you can estimate the amounts using online conversion tools like Flour Weight By Volume or Water Weight By Volume