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Fermentation

Posted on March 16, 2023

Dough Box from MFG TrayWhen asked how fermentation affects our pizza doughs, most of us follow the principles that longer times and cooler temperatures create a more flavorful crust. The go-to approach is to simply cold proof your dough–either in bulk or already shaped into balls–under refrigeration for a longer time.

Some sources call this step cold proofing, others call it cold fermentation. When the dough rests in the cooler — whether in bulk or divided and shaped into dough balls–the end result is that the longer the dough sits, the more flavor develops inside the dough.

But this is only the tip of the fermentation story.

The texture characteristics of your perfect pizza crust rely even more on proper fermentation. Aspects like crispness or how much rise you achieve in your cornichione, the Italian word for the edge or rim of the pizza, are directly dependent of the dough’s fermentation.

Adding larger air bubbles to your crust or getting a deeper flavor in your dough is always within your reach. But these goals can seem elusive because they’re actually at odds with each other.

FLAVOR v. TEXTURE

Flavor and Texture react differently to fermentation. Dough flavor improves with age–up to a certain point in time. There’s a lot of experimentation before you can find that ideal length of time that fits your own operation.

Texture also changes the longer the dough is cold fermented or cold proofed. The blistered airiness of the cornichione tends to diminish the longer the dough ferments. You’ve likely observed this in your own operation that too long a time spent in the cooler doesn’t always produce a more bubbly crust.

Fermentation is not a one size fits all application. You can achieve an airy, bubbly texture more easily from younger, less-fermented doughs. Complex dough flavor on the other hand, only develops as the dough ages, generally under cooler temperatures.

The Preferment

Introducing the Preferment. The hybrid method that does both–increases flavor and delivers a large-celled texture. The preferment builds a signature flavor profile for your dough but also allows you to retain more of the airiness that a short-fermented dough delivers. Used strategically, a preferment can also save you time and valuable refrigerator space.

The preferment is one of the most useful pages you can take from the artisan baker’s playbook. A simple mixture of flour, water, and yeast, it ferments for 12 to 18 hours BEFORE it is used to make your main dough. The go-to preferments are the Poolish and the Italian Biga. (A sourdough starter may also be considered a preferment, but for this discussion, we’ll omit it.)

The names of these yeast-cultured flour and water mixtures can vary. The Italian Biga and the Poolish are the most common. The thickness, or viscosity, of each type of preferment can also vary. Of the two the Biga is the thicker one, its texture is somewhat stiff and can feel more like an actual pizza dough. On the other end of the scale, the Poolish is highly fluid, it has a pourable texture not unlike a pancake batter.

No matter what the thickness of the preferment, it follows the principle that slow, preliminary fermentation brings more flavor and a more open crumb structure to your final dough. The key is in the hydration–the amount of water to flour, using baker’s percent. The average range is between 60% to 100%. With 60% hydration, a Biga is stiff; at 100% hydration, a Poolish is pourable and quite fluid.

You can modify just about any pizza dough formula using any type of preferment so long as you have a basic understanding of how and why it works. After all, before you stretch and top a pizza, it’s just a ball of dough like any other. Except for fats and sweeteners like olive oil and a pinch of sugar, every dough is simply a ratio of flour, water, yeast, and salt.

To learn more, there are a number of reliable resources from the artisan baker’s library. For a general introduction, The Italian Baker by Carol Field is as useful today as when it first helped usher in the artisan bread revolution in the 1980’s.

Using a Preferment in your Pizza Dough

Here’s a sample solution showing you how to modify an existing pizza formula so that it includes a Poolish preferment.

Let’s assume you’ve got a 40-quart mixer and you’re producing batch sizes of 24# of dough. We’ll start with a no-frills dough formula, but with a bit more water so the numbers are easier to work with.

STARTING FORMULA

IngredientsBaker’s PercentWeightPrefermentFinal Dough
(Original Formula minus Preferment)
Flour100%15#3#12#
Water60% (varies)9#3#6#
Instant Yeast0.75%1.8 oz0.5 oz1.3 oz
Salt2%4.8 ozno salt4.8 salt

 

The starting formula uses 15# flour. The percent of flour we take from this to use in the preferment is the baker’s choice, so it varies according to preference. Here we arbitrarily use 20% (one-fifth) of the total flour to make a Poolish. In this formula, that equals 3# of flour.

With a hydration of 100%, we need to add 3# of water to the flour. At this hydration, the mixture will have the viscosity of a thick pancake batter.

There’s usually no salt in a preferment, so the amount of yeast is much smaller than what you’d use in a straight dough made without a preferment. In baker’s percent, it’s usually between 0.1% and 0.2%. Continuing with the 3# of flour in our example, the dry yeast figures to be between 0.25 ounce and 0.50 ounce.

Mixing is straightforward. Temper your water so the Poolish has a temperature of 60℉ once it is mixed. Dissolve the yeast in the water and then add the flour. Mix until all flour is moistened, and the mixture is homogeneous. Extensive mixing is not necessary or beneficial.  At hydrations of 80% or higher, a preferment can easily be made by hand. Use a mixer with the paddle attachment for stiffer preferments with lower hydrations.

The Preliminary Fermentation

Transfer the mixture to a tub or pizza box, cover it loosely, and let it ferment until it has risen at least twice its original volume. Sixty degrees ℉ is a sweet spot for controlled fermentation. Twelve to 18 hours is average and it’s a reliable place to start when you decide to experiment with changing one of your doughs into an artisan version.

The aroma and flavor profile of your preferment–and correspondingly, your pizza dough–is determined by the time and temperature schedule you use for the preliminary fermentation. Here are some guidelines so you can experiment in achieving the flavor profile you are seeking in your pizza crust.

In the 55℉-60℉ range, the Poolish develops vegetal and fruit aromas and flavors. At warmer temperatures, the mixture ferments faster. In the 74℉-79℉ range, the mixture develops aromas and flavors like those found in fermented dairy such as sour cream or fresh cheeses.

When considering your toppings, you can tailor the flavor profile of your dough to best complement them. Vegan toppings have a more balanced flavor profile when the crust has vegetal notes that develop from cooler fermentation of the preferment. The toppings on a meat lover’s pie would be better balanced the fermented dairy notes that develop when a preferment has a warmer fermentation. Use these guidelines to experiment with fermentation temperatures and discover where the sweet spot is for your operation and your signature pies.

Here’s where MFG Trays really deliver on the preferment solution.

Their solid construction provides superior insulation, helping keep your preferment at a constant temperature. Our standard version provides even more insulation if the ambient temps in your shop are especially variable throughout the day. With consistent temperature you get consistent flavor and texture in your pies.

Using All Your Senses

As it ferments, the mixture will double or even triple in volume, corresponding to its hydration. A Biga will double in volume; a Poolish can triple in its volume. Make sure your fermentation container is large enough for the volume/weight of your preferment. MFG’s boxes–especially the deeper versions–provide a perfect place for your preferments. The following chart guides you in selecting the size container you need.

Visually, the preferment will fill with air bubbles, and you can see the protein network being stretched. It acquires the viscosity of a pastry mousse or culinary foam.  Meanwhile, the dough takes on a slightly nutty aroma, a slight sourness, and often a slight fruity note such as Green Apple.

The following day, combine the Poolish with the remaining ingredients according to the mixing and development procedure you use. Develop the dough as usual, keeping your times and temperatures the same. Continue as you would with bulk fermentation, dividing, shaping, and moving to dough boxes until needed.

By preliminarily fermenting a portion of the flour, the final dough has more flavor, more extensibility (for easier stretching). Compared to the same dough formula made without a preferment, modifying the formula to include a preferment delivers a pie with a complex flavor profile and an open-crumbed structure in the cornichione.

Saving Time is Saving Money

Let’s assume that in your current operation you transfer the dough balls to the cooler and let them cold proof from between 24 to 48 hours. Now that you’ve included the Poolish preferment in your dough, the dough balls are ready for use in a little as 4 hours. Bring them to ambient temperature before using, as you would normally. Count the time spent coming to proper temperature as part of the 4 hours.

MFG’s deeper dough boxes provide the solution. In addition to the standard 3” inch deep boxes, we have 4.5” and 6” depths.  Like the originals, these stack directly on top of all MFG 870 dough series boxes, lids, and heavy-duty dollies.

For bulk fermentation, the preferment can be stored in an MFG dough box. MFG can help you make the best choice for your operation. Here are some guidelines in choosing the size boxes for your operation.

depth                   capacity               recommended weight of preferment

3”                        4.2 gallons                    11#

4.5”                      6.5 gallons                    16#

6”                        8.5 gallons                    22#

 

In the earlier example, your Poolish weighs 6#. The ideal size for fermentation is the 3” deep dough box since it provides plenty of head room for the preferment to rise without spilling.

MFG Tray has developed a multitude of molded fiberglass trays, boxes and containers that help keep your dough fresh and flavorful. MFG Tray standard dough boxes are offered in three depths, 3″, 4.5″ and 6″. They’re available in multiple colors for dough rotation. Optional dollies are available for ease of transport throughout the operation during proofing or storage.

Be sure to check out our NEW selection of light-weight dough boxes. With less weight and the same strength as the standard composite trays, these are perfect for catering and mobile food service applications.

MFG can also design a customized solution for your production level. If you’re interested in learning more about what we do and our other food service solutions, head to our food service page or reach out today.

Our high-quality dough proofing boxes and trays provide trusted protection and make your prepping safe and compliant with food safety guidelines. With snap-on lids, you get a secure seal that prevents dough balls from drying or forming a skin during long-term storage in your cooler–perfect for Preferments. Especially in the deeper sizes, fiberglass pizza trays are more reliable for storing preferments in your operation.

The design of MFG pizza boxes allows you to stack them without worry of toppling, sagging, or breaking. In addition to dough boxes, MFG offers snap-on lids and dollies. MFG’s fiberglass pizza trays have demonstrated the long-term strength and durability to outperform and outlast plastic trays. And though plastic trays have long been an industry standard, they can throw a wrench in your process due to bending, denting, and sagging.

MFG specialists will be on-hand at the Pizza Expo in Las Vegas, March 28-30, 2023. Make sure to schedule some time with one of our experts to learn more about our trays and how they can help you achieve that signature pizza crust flavor and texture you’re after.

No matter what type of pie you serve–New York, Detroit, Chicago–a preferment can make a good thing even better.

Try it.

Ask MFG Tray today.

THE MATERIAL MATTERS

Leading manufacturer of high-strength, glass-reinforced composite containers, trays, boxes, flats and totes for material handling in the metal working, plastics and electronics assembly industries, as well as in food service, confectionery and pharmaceutical processing.

MFG Tray continually develops customized solutions for specific material-handling challenges and applications. Customers are encouraged to contact MFG Tray to discuss any unique handling and design requirements.

 

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