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The Pizza Lab: How to Make Pizza Bianca at Home
It's time for another round of The Food Lab. Got a suggestion for an upcoming topic? Email Kenji here, and he'll do his best to answer your queries in a future post. Become a fan of The Food Lab on Facebook or follow it on Twitter for play-by-plays on future kitchen tests and recipe experiments.
There are some folks out there—some call them purists, I call them nuisances—who are pizza prescriptivists. These are the folks who'll tell you that, say, Chicago deep dish isn't pizza, or that if it doesn't have cheese or sauce on it, it can't be pizza. Or that pizza is always round, or that if it's not made with DOP tomatoes, it ain't the real deal.
These folks are, of course, all wrong. For if lack-of-depth, Italian tomatoes, round shape, and cheese were all requirement for pizza, then vegans (like my temporary self), Chicagoans, non-Italians, and those suffering from elipsaphobia would not be able to eat much pizza. And according to my moral philosophy—let's call it pizzism—any set of rhetoric that results in less people eating pizza must be fundamentally flawed at some level, most likely a very deep one.
Pizza need not have sauce or cheese in order for it to be insanely delicious. Exhibit A: Pizza Bianca. The long, flat, lightly dimpled, flecked-with-coarse salt, crisp-on-the-outside, just barely chewy bread sold by the square in Rome (or Sullivan street, if you prefer). Jeffrey Steingarten wrote at length about finding the perfect slice of pizza bianca at Forno, a bakery in Rome's Campo de' Fiori. I've been there. It's f*&king phenomenal (just ask Ed—he tasted pretty much the whole menu last May. My goal this week at The Pizza Lab is to bring some of that crisp, chewy, olive-oil soaked magic into my own kitchen.
At first glance, pizza bianca looks pretty similar to certain types of focaccia, the olive-oil laden Italian bread, but the similarities are mostly superficial. Focaccia is made with an enriched dough—it has oil in it—which gives it a moister, softer texture with far less chew than pizza bianca, which is made with a lean dough.
If you actually take a look at how the suckers are made, you'd notice an even bigger difference: While focaccia are baked in a pan, pizza bianca are baked directly on the floor of the oven, much like a neapolitan pizza. The pie-men (is a pizza bianca still a pie?) will stretch the dough out to a length of about six feet on top of a monstrous paddle before dimpling it with their fingers to prevent large bubbles from forming (a major defect, according to Sullivan Street Bakery's Jim Lahey). It gets drizzled with olive oil and sprinkled with salt, then folded up accordion-style before being inserted deep into a 500-600°F oven and stretched back out with an agility that'd put WilyKit and WilyKat to shame.
While large, cavernous bubbles that char are considered a defect in pizza bianca, you still want an extremely open, wide hole structure in the crumb. The holiness of bread is pretty much directly proportional to the amount of water you add to it. Adding more water to your dough works in two ways:
- It adds more steam. When your dough goes into a hot oven, you probably notice that it expands significantly. This is due in large part to the conversion of water to steam within the bread. More water = more bubbles = airier, bubblier bread.
- It makes your gluten network looser. Gluten is the network of proteins that develops in bread dough when you combine flour and water. This network, when cooked, firms up, giving bread its structure. For optimal bubble formation, you want gluten that is very strong, yet very stretchy. Adding more water to your dough allows those bubbles to be stretched out extra-wide.
If you've followed The Pizza Lab thus far, you might remember a post in which I talked about hydration in the context of No-Roll, No-Stretch, Sicilian Style Square Pizza (and if you haven't followed, then read up!). In that post, I inadvertently managed to perfect a recipe for a focaccia-esque square pizza by adding a ton of extra water to my dough. While most pizza dough is made with a hydration level of around 65% to 70% (that is, the amount of water added weighs in at 70% of the amount of flour used), I took mine all the way up to 80%, producing a dough that nearly pours out of the mixer, yet bakes up into a supremely stretchy, light, and airy crumb.
In other words, perfect for pizza bianca.
With very wet doughs, I find that using the No Knead method is the easiest way to handle it. To develop gluten, you generally want to knead your dough to speed-up the linking process between the proteins in the flour. With the no-knead method, you simply stir together your basic ingredients (in this case bread flour, salt, yeast, and water), cover them, and let'em sit around overnight. During this time, enzymes in the flour get to work snipping up proteins and allowing them to easily link up to form gluten. An overnight rest also allows for time for some good flavor development as the yeast slowly digests the flour, creating a wide array of flavorful compounds.
While the pie-men of Rome might have the training and agility to deftly shuffle 6-foot long pizzas in and out of a hot oven, I'm after more modest goals here. A couple feet long is good enough for me. Yet because of its high level of hydration, I found it very difficult—nearly impossible—to slide a pizza off my wooden peel onto a hot pizza stone without deforming it in some way.
What if I used the focaccia method of letting the dough rise directly in a rimmed baking sheet which I could then transfer to the oven?
That method works, and it's really easy—I was tempted to sign, seal, and deliver this thing as-is, but it wasn't quite right. The problem is on the undercarriage which comes out with the fried texture of focaccia or Greek pizza, not the dryer floury texture of good pizza bianca.
Delicious, but not what we're after.
I tried letting the dough rise on a sheet of parchment paper, thinking this would make it easier to transfer it to the oven. Nope. Still too wet to move without difficulty.
Turns out the easiest way is to use a hybrid method: line a rimmed baking sheet with parchment and let the dough rise directly inside. When ready to bake, I can then simply transfer the entire baking sheet to a hot pizza stone.
With the high temperatures needed for baking (550°F, or the highest your oven will go), the parchment paper rapidly browns and threatens to burn.
I found that by allowing the pizza to bake for about 5 minutes on its parchment sling, it became firm enough that I could then easily slide the parchment out from under it to allow it to continue baking directly on the stone. This also helped the bottom achieve a nicer charred-in-spots color.
Ah, now that's more like it!
Unevenly charred, nicely floury, not fried at all, with an interior crumb that's chewy and full of holes and a crisp upper crust.
The only mildly difficult part of the recipe is working with such an insanely wet dough. Unless you're an experienced baker, I'm not going to lie—your first few pies will come out deformed and misshapen. The good news? Slice it up and serve it and nobody will be the wiser. Even deformed pizza bianca tastes awesome.
If you're the type who likes rosemary, you could sprinkle a bit on top before baking along with your coarse salt. It would not be an insult to tradition. Then again, if you're the type who likes tomatoes and cheese or anchovies or thyme or gigantic slices of steak, you could also tell tradition to screw itself and follow the basic tenets of pizzism* to forge your own path towards that pie in the sky.
*There's only one commandment: thou shalt make every reasonable effort to increase the production and consumption of pizza in the universe.
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About the author: J. Kenji Lopez-Alt is the Managing Editor of Serious Eats where he likes to explore the science of home cooking in his weekly column The Food Lab. You can follow him at @thefoodlab on Twitter, or at The Food Lab on Facebook.