Toppings, cheeses and sauces have changed in myriad ways since pizza came to America, but not until the last couple of decades has anyone meddled with the crust. Now bakers are experimenting with multigrain crusts — both for flavor and health reasons — and customers have proven willing test subjects.

"I see a lot of interest in multigrain crusts coming on," said Peter Reinhart, chef instructor at Johnson & Wales University in Charlotte, N.C., and author of "American Pie: My Search for the Perfect Pizza." Interest won't last if the product's no good, Reinhart warned, even if it's healthful. "People will try something good for them once, but they won't return to it unless it has good flavor."

To accomplish that requires an experienced dough maker and baker. Whole-wheat flour, for example, requires much more water than white flour to yield a chewy bread. Therefore, incorporating it into a standard recipe can make the dough stiff if the baker isn't careful.

Reinhart said a ratio of 20 percent whole-wheat flour to 80 percent white flour is a good rule of thumb for an acceptable "whole-wheat" crust. But he's finding lots of breads made by skilled bakers who are using much more whole wheat flour and getting excellent results, including his own.

"I make a 100-percent whole-wheat focaccia that has phenomenal flavor, but the hydration is 96 percent, and that's difficult to handle," he said. "That's like a white-flour pizza dough at 75 percent hydration, which is very sticky. To do either takes someone who's dedicated to the craft of it."

A really good shortcut

Chris Presutti, sales manager for Tomanetti's Pizza, said sales of its parbaked multigrain crusts are rising steadily because pizza lovers want variety at this level, too. Still, it's neither simple nor sensible for every pizzeria to produce a completely different dough to meet what currently is a demand of a minority.

Having a ready-to-use shell at hand offers customers the options they want, while avoiding added headaches for operators.

Tomanetti's sells thousands of whole-wheat shells in gourmet and health-food stores in the western U.S. "It takes pizza to a different level and gives it a healthy look," said Presutti.

Presutti also said operators want to be able to offer multiple crust styles, yet again, without the hassle of reformulating their basic dough. Running a Sicilian pizza special for a limited time can be accomplished easily with a parbaked product. Since operators don't know how well it will do, they can meet demand easily with a shelf-stable product. And if the special doesn't fly, they simply quit using the shell.

Parbaked shells also work well for panini and focaccia, giving operators other opportunities to broaden their menus without deepening labor needs.

"If a new item doesn't work and they've used a parbaked shell, it's not something they've invested a lot of time in or spent money on equipment to do," Presutti said. "It's a really smart way of testing new items and saving labor."

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