Day Three at the AIB ''pizza school'

Oct. 23, 2002

This is the third of four installments -- three lighthearted and one serious -- describing the five-day-long Practical Pizza Production Technology seminar at the American Institute of Baking. Click here to read Day One or Day Two.

MANHATTAN, Kan. -- Here's a recipe for fun: Give 30 adults a couple hundred dough balls, buckets of pizza sauce and boxes of cheese and toppings. Then tell them to top, bake and eat to their hearts' content -- or at least until the supplies run out.

Were there such a thing as playtime for pizza pros, this would be it.

The final six hours of today's nearly 10-hour session centers on testing and tasting the products we made the day before. Using four different oven types (deck, infra-red conveyor, and two conveyor-impingement models), we bake thin, thick and pan-style crusts and evaluate the performance of each.

Students learn that after a day's retarding time in the cooler, dough relaxes and becomes highly elastic.

It all begins with a lot of dough slapping, tossing -- and some dropping. (No bother. There are dozens more where that came from.) The thin crust pies are baked first, and their rising, browning and eating characteristics vary widely from oven to oven. The temperature on all three conveyor models are tweaked some to better suit the crusts, and another round of baking begins.

The first round of pies out of the deck oven is pretty good, though cooked somewhat unevenly. That initial load also drops the cooking chamber temperature so sharply that the oven doesn't recover quickly for the second cycle.

"One drawback to this deck oven is that it's electric," says Tom Lehmann, director of bakery assistance at AIB. "When you fill it up like that, you'll see bake times of 15 minutes. That will be a problem when your shop gets busy."

The infra-red conveyor also has problems, mainly with temperature and browning. The pizzas exiting the cooking tunnel are bloated, over-browned and suffer from high moisture accumulation on top.

Consultant Dave Ostrander blames some of the problem on over-proofed dough, and Lehmann says the moisture accumulation is a problem with infra-red ovens.

"It's nice that it's quiet because it doesn't have any fans," Lehmann said. "But those fans (in traditional conveyor ovens) go a long way to remove that moisture."

The first run of pizzas through the impingement ovens were a tad over-browned, but with some slight temperature alterations, the second try yields impressive results.

"No oven is perfect for every application," Lehmann says, "but it's hard to improve on the versatility of one of these."

He's right, but I'm left wishing there was a wood/gas-fired hearth oven on hand to make it a complete test.

Test taste

For two straight hours, fresh pizzas pour out of ovens all over the lab. Students eat whole slices of the first dozen or so baked, but once everyone realizes a long and varied number of others are yet to come, they start discarding each slice after two bites. The barely eaten pizzas look like the gleanings from a dinner table after a party for anorexics.

At wine tastings, participants battle palate fatigue, a dulling of the taste buds brought on by a mix of sometimes-disparate flavors and alcohol. The palates of those who taste too much pizza can become similarly fatigued, but the greater risk is mouth scorch. Eating a pizza right out of the oven -- which is far hotter than a delivered pizza -- means taking a bite of something that's about 160 F, well into the second-degree burn risk category. Cheese retains heat incredibly well, and that happens to be the first thing that hits the roof of my mouth when I eat.

Ouch. Not once, but many times.

Others tell me they're suffering from the same.

By about 3 p.m. the roof of my mouth is becoming numb and soft. Swelling, I figure out, has smoothed the skin behind my teeth.

Weird science

The cheese-powder-infused dough Lehmann made the day before is brought out for testing. A night in the cooler has done nothing to reduce its orangey glow, and murmurs of "Kraft Macaroni & Cheese powder" and "Pepperidge Farm Goldfish" move through the group.

Cory Albert, owner of Pizza A Fetta in Cannon Beach, Ore., documents which of a line of moisture-controlled, frozen vegetables he used to top his pizza.

Even after baking the color remains an orange not found in nature (a chef I once worked for called such hues "Sears colors"), and no one can detect any added cheese flavor.

This experiment earns a D -.

The afternoon ends with the group saucing, cheesing and topping several dozen frozen dough skins made the day before. The product we're using is a new line of moisture-controlled, frozen vegetable toppings. We're told the products perform better than more traditional individually quick-frozen (IQF) vegetables, which tend to release water upon baking.

And tomorrow, when we bake them, we'll find out if that claim is true.

Topics: Commentary , Dough

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