The crust — it's what holds a pizza together, gives it shape and life and delivers the harmonious combination of sauce, cheese and toppings to a welcoming palate.
Yet however simple it might seem to craft that base layer of pizza construction, figuring out the perfect balance of ingredients for a signature crust is hardly a straightforward process, especially for restaurant operators new to the pizza business.
Just ask the Doughminators. They've been filtering crust crisis situations for nearly 15 years for General Mills Foodservice.
There's hardly a bad dough scenario the three-man team has not encountered, said Doughminator Tim Huff.
"It's not uncommon to get a call from someone who has no history in the field, asking how to make dough," Huff said. "And what they think may be a short conversation turns into much longer one. I ask them to tell me what style of pizza they want, what flour they are using and if they ferment or fridge. I ask and listen and get a feel for how open they are for change."
Huff said the majority of calls to the group's toll-free, dough crisis hotline revolve around basic dough problems: The dough won't rise, it's too tacky, it snaps out of shape, it blisters in the oven — or worse, it has the dreaded, soggy "snot layer" lurking in the center.
These problems usually stem from three areas: The type of flour used to make the dough;the amount of water used to make the dough; and the temperature of the dough at the time it's prepared and cooked.
"To most people, flour is the white stuff in the bag, flour is flour," Huff said. "But flour really sets the structure for the pizza."
Huff said that for a New York-style pizza, for example, the thin, crispy, hand-tossed crust is achieved by using high-gluten, high-protein flour.
In contrast, low-gluten flour with a protein level of 10 to 12 percent is best for the stretch and texture of a Chicago-style deep dish crust, which is typically achieved by using all-purpose flour milled from winter wheat. For a Sicilian-style pizza, it's usually bread flour milled from spring wheat, Huff said.
Huff said a water issue is usually due to operators not adding enough of it. They tend to run their dough too stiff, causing the soggy snot layer.
The solution seems almost too simple: Add more water. Huff said with more water added, the dough becomes loose and gains air cell structure.
"It seems counterintuitive, but adding water to the dough causes it to bake more efficiently than a tight, dense dough would."
Huff said roughly 70 to 80 percent of calls tend to be about temperature-related problems with the dough, and that they tend to be twofold.
The first temperature issue can arise during the mixing of the dough.
"A lot of operators pay no attention to dough when their mixer stops," Huff said. "That is a critical temperature, as it sets the life of the dough."
Huff said the dough should be between 78 and 82 degrees when the mixing is complete. If it's too warm, the dough has the potential to blow up and it will exhaust itself. If it's too cold, there's no kick-start to the fermentation process. A longer, cooler fermentation in dough gives a more complex flavor in the crust.
The easiest way to achieve a targeted mixing temperature is to adjust the water temperature, Huff said.
"If you never adjust water temperature you will probably always get a dough that reacts very differently."
The next crucial temperature moment occurs at the time the dough is baked. Huff said that if dough is not more than 60 degrees it tends to blister in the oven.
The takeaway: Don't be afraid
While it may seem tempting from an operational standpoint to opt for frozen dough instead of battling the dough wars on your own, Huff said scratch dough is the key to a signature pizza.
"The value of making a scratch dough is significant," Huff said. "Don't be afraid to have your own recipe. It's truly not rocket science. Six ingredients — that's all it takes to make a signature dough. The value and ROI is worth it to have your own dough formula, and the customer will appreciate that value."