How to make pizza dough—without yeast – Science

When he was 25, materials scientist Ernesto Di Maio developed a yeast allergy and broke out in hives whenever he ate pizza, which was somewhat embarrassing for a son of Naples, Italy. “My wife loves pizza, and this sometimes creates tension on the night menu,” he says. Now, Di Maio can look forward to carefree dinners, for he and his colleagues have invented a yeast-free method of leavening pizza dough.
In a classically prepared pizza, as with most bread, yeast ferments and releases carbon dioxide to give the dough a foamlike consistency. Baking then drives off the water and locks in the airy texture.
Di Maio’s team at the University of Naples Federico II (UNINA) thought it might be able to produce the same effect in a different way: by infusing the dough with gas at high pressure and releasing the pressure during baking, adapting a method they’d developed to manufacture polyurethane. “The aim was to try to make the same texture that we love so much in pizza without a chemical agent,” says co-author and UNINA materials scientist Rossana Pasquino.
Whereas a traditional pizzeria kneads dough in the morning and lets it rise until dinnertime, the new procedure combines leavening and baking into a single step. First the scientists prepared a golf ball–size piece of dough using a standard Neapolitan recipe, minus the baker’s yeast. They placed it into an autoclave, a small pressurized oven about the size of a toaster oven. Through a gas inlet, they pumped in carbon dioxide, helium, or air, and brought the interior to a pressure as high as 10 atmospheres (about five times as high as in a standard kitchen pressure cooker) and a temperature of 150°C for 10 minutes.
The hard part was fine-tuning the pressure and temperature to reach peak foaming just as the dough is setting. Put simply, the researchers wanted the dough to foam like beer, not fizz and fade like Coke. “You have to reduce the pressure while it’s becoming solid,” Di Maio says. “If you are too late—you reduce the pressure after the dough is solid—then it cracks. … If the pressure release is too early … it collapses.”
To perfect the timing, Di Maio’s team had to characterize the material properties of pizza dough. “Dough is a complex mixture of different [polymer] chains that are entangling together and are creating a network,” Pasquino says. UNINA co-author Paolo Iaccarino, who works part-time in a pizzeria on the Amalfi Coast, took a thermometer to work one evening and measured the dough temperature in the wood-fired oven. Pasquino then reproduced these conditions in her laboratory to measure the dough’s rheology—its deformation under stress, the team reports today in the Physics of Fluids.
The end result: “We tried it, and it was nice and crusty and soft,” Di Maio says.
But does it taste like real pizza? Alessio Cappelli, a food technologist at the University of Florence, has his doubts. Though he says the paper is “interesting,” he wonders whether the method will be widely used in practice, given that baker’s yeast is so cheap and easy. “It looks like an innovation just for the sake of it.”
The Naples group will soon put its dough through additional taste tests. The researchers have bought a larger autoclave to bake a normal-size pie and are refining their method to create pizzas to individual taste—making the dough more or less chewy, for example.
Di Maio adds that the technique might even give rise to a decent gluten-free pizza. His team’s approach gives more control over baking conditions than other cooking methods do, which might let the researchers achieve the distinctive texture of gluten using other ingredients.
Neapolitans invented pizza, after all. So they want to make sure everyone can enjoy it.
George Musser is a journalist based in New Jersey and author of Spooky Action at Distance.
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