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What Is Cold-fermented Dough, And Is It Worth The Wait?

What Is Cold-fermented Dough, And Is It Worth The Wait?

For backyard pizza cooks, learning to make the perfect pie can be almost as rewarding as taking the first bite of a pizza you've nailed. Since all pizzas start with dough, it's not long before the amateur pizza cook starts experimenting with making their own dough and seeing how it compares to their favorite pizzeria.

Fortunately, pizza dough is pretty basic stuff. Flour, water, salt, and yeast are all you really need to get started. But how you handle these ingredients can make all the difference between a boring, one-note pizza crust and one that sings along with a symphony of flavors.

Pizzerias making outstanding and flavorful dough often have one thing in common. They take time to allow flavors to really develop before stretching it out and getting it into the oven. The good ones may allow flavors to develop for 18, 24, 36, or even 72 hours before baking. This means they may have started making the pizza you're bringing home on a Friday night as far back as Tuesday to get these unique flavors.

If you've ever gone to a pizza restaurant known for being sold out on a busy night, this is a sign that you've likely found someplace special. You may think the restaurant is lazy or rude by turning away customers. But it actually means that the restaurant takes pride in its dough-making process. These places are pre-fermenting dough and whether you know it or not, they are doing you a great service in the process.

What is pre-fermenting?

Pre-fermenting is the process of allowing a portion of the dough to be made before making the final product. It's like applying a primer coat of paint to a room that needs a makeover. It will barely resemble the finished product, but you know it will greatly benefit the end result in the long run.

When you pre-ferment dough, it's like stretching and warming up your muscles before a good workout. The goal of a warm-up is ultimately to perform better. The same goes for dough. Pre-fermenting gives the dough a better texture. It develops more flavor than other methods and creates a complex aroma.

Think of pre-fermenting as pre-digesting.

Yeast and gluten are harsh things to digest and this process is essentially giving the dough (and your digestive system) a head start by beginning to break them down ahead of time.

Research is finding that it takes hours for the body to digest flour. Pre-fermenting can actually improve digestibility by allowing digestive enzymes to work with fewer interruptions than they would with dough without pre-fermentation (1).

It's a complicated way of saying that you're less likely to feel excessively bloated and sleepy after eating a pizza with pre-fermented dough than if you order pizza delivery from a national chain.

What are the most common types of pre-ferments for pizza dough?

There are a few different ways to pre-ferment dough and many variations on those methods. The three most common being Biga, Poolish, and sourdough.

Biga is an Italian method of pre-fermenting dough. Compared to other pre-ferments, the Biga has a drier and thicker consistency and shaggy texture. Made daily, it takes 12 to 16, or up to 24 hours to develop, making it ideal for pizzerias to make one day ahead of time. Every bakery or pizzeria using Biga will have its own methods but it's typically made from a 2:1 ratio of flour to water and only a few grams of yeast.

Poolish is a Polish method for making bread dough that combines equal parts of flour and water with a tiny bit of yeast. Unlike Biga, the poolish is extremely wet and resembles pancake batter. Poolish can be ready sooner than other pre-fermenting methods but is usually ready for use after 6-16 hours of fermenting or when it looks active and is full of small bubbles.

Sourdough may be the most commonly known name, made famous from baguettes and sandwich bread, but it's also the most interesting and complex of the pre-ferments.

Sourdough starter is made similarly to other pre-ferments with flour and water being the main ingredients, but the yeast comes from bacteria in the air. Sometimes called spontaneous fermentation, the flour and water mixture is left uncovered and will sit at room temperature in its earliest stages. Initially, it may not look like much, but after about 24 hours you will smell a distinctively pleasant aroma and see some small bubbles.

At this point the starter needs refreshing. The sourdough starter is refreshed by taking a portion of it and adding an equal amount of flour and fresh water to it. A common feeding method would be taking ½ cup of existing sourdough starter and adding ½ cup of flour and ½ cup of water. Measuring the ingredients by weight would be more precise.

With minimal effort, it can take up to 10 days to create an active sourdough starter from scratch. But once started, a strong sourdough will yield consistent results as long as it's fed regularly.

The sourdough starter is considered the longest of the pre-ferments but is also known to be one of the easiest to digest. The process not only releases nutrients and antioxidants, like other probiotics; the use of sourdough has actually been linked to creating a healthy gut. One bite and you'll be a fan of the distinctively sour tang and unmistakable crunch of the crust.

When you're ready to take dough making to the next level, consider spending extra time experimenting with a pre-ferment for your dough. Which one you choose is up to you, but you'll be able to taste the difference in your very first bite.

  1. Çabuk, B., Nosworthy, M. G., Stone, A. K., Korber, D. R., Tanaka, T., House, J. D., & Nickerson, M. T. (2018). Effect of Fermentation on the Protein Digestibility and Levels of Non-Nutritive Compounds of Pea Protein Concentrate. Food Technology and Biotechnology, 56(2), 257-264.

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