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July 17, 2017

Cale Weissman: The Mythos of Sourdough Starter

"Here you begin to see the mythos of sourdough. It’s not just about following the right steps to make a crusty loaf of bread—it’s about cultivating and maturing a substance that is a part of you. Stick your hands in some water and add flour to it. If it takes off, your bacteria is the stuff of future bread—bread that only you could have made, no matter how closely another person follows the same recipe."

I've said a number of times that there are no secrets in pizza making. There is however, the ability to have a starter that nobody else does. My own starter recently turned one year old.

January 2, 2017

A couple of tips for you, dear reader.

This is a large image, showing my hand and some questionable liquid.
This is a large image, showing my hand and some questionable liquid.

If you have a large mason jar (as seen above) it can be a time saver to add all your liquid soluble ingredients (water, salt, oil, yeast/starter, etc) into said mason jar, shake it all around, and then pour everything together on top of your flour before handing everything off to your mixer.

I first started doing this a few months ago when feeding my starter (but with smaller mason jars). I found the workflow of mixing old starter with 50% water, shaking everything up quite a bit so it's as above, and then stirring in my 50% flour to be a cleaner process. It also more evenly distributes the older starter among the new flour. Turns out it's also a great process for making dough.

OK, onto the second tip.

I found when hacking up my new oven that it was annoying to make pizza dough every other night when I wanted to test something out. Especially since I only wanted one or two pies for my tests.

Now, this isn't exactly new information (sorry). You can make your dough ahead of time, ball it up, put it slightly oiled containers (as seen above), then you can have "overnight" dough or even keep it a week or a bit more in the fridge. If you want to have pizza later on, you'll take your dough out ~12 hours ahead of time to give it ample time to warm up, activate, and raise. Then you get to have pizza. Yum.

OK now here's the new information.

Small containers are awesome if you don't have a lot of room in your fridge, but it can complicate things when raising. You'll notice in the above images that there isn't much room for the dough to expand. In fact, if you try to do that with the lids on, then you're going to blow them right off (because of expansion of the gas in the dough) and if you're not around to catch that, you're going to have funky dry dough.

Nobody likes funky dry dough.

Instead, you'll need to transfer it into a larger container or do something like this:

Containers in containers
Containers in containers

Since there's more room for expansion, and the lid of the outer container isn't super tight- things aren't going to explode and dry out.

But wait there's more.

Using the above technique, and using starter, I've found that I can even go 3 to 4 weeks with this dough in the fridge (this may or may not work with active dry yeast). But that 12 hour planning ahead kind of sucks. What if I'm really really hungry and I want that pizza an hour or two after removing it from the fridge?

This takes a bit more planning, but it's doable. Let your dough raise as described above, and still in the little container. Let it double in size so it raises just to the top of your smaller container, and then put the lid back on and shove it in the fridge.

When cooling down in the fridge, you're stopping (or slowing down by a lot) the activity which was raising your dough. It's frozen in time, just about ready to be put in the oven.

Then when future you is hungry you can pull your raised dough out of the fridge and just let it warm up. It'll still turn out great. Here's an example pie made just that way.

That's it! Except- Happy New Year. Let's make a lot of pizza in 2017.

January 2, 2017

You need to follow the link to read the whole image, but here's a neat passage from an unknown (to me) pizza book.

Profunctor Optics on Twitter:

"We wish someone sat us down, looked us in the eye and told us that before we went on this journey. There were a couple times when, propelled into a fit of rage, pizza peel thrown across the room, tomato sauce splattered against the kitchen floor, we honestly regretted ever even trying to make homemade pizza. The failure of a single pie extended to our entire existence."

Update: Apparently this is from

November 19, 2016

I bought a Waring WPO500 pizza oven for my birthday. It's a piece of junk, you shouldn't get one.

The elements are so weak that I was never able to get it up to its max temperature. There is no way to adjust the bottom heat temp versus the top, so you end with burnt pizzas on the bottom. And the amount of insulation it comes with is a complete joke.

I wasn't surprised though, I kind of figured this would be the case. My intention when buying this, was to beef up any insulation if it need it, add another element or two, and use my own stones in the oven. And that is exactly what I've done.

Pizza #3
Pizza #3

With my improvements, I'm seeing around a 30 minute warm up time and bakes that are a little less than 2 minutes. This is about double the amount of time it would take to cook my pizzas in Rocket, but they are still coming out great. In fact there's a certain… quality to the pizzas that I'm not quite able to put into words yet, but they seem to be coming out even better than they would in Rocket. I think it might have to do with using a more starter to get the dough going, but there's also a lot more volume in the oven chamber of the Waring oven, which might be contributing to the difference.

I haven't thought of a name yet, as it hasn't quite settled on a personality. But I'll keep on hacking on it, and eventually come up with something.

November 8, 2016

NPR: Discovering The Science Secrets Of Sourdough

"Those first bubbles were almost a revelation. A couple of days before, I had mixed together flour and water into a paste. But now pockets of gas percolated through that seemingly inert glob. It was breathing. It was alive.

"This gloppy mess, exuding a whiff of vinegar, was my nascent sourdough starter. When mature, it would be a pungent brew of yeasts and bacteria, a complex ecosystem that would hopefully yield delicious loaves of sourdough bread.

"As the microbes eat the sugars in the flour, they exhale carbon dioxide, producing the bubbles that turn a flat, dense loaf into something light and fluffy. A starter breathes life into bread. If the loaf is the body, the starter is the soul."

Over the years I've attempted to use starters for my pizza dough, without any success. I could get various starters going but the flavor it invoked just wasn't something I liked.

That changed this past summer, after chatting with some folks at the Del Popolo pizza truck. I asked if they added any yeast to their starter to help things out, and the answer was no. Do they sell it? Again the answer was no. But the guy in the truck offered some more information- the Del Popolo starter was super active, and they fed it 4 times a day.

Four. Times. A. Day.

That's a lot. I knew that frequently feeding your starter would make it less sour, but … four times a day. That's commitment.

So when I returned home from my trip, I made a new starter, and I fed it. A lot. It became super active, and I was soon feeding it 3-4 times a day.

And I knew the temperature it lived in would change which microbes became more active, so bought a little round thermos from a thrift store, a temperature controller, and stuck a seedling heat mat in there.

My starter contraption.
My starter contraption.

Pretty soon I had a starter with really good flavor and very little sour to it. And for the past 6 months or so, I've been using using it in my pizzas.

At first I would just add 1-2% as a flavoring agent in addition to the normal yeast amounts. Then I started ramping up the amount of starter I'd use to 10% and even pushing it up to 20% at times.

I'd try experimenting by not adding any yeast, or maybe just a tiny bit. I'm still learning what the best ratios are, and even what temperature I keep the active starter at. This past weekend had it a 84 degrees, 10% starter, and 1/4 teaspoon of yeast for six dough balls (it turned out pretty awesome).

I have a whole routine I use to store and swap out older starter that goes dormant in the fridge, and what I do to re-train it to get it ready for pizza on the weekend. I'll probably go into detail about that some day in the future, but the takeaway from this post is: if you haven't been happy with starter in the past, maybe try again? And do everything in your power to keep your starter in a stable environment so things like feeding schedules and temperatures don't throw everything off?

It's nice having a new area to explore with my pizza making. And my starter's name? "Magic".

June 10, 2016

For years I've been using a little worksheet I made up in Calca to calculate how many grams of water, flour, and salt I need in my dough. I would frequently change the values for experimentation though, but I wouldn't ever be able to refer back to them. And it was also worthless if I wanted to send a specific recipe to a friend.

So I looked around for a dough calculator, and while I came across some nice ones, they didn't do everything I wanted (like bookmarking). So I of course made my own.

The Maybe Pizza? Dough Calculator, at your service. Works great on iOS as well.

June 10, 2016

If you have the time, and want to dig into some history, check out the A Philosophy of Pizza Napoletanismo thread on the PM forums. Omid is a Neapolitan nut, and has made some great contributions to the thread over the years. It's also neat to see him change his mind about things over the years.

I'm also pretty jealous of his pizza studio.

May 19, 2016

WWDC will soon be here, and you might be thinking to yourself, gee- I wonder if there's any good Neapolitan pizza in San Francisco?

Why yes, there is.

I've not been to very many neo pizza places in SF, but I've been to enough to at least make a small list of recommendations. So here you go:

Zero Zero. Located just a couple of blocks away from the Moscone Center where WWDC is hosted. It's open late, has a nice bar, and the quality of the pizza is pretty consistent.

It's a little pricy and can get crowded, but it's good pie.

Tony’s Pizza Napoletana. A bit of a hike from WWDC, but if you're a pizza aficionado, you absolutely need to go here. The (PDF) menu is astounding. Ten different styles of pizzas, from Neapolitan to St. Louis to Detroit and even Coal Fired. WTF, how many ovens do they have? Who even does this? THIS IS AMAZING. My brain just about exploded the first time I saw their menu.

Una Pizza Napoletana. Famous for being Una Pizza Napoletana, this restaurant is another must for the pizza aficionado. Actually, I'd say it's more of a pilgrimage (though a short one at a 25 minute walk from Moscone Center). The resident pizzaiolo, Anthony Mangieri, is widely credited for helping start the US Neapolitan craze. Check out their videos page for a taste (and scroll right to start with the last video, working forward after that).

It's a bit pricy, and can be a bit wet. I recommend the Filetti.

Del Popolo. This is currently my favorite Neapolitan pizza in all the universe. And since I've last had it they've opened up a brick store, which means you now have two locations to grab a pie from.

Del Popolo (aka, Jon Darsky) is mostly known because they took a flippen' giant shipping container, stuck it it on a big truck, put a Stefano Ferrara pizza oven in there, and made it look pretty. And that pizza truck usually shows up a block or two away at Mint Plaza during WWDC.

The prices for the pizza truck are very reasonable, and I recommend everything.

I haven't been to the restaurant on Bush Street yet, but my hotel is a few blocks away, so you bet I will. Most likely more than once.

I hope this year to expand my horizons a bit more and try out some new places. Got any recommendations for me? Delfina and PizzaHacker are already on the list.

May 13, 2016

We were talking a bit of Pizza last night at Cyclops, as you do, and the topic of flour was brought up.

If you live in the greater Seattle area, you need to go buy some Shepherd’s Grain High Gluten flour. Cash & Carry has 50lb bags of it, for $21. You can't beat that price, and I've not found a better flour for use in your home oven. It makes great bread too.

We're pretty damn lucky to have this flour, take advantage of it.

February 2, 2016

A good read from King Arthur- Choosing the Best Type (of Yeast) for Any Recipe.

Their pick has been my favorite for years- SAF instant yeast. I buy a 1lb bag of this, and replace it every 6 months. KA has a nice little set which includes the yeast, as well as a container for it (which I also use). Put that in your fridge and you'll be set for a long while.