Monday, August 4, 2008

A Tale of Yeast

This story actually begins over a decade ago, when my college roommate Emily and I were living in our first apartment. One day she decided that she would make a pizza from scratch. Never having witnessed such a thing -- or even contemplated that it could be done -- I watched the process from beginning to end, fascinated. The ball of dough rose overnight as if by magic, and it was then flattened out to a large square pizza, which was topped with cheese and veggies and promptly consumed once it was baked. It wasn't the best pizza ever created, and the crust was thicker than is my preference, but it was still good and the texture still resembled pizza. Plus we had it at a fraction of the cost of getting a 'real' pizza at BJ's down the street.

Not too long after this experience, while living on my own, I remembered Emily's pizza and the fun of making dough and waiting for it to rise, and how easy it was. I decided to make my own pizza, except with thinner crust. In my mind it was an easy thing: make dough, make pizza, eat pizza. But I ran into trouble almost right away. Why wasn't the yeast creating bubbles when mixed with water and a bit of sugar? Was the water I was using too warm? Were those few bubbles I did see from the yeast, or from me stirring? Was the yeast I'd gotten somehow defective? I plunged ahead anyway -- and the result was an inedible rock. But I was not to be deterred. I tried again, but this time I wanted to make sure that the dough had the right atmosphere to rise. It had seemed so easy and instantaneous when Emily had done it; what was I doing wrong? Maybe it was too cold where I was. So I stuck the rising dough in a warm oven ... too warm, as it turned out, as it ended up getting baked. I might have tried once or twice more, with less than ideal results, before giving up.

A few years later, my cousin and her husband had an adults-only get together where they served "gourmet" pizzas. Very thin crust, fancy toppings. I was interested to see whether their pizza dough would turn out well and truly pizza like. It did -- the pizzas were delicious. I was both disappointed and inspired. Disappointed, because it seemed that everyone could make pizza except for me, and inspired, because maybe, just maybe, if I used the recipe they had used, I could duplicate their results.

Failed. Again. The pizza I made was not thin, nor delicious. The crust more resembled a hardy bread than a good base for pizza. I decided that I was just a failure at pizza dough.

Then earlier this year, I read an article by Melissa Clark about a guy who had a successful pizza restaurant in New York, but prior to opening the restaurant had never made a pizza before. Now, of course, he was a pro. The article came with a recipe for his pizza dough, and I was inspired once more to give it a try. Surely as someone who hadn't grown up making pizzas and who had to teach himself the trade, his recipe would be more beginner friendly?

The pizza I made from this dough looked like a pizza aesthetically -- or a thicker breaded cousin of the pizza -- but taste wise it was severely lacking. I had followed the instructions precisely, and yet the results were as disappointing as they had been all the times before. No matter what, I could not get the dough thin enough to make it seem more like 'real' pizza. The dough was tough and chewy, and it was more like eating cardboard with some tomato sauce and cheese on top than eating pizza.

At this point you might wonder why I didn't just give up entirely, and simply buy my pizza. Oh, I did. Pizza can be had relatively inexpensively, and I'm a long way from my poor college days. But it always nagged at me that I had never once been successful at making pizza dough, which seemed like such an easy, simple thing. And I wasn't asking for perfection. If I couldn't make pizza like the pros, surely I could make passable pizza the way Emily had over 10 years ago?

I might not have tried again -- or it might have taken longer after the last failure -- had my best friend and I not gone to New York and discovered the wonder of New York pizza. A lot has already been said about New York pizza, all positive, and I'm not going to spend a lot of time extolling its virtues. I will just say that at first bite, while good, you may not notice the difference between a slice in New York and other pizzas you've had. You may not even notice it on the third bite, or fifteenth. But eventually you will realize: This is some damn good pizza. It's not fancy, it's not in your face; it's just something you want to eat. Constantly. In any case, we went to several pizza establishments while in the Big Apple and our favorite was Patsy's. Lombardi's was a close second, but Patsy's had won our hearts (at least for the two trips we've taken to New York). But really, you don't even need to go to a restaurant. We frequented Ray's plenty of times, and their slices were just as good if not as upscale with their ingredients. Perfect for just stopping by to grab a quick slice before heading back to our hotel room.

That said, we could not get New York pizza on the West Coast. While we have some pretty good pizza, it's just not the same. Not long after we got back from our second trip, I read an article in the New York Times about an ex-pat New Yorker who had moved down South somewhere, and it was his mission in life to duplicate Patsy's pizza in his home oven, nearly burning his house down while rigging his oven to make it get hot enough to bake true pizza, the way pizzerias are able to do. (He's able to bake a pizza in about 2 minutes.) Now this was pizza love. And I was particularly delighted by the fact that the pizza he was trying to duplicate was that of Patsy's, which was our favorite as well! His Web site gives a lot of advice on the process, and while I am nowhere near dedicated enough to go through all of them, one thing did stand out to me: He said to never use commercial yeast in the dough, but to get a sourdough starter. His came from Patsy's itself, but other starters could be made or purchased.

And suddenly it all fell into place. My enemy this whole time had been commercial yeast! (Okay, that's not true; if pressed now I could probably make decent pizza using it. But at the time I really thought I had figured out the source of all my pizza-making problems.) I ordered my first sourdough starter from (three actually), and now I have successfully baked my first sourdough loaf and made delicious pizzas besides.

It didn't happen by magic, though -- getting the sourdough cultures activated took a lot of time and patience (since they got contaminated during the initial process, which isn't uncommon, but it still takes days to "wash" the cultures and get them healthy again), and in the meanwhile I began reading up on yeast, fermentation, bread making, and other related topics. My wild yeast cultures have worked best for me, but that's also because I learned how to take care of them -- and I was much more diligent about it than I was with commercial yeast, which I could easily replace if something went wrong. I learned about gluten and how to get it to relax so it can be shaped more easily (enabling thin-crust pizzas). I learned about the best environment for yeast so they can thrive (enabling optimal volume expansion). I learned about temperature, steam, measuring by weight, and baking stones. In other words, I learned the science and the tricks to getting the results I wanted from yeast and from dough. While I am still far from being an expert, and I'm still constantly consulting books, at least I know the whys, which really helps with the hows. Now I can make pizzas that resemble pizzas!

And my days of "disobedient" yeast are over. First, I've converted to fresh sourdough for just about every baking need, though I haven't sworn off commercial yeast entirely (I know the day will come when I am too lazy to do the conversion between sourdough and commercial yeast in a recipe). Wild yeast is supposed to rise slower than commercial yeast, due to fewer yeast cells, but it's always worked like a charm for me, as long as I had the time to devote to it. Here's a picture of a sourdough starter I was keeping on my counter and feeding twice a day. At every feeding I'd discard all but about 10 grams of the starter, then add 40 grams of water and 40 grams of flour. This 90-gram mixture would sit at about where the tape-line measure is, and in 8-12 hours the yeast had eaten their fill of the flour, and expanded to nearly the top of the jar, easily more than 3 times its original volume.

Last night I was going through the final steps in baking my first successful sourdough without using a loaf pan (I'd tried once before, with so-so results), and the second-to-last proofing step, after two turns of the dough, required that I wait 4-5 hours for the dough to double in volume (from 2 cups to a full quart). It did, and then some. It actually exploded out of the plastic wrap that I'd put over the container.

I was delighted! The yeast was working overtime. This is a far cry from days of old, when my dough would barely inflate. The secret, I believe, is my proofing box (created from instructions in Ed Wood's book "Classic Sourdoughs"). In this box, the climate is always perfect for yeast to happily work away and be their most productive. This is particularly important for me, living in Seattle, where it rarely goes above 80°F even in the summer (as I'm typing this, it's around 63°F). Some bakers may need to worry about overheating, but not me. My concern is about getting it warm enough so that the yeast will be their most active. This might also be why performance from commercial yeast was lackluster in my kitchen; who knows how well my dough might have risen if only I'd had a proofing box during those attempts, where I could keep the temperature at a steady 80°F all the time?

I took the dough above and finished making the sourdough loaf (as per instructions from Rose Levy Beranbaum's "The Bread Bible"), and it turned out beautifully. Not perfect -- I still have a ways to go -- but still beautiful to me.

Unfortunately while my baking skills have improved my camera skills haven't -- I couldn't get a good shot of the crumb (with lovely holes) and this was the best I could do, even with Photoshop's help. What these photos don't show is how soft and creamy the interior is -- even now I'm daydreaming of spreading some butter on a thick slice, or noshing on a big sandwich bookended with this bread.

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