This article was originally published on VICE Italy.
Lockdown has induced a yeast frenzy. Suddenly, everyone is an amateur baker attempting to raise a sourdough starter or tame a tart. Even the most staunchly undomesticated among us have at least shown off a bunch of chocolate chip cookies.
Following the trend, I can proudly say I've made a few decent pizzas recently, using instant yeast or bicarbonate of soda as a substitute. For those unfamiliar, yeast (either fresh or the dried and instant type you buy in supermarkets) is the stuff that helps bread and other baked goods to rise. My housemate, who is my only available food critic at this point, gave me good reviews.
Next, I wanted to try baking pizza without any yeast at all, because it’s become impossible to find in supermarkets here in Italy. The result, I'm afraid, was a real letdown. Enter my guiding light, Cristian Marasco. Pizza is Cristiano's life mission. He manages his family's three acclaimed La Grotta Azzurra restaurants in Italy's Lombardy region, where pizza dough is mixed, kneaded and proofed for up to 96 hours before hitting the oven.
When Italy went into lockdown, Cristian decided to close his restaurants and teach people stuck at home how to make decent pizza without yeast on Instagram. "I’ve never been interested in delivery," he told me over the phone, of his decision to not offer takeaway during the pandemic. "Pizza should be eaten hot, straight out of the oven. So for the time being I’m taking time to study, think and perhaps even come up with some new ideas."
I told Cristiano about my own failed experiment and he comforted me, saying that making the real deal is no easy feat. "The quality of the dough depends on your hands, how they move, their smell and the sweat they produce," he said. Sounds intimate. It was time to get cooking.
Pizza without yeast
Cristian talked me through the process for making pizza without yeast over the phone. The recipe is more time consuming than difficult, but I figured a lot of us have plenty of time on our hands.
Ingredients: You'll need 400 grams of 00 flour (this is special flour for pizza and pasta, but another all-purpose flour will do), 250 millilitres of lukewarm water, half a teaspoon of sugar and 10 grams of salt. That's it.
- For phase one, I take a plastic or glass bowl (not steel, because it stops the dough rising) and add only 150 grams of the flour, 100 millilitres of the lukewarm water and half a teaspoon of sugar.
- I mix the ingredients with a whisk and, once combined, tip the mixture onto the bench. I knead the dough until it’s nice and compact.
- Now you need a new bowl – you can clean the one you used earlier, but you don’t want any dough dregs in there, because they can use up the oxygen the dough needs to rise.
- I cover the bowl with cling film and pierce a few holes in it with a toothpick, to let some air in. The second time I made this pizza (I got a taste for it) I was out of cling film, so I used baking paper and taped it to the bowl.
- I leave the dough to rest for 24 hours in a warm spot in the kitchen. During this time, your dough should double in size. If it hasn’t, wait until it does.
A small note: If you use buckwheat flour or any other type of gluten-free flour, your dough won’t rise as well, but using soda (bubbly) water instead of tap water can help.
- Once my dough has doubled in size, I'm ready for phase two. I add the remaining 250 grams of flour, then 100 millilitres of lukewarm water, and I mix until combined.
- Next, I add a further 50 millilitres of lukewarm water, in which I’ve already dissolved 10 grams of salt. This goes in last, because salt prevents the gluten from developing during the rise. If you’re using whole grain flour, reduce your salt to 7 grams.
- Next, I mix everything together until I have a soft dough.
- On to phase three. Cristian suggests you start thinking about toppings early on so that they're ready by this stage.
- Your dough should weigh about 630 grams. I divide mine into three equal parts (about 210 grams each), so each fits onto my 24cm rectangular baking tray.
- I oil my tray, place one ball of dough in the middle and, after oiling my hands, massage some of the oil onto the dough with my fingertips, to prevent it from sticking to the tray. I leave it to rise until it doubles in size again (mine took 10 minutes).
- Next, I start stretching it out with my hands. I delicately give it my desired shape (round or square, no heart shapes please). If the dough starts to break, stop and give it time to "relax" before you continue.
- Preheat your oven to the highest temperature, without the fan on (you'll turn the fan on once the pizza goes in).
All done? Good. Now you can decide whether you want to cook it right away (for a classic thin pizza) or wait for it to puff up. I put mine in the oven straight away, because I like my pizza thin, and because I’m impatient and hungry.
A pro tip: Put a small oven-proof pot full of water in the bottom of the oven – the steam prevents your pizza from drying out. When ready to bake, move the pot of water up to a higher level and put the pizza tray on the bottom. Leave it for a minute and then swap them over again – the tray in the middle and the pot on the base for the rest of the cooking time (nine minutes).
Cristian explains that putting the pizza on the bottom of the oven, where it's hottest, allows the dough to release any excess water and to rise. Moving it after a minute prevents burning.
If you’re using mozzarella, drain it before it goes into the oven to avoid an obscene white puddle in the middle of your hard-earned pizza. I do this by cutting the cheese into slices and leaving them to drain for three hours.
Add the mozzarella to your pizza in the last minute of cooking, or after turning the oven off. The same goes for any other type of cheese: add it once the pizza has come out of the oven, and the heat from the pizza will melt it perfectly. I did this with some brie, and watching it melt slowly on top of my white, steaming pizza gave me a small insight into the meaning of life.
If you're using ham or salami, also add it once the pizza is out of the oven to avoid it drying out. If you want tomato, Cristian says you don’t need a sauce – what you need is raw, tinned tomato. Break it up with your hands, if you like it in pieces, then spread the flesh on your freshly rolled out dough and leave it for five to ten minutes. Otherwise puree it through a chinois (a super-fine strainer) to make it creamy, and add it just before your pizza goes in the oven.
Slice any other vegetables thin, and pan fry, before adding them as toppings about five minutes into cooking your pizza.
Cristian disclosed one last precious secret: for a proper crunch, take your pizza out of the oven once it’s done and let it cool down completely, then put it back in the oven for two minutes. By the end of our conversation, I had been initiated into the wonderful world of yeast-free pizza. No bicarbonate, and no forcing the dough to grow in unnatural ways.
"It's just a matter of time, of being patient," philosophised Cristian. "Things done slowly are the best."