Making a perfect pizza crust
Note from the Chowhound Team: This topic was split off from another topic on the Washington DC & Baltimore board. That topic can be found here: http://chowhound.chow.com/topics/614878
Warthog, very good explanation of some factors involved in crafting a more flavorful crust. You are exactly correct in that a smaller amount of yeast and a longer fermentation time is better than a heavy starting amount of yeast and a quick fermentation time.
You do not have to use a low temperature rise (fermentation) to create a flavorful dough, as ambient "room" temperature rises have been used to great effect in making doughs which are flavorful.
From a high level, several steps are available to enhance the flavor of any dough could include (and one or more of these may be employed in unison):
1. The use of a pre-ferment.
There are several different forms of pre-ferments which could be used (biga, poolish, etc.), but they all ultimately help to form a better gluten structure in the dough and improve the overall flavor. A pre-ferment is usually a mix of a smaller amount of flour, water and yeast. This pre-ferment is mixed and allowed to rise/ferment for anywhere from 12-24 hours, at either low or room temperature (or both) and then this pre-ferment mix is added to the flour and water used to make pizza dough. This pre-ferment causes subsequent fermentation in the final batch of dough it is added to.
2. A longer fermentation time.
Whether a pre-ferment is used or not, as Warthog mentioned, a longer fermentation time is better than a short one. What is long? Long enough for various enzymes, including alpha-amalyse, to break down the complex starches in the dough and convert them into the more simple sugars the yeast feeds on during fermentation. Ultimately, you want some of the sugars to be converted into alcohol and other fermentation by-products, which enhance flavor, but not so much that the sugars are entirely subsumed. It is primarilly the remaining sugars not "eaten" by the yeast that give a good crust its golden color. Those remaining sugars are literally caramelized during cooking and provide color and a subtle inherent sweetness to a high quality dough, in addition to the other flavors from fermentation by-products already mentioned.
Without the aid of any bogus fermentation additives, a natural fermentation long enough to adequately convert starches to sugar in order to promote a good fermentation should last at least 8-10 hours, depending on who you are talking to. Generally, a same day rise is often done at ambient temperature. While a low temperature rise/fermentaion may promote even more developed flavors in the dough, a low temperature rise is most beneficial because it offers a layer of control to the pizza maker. A dough fermented at ambient temperature is gonna need to be fired in a much smaller window of opportunity than dough in a refrigerator, which can be left chilled for a longer period before being used for pizza.
When using the already mentioned pre-ferment in conjunction with a longer rise time, an even greater depth of developed flavors may be acheived.
3. Use of a sourdough.
Nearly every single pizza place uses some form of baker's yeast. Virtually all baker's yeast, regardless of form used (dried, active, live) is the same exact strain of yeast. So, the only primary way to differentiate flavors between pizzerias is through the use of pre-ferments and/or longer fermentation periods.
A sourdough is different. To start, a sourdough is not a type of bread, it is any form of wild/natural yeast used to leaven bread. A sourdough is comprised of yeast(s) and lactobacillic acids (lactobacilli). So, the yeast component of a sourdough is going to be a different strain(s) than the typical baker's yeast AND the lactobacilli themselves have as many as 45 different flavor compounds inherent to them (bakers yeast has no accompanying lactobacilli).
So, for example, if you were to make two recipes, using the same exact non-yeast ingredients and employed the exact same time duration, temperature and humidity during a pre-ferment and a subsequent long-fermentation period, even though both crusts would most likely have a lot of developed flavors, the bakers yeast crust would taste different, potentially much different, than the sourdough crust. Not saying one method is inherently better, just different.
Again, this is high level, as I have left out salt from the mix. The amount and type of salt added to the dough mix will obviosly impact the flavor. Also, the type(s) of flour used will contribute different flavor and texture attributes to the crust, but the ingredients themselves are not the *primary* driver behind the flavor of the finished crust.
As far as Coal Fire Pizza in Ellicott City, Steven Santos told me they in fact use a very long cold fermentation of up to 42 hours long. I mention on my review that I was surprised the dough did not have more flavor, given the long fermentation time.
Most pizzerias simply do not purchase high quality flour, do not care to learn that slow, gentle kneading and handling results in the best gluten structure and crust texture, do not care about employing a long-term rise and are lax about focusing while the pizza is cooked in the oven....often resulting in undercooking the dough. Most pizzerias don't worry about such things, and subsequently serve sub-par pizza, because WE continue to purchase these types of pizzas. When and if enough "buying units" demand more, things will chance. Until that unlikely day, we are mired in a pizza wasteland.
This post by me was intended as a high level reply to Warthog's knowledgeable reply in the original post linked above. It is by no means meant to serve as a definitive roadmap to a great crust and technical aspects have been left out, not the least of which include the kneading process, which is arguably as important as anything mentioned above --PB