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Yeast in thin crust pizza dough - is it really necessary?

Today I was looking through cookbooks and on the web for recipes for thin crust pizza dough. I noticed that every recipe has yeast in it. If the purpose of thin crust pizza is to achieve a super-thin crust, then why add yeast if that makes the dough rise as it rests and when it hits the oven? Aside from creating pockets of air in the dough and giving it some additional yeast flavor, is there really any purpose for having yeast in a thin crust pizza?

I ask this is because at home I make thin-crust pizza/flatbread dough without any yeast at all. I mix white or whole wheat flour with olive oil, honey, salt, and warm water. That’s it. For whole wheat dough I use extra water, olive oil and honey and let the dough rest longer. I make my dough pretty wet so I don’t have to roll it– just stretch it out using my fists, then I dock it with a fork before putting on the toppings. Baked on a preheated pizza stone in a roaring hot oven, my pizzas come out with a perfectly blistered and crunchy crust every time. Am I in the minority for eschewing yeast in my pizza dough?

I’m also curious about the science behind using yeast – if there’s something going on at the molecular level that alters the flavor/texture to my advantage that can’t be achieved in a yeast-free dough, and still have it come out paper thin and crunchy?

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  1. Excellent topic! Actually, I have seen thin-crust pizza recipes without yeast. I think they are sometimes referred to as cracker crust pizzas. I also think they can be found in some St Louis-style pizzas.

    I've been thinking of trying what you describe - thanks for the impetus!

    1. Don't know the science and the molecular level is a place I don't frequent, but I believe a yeast free pizza dough produces what is called a cracker crust and this is something I've always tried to avoid. Crispy doesn't have to be crackery.

      1. I use yeast for a couple reasons. I like the puffy, airy (but still crispy) outer crust, even though the rest of the pie is thin - vaguely Neapolitan style , in other words. Also, I tend to ferment my doughs for a bit (for flavor among other reasons), and yeast is needed for that. Guess you could probably ferment a dough without yeast, using whatever microbes happen to be about, but I doubt you'd get consistent or delicious results.

        BTW, even if the dough isn't fermented, yeast still adds a bit of a flavor.

        1. Yeast aids in the formation of dough by lysing/altering the bonds in the flour proteins and allowing them to form chains, commonly referred to as gluten development. I am actually surprised to hear you imply you are stretching non-yeast dough on your fists. I've never been able to stretch cracker dough in that manner. There is evident gluten development, but it's too fragile. This is the qualitative difference between cracker and bread or pizza dough.

          6 Replies
          1. re: splatgirl

            It's the protein in the flour that develops gluten, not the yeast. I don't think the yeast is involved in that part of things; otherwise you wouldn't be able to make things like biscuits and cake tough by overmixing them.

            1. re: sandylc

              Yeast is absolutely involved in gluten development. It alters pH, the density of the dough (via the generation of CO2) and is also a proteolytic. The first two actions alter/increase the ability of the flour to absorb water and the third alters the proteins directly.

              One thing I learned by observation and being so obsessed with the minutae of doughs is that there is even a difference between how yeast and sourdough enzymes affect the flour during dough construction. Sourdoughs seem to hydrate and start developing gluten faster than yeast doughs. Presumably this is a function of the factors I mentioned above acting in a slightly different balance than with yeast.

              I am still interested in the technique the OP is using to make what sounds like an elastic, stretchable (windowpane test?) dough without leaveners. I would have said it's not possible.

              1. re: splatgirl

                Aren't hand pulled noodles just flour and water? That's pretty freaking stretchable.

                1. re: kengk

                  AFIK, they use an alkaline water, but yes, true.

                2. re: splatgirl

                  Check out this video, about the 4 min mark, he stretches out dough that has been made w/ flour, water and salt. Yeast can help develop gluten but so can kneading. You won't get rise, obviously, w/out the yeast but you do get gluten development.

                  http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=nlcNRp...

                3. re: sandylc

                  Water and flour proteins will create gluten, as will kneading it. Yeast will help make the gluten structures stronger. I've always found this to be a good pictorial of the different flours and protein levels.

                  http://www.exploratorium.edu/cooking/...

                  To the OP, if you add olive oil to this dough in the video, it might give you what you're looking for.

              2. Yeast has flavor of it's own and creates more complex flavors as it grows. A Crust with no Yeast will have a much different (and less pleasing IMO) Flavor.

                2 Replies
                1. re: chefj

                  Less pleasing flavor? How about no flavor?

                  1. re: chefj

                    Glad you mentioned this. Yeast is an important flavor, not just a leavening agent.