I have made many, many pizzas in my time, in more shapes and forms than I can probably recall off the top of my head. But one with a 100 percent whole-wheat dough? Not once.
After all, I’m perfectly fine getting my whole grains elsewhere. Pizza, a sometimes treat anyway, was not at the top of my list.
But as we put our heads together for our giant Voraciously pizza package, we knew that plenty of people would want a whole-wheat crust. In addition to the dietary and nutritional benefits, the hearty, nutty flavor that whole-wheat flour imparts is enough to recommend it.
The problem is that the very things that make whole-wheat flour what it is — the inclusion of the wheat bran and germ, as opposed to just the endosperm of “white” flour — can make it problematic when it comes to baking, especially with yeasted breads. The bran, the outermost part of the grain, is sharp, meaning it can hinder rise by cutting into the dough and wreaking havoc on the gluten network you have worked to establish by kneading. The bran is also extremely thirsty, able to absorb several times its weight in water. (These are among the reasons you often find recipes that call for mixing whole-wheat flour in with regular all-purpose or bread flour, as with my No-Knead Whole Wheat Bread.)
After several rounds of testing whole-wheat pizza doughs that turned out dense, gritty and lacking in satisfying chew, I turned to Jonathan Bethony, the co-owner and head baker at Washington’s Seylou Bakery. Seylou’s goods are exclusively whole-grain, and it even hosts a weekly pizza night.
Bethony helped set me down the right path. He emphasized the importance of a wet dough (high hydration, in baker speak), to soak into all the extra fiber in the dough. His dough actually has more water than it does flour (10 percent more). My early recipes were clearly too dry.
Whole-grain dough also “needs a lot of upfront attention,” Bethony says. You really have to work to establish the gluten structure. Then, however, you need to treat it delicately after it’s risen. Bethony compared the strands of gluten to a spider web, with the bran existing as a kind of weak spot, meaning the dough can’t take as much tension without tearing.
Armed with that insight, I set about finding the right recipe and perfecting the technique. A whole-wheat pizza dough from Sally McKenney of the blog Sally’s Baking Addiction was the winner. While not as wet as Bethony’s dough, McKenney’s recipe (about 87 percent as much water as flour) was hydrated enough to get much closer to the texture and chew you expect in a pizza crust.
Seriously, though, it is wet and sticky, and you’re going to think you did something wrong, but you’ve got to — sorry! — stick with it. Try to resist adding more flour as you’re kneading, or your dough will be too dry and gritty. Keep kneading in the stand mixer until the dough has become much more elastic. Follow the cues I’ve included below, and you’ll be fine.
Shape the dough into rounds carefully. Yes, you’ll probably tear it at least once, but pinch it back together and proceed. I had the most success by using my fingertips initially to flatten the dough into a round. Getting the dough up to 10 inches in diameter can be tricky. Try gently stretching it almost as if you were tucking someone in under a blanket. Stretch more from the center than the very edge, so you still get a good crust on the rim. Be sure to rotate the dough frequently.
The cooking starts in a cast-iron skillet on the stove top and finishes under the broiler. That’s especially ideal for cooking off some of the dough’s extra moisture and beginning to puff the crust. (Because the broiler runs so hot, certain toppings, especially soft cheeses such as mozzarella, can overcook, so you might want to add them partway through baking.)
As fussy as it sounds, the extra care paid off. We were frankly surprised at the chewy texture and yeasty flavor (even though it only rises for about 2 hours) of the whole-wheat crust, so when you, too, are ticking through all your pizza possibilities, keep this one in mind.
Recipe note: The finished dough can be portioned, coated lightly in cooking oil spray or olive oil, sealed in zip-top bags and frozen for up to 3 months. Defrost overnight in the refrigerator and then let it come to room temperature for 30 minutes before shaping and baking.
1 teaspoon sugar
1 tablespoon instant yeast
1 1/2 cups (354 grams) warm water (105 to 115 degrees)
1 tablespoon olive oil, plus more for greasing and brushing
1 tablespoon honey
1 teaspoon salt
About 3 cups (407 grams) whole-wheat flour, plus more for dusting
1 to 2 teaspoons shredded Parmigiano-Reggiano cheese (optional)
Combine the sugar, yeast, warm water, tablespoon of oil, honey and salt in a stand mixer fitted with a dough-hook attachment. Mix on low speed for 30 seconds. Add all but about 1/3 cup of the whole-wheat flour; mix on low speed until a dough starts to come together.
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Increase the speed to medium-low; continue to mix for about 5 minutes. If your dough is looking very wet and almost pourable, add some of the reserved 1/3 cup of flour, a tablespoon or two at a time. Continue to mix, adding more flour as needed, until the dough begins to gather around the dough hook and looks stretchy as it pulls away from the sides of the bowl; this may take as long as 15 minutes. It will not form a ball or pull away from the bowl completely. The dough may look very wet, but all will be well.
To test whether your dough is ready, pinch a small piece of dough away with your fingertips. If it breaks immediately as you stretch it, keep kneading. If it seems elastic and comes away from the rest of the dough in a stretchy, almost translucent sheet, that means the gluten has sufficiently formed.
Lightly grease a separate mixing bowl with oil. Shape the wet, sticky dough into a ball as best you can, then transfer it to the bowl, turning the dough over to coat it on all sides. Cover the bowl tightly with plastic wrap and allow the dough to rise in a warm environment for about 2 hours, or until it has about doubled in size. (A closed microwave where you have just heated some water for a minute or two works well.)
About 90 minutes into the rise, position a rack 4 to 6 inches from the broiler element of the oven; preheat the oven to 500 degrees or whatever its highest numbered temperature setting is. The oven should preheat for at least 30 minutes.
Line a baking sheet with parchment paper, then generously dust it with flour.
Gently deflate the dough to release trapped air. Divide the dough into three portions, about 250 grams each. Roll each portion into a ball and then place them on baking sheet. Loosely cover with lightly greased plastic wrap and let the dough rest for at least 20 minutes, and up to 1 hour.
(After this rest, you may freeze the dough portions for up to 3 months.)
Generously flour your work surface. Transfer one ball of dough there and sprinkle more flour on top of the dough. (If you plan to use all the portions of dough right away, keep them covered.) Use your fingertips to start flattening the dough into a round. Continue to gently stretch the dough until you have a round about 10 inches in diameter, frequently rotating it and flouring the counter or dough as needed so nothing sticks.
Open the oven door for 10 seconds if you have an electric oven (this lets some heat escape to make sure the broiler will actually turn on even though the oven has reached its maximum temperature), and then turn on the broiler (to high, if that is an option). Have your pizza toppings ready to go nearby.
Preheat a 12-inch cast-iron skillet on the stove top, over medium heat, for 3 to 5 minutes. Carefully transfer the dough to the skillet, smoothing it into place with your hands or by sliding and shaking the skillet (use a folded towel or oven mitt since it will be very hot). Allow the dough to start to cook and dry out on bottom (a minute or less; you’ll see it looking less wet and starting to puff).
Add your toppings, leaving a 1/2- to 3/4-inch border around the edges. Brush the edges of the crust with oil, then sprinkle them with the Parmigiano-Reggiano, if using. Give the dough an additional 30 seconds to 1 minute to cook; this will help ensure the bottom of the crust will be crisped.
Use oven mitts to transfer the skillet to the oven. Broil the pizza for 3 to 5 minutes, rotating front to back halfway through, until the crust looks puffed and browned. Don’t walk away. A little charring on the crust or toppings is okay, but even a few seconds too much will burn the pizza. Remove the skillet from the oven, then use tongs to transfer the pizza to a wire rack to cool for a few minutes. Transfer the pizza to a cutting board. Cut into slices and serve right away.
Dough recipe adapted from Sally McKenney at sallysbakingaddiction.com; baking method adapted from “Mastering Pizza: The Art and Practice of Handmade Pizza, Focaccia, and Calzone,” by Marc Vetri and David Joachim (Ten Speed Press, 2018).
Tested by Becky Krystal; email questions to firstname.lastname@example.org.
Scale and get a printer-friendly version of the recipe, plus topping suggestions, here. The nutritional analysis is based on 1 crust.
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Calories: 530; Total Fat: 7 g; Saturated Fat: 1 g; Cholesterol: 0 mg; Sodium: 800 mg; Carbohydrates: 103 g; Dietary Fiber: 17 g; Sugars: 9 g; Protein: 18 g.