A conversation about sourdough starter with Martin Philip, a bread baker with King Arthur Baking Co., turned me around. Philip mentioned a blog post he wrote about using unfed starter to bake bread — a tip he got from a reader.
“So I can just throw in my starter with the dough ingredients and walk away?” I asked incredulously. “You bet,” he said.
No more 18-hours-in-advance feedings and having to figure out how to use up the discard? Imagine how much time I’d save.
Rather than bread, I decided to make a workhorse pizza dough. In developing the recipe, I knew that the key to building flavor and letting the starter do its yeasty magic was what bakers refer to as “long, cold bulk fermentation,” or colloquially, sticking the dough in the fridge and forgetting about it for a day or two. The lower temperatures slow down the fermentation, allowing the starches to break down into simple sugars and for gluten formation, resulting in a more satisfying crust.
But I also wanted a forgiving dough — to know what would happen if you let your dough sit in the fridge longer, because life happens, and sometimes when you think you’re making pizza for dinner, your kid has a meltdown, your cat throws up on your bed, and before you know it, you’re ordering takeout.
I want the dough to be waiting for me, not the other way around.
When you are using a cold, unfed starter to make dough, you’re essentially feeding it. A few minutes of mixing ingredients and a couple of days of you going about your business — while the dough goes about its — is all it takes.
I let the dough ferment for up to five days, to see if its flavor and texture diminished (they didn’t). I also put the dough through its paces. I baked the dough on a pizza stone, an inverted baking sheet, in a cast-iron pan and on a grill. My preferred method was in the oven with the baking time evenly divided between baking at a high temperature and broiling. It took about six minutes for each pizza to bake.
And, because we’re still in the middle of the pandemic, I wanted to ensure that whatever flour you had on hand would work. I tested the dough with various flours: all-purpose and bread were the main players (both are great). I tried half of each (also delicious) as well with half of the bread or all-purpose flour swapped out with 00 flour, known as the Italian pizza flour, (ditto). I loved adding a little whole-wheat flour for a satisfying chew.
The dough is a New York-style version, a cousin of Neapolitan-style dough made of flour, water, salt and yeast. If you’re curious about the honey and oil in the dough, the latter coats the flour granules and results in a more tender crust, while the former helps with caramelization and deeper flavor.
Now I make my pizza dough over the weekend and know it’s ready for me whenever the craving strikes. And then I feed my starter and don’t think about it for another week. Both work for me now, which is exactly how I prefer it.
Sourdough Margherita Pizza
While the dough requires little hands-on time, planning is essential to get the kind of pizza crust — complex and nuanced with just the right amount of tang — you may find at good pizzerias. It works equally well with all-purpose and bread flours, the latter of which will result in a slightly more toothsome crust. Adding a little whole-wheat flour gives the crust an earthy, chewy quality. For the best chance for success, weigh your ingredients.
Storage: The dough can be refrigerated for up to 5 days before baking. Leftover pureed tomatoes can be refrigerated for up to 7 days or frozen for up to 3 months.
Make ahead: The dough needs to rise in the refrigerator for at least 24 hours. It will need to sit at room temperature for about 30 minutes before shaping and baking.
Note: To make the tomato sauce, puree your favorite canned tomatoes until mostly smooth. Leftover puree can be frozen for up to 3 months.
- 220 grams (1 3/4 cups) all-purpose flour or bread flour, plus more for your hands and counter
- 30 grams (1/4 cup) whole-wheat flour (may substitute with equivalent amount of all-purpose or bread flour)
- 8 grams (2 1/2 teaspoons) kosher salt
- 150 grams (about 2/3 cup) lukewarm water
- 13 grams (2 teaspoons) honey
- 8 grams (2 teaspoons) extra-virgin olive oil, plus more for drizzling the pizza
- 95 grams (about 1/3 cup) sourdough discard (unfed or fed)
- Semolina flour, for baking the pizza (optional)
- 6 tablespoons tomato sauce (see NOTE), divided
- 5 ounces (140 grams) fresh mozzarella cheese, torn into bite-sized pieces and divided
- 2 tablespoons grated Parmesan cheese, divided
- Fresh basil leaves, for garnish
In a large bowl, whisk together the flours and salt and make a well in the center. In a medium bowl, whisk together the water, honey and olive oil, then add the starter and combine thoroughly. Add the wet ingredients into the well of the dry ones, and start to mix with your hands, squishing the mixture through your fingers to combine until a sticky, wet dough forms, about 3 minutes. Set the dough aside and let it rest, uncovered, for 15 to 20 minutes.
Flour a clean, dry counter and your hands. Gently but firmly knead the mixture on the counter for 3 minutes. As you are kneading, reflour your hands and surface as necessary. The dough will start out moist and sticky, but will come together into a smooth, elastic ball. Divide the dough in half, shape into balls, and wrap tightly in plastic wrap. Transfer the dough balls to the refrigerator for at least 24 hours and up to 5 days before using. (The dough will rise slightly in the fridge, causing the plastic wrap to tighten.)
At least 30 minutes and up to 1 hour before baking, position an oven rack 6 inches from the broiler element and place a pizza stone, an inverted large rimmed baking sheet or a large cast iron skillet in the oven. Preheat to 500 degrees.
Generously flour your work surface, as well as a wooden pizza peel or an inverted large rimmed baking sheet. Sprinkle the peel or baking sheet with a little semolina flour (if using).
Working with one dough ball at a time, dust the dough with more flour. Starting in the center, push out the dough using your fingertips, leaving the edges untouched. As you dimple and push the dough out, move it around the floured area, so it doesn’t stick to the counter. When you have pushed the dough out to about 8 inches, pick it up. Use the weight of the dough as you turn it around with your hands to shape the disk to about 12 inches in diameter; you can also gently stretch the dough out using your knuckles as it drapes your lightly fisted hands. (It’s okay if the dough shape isn’t a perfect circle.)
Place your shaped pizza dough onto the floured peel or baking sheet. Spread half the tomato sauce over the dough, leaving a 1-inch border. Scatter half of the mozzarella and the Parmesan on top.
Pull out the baking rack from the oven (with the preheated pizza stone, baking sheet or skillet on it) halfway. Position the peel/baking sheet parallel to and in the center of the stone/sheet/skillet and carefully but decisively slide the pizza onto the heated surface. Lightly drizzle the pie with olive oil, then slide the rack back into the oven.
Bake for 3 to 4 minutes; the pizza should look fairly baked but pale around the perimeter. Turn on the broiler and broil the pizza for 3 to 4 additional minutes, watching it carefully, until the pizza edges are puffed and burnished but not burned. (While your first pie is baking, prepare the second pie to go into the oven when you remove the first. If you have a particularly powerful oven/broiler, start checking on your pizza 2 minutes after you start to broil it.)
Using tongs held in one hand and a cutting board in another, transfer the pizza to the cutting board, add half the basil (it will slump onto the hot pizza) and cut into slices.
Recipe from Olga Massov.
Tested by Olga Massov; email questions to email@example.com.
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Calories: 400; Total Fat: 10 g; Saturated Fat: 4 g; Cholesterol: 25 mg; Sodium: 1105 mg; Carbohydrates: 61 g; Dietary Fiber: 3 g; Sugars: 5 g; Protein: 18 g.