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Craft What gives pizza dough its distinctive 'pizza crust' flavor?

Part of the magic behind how to make great-tasting pizza lies in how slowly you make the dough. Slow-fermented dough is light, flavorful, and easy to digest.

Ingredients to prepare a delicious pizza at home - olive oil and wheat flour

How to flavor pizza crust

Part of the magic behind how to make great-tasting pizza lies in how slowly you make the dough. Slow-fermented dough is light, flavorful, and easy to digest.

With some patience, practice, and planning, it’s easy to achieve the desired outcome. Truly great bakers can experiment, but for new or relatively inexperienced bakers, begin by mastering simple techniques that can be repeated with the same effect. Thereafter, experimentation with different methods and recipes will introduce creative ways to maximize flavor. 

Whether it’s through slow fermentation, infusing the dough with oil, stuffing it with cheese or dusting it with herbs and spices, there are plenty of unique approaches for adding flavor to pizza dough.

Over time, you’ll establish your preferred technique, surprising and delighting yourself and others with pizza recipes to which you’ve added your personal touch.

Here, we explore several approaches for how to make your pizza dough taste better.

What is pizza dough flavor and where does it come from?

Pizza dough flavor is enjoyed by all and unique to the ingredients and individuals who craft it. It’s akin to the taste of fresh baked bread that helps to house an array of toppings and sauces.

Every recipe is improved by fresh, quality ingredients and it’s no different with pizza dough. However, it’s also true that you can produce delicious great-tasting pizza dough with provisions you likely have in your home already. Namely, flour, yeast, water and oil. After all, it’s the simplicity of pizza that has helped establish it as one of the most popular meals in the world.

Whether you’re working with the best ingredients money can buy, or relying on whatever you have at home, your dough-making technique is what’s going to make a difference.

Nonetheless, if you envision a pie made with premium ingredients, we recommend a fine-ground flour such as double zero or ‘00’. For yeast, rather than quick-rise or instant yeast opt for active dry or, better yet, fresh yeast. Extra virgin olive oil is another great option. So too is fine sea salt rather than iodized table salt.

For those inclined toward a more simple approach, reach for a bread flour or all-purpose flour, the freshest yeast you can get your hands on and any available salt and olive oil.

Remember that regardless of any ingredient going into the dough, put your focus and care on the process. A thoughtful approach will elevate your pizza from good- to great-tasting.

How dough is made

Any pizza dough with a complex flavor has been slow-fermented. All this means is that the yeast it contains has had ample time to eat the simple sugars in the flour. The longer the yeast has had to feast – ideally 24 to 48 hours – the lighter and more flavorful the pizza dough will be. It will also be easier to digest because the yeast has done the job of breaking down ingredients that your stomach would have otherwise had to handle.

If you’ve ever wondered why it’s easy to consume some plate-sized pizzas while a single slice of others leaves you full, it’s likely that the former has a slow-fermented dough.

A fresh pizza dough in the bowl

Professional chefs and certified pizza makers may refer to this method as ‘slow proofing’. Similar to how bread is made, pizza dough ferments over many hours. This leads to respiration where carbon dioxide is released and air is distributed throughout the dough causing it to rise.

While it’s true there are many pizza dough recipes that skip the fermentation phase, if your aim is a flavorful crust, we recommend you keep the dough cool so that it develops as slowly as possible.

Take the following steps:

  • Activate the yeast with water that’s room temperature or cool. This will slow down its fermentation whereas warmer water will speed up the process.
  • Mix the yeast slowly and briefly. If you use a stand mixer, put it on a low setting. High settings and food processors tend to generate heat which can affect how the yeast develops.
  • Add salt to slow down yeast fermentation even more.
  • Allow the dough to rest at room temperature before refrigerating it for 24-48 hours.

What can I add to pizza dough for flavor?

Dough is the foundation of the greatest-tasting pizza. Once you’ve mastered the art of slow fermentation, you can be confident you’ll make a good pie, regardless of how it's topped.

If you’re keen to intensify its flavor even more, enhance the dough further – either with infused oil brushed over top, cheese woven into its edges or a combination of herbs and spices kneaded into it or sprinkled on it.

Oil brushed – Brushing the dough with garlic butter is a popular and easy starting point that has improved the taste of many pizza crusts. You may also consider a spice-infused oil drizzled over the finished pie. For those who love heat in every bite, hot pepper-infused olive oil is an elegant alternative to store bought hot sauce.

Wooden brush spreads olive oil with garlic on the edges of a pizza

Cheese stuffed – For a cheese-stuffed dough, it’s hard to overlook the convenience of string cheese. Line the edges of the unbaked crust with individual strings, tightly tucking each strand into the dough.

Herb-infused or dusted – If you’re fond of specific herbs, you have two options on how to include them in the dough. First, knead finely-chopped fresh herbs like rosemary, dill and oregano into it without fear of interrupting the fermentation process, (it is possible that thyme may increase the activity of the yeast). Or, second, sprinkle dried herbs over the pie minutes before it’s ready to be taken out of the oven – the oil in the cheese will bring out the flavor and you’ll avoid burning the herbs.

Spicy – Spices kneaded into dough can add a pleasant though subtle kick to each bite. Cinnamon, nutmeg and ginger can increase yeast activity, potentially challenging the slow fermentation process. Dry mustard has the potential to slow down yeast development and can result in a more sour flavored crust.

Sweet – If not spice, than sugar is nice. Any sweetener will help keep the dough fresh, but add it with an awareness that it will have to ferment longer as the yeast works to break it down. Molasses is a popular dough sweetener, adding a deeper and complex flavor. Honey is also a good option, though its antibacterial properties may have an adverse affect on the yeast.

The quality of your homemade pizzas will improve as you master dough making. The more time you allow for slow fermentation, the more flavorful the crust will be. Once you’re confident of your slow fermentation technique, experiment with brushing, stuffing and dusting your pies, establishing your own signature recipe for a unique homemade pizza.