6/29/2012 03:32:00 PM

6 Doughy Secrets From Stella Rossa's Pizza Chef

Boule-ing with chef Jeff Mahin
Jeff Mahin was drawn to cooking as much for the science of it as for the passion for food. He's worked in kitchens at Nobu in New York and L20 in Chicago, but landed research and test kitchen positions at the Fat Duck in England and, most recently, for the Lettuce Entertain You group, the owners of Stella Rossa pizza.

When the company decided to open the Santa Monica pizzeria, Mahin was given the task to create the perfect pie, from crust to toppings. And after more than 30 different test runs - changing everything from the flour to the yeast to the type of oven used - he landed on what he believes to be the perfect dough. And we agree. It yields a thin crust that's uniformly crispy, but still light and airy inside. It never sags, no matter the toppings. Here are six secrets to the method of his pizza madness.

How long did it take to develop the recipe for Stella?
We didn't know what kind of pizza dough we wanted, we just wanted to make a great pizza. It took about six months, but honestly we were making changes up until the day we opened. In our test kitchens in Chicago, we had a perfect dough, but we had to tweak it when we moved it to LA because of the weather, humidity, different wild yeast in the air.

What's the secret to great crust?
This sounds trite, but it's care. Most pizza dough recipes are similar, it's a certain hydration, the flour will differ but it's still flour. Salts are going to be about the same. Yeast is going to be yeast. You can use a starter but it will be more sour. No matter what, though, it's what you do and how you treat it once it's mixed. That's where you build you flavors and textures, that's where you build the airiness and chewiness, all after it's been mixed.

You ferment the dough in jars near the oven at the pizzeria. Why?
We do a long 24-hour fermentation first, in the walk-in. The yeast is cold, so it doesn't grow, but all the natural bacteria in the yeast and flour helps flavor the dough. Our dough is really fashioned after crispy, crunchy country bread. And the role the jar plays is that once we let it ferment in the cold, we take it out, portion it, and let it rise again in the jars. Like bread, we let it rise twice, that's what gives it the crisp exterior while still remaining light and fluffy inside. With a bit of luck, we found out that once the dough reaches the top of the jar, it's perfect. So no matter how long it takes, because each batch will differ slightly for various reasons, when it gets to the top it's ready. It's the perfect proofing time every time. That's why our pizza is always so consistent.

You don't use 00 flour like a lot of Neapolitan-style pizzerias. How is yours different?
Flour matters because of protein, the ash content, where it's from. We weren't doing Neapolitan-style pizza and the 00 flour didn't work for what we wanted. Since our dough is like bread, we wanted a higher protein content and a less-processed flour. So we wanted to find a great bread flour, and found a farmer in the San Joaquin Valley. It's exclusive to us. It's the right protein. Fermentation and flour is what affects the texture of pizza dough. The higher protein in you flour, the crispier your pizza will be. That's the magic about pizza dough, is that it's so simple, but add a day this, or do this, and it changes it completely. That's the romantic thing about pizza, it's so simple but so complicated at the same time.

Gas vs. wood-burning ovens?
We tried like 10 different ovens. The only reason you really want a wood-burning oven is for the intense heat for a Neapolitan-style pizza. It's not because you're getting a smoky flavor. We found through our testing that this horrible Baker's Pride oven worked perfectly. It has this great stone, it's a bread-baking oven. We cook ours at a much lower temperature so we bake them longer, so it gets that crust. It cooks for like 10 minutes. And the bottom of the pizza never sags.

Do you toss it or press it? What's the difference in shaping?
That's the toughest part behind the pizza line - learning how to shape the dough. When someone tosses a pizza, it stretches the dough but I don't think it does much. But it looks really awesome. We carefully pull ours out of the jars so we have a perfect boule of dough. We press in the center of the dough and never touch the crust. That's the secret: By not touching the edges, it gives this still-proofed extra airy crust. We do it all by hand, no rolling pins or anything.

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