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Grains are on the rise in pizza preparation.

Pizza Crust Enters a New Age of Innovation

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The ancient grains craze finds its way to the pizza category with a vast array of colors and textures.
By Rachel Taylor November 2019 Pizza

The days of traditional pizza crust are over—or at least evolving. Chefs are exploring bases beyond the wheat-based standard by incorporating ancient grains into their crusts. Not only does this option cater to health-conscious diners or those with a gluten intolerance, but it can also add unexpected flavor that elevates the entire dish. 

Over the past decade, ancient grains like sorghum and quinoa have made their way into the restaurant industry as featured ingredients in everything from grain bowls to bread. Grains, like teff and millet, that are traditionally grown in Africa and Asia, respectively, are now being cultivated in the U.S. to help with growing consumer demand. The rise in these grains is a direct result of increased exposure through nutrition education and international travel and cooking shows, says Caroline Sluyter, program director of the Oldways Whole Grain Council. 

“We’ve seen a rise in things that get consumers thinking beyond the boundaries of what they grew up eating, and they’re interested in trying new things,” she says. 

Sprouted grains, like sprouted buckwheat and sprouted brown rice, are also on the upswing. Sluyter says since the council started tracking sprouted grains in 2013, the number of products registered with the whole grain stamp has quadrupled, with most of the growth in the last three years. The health benefits of sprouted grains also make them attractive to use in dough. Sprouted red, purple, or blue corn can have twice as many antioxidants as blueberries, says James Curry, managing partner at ingredients manufacturing company International Food Systems. 

“Chefs like using the sprouted grains because it provides customers with a healthier product that tastes great,” Curry says. 

Chefs who have never worked with whole grain in dough shouldn’t be afraid of experimenting with these grains. Substituting half the white flour for whole-grain flour will yield a dough with a consistency similar to the base standard in most recipes. The rule of thumb for integrating sprouted grains into a dough is 15 pounds sprouted grains per 100 pounds of flour.

If chefs want a dough with a high concentration of whole-grain flour, the dough will need more water as the whole grain flours soak up more than regular flour. The structure of the dough will also change when adding in different grains. Whole-wheat flour or whole-rye flour remains glutenous and elastic, resulting in a light, fluffy dough that’s similar to the conventional pizza dough. 

Switching to a 100 percent whole grain crust can be a little trickier, but after some tinkering and fine-tuning, chefs usually find a blend that yields a gluten-free dough with the right taste and texture. Oftentimes it’s a pleasant surprise of new, nuanced flavors.

“Chefs tend to be really delighted,” Sluyter says. “Whole grains or grains in general don’t have to be this kind of plain-tasting blank slate that just acts as a vehicle for other toppings, which is kind of how refined grains end up being after they’ve been stripped of their bran and germ and have lost a lot of that flavor that’s originally present in the kernel.” 

Some grains like sorghum and barley bring a nuttiness to the dish while other grains like amaranth add a peppery taste to crust. Teff takes on a sweeter profile than other grain flours. 

“You can use those characteristics in building mixes and toppings that really help those flavors shine and create a product that as a whole has this amazing, robust flavor to it,” Sluyter says.

Whole grains can also be more visually appealing. Just swapping out a portion of standard flour for whole grain can subtly alter the color of the crust, while other ingredients like heritage-blue or red corn yield more vibrant hues that pop. Sprouted purple corn creates a speckled crust. For an especially dark crust, some chefs are even baking with black barley—a rarer variety of the glutenous grain.

“It also makes a nice presentation from an eye-appeal standpoint,” Curry says. 

In order to find the right blend of grains, some chefs are handmilling their flour. Even though the process is time-consuming, it produces the freshest flour. It may not be practical for every concept to hand-mill its flour, but the results are worth it. 

“A lot of chefs are getting really excited about the increased flavor and just a really intense aroma that comes with fresh milled grains,” she says. “The taste difference is really great.”