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Pizza Gut

“If you can make a pizza that doesn’t give me heartburn, you’ll be onto something big. Big.”

This story comes from Lucky Peach #14: The Obsession Issue. For more great stuff like this, subscribe to the magazine!

About a year ago, I was having lunch with my friend Frank Castronovo, the chef of Frankies Spuntino and Prime Meats. He was lamenting how much it pains him to eat pizza these days. “If you can make a pizza that doesn’t give me heartburn, you’ll be onto something big. Big.”

I can’t speak to Frank’s forecast, but I started considering routes to a more digestible pizza anyway. Healthy junk food is the Holy Grail. We all dream of food we want to eat compulsively that won’t punish us for eating it. This kind of thinking has been on my mind since I was a kid. My mother fed us a sort of Texas-style macrobiotic diet (think chile rellenos stuffed with brown rice and turkey) at least a couple of days per week, cooked from recipes she picked up when the diet was gaining a bit of traction in the mid-eighties.

My first real job in high school was at a natural-foods store called A Moveable Feast, where I pretty much lived on grain-and-bean bowls. The chef there, Carl, is a legend (in natural-food circles at least!). He was utilizing miso and koji in very creative ways, mostly involving vegetables, all the way back in 1986—and in Texas, no less. He introduced me to the concept of umami and the importance of fermentation. It’s a torch now carried by the cooks and chefs I admire most: my guys Nick Balla and Cortney Burns at Bar Tartine; Joshua Skenes at Saison; and the teams at Relæ, Noma, Momofuku, and In De Wulf. All of them are harnessing fermentation to make whole foods more delicious.

Finally, my first baking mentor, Richard Bourdon of Berkshire Mountain Bakery, impressed the importance of digestibility on me. His bread-baking philosophy was borne of a macrobiotic perspective, with whole-food nutrition and digestibility at its heart.

That might just sound like a slew of healthy buzzwords, but let me break it down from a taste perspective. You start with fresh, expertly milled grain that includes lots of fiber, vitamins, and minerals, and a ton of flavor from the bran and germ. (As with spices, the difference in taste between freshly milled flour and stuff that’s been sitting around for weeks or months is like night and day.) Then you make the dough with a natural leaven and ample water to hydrate, let it ferment for at least a couple days, and bake it in a very hot wood-fired oven until it’s just cooked through (which is the point when the starches have gelatinized). The combination of fresh-milled flour, long fermentation, and proper baking makes for a superior product—I’m not talking about soggy hippie brown bread here.

A large part of my life’s work has been finding new ways to incorporate whole grains beyond just swapping out one commercial flour for another. Right now the bakers at Tartine and I are using whole-grain koji rice to make soft sandwich buns. The koji breaks down the starch in the grain into natural sugars that give the bun a fast-food-style sweetness and a soft texture. On the other hand, French viennoiserie pastries are much more difficult to make from whole grains than breads or cookies or tea cakes, so we use more white flour than I’d like for things like puff pastry and croissants. I don’t really want to sacrifice the texture of these classics in favor of healthfulness (but this doesn’t mean we’re not going to try and make them more wholesome as we learn and grow as bakers). Pizza dough, however, is ripe for tinkering.

Pizza goes down easy. It hits all of our savory and comfort buttons. It’s no sweat for most people to take down half a pie by themselves. But the super-refined white flour in typical pizza dough—plus the cheese and fatty sausages and toppings—are gut bombs that slow digestion and sit in your stomach long after you’ve finished eating. Moreover, all that refined flour is typically leavened quickly with commercial yeast that, while certainly capable of adding flavor if used properly, does not digest and break down the flour as completely as a natural leavening agent that’s given time to do its job. Commercial yeasts are designed to produce gas and leaven breads with great efficiency, whereas natural sourdough leavens have both wild yeasts and lactobacillus bacteria. The bacteria are a second fermenting force, helping to partially predigest sugars for us. With pizza made from commercial yeasts and refined flour, what you end up with is an immovable mass in your stomach. Even your fancy restaurant pizzas—topped with crème fraîche and gravlax, or wild mushrooms and nettles—are generally made with the same sort of dough.

Last summer, I embarked on a pizza and cheese tour of about a dozen places in southern Italy with Christian Puglisi, the chef of Relæ in Copenhagen. Christian and his team—baker, pastry chef, and pizzaiolo—were doing research for a new restaurant called Bæst. Christian is Sicilian, and Bæst is where his Italian heritage is given the chance to romp around with Scandinavian ingredients. For the duration of the trip, our diet consisted almost exclusively of pizzas and mozzarella di bufala, with the occasional taste of fior di latte—the cow’s-milk version of mozzarella. Bæst’s focus is on pizza, and the guys were looking at different dough styles and getting ready to set up their own fresh-mozzarella production.

After just one day, all that white flour and cheese brought my digestion to a complete, grinding halt. I was experiencing Frank’s pizza problem firsthand. Granted, it’s not a huge surprise that eating nothing but pizza and cheese will lead to stomach troubles, but I was shocked at how suddenly I could feel the effects. Never in my life have I experienced such a swift and radical bodily change brought on by what I was eating. We were going to bed early every night and drinking very little alcohol, yet I could barely keep my eyes open during the drives between towns. The worst of it struck during the final stretch up the Amalfi coast—one of the most beautiful places on Earth.

Thankfully, in Caiazzo, thirty miles north of Naples, we met Franco Pepe. Pepe has been heralded by Nancy Silverton and other bakers as the best pizza-maker in the world, a designation more or less confirmed by our experience. If nothing else, Pepe made the best pizza I ate on the trip. What set it apart from every other specimen was a slow, extended fermentation process. When we arrived, Pepe brought us two pizzas—one made with dough that had been fermented twice as long as the other. Though Franco wouldn’t let us in on too many details, I’d guess the latter had fermented for at least eighteen to twenty-four hours. The long-fermented pizza was remarkable, exceptionally flavorful, and noticeably much more tender. Pepe is working with a local agronomist to resurrect the original wheat varieties of his region, freshly milled to his specifications. Paired with the long natural ferment, it makes for a delicious and digestible pizza.

There are two key reasons to ferment dough. The first is flavor. When we start with a grain that tastes good, fermentation adds complexity: both savoriness and acidity that, when properly balanced, enhance the other flavors we love in pizza. Secondly, it’s becoming more and more evident that natural fermentation is the key to making grains digestible. Fermentation breaks down proteins and starches, increases nutrient availability, and reduces the work our digestive systems have to do. The Guardian and the New York Times have reported as much, as has Michael Pollan.

For years I’ve been telling my wife, Liz, that she should be able to eat Tartine’s bread despite her gluten intolerance. The long fermentation we employ to leaven our dough gives lactic- and acetic-acid bacteria time to break down gluten molecules into constituent amino acids. The Internet buzzes with plenty of other people who have proposed and debated this same idea. But I’ve never been able to compel Liz to put her body on the line for science and eat some of our bread. Finally, a few months ago, at a dinner with Michael Pollan and his wife, Judith, Michael was telling us that he’d done extensive research on gluten intolerance while writing Cooked. In a way that only Michael Pollan can, he convinced Liz that she’d more than likely be fine eating our bread. So that night after dinner we returned home and Liz proceeded to eat half a loaf of bread. She said she wanted to make sure it was a large enough amount that her body would notice and respond. That evening and the following day, she was free and clear of any kind of gluten reaction. My belief confirmed, I started bringing bread home from the bakery on a regular basis. After a couple of weeks, Liz told me to stop. I wondered if she’d had a bad episode. No, she said, it was because the temptation to binge was becoming an issue. Now I bring home just enough for our daughter, plus a bit extra for the occasional indulgence.

In any case, while extended fermentation eases things for the gluten-sensitive, the problem with most modern bread begins with the wheat itself, and how it’s processed into flour. In commercial white flours, the wheat’s bran and germ are removed, stripping it of nutrition and flavor. The flour is then chemically hammered into its pure-white, shelf-stable form by bleaching and oxidation. The dichotomy we’ve created in America between “white” and “wheat” bread—reinforced by the toast choices at diners around the country—is apt, considering how little resemblance white flour actually bears to its source material. But even what we buy as whole wheat is rarely true whole wheat. Most times, the flour is separated by machine into its constituent parts—bran, germ, endosperm—then recombined after a good deal of the flavorful and nutrient-rich germ and parts of the bran are removed. They contain much of the fiber and other components needed to ensure proper digestion and nutrient absorption, but are removed because they also go rancid most quickly, and flour companies want their product to be able to sit on your shelf for as long as possible. (The process of “enriching flour” was introduced to add back some of the nutrients stripped out when the bran and germ are removed.)

I’m not against white flour per se, nor am I against whole-wheat flours that aren’t 100 percent whole wheat. In fact, I’m purchasing a mill that will allow us to grind our own higher-extraction flours. True whole wheat is 100 percent extraction—meaning the full weight of the grain is turned into flour. White flour is generally about 70 percent extraction. There remains a lot of in-between ground where some of the bran—say 15 or 20 percent—can be sifted out, and what’s left is still a more wholesome version of white flour. The key is to mill properly (slowly, with a cold stone mill).

Just as important as the flavor benefits of fresh-milling flour is the fact that it ensures that we know where our flour is coming from. Flour is a huge part of both the modern food system and the history of cuisine. We pay too little attention to it. For chefs and eaters alike, knowing how your grain is milled and where it’s from should be on par with knowing how your meat is raised and butchered, or whether or not your vegetables are grown with pesticides.

We’ll house our mill at a new bakery and restaurant we’re opening this year in San Francisco. It’s where we’ll put the concept of the digestible pizza into practice. I’ve been dreaming about and planning a pizza place since even before Frank mentioned his dilemma to me, and I’ve sampled and considered dozens of different pizza and flatbread iterations across the globe. The world does not lack for pizza, but very few pizza-makers are approaching pizza the way Franco Pepe is. Picking and choosing from our favorite examples and our own baking experience, I think we’re closing in on a distinctly Tartine approach to pizza, based around long fermentations and flour that’s milled the same day it’s used.

The recipe is still evolving, but the general idea is this:

We’ll blend two starters (poolishes)—an overnight-fermented poolish and a same-day poolish. The overnight poolish brings extra flavor and tenderizes the dough, while the same-day poolish lends leavening power. This isn’t anything particularly special. Many pizzas utilize bigas or poolishes. Ours begins to differ with the introduction of a third starter—a natural leaven—and a daylong batch fermentation, which will greatly increase the digestibility of the final pizza.

Lastly and most importantly, freshly milled, high-extraction flours makes all the difference. Not only are they more flavorful, but fresh flours also tend to be more active and ferment at a higher rate than store-bought flours. If you don’t have access to fresh flour, you might try a slightly longer-batch ferment than what we employ.