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Demystifying Gluten in Pizza. Here’s What You Need to Know

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Gluten in Pizza

Gluten is getting a bad rap these days with all the buzz about gluten-free pizza and the proliferation of pizza crust alternatives.

However, gluten is a crucial component of classical pizza crusts and gives them their texture and structure.

Understanding what gluten does and how to develop the gluten in pizza crust will take you far along your journey to becoming a homemade pizza pro.

So, if you are ready to master the art of making pizza dough, read on to discover what savvy pizza chefs know about gluten and how to transform it into delicious pizza crust!

mixed pizza dough with gluten development
Gluten in Pizza Dough

What is Gluten?

Gluten is a long, stringy protein made up of two major proteins in wheat.

When wheat flour is exposed to water and mixed, the proteins rearrange themselves and interact to form a network, or mesh, of gluten that holds the ingredients together as a dough.

This video is brought to you by SciShow

Gluten in flour

Is there gluten in pizza dough?

Generally, all flours are made from wheat (rye and a few other grains) and have gluten proteins, so any pizza made from these flours will contain gluten.

Gluten is an essential component of traditional pizza dough. (We’ll talk about gluten-free dough for pizza a bit later.)

Pro Tip

The gluten-free diet doesn’t mean that all grains and cereals are off the menu. You can find quinoa, polenta, buckwheat, corn, millet, and tapioca are just some of the naturally gluten-free grains which can be included in the diet. Just check the labels to make sure you are not using a contaminated version.

pizza crust closeup

What does gluten do for pizza dough?

Gluten gives pizza (and bread) dough its structure, stretchiness, and ability to hold air bubbles and rise when baked.

Gluten also provides the chewiness that we love in a pizza crust. If there were no gluten in pizza dough, we would end up with a crust more like a cracker- or a piece of cardboard!

How Does the Amount of Gluten Affect Pizza Dough?

Pizza chefs optimize the gluten content of their dough to strike the right balance of chewiness, elasticity, strength, and airiness.

A lower gluten-containing dough will form a crust with large airy bubbles, while a higher gluten dough leads to a denser crust with many small air bubbles.

This happens because the stronger the gluten network, the more it holds its shape against the force of expanding bubbles of air and steam.

How Much Gluten is in Pizza Dough?

The gluten content of pizza dough is influenced by the flour’s gluten protein content and the method used to develop the dough.

To get the gluten to form in your pizza dough, you must start with the right ingredients, which means flour and water.

Flours have different levels of gluten-forming proteins, so we’ll start with this essential ingredient.

king arthur flour

How Can I Tell How Much Gluten is in Flour?

Commercial flours will have the protein content on the label. Gluten-forming proteins make up the bulk of the protein in wheat flour, assuming that the protein content equals the gluten content.

Of course, this is potential gluten content because we have not yet developed gluten, but we’ll focus on flour as a critical ingredient for now.

What is the Best Gluten Content for Pizza Dough?

The amount of gluten-forming protein in pizza dough can vary somewhat, but it is generally preferred to be around 12% of the flour by dry weight.

This is a bit more protein than regular all-purpose flour but less than high-protein bread flour.

For strength and pliability, professional bakers of thin-crust pizzas tend to use a higher gluten flour – they want it to be very stretchy.

As is typical for deep-dish or Chicago-style pizzas, less gluten in the pizza dough makes for a more tender, less chewy crust.

Can the Gluten Content of Flour be Increased?

Homemade pizza bakers have options to achieve the desired gluten level in the flour.

First, shop around – some flour brands have more protein content than others.

Suppose you have difficulty finding the desired flour off the shelf, or you wish to experiment with different gluten levels in your dough recipe.

In that case, we recommend starting with all-purpose flour and supplementing with gluten as necessary.

How to Add Gluten to Flour?

Purified wheat gluten, also called vital wheat gluten, is a commercially available protein product. It contains about 75% gluten-forming proteins by weight.

Adding vital wheat gluten to a low-gluten or all-purpose flour will increase the gluten content to the level required for the type of dough you wish to make. 

If you want to learn more about Vital Wheat Gluten don’t forget to check our article on Vital Wheat Gluten: The Magic Touch for Pizza Dough.

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Our Top Pick
Anthony's Vital Wheat Gluten

Vital Wheat Gluten, also known as the Natural Nemesis of Gluten-Free, is derived from the protein found in wheat. Our Vital Wheat Gluten comes in powder form and is made from wheat flour that has been hydrated to activate the gluten, and then processed to remove everything but that gluten.

That gluten is then dried and grounded back into a powder. When mixed with water and spiced, our Vital Wheat Gluten will make seitan, a vegetarian "meat" that is rich in protein. Our Vital Wheat Gluten, which contains tons of protein, can also be added to regular flour to increase the content, resulting in high-gluten flour, which is ideal for baking chewier bread.

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How to Calculate How Much Gluten to Add to the Flour?

Let’s say you have some flour that is 10% protein, and you want to increase the (gluten) protein content to 12%. We like to measure flour in grams, so let’s assume you’re starting with 500g.

These numbers show that the flour currently contains: 500g x 10% = 50g of protein.

However, your desired protein content is 500g x 12% = 60g of protein.

Therefore, the amount of gluten-forming protein you need to add to this batch of flour is:  60g – 50g = 10g.
Because vital wheat gluten is not 100% gluten-forming protein, we use the formula:

Formula to Add Gluten to Flour

1.33g vital wheat gluten = 1g pure gluten-forming protein

Therefore, we need 10g x 1.33 = 13.3g vital wheat protein. Vital wheat gluten is also easily measured by the teaspoon, and 1.33g = 1/4 teaspoon. So, to get 10g pure gluten-forming protein, you would need 2.5 teaspoons.

To summarize, adding 2.5 teaspoons of vital wheat gluten to 500g of 10% flour will increase the flour’s gluten content to 12%.

How to Develop the Gluten in Pizza Dough?

Now that we’ve got the right amount of gluten-forming protein in our flour, we want to optimize its development into gluten.

For gluten to form, the proteins must configure themselves correctly. Practically speaking, three major things are required for proper gluten development:

  • Water
  • Mixing / Kneading
  • Time

Pizza Pun

What does the German baker say to his morning customers?

Gluten Morgen!

Pouring water into bowl with flour

What is Meant by Dough Hydration?

The dough must contain some source of liquid in this case, water, or it wouldn’t come together.

But hydration (incorporating water) has a specific and essential role in gluten formation.

Adding water to flour causes the gluten-forming proteins to absorb the water (hydrate) and loosen up a bit; this, in turn, gives them the freedom to rearrange themselves into gluten.

It is also important to maintain space between the gluten strands so they don’t get too tight. Pizza chefs pay close attention to their dough’s hydration level to ensure the pizza crust has the desired properties.

gluten web image

How Does Hydration Affect the Gluten Structure?

The hydration level of dough is the amount of water in a dough recipe and is expressed as a percentage of the flour weight, per the baker’s percentage method.

The higher the hydration, the crispier the crust will be. If hydration is too low, the result is a dense, tough dough challenging to work with.

It’s best to start with a hydration level in the 65% range to give the gluten plenty of room to form without letting the dough get too sticky.

What Does Kneading Do to the Gluten Content of Pizza Dough?

The amount of gluten in pizza dough is impacted by the preparation method and the ingredients. Simply mixing the raw ingredients does not do enough to develop the gluten properly.

Gluten must be encouraged to form during the dough-making process, which is why we knead or mix it for a given time.

As home chefs, we can knead by hand or use a stand-up mixer with a dough hook (or a food processor) to do our kneading for us.

Kneading pizza dough by hand image

Why Does Kneading the Dough by Hand Require So Much Time?

Kneading dough by hand is the traditional method for developing gluten.

You may remember your grandmother kneading dough in the kitchen for hours.

You probably wondered why she kneaded it for so long after it formed a ball.

The purpose of kneading the dough is to continually mix the proteins, which gives them more opportunities to make contact.

It takes a lot of kneading to provide the proteins enough chances to find each other and connect, so they form the gluten strands we want.

What are the Benefits of Using a Mixer to Knead Pizza Dough?

Electric dough mixers accelerate gluten formation in the dough simply by making gluten-forming contacts much faster than we can by hand.

Professional pizza bakers use large-capacity mixers because they deal with so much dough and limited time.

In addition, it improves batch-to-batch consistency by applying even power and time to the dough mixing process.

The one drawback to power mixing is the risk of over-kneading; therefore, we recommend that you stick to specified mixing times and use the techniques below to test for readiness.

What is Autolyze?

When flour and water are mixed, enzymes naturally present in the flour begin to digest some of the starches and proteins.

This process is known as an autolyze and promotes the development of gluten and flavor.

In baking, the autolyze step is typically done for 30-60 minutes.

Some pizza recipes will call for an autolyze step in conjunction with some kneading to achieve the desired dough texture. Even a dough resting period will give those enzymes time to work their magic.

How Do I Know When the Gluten is Fully Developed?

No matter what method (or combination of methods) you use to develop the gluten in your pizza dough, it is essential to know when the optimal development has occurred.

The following three ways will teach you what to look and feel to determine whether your dough is ready to be shaped, topped, and cooked.

Unfermented doughball

Visual inspection

You’ll know when the gluten has developed by the appearance and texture of the dough ball. Before kneading, it will look wet, shiny, and ragged. As the gluten develops, the surface of the dough will become smoother and less shiny. The dough will also firm up and allow you to form a smooth, tidy dough ball that is just a bit sticky.

testing pizza dough

Spring test

Well-developed gluten gives pizza dough elasticity: if you press the dough gently with your finger, the depression in the dough should spring back to its original shape. If it takes a lot of pressure to make a depression, the gluten is probably too tight, and the dough may need to rest for a few minutes.

windowpane test for pizza

Windowpane test

The windowpane test is a common way to see gluten development in pizza dough, and it’s really cool when it works well. Get a piece of dough about the size of a golf ball and, holding it in front of you, stretch it out into a rough square.

If you can stretch the dough enough so that the center is thin and nearly transparent (think waxed paper) and doesn’t tear, that means the dough is extensible, and the gluten is developed correctly. If it tears, you have some more kneading to do!

Pizza crust hole structure

How Does Gluten Content Affect the Crust (Hole structure)?

Gluten content affects the size of the air pockets in the crust: keeping the gluten on the low side will make the dough quickly stretched, resulting in large bubbles and a higher crust rise.

Higher gluten content creates a stronger structure, making the crust strong and keeping the bubbles small. Avoid over-developing the gluten, or you may end up with a tight dough and tough crust.

Gluten in Pizza – Troubleshooting Guide

What should I do if the dough doesn’t seem right?

We know how hard it is when you are ready to bake and eat some delicious homemade pizza, but the dough is not cooperating.

Have no fear – with our troubleshooting guide, you’ll be able to rescue your dough and enjoy the fruits of your labor. Here are some of the ways that dough can go wrong and what you can do about it:

stretching pizza dough to make circle image

The dough is too elastic

Sometimes the doughball looks beautiful, but when you stretch it out into a crust, it stubbornly snaps back into a small disk. This problem of too much elasticity is caused by the dough being too cold. (Such as
coming out of the refrigerator) or recently kneaded.

 In either case, the solution is to let the dough rest on the countertop for about 15 minutes to relax the gluten strands. After that, it should be easier to shape.

unproofed pizza dough

The dough tears

If your dough tears when you try to stretch it out, that is a sure sign that the gluten is not developed enough. Knead the dough for several minutes or until it forms a smooth, somewhat firm ball.

Let it rest for a few minutes, then try to stretch the dough out again. If you still see tearing, repeat the knead-and-rest process.

And don’t worry- this great learning experience will give you the skills to sense when the dough is right.

stretching pizza dough image

The dough is too tight or firm.

If you knead with an electric mixer, sometimes the dough gets too firm and hard to manipulate. This means that the gluten is overdeveloped, forming tight strands that are no longer elastic.

The solution to this challenge is to give the dough 15-30 minutes to relax. If it is not too overdeveloped, the dough should loosen enough to be stretched out.

Another cause of too-firm dough is cold temperatures. Make sure to pull the dough out of the refrigerator a good 15 minutes before you plan to stretch it. If it is still tight and cold, you may need to wait some more time.

Gluten-Free Pizza Dough

Is it possible to make gluten-free pizza?

If you or someone you know has the misfortune of suffering from gluten intolerance, you may not have had pizza in a very long time (or at least GOOD pizza).

Our sympathies go out to you!

The good news is that with all of the gluten-free alternatives available now, we have several options to make delicious gluten-free pizza.

What makes pizza crust gluten-free?

In order to avoid gluten in the pizza crust, there can be no wheat flour in it. Non-wheat flours such as rice, quinoa, or chickpea can produce a decent crust – find a good recipe to start with.

Can you make pizza dough without gluten?

It is possible to make a gluten-free dough, but it will behave differently than a pizza dough containing gluten.

Without the gluten, it will not be very stretchable- most of these doughs get pressed into a pan and behave more like shortbread or biscuit dough.

If you follow our recipe, you can make a tasty and satisfying gluten-free pizza crust that will allow you to enjoy pizza again!

What ingredients are in gluten-free pizza crust?

As with other gluten-free baked goods, you can use flours made of quinoa, rice, potato, chickpea, and/or tapioca to create a pizza crust.

They are often used in combination to bring different qualities to the crust. An egg is sometimes used as a binder, but vegan alternatives include ground, hydrated flax seed.

How do I make gluten-free pizza dough rise?

The dough rises when the gasses from the yeast are trapped in the dough and expand. Without gluten, we need something else to bind and trap those gas bubbles.

Proteins are usually good at holding bubbles so that an egg may be used; products designed for gluten-free baking such as xanthan gum or arrowroot starch can also perform this function for gluten-free pizza dough.

Can you make gluten-free pizza dough without yeast?

If you want to eliminate yeast in the pizza dough, you’ll need an alternative method to create gas bubbles.

The leavening agents used in desserts and quick bread are chemical leaveners, including baking soda and baking powder.

Baking soda is usually coupled with a mildly acidic ingredient such as buttermilk or vinegar; these will react in the dough to create the gas bubbles needed to allow the dough to rise.

The gluten-free dough will not rise much, but having some leavening will keep it from getting too hard.

Is there gluten in pizza sauce?

We sure hope that there is no gluten in the pizza sauce.

But if you are using commercial jarred sauce, check the label to ensure there is no wheat, which may be used as a thickener, especially in white sauces.

Tomatoes and plain canned tomato products do not have gluten, so if you make your tomato-based sauce, you are good to go gluten-free.

Is gluten-free pizza low in carbs?

If your pizza crust is made with flour, it has a fair amount of starch and other carbohydrates. You can use vegetable or nut-based alternatives, such as cauliflower or almond flour.

There are commercially available options and online recipes for these types of crusts.

Again, they will not behave or taste exactly like a traditional flour-based crust, but if you crave pizza without the carbs, this may be much more appetizing than just scraping the toppings off and eating a saucy ball of cheese!

Here’s What We are Reading

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The Last Slice

We hope that this article answers all your questions about gluten in pizza and that has inspired you to get into the kitchen and put your new dough-making knowledge to work.

Practice is the best way to develop these skills, so dive into that flour bin and have some fun with it!

Tell us about your experience – what’s it like to see your first beautiful windowpane of dough? Are you a traditional hand-kneader or a modern machine user?

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