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

By: the PROs

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

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!

Let’s get started!

What is Gluten?

Gluten is a complex mixture of proteins found primarily in wheat, but also in other grains such as barley and rye. In the context of pizza, gluten is a vital component that gives pizza dough its characteristic stretch and elasticity.

When water is added to wheat flour, the gluten proteins gliadin and glutenin bond together to form a network that can stretch and expand. This gluten network also traps carbon dioxide gases produced by yeast during fermentation, enabling the dough to rise and creating the light, airy texture found in a well-made pizza crust.

As the dough is baked, the heat causes the gluten network to set, maintaining the structure of the pizza crust. The amount and quality of gluten in the flour can significantly affect the texture of the finished pizza, with high-gluten flours generally producing a chewier crust.

Despite its crucial role in traditional pizza making, gluten can cause health issues for individuals with celiac disease, wheat allergy, or non-celiac gluten sensitivity, leading to the development of gluten-free pizza alternatives.

mixed pizza dough with gluten development
Gluten in Pizza Dough

Is There Gluten in Pizza Dough?

Yes, traditional pizza dough typically contains gluten because it’s made from wheat flour. Gluten, which is a protein found in wheat, barley, and rye, gives the pizza dough its elasticity and the ability to rise, resulting in a chewy texture that is characteristic of pizza crust.

gluten in flour

However, for those with celiac disease, gluten sensitivity, or who prefer a gluten-free diet, there are alternative types of pizza dough available that use gluten-free flour, such as rice flour, almond flour, or special gluten-free blends.

What Does Gluten Do for Pizza Dough?

Gluten plays a significant role in the characteristics and quality of pizza dough. When water is added to wheat flour to make the dough, the gluten proteins gliadin and glutenin bond to form a stretchable network. This network provides the dough with elasticity, allowing it to be stretched and shaped without tearing, which is particularly important for creating thin, hand-tossed pizza crusts.

The same network also traps carbon dioxide gases produced by the yeast during the fermentation process, causing the dough to rise and creating an airy, soft texture inside the crust.

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

pizza crust close up

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!

Finally, when the pizza is baked, the heat sets the gluten network, helping to maintain the crust’s shape and providing a pleasantly chewy texture. Essentially, gluten is the component that gives traditional pizza dough its structure and distinctive mouthfeel.

How Does the Amount of Gluten Affect Pizza Dough?

The amount of gluten in pizza dough significantly impacts its texture and chewiness. A high-gluten flour, often used in pizza dough recipes, creates a more elastic and extensible dough, which results in a chewier, bread-like crust with good structure and rise. This type of dough is ideal for thicker, hand-tossed, or New York-style pizzas.

Conversely, a dough made from lower-gluten flour will be less stretchy and might not hold shape as well. This could result in a more tender, crumbly crust, but it may not have the strength to hold heavier toppings or create large airy bubbles characteristic of certain pizza styles.

The amount of gluten can also affect the dough’s workability. Higher gluten doughs can be more resistant to shaping, but they hold their shape well during baking. Lower gluten doughs can be easier to shape, but they might spread or sag more during baking.

It’s also worth noting that the development of gluten depends not just on the flour’s initial gluten content, but also on how the dough is handled. Kneading the dough aligns the gluten proteins and strengthens the gluten network, while letting the dough rest allows the gluten to relax, making the dough easier to shape. Both of these factors can affect the final texture of the pizza crust.

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.

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.

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.

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.

King Arthur Flour

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.

Caputo Cuoco

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.

Here is what the PROs at Homemade Pizza Pro Use and Recommend

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 of 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

Developing gluten in pizza dough involves a few key steps, primarily mixing and kneading the dough. Here’s a basic process:

  1. Mixing the Ingredients: Combine your flour, yeast, water, salt, and any other ingredients your recipe requires in a mixing bowl. The water hydrates the proteins in the flour (gliadin and glutenin), enabling them to combine and form gluten.
  2. Kneading: After initially mixing the ingredients together, the dough needs to be kneaded. Kneading is a process of folding and pressing the dough, which helps align the gluten proteins and create a network that provides structure and elasticity. Kneading can be done by hand on a clean, floured surface or in a stand mixer with a dough hook attachment. The dough should be kneaded until it becomes smooth and elastic, which typically takes about 10-15 minutes when done by hand.
  3. Resting: After kneading, the dough should be allowed to rest. This resting period, also known as proofing or fermentation, lets the yeast consume sugars and produce carbon dioxide gas, which gets trapped in the gluten network and causes the dough to rise. This also allows the gluten strands to relax, making the dough easier to stretch and shape. The dough is generally left to rise until it has doubled in size, which may take a few hours depending on the temperature and the yeast used.
  4. Shaping: Once the dough has rested and risen, it can be shaped into pizza. This stretching process also helps align the gluten strands and create the thin, flat shape of the pizza.

Remember, the amount of kneading and resting can greatly affect the final texture of your pizza. Over-kneading can result in a tough crust, while under-kneading might not develop enough gluten for the dough to hold its shape. Similarly, not allowing the dough to rest sufficiently can make it difficult to shape and may result in a denser crust.

Pizza Pun

What does the German baker say to his morning customers?

Gluten Morgen!

Dough Hydration and Gluten

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.

Pouring water into  flour

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.

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.

gluten web

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.

How Long You Should Knead by Hand to Develop the Gluten?

Kneading dough by hand is a physical process that requires time and effort to achieve the desired effect on the dough. The purpose of kneading is to develop the gluten in the dough, which gives the dough its elasticity and allows it to rise, resulting in a light and airy baked product.

When you knead the dough, you are essentially aligning the gluten proteins and strengthening the gluten network. This is done by pushing, folding, and turning the dough repeatedly. When you knead by hand, the process is slower than when using a machine like a stand mixer with a dough hook because human hands can’t match the speed and consistency of a machine.

However, kneading by hand provides a tactile experience that allows bakers to feel the changes in the dough’s texture, indicating when enough gluten has been developed. The dough will typically start off sticky and lumpy, but as kneading progresses, it becomes smoother and more elastic.

Gluten development usually takes around 10-15 minutes of kneading by hand, depending on the type of dough and the specific recipe. It’s a process that can’t be rushed, as developing the gluten network is crucial for the dough’s final texture and rise.

Kneading pizza dough by hand
Kneading pizza 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.

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.

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.

Unfermented doughball

Spring test

Well-developed gluten gives pizza dough elasticity. To perform the spring test or what is also known as the poke test, 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.

testing pizza dough
Poke Test

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.

Windowpane Test

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!

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 stretch, resulting in large bubbles and a higher crust rise.

Crust Structure

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:

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.

Stretching dough

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.

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.

pizza dough tearing

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.

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.

stretching pizza dough

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.

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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