When you’re following a recipe for pizza dough online, it often seems like it’s going to be an easy task. You envision yourself twirling the dough above your head like on TV or slapping it out like a Neapolitan pizza pro. But when get your hands on the dough, it’s hard, tears or won’t stretch out without snapping back into place. Why does this happen?
Your pizza dough is too hard for one or more of the following reasons:
- Your pizza dough hasn’t rested long enough
- Your pizza dough is too cold
- Your pizza dough isn’t hydrated enough
- Your pizza dough has too much flour
- Your pizza dough has been kneaded for too long
- Your pizza dough hasn’t been fermented long enough
- You’re not using your dough’s flour correctly
By addressing these issues, you can easily solve this common problem of pizza dough that is too hard, that tears or that won’t stretch. In fact, most of these issues are interrelated, which means it’s not just a matter of solving one issue – you need to make sure you’re doing everything right.
But luckily for you, I’ve encountered each one of these issues and learned how to fix them the hard way – back when the internet wasn’t nearly as useful. It’s amazing how much you can learn over 15+ years of making pizza at home!
Your Pizza Dough Is Hard Because The Gluten Hasn’t Relaxed Enough
When you knead your pizza dough, what you’re doing is created a complex network of gluten bonds within the dough. This happens as the grains of flour are absorbed into the moisture of the pizza dough. Gluten bonds can even be formed passively such as in a no-knead pizza dough recipe.
Gluten is the muscle behind your pizza dough and it’s what gives it its ability to stretch and pull without tearing. Gluten is also what gives pizza crust its characteristically chewy texture. But gluten, just like human muscles, can become problematic when the bonds are too strong.
Pizza dough is hard when the gluten network within the dough is too tight. You can fix this issue by letting the dough relax for 10-15 minutes before attempting to stretch it again.
Like I alluded to before, think of the gluten network in your dough like human muscles. When the muscle fibers become too tight, such as after a hard workout, the muscles will feel sore and might even be difficult to stretch. But with rest and relaxation, maybe even a little massaging and gentle stretching, the muscles will loosen up and feel good again.
Pizza dough works much in the same way. When your dough has just been kneaded, it will be as strong and hard as it’s going to be. But if you let the dough rest, either for a couple of hours or a couple of days depending on the recipe, the gluten bonds will relax and you’ll find the stretching and shaping process is much easier.
Pizza Dough That’s Too Cold Will Be Hard & Difficult To Stretch
This point is related to the previous one, about resting the dough, but has an important distinction. Temperature plays a big role in the elasticity and hardness of your pizza dough.
A common mistake I see people make, even big-time youtubers with hundreds of thousands of follows, is working with cold dough.
It’s tempting to just take your dough out of the fridge and start stretching it, but this is really a recipe for disaster. The dough will not stretch properly and you’ll get sickly looking dark spotting all over your baked crust.
When your pizza dough is too cold, such as when taken directly from the fridge, the gluten bonds will be extremely tight. If you allow the pizza dough to rest at room temperature for 1-2 hours beforehand, these gluten bonds will relax and it will be much softer and easier to stretch and shape.
A Higher Hydration Level Will Soften Your Pizza Dough
Hydration is one of the key factors that will make a bland pizza crust amazing. Readers of this blog will know that I advocate for using a very wet pizza dough because I love the fluffy crust it bakes into.
But a higher hydration level will not only make your pizza crust softer, it will make the pizza dough much softer and more pliable as well.
So if you’re finding your pizza dough is too hard or tough to stretch, it’s very likely a hydration issue.
A high level of hydration will soften hard pizza dough and allow it to stretch more easily and puff up nicely when baked. I recommend a hydration level of 65-75% for optimal softness and baking in a home oven.
But this doesn’t simply mean to wet your pizza dough before you shape it. Brushing some water on a pizza dough can be helpful if you’ve allowed it to crust over in the open air, but this will not make the dough softer or easier to work with if it’s too dry.
To properly hydrate your pizza dough, you need to increase the water level in your ingredients when you mix the dough in the first place.
My own personal pizza dough recipe uses a 68% hydration level. This gives me a pizza that bakes into a fluffy crust as well as a dough that is soft without being too wet. This is the best of both worlds.
To best understand hydration levels in pizza dough, think of it in terms of the percentage of water vs the total amount of flour. So to use my pizza recipe’s example, you would use 680ml of water for every 1000g of flour.
Too Much Flour Is Making Your Pizza Dough Too Hard And Tough
Since we just talked about the importance of having enough hydration in your dough, it should stand to reason that adding too much flour is equally bad.
But when many people get into trouble adding too much flour to their pizza dough, it’s not usually in the ingredients mixing stage. In fact, the recipe they’re following may very well have more than enough hydration.
This is because they’re adding too much flour to their pizza dough in the dough prepping and kneading stage. They do this because the dough seems sticky and difficult to work with.
When using flour to handle or knead your pizza dough, don’t incorporate too much of it back into the dough to avoid making it too hard or dry. You can do this by coating the pizza dough’s wet exterior very sparingly and avoiding the temptation to re-knead too much of the flour back into the dough.
A trick here, at least for the kneading stage, is to avoid kneading altogether. You can do this by following a no-knead recipe such as this one here. This eliminates the need to handle the pizza dough at all and so doesn’t require any extra flour.
And if you’re in the dough ball prepping stage, you shouldn’t be using regular flour at all. Semolina is best for this because it will make your pizza dough ball easier to handle while also not absorbing too moisture due to the density of the grain. Semolina also doesn’t clump to the pizza dough like regular flour so it won’t incorporate into the dough as easily.
The only excuse for kneading more flour into your dough is if you make a mistake and you need to reform it back into a ball. But if this does happen, you’ll still need to let the dough ball rest again for another few hours. This will allow the new gluten that has formed a chance to relax.
Will Kneading Pizza Dough Too Long Make It Hard?
Strictly speaking, kneading pizza dough for too long won’t make it hard. A pizza dough that has been overworked will still be soft to the touch and can still make a pizza with soft crust.
However, a pizza dough that has been over-kneaded can be hard to work with and difficult to shape. This is because the excess kneading has created too many and too strong gluten bonds within the dough.
A pizza dough that has been overworked will be difficult to shape into a disc and will spring back into a tight ball like an elastic band.
Some of the master Neapolitan pizza makers refer to dough like this as being “nervous” or “shy”. I like this analogy because it perfectly encapsulates the idea of not being ready for something and retreating back to a safe place, just like an animal might when anxious in the face of a new situation.
And just like you or I, or another animal, might need time to relax and acclimatize to a new situation, so does dough. So to avoid a hard pizza dough that is “shy” or “nervous”, just give it time to relax.
If you’ve kneaded your pizza dough too long, be sure to give it an extra long resting period. Perhaps an extra hour at room temperature before baking, or better yet an extra night cold-fermenting in the fridge. This will give the gluten bonds a chance to relax, or even to partially break down if you choose to cold-ferment, resulting in a pliable and soft pizza dough.
Make Your Pizza Dough Soft With An Extra-Long Fermentation Period
One of the best kept secrets in the pizza making world is fermentation. This is actually one of the key differences between artisan pizza and mass produced, low quality, run-of-the-mill pizzeria pizzas.
Many local pizzerias in my area, including some of the national corporate chains, make their pizza dough in the morning and serve it throughout the day. They even tout this as an indication of the freshness of their pizzas.
But dough that has been made in the same day has only had a few hours at the most to ferment. The fermentation process is when gluten breaks down and the yeast turns the flours and sugars into gas. The longer the fermentation lasts, the weaker the gluten and the more gas there is.
Letting your pizza dough ferment for as long as possible is one of the best ways to ensure your pizza dough is soft and not elastic. You can ferment your pizza dough for up to a week in the fridge.
The weakened dough and extra gasses from this fermentation will bake into a pizza crust that is fluffy and full of flavor with a tanginess similar to sourdough bread.
In fact, some people avoid doing this because it makes their pizza dough too soft. But while the dough does become much more delicate and soft after a long ferment, it can still be handled quite easily using proper technique. Just be sure to use plenty of semolina flour and a light touch.
You’ll find that a highly fermented dough barely requires any stretching at all to reach an optimal shape. You really just want to very lightly press the air from the middle to the outer edges and the pizza dough should more or less slump into position. Be very careful when flipping it over in the semolina flour or you can poke a hole in it.
But if you can master the art of working with a long-fermented dough, you’ll be rewarded with a super-soft dough and an incredibly tasty pizza crust.
Can The Wrong Flour Make Your Pizza Dough Hard?
Generally speaking, the type of flour you use doesn’t necessarily affect the hardness or softness of the pizza dough by itself.
I always recommend Tipo 00, or even just a regular all-purpose flour, because both of these can give you a nice pizza crust that is delicate and fluffy.
But even a high-in-gluten pizza dough made from bread flour or whole wheat can be soft as well. It just needs extra time to rest so the gluten bonds have a chance to relax and soften the dough making it easier to stretch.
Another factor to consider when making pizza dough with larger grain flours is hydration. Larger grains often absorb more moisture and so you should adjust your dough’s hydration level up by 1-2% to account for this.
As with most things when it comes to making pizza, it’s not so much what you use it’s how you use it. Likewise, you can use whichever kind of flour you prefer as long as you know how to compensate for its unique characteristics.
So in this way you can’t really use the wrong type of flour for pizza dough, but you can use it incorrectly. This means if you’re using a harder flour with a larger grain, just make sure to let it relax and use enough water for a soft and relatively pliable pizza dough.
When making pizza for yourself or your family, it’s nice to be working with a dough that’s soft and pliable. A soft and pliable dough will usually make the best shaped pizzas with the softest crust.
But if you find yourself with a hard dough that springs back into a ball when you try to stretch, try to keep what we’ve discussed in mind. Remember that a pizza dough that is properly hydrated, properly rested and not overworked is the best way to ensure a soft pizza dough and ultimately a delicious pizza crust.
So go ahead and let that extra wet pizza dough rest a little longer before baking, and don’t be afraid to leave it in the fridge overnight either. And know that no matter what kind of flour or yeast or water you use you can still make the perfect pizza for you at home.