Dough Rollers Debunked

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From time-to-time I get a call to fill in for a vacationed pizza-maker at my grandpa's spot, Porretta's. It's usually just a couple days a couple times a year, but of course I love it when it happens. This is where I spent high school summers learning how to make pizzas and where my obsession started.

When I work, I work the dough and sauce station. It's where the tickets come first so you gotta keep up with the phone girls, try not to get buried in tickets, prioritize the delivery/pickup/to-go orders, and keep the topping line moving. It's important, but also the spot where a mess-up causes the least amount of damage. If you mess up a dough stretch you just do it over and all you lose is some dough and maybe 5 minutes. It's the oven guy that has to finish, launch, bake, cut, and box the pizzas while keeping a mental map of the order tickets relative to the enormous 6-deck rotating oven. I mean, they got this figured out so they're not asking me to come in and be a hero. They're just asking me to help.

So last week I got the call and before it got busy, and like I always do when there is pizza around, I started posting to Instagram. I posted the picture above with some videos, and when my shift was over I found some chirpy comments about the dough roller. Man, people freak out when they see a machine.

A DOUGH ROLLER?! WHAT'S WITH THE MACHINE?! HAND TOSSED ONLY!! C'MON, MAN!! YOU CUTTING CORNERS?!

They were all good-spirited (except for the ones from New York of course) and I love the comments, so I'm not trying to call anyone out or put them in their place. No way. I just feel like I should expose or clarify this part of the Chicago-style pizzeria because a dough roller is a kitchen staple and apparently not many people have seen it. Makes sense I guess. It's not very glamorous and spinning dough on your finger and throwing it up in the air makes for better TV. Regardless, if you're looking for a crackery thin pizza of uniform thickness, at a range of sizes, and you plan on making more than a few in one night, then a dough roller is your best bet.

(let the below GIFs load, it's worth it)

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First of all, a dough roller is just a powered rolling pin. Just like the rolling pin in your kitchen. Just like the one your grandma uses to make pizza. And, for those chirpy New Yorkers, just like the wine bottle they use at your beloved Lucali (gasp!). Yep, it's cute, but it's also a rolling pin.

The dough roller I know best has three rollers that make two different passes. The top pass handles a thick dough ball right from the tray and flattens and stretches it down to a manageable thickness before putting it through the adjustable rollers on the bottom pass. It's also there to combine multiple pieces of dough into one sheet. For example, depending on your dough ball size, you might need 1-1/2 balls to make an XL pizza. Or, if you're a pizzeria that cuts from a batch of dough and doesn't ball at all, you might make a few cuts to get the right amount. So you give the separate pieces a good smush, run em through the top, and on the other side comes a combined and uniform sheet. A dough ball only goes through the top pass once and we don't adjust the top roller at all.

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The bottom pass is what determines the thickness of the crust and is adjusted with a knob that locks into a number 1 through 10. We want to get the dough down to about 2 or 3, but since the dough is still pretty thick after the top pass, we run it through number 5 or 6 first. You can see the two adjustments in the two clips above. Maybe you could get away with always leaving the knob on your final number, but the two passes make for a gradual and smooth arrival at your destination thickness. Plus, forcing a thick dough through a thin setting will overwork the machine, require more flour, and even cause the machine to sputter a little which can produce a rough sheet with little tracks in the dough.

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Once the dough's gone through it's final bottom pass, you're left with an irregular shape that needs to be docked and then trimmed to the ordered size. Like the dough roller, a docker is another misunderstood tool that gets criticized because it makes the pizza less airy and fluffy. Its purpose is to basically perforate the dough so it doesn't bubble up or overly inflate the whole pizza during baking. It's the same thing you do when you take a fork to the top of your apple pie before baking. Again, this is a thin crust pizza and, just because everyone wrestles over that one piece with the bubble, doesn't mean we want the whole pizza like that. Just dock it! The holes are really small, and most of the time just dimples, so the sauce won't slip through.

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Now all's left is to top and bake and you got yourself a beautifully rolled and docked, thin crust, sausage and pepperoni, Chicago style pizza. Again, this is a dough-stretching technique specific to a style; don't be silly and put a Neapolitan dough through a roller and expect Neapolitan characteristics. Same goes for a NY style pizza where you're trying to get a defined and raised crust. You'll struggle. Just know that a dough roller is a common tool for a specific task, and does not change or diminish the quality of the pizza or the ingredients. And don't freak out next time you see one!