Frankie Says RELAX

Whenever I do a flatbread recipe I always get one or two questions about dough “improvers” and/or dough “relaxers”. It seems they pop up in more than a few published recipes for pizza, pita, focaccia and they like. What are they and are they really necessary? The short answer is they’re extra things ingredient makers have invented for you to buy and no, you don’t need them. The long answer, well, it’s a bit longer.

If you’ve worked much with yeast doughs, you know that most of them, especially stretchy ones like pizza dough, don’t like to be told what to do. You roll them out and they spring right back. The cause is of course developed gluten, long curly protein molecules that have bonded together as a result of exposure to moisture and agitation. Stretch the dough out and these chains of molecules extend out like a spring. Release it and they pop back. It’s pretty much that simple.

Rolling out a gluten-rich dough requires the baker to at least temporarily break some of these chains. Most of the time this feat is accomplished by resting the dough for short periods. This allows the forces of gravity to act on the dough, pulling it downward and outward with enough sustained pressure that some of the gluten chains break. The dough becomes “extensible”.

An alternate strategy, good for high-gluten, high-yeast doughs like pita and pizza that can’t sit for too long before overproofing, is to add what’s called a “reducing agent” to the dough. These additives can be a lot of things, from sulfites to synthetic amino acids, but the most common among them is a naturally occurring chemical compound called glutathione. Glutathione reacts with gluten molecules, temporarily breaking the chains and relaxing the dough. It’s produced by yeast.

So great! We just add more yeast to the dough, right? Nope. The dough already contains enough of it. Add much more you’ll get an explosive rise followed by a rapid and permanent collapse, as the yeast consumes most of the dough’s starch, leaving very little to hold it up. What to do? The answer: add a strain of yeast that isn’t actually a leavener. You mean types of yeast exist that neither consume starch nor give off CO2? Indeed they do, and that’s what commercial dough relaxers are often made from. Clever, yes?

But when you actively undermine the formation of gluten, doesn’t it have an effect on a dough’s ability to rise? Indeed it does, which is why most dough relaxers contain a little chemical leavening (like some baking powder) to make up for it. Kinda funny, eh?

Happily, a relaxer is not at all essential to good flatbread. Hundreds of generations of flatbread bakers have gotten along just fine without one, so you can too. Just let your balls of pita dough sit for the requisite time before you roll them. They’ll still be a little elastic, just keep rolling, rolling…

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