Along with ice cream, chocolate, and burgers, pizza was definitely on my hit list when I started eating healthier. But like every single one of those foods, I have come up with a way of making them not only not bad for me, but actually good for me. If you live in the “pizza is junk food” world, this is the post for you, as I will single-handedly convince you that this universally loved indulgence can in fact, be nutritious.
It starts with the crust.
The pizza you’ll get at your local restaurant, in the freezer section of your grocery store, or out of the backseat of a teenage kid’s delivery car, is typically made with white flour. It also likely contains commercial yeast, the magical ingredient that makes dough rise quickly and predictably. There are of course other ways of making dough or crust, but these ingredients and methods can be more expensive and take more time. Most places stick to the quick and cheap, which almost always compromises our health. How do we make a healthier crust? The answer is fermentation!
Sourdough: what’s the big deal?
Sourdough is essentially fermented flour. And if you’re familiar with fermented foods, you’ll know that they are easier to digest, and contain far more nutrients than the original ingredients themselves. Sourdough bread is made by combining flour and water together with the natural yeasts that live on everything – our hands, our food, swirling around in the air – and after letting it hang out for a few days, you’ll have what’s called a “starter”. This starter is added to a basic combination of more flour, water and salt, essentially inoculating it with all of the good bacteria and friendly yeasts. These organisms create lactic acid, which neutralize phytates, making nutrients more easily absorbed by the body. Lactic acid slows down the entrance of glucose into the blood stream, preventing the infamous glycemic index roller coaster. But my favourite of all, is that lactic acid helps break down the complex structure of gluten, making it far easier to digest. That means that people who have a sensitivity to gluten (except celiacs) can potentially eat sourdough bread without digestive upset, as the protein has been changed into a simpler arrangement that is easier to break down in the body.
Three cheers for that, eh?
Down below I’ve included the recipe for both sourdough starter and making pizza from that starter. I think sourdough pizza is a great place to begin because it is far easier to pull off than bread, in my experience. No matter if your dough gets a solid rise or not, you’ll still end up with a gloriously crisp, chewy crust that will your body will also thank you for.
Toppings: not just a pretty face
The toppings on a pizza will make or break the overall flavour, but also the potential health benefits. It doesn’t take a rocket scientist to know that gobs of cheese and pepperoni are not the most health-supportive choices. So, see topping your pie as an opportunity to get creative, while sneaking in all of those veggies!
The best advice I can give you on this front, is to remember to prepare the toppings – meaning that they should be in the state that you’d enjoy eating them before putting them on the pizza. Since this style of pizza is cooked very quickly, things like garlic, onions, mushrooms, and greens are not going to change all that much in the oven. If you wouldn’t mow down on a bunch of raw Swiss chard, take those leaves on a tour of a hot skillet first. Mushrooms should be marinated or cooked beforehand (unless you like them raw), and onions, in my opinion should be caramelized. Things like olives, zucchini, tomatoes, capers, and bell peppers can be added raw since they are delicious eaten that way.
Sauce is optional, especially if you’re going to use juicy toppings, but if you are using it, keep it sparse and don’t let it sit on the dough too long, otherwise it will get soggy and sad. Pesto is a great alternative to traditional sauce, as is tapenade, roast veggie puree, romesco, chimichurri, and harissa.
And while we’re on the subject of health, did you know that pizza is THE perfect vehicle for salad? I discovered this a couple years ago when trying to make my healthy pizza even healthier. Instead of putting salad on the side, I thought, why not pile it on top? This delivers a fantastic textural contrast, while delivering that much-needed hit of freshness and bright acidity to cut the richness of the pizza. How is this not a thing? I posted a shot on Instagram some time ago and it received a lot of positive feedback, so it seems like many of you are down with the salad pizza idea. It’s two of the world’s best foods combined, and that equals true tummy happiness.
Every summer I go to my friends’ cottage, just down the river from my own in the Thousand Islands. They are enthusiastic foodies and love to cook and eat good food as much as I do. They are also passionate about a plant-based diet, fermentation, pickling, and sourdough – all things healthy and delicious! Needless to say, this weekend has become the culinary highlight of my summer.
The only difference between this year and previous ones, is that this time I was able to talk myself into snapping a few pics during this process and waiting to eat! Not an easy feat for me, you must know, but well worth it if it inspires any of you to try this recipe.
Creating the sourdough starter
Although it may seem daunting, creating a sourdough starter, culture, or “mother” is far easier than you may think, and only requires three simple ingredients: water, flour, and a little patience. A starter takes about five days to develop, but perhaps more or less depending on temperature, humidity, and the type of flour you’re using. Nevertheless, it’s NOT complicated, and a very gratifying way to connect more to your food.
Here’s what you need:
4oz. / 115ml filtered water (un-chlorinated)
4oz. / 115g flour (choose whichever kind of grain-based flour you’d like – 100% rye and spelt are great choices)
a medium-sized glass container
1. Stir the flour and water together for about 30 seconds until it is a consistent batter. Cover the container with a tea towel, secure with a rubber band and set in a warm place.
2. After 24 hours, feed the starter with the same amount of flour and water. Stir to combine.
3. After another 24 hours, repeat with the feeding. By this time, you should see bubbles forming and smell something slightly sour. This is a good sign, and means that the wild yeasts are active. If there are no bubbles or sour aroma, keep feeding the starter and looking for signs of life.
4. After 24 hours, repeat with the feeding. By this time, you should see many bubbles of varying sizes and the aroma should be pleasantly strong.
5. Around day five, the starter should have doubled in size from day four, and is ready to use. If the starter has not risen, continue with the feeding program until it has. This process can take a few extra days if you’re in a colder environment. Don’t give up!
Storing your Sourdough Starter
If you would like to use the starter daily, then I recommend feeding it daily. Keep it at room temperature on your counter top so that you’ll remember to do so, and remove half of the starter each time so that there is always room for the fresh flour and water. If you would however like to store your sourdough for occasional use, keep it in the fridge where the fermentation process will slow down and will only require a feeding once a week.
To use again, simply remove the starter from the fridge about 12 hours prior to baking. Feed the starter to “wake it up” from hibernation. After about 12 hours from the last feeding, and once the starter is bubbly and smelling sour, it’s ready to go again!
Resources and Troubleshooting
There are so many resources for sourdough making out there, I’ll leave you with a few that I really like in case you run into any issues.
Cultures for Health
Makes 4 individual pizzas
1 ½ cups / 350ml sourdough starter
1 ½ cups / 350ml wholegrain flour, I like spelt or light spelt for making pizza (plus more for dusting)
1 Tbsp. coconut oil, melted
1 tsp. fine grain sea salt
1. Combine all ingredients in a large mixing bowl. Stir with a large wooden spoon until incorporated. Then turn out dough onto a clean, floured surface and knead for 5-10 minutes, until it is no longer sticky (add additional flour, as needed, or add water if the dough is too dry).
2. Split the dough into four balls and put them on a floured baking sheet. Cover with a moist kitchen towel or plastic wrap put them in the fridge for 12-24 hours.
3. Take the dough of the fridge out about 30 minutes before you plan to make the pizzas.
Local, seasonal veggies (our favourites include zucchini, eggplant, caramelized onions, fresh tomatoes, sweet and / or spicy peppers, mushrooms, olives, sundried tomatoes, crushed chili flakes
Greens such as beet tops, kale, Swiss chard, spinach
Cheese such as Pecorino Romano, chèvre, feta, goat or sheep’s milk mozzarella
Salad greens such as arugula, baby spinach, leaf lettuce, tossed in lemon, olive oil, and salt
1. Preheat your oven to 500°F / 260°C. If you have a pizza stone, place it in the oven while it preheats, or use a baking sheet.
2. Flour your work surface well and roll out the dough to desired size (tip: rolling out onto baking paper makes transferring the pizza much easier).
3. Spread a thin layer of sauce over the dough, followed by desired toppings (except for salad greens). Work quickly – you don’t want the sauce sinking into the dough, as it will become soggy.
4. Slide the pizza (on the baking paper or not) onto the pizza stone or baking sheet. Let bake for 7-10 minutes until the crust is golden and the toppings are bubbly.
5. While the pizza is cooking, dress your greens with a little lemon juice, olive oil and salt. Toss to coat and set aside. (This step is optional, but delicious!)
6. Remove the pizza from the oven, let cool for five minutes, then top with greens, slice and enjoy!
I hope that this post puts you in touch with your inner baker, and that you commit to starting your sourdough culture TODAY. Through this miraculous process, you’ll be joining centuries of tradition, ritual, and connection. Not to mention that your pizza will suddenly be good for you. And that is the most important thing of all, amiright?
Happy fermenting, friends!
xo, Sarah B
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In other THRILLING news, I’m co-hosting a retreat in Bali this coming January! Wild Heart, High Spirit is a 7-day revitalizing retreat for women, aimed to restore balance, cultivate inner peace, and nourish the body from inside out. Learn to take care of yourself on a deep level, and feel empowered moving forward in your life beyond our week together. Join Mikkala Marilyn Kissi of Living Yolates and I for this once-in-a-lifetime opportunity on the enchanted island of Bali to connect with your wild heart and your high spirit! Click here to find out more.