If you’re a fan of Neapolitan pizza, then you’ve probably come across the term “leopard spotting” or “leoparding.” This term refers to the distinctive charred spots that appear on the crust of a well-made Neapolitan pizza.
Leopard spotting on pizza isn’t just for show. They’re a sign of a high-hydration, well-fermented dough that is a result of long fermentation and high (800F+), even heat. I’ve also noticed that cooler doughs tend to develop more leopard spots than room-temperature doughs.
In this article, I’ll be sharing a few tips and tricks up my sleeve for achieving the perfect leopard-spotted crust on your Neapolitan pizza.
P.S: My definition of a perfect leopard-spotted cornicione includes a couple of micro blisters and not large bubbles. If your crust comes out with tons of large charred bubbles, it’s most likely overbaked.
Is Leopard Spotting Just a Cosmetic Feature or Is There More to It?
Hmm. It’s a bit of both actually. Leopard spotting is a sign of a high-hydration, well-proofed, expertly handled dough. For the desired effect, it has to be baked for just the right amount of time on high heat. A couple of charred micro-bubbles on the outer ring are what you should aim for.
However, while a leopard spotted is a visually stunning sight to behold, it doesn’t necessarily guarantee a great pizza. Extreme heat and long fermentation are two key factors here. That said, the absence of leopard spots on the crust isn’t necessarily a bad sign, especially if you’re using a regular oven.
large leopard spots on the crust can be a sign of a grossly overbaked pizza. So, while it’s fun to achieve leopard spotting, don’t make it your sole focus. Instead, focus on quality ingredients, their ratios, fermentation, and baking temp+ time.
What Causes Leopard Spotting on Pizza?
To be honest, you need an equal amount of luck and precision to get just the right amount of leopard spotting on the crust. If you think having a wood-fired oven alone is enough, I’m here to tell you that it’s not. There are lots of factors at play here, and all of them have to be in perfect harmony to bring the desired outcome.
Here’s a detailed overview of factors that lead to leopard spotting on pizza to help you get a better idea:
High Percentage of Water in the Dough
The amount of water in your dough can have a big impact on whether or not you achieve those coveted leopard spots on your crust.
And here’s why:
When you bake your pizza at high temperatures, the moisture in the dough turns to steam and causes the surface of the dough to expand rapidly. This expansion creates small air pockets, which can then lead to those beautiful charred spots.
There’s a small caveat, though. If there’s too much water in your dough, you will end up with a wet, sticky mess that won’t bake properly. It’s all about finding the right balance.
I typically aim for a hydration level of around 70-75% in my dough recipe. But this can vary depending on the flour I’m using and other factors like temperature and humidity. It definitely takes some trial and error to find the perfect hydration level for your specific dough.
Long and Slow Fermentation
A long, slow cold fermentation of the dough is another crucial step here. This process allows the dough enough time to develop flavor and texture while also promoting leopard spots.
During fermentation, the enzymes in the dough break down the starches into simple sugars. The sugars are then consumed by the yeast to produce carbon dioxide. The trapped gas causes the dough to rise and create air pockets.
When the dough is exposed to high heat, these pockets of gas expand rapidly, making the crust blister up. Blisters burn and turn into what is known as leopard spots.
It’s not as simple as it sounds, though. Achieving leopard spots through cold fermentation requires patience and careful attention to detail. You’ll need to mix the dough properly, allow it to rest, and then shape it before putting it in the fridge to ferment.
Depending on the recipe, you may have to ferment for anywhere from 24 to 72 hours. I usually strive for a 48-hour fermentation.
Uniformly distributed high heat is another key factor here.
When a pizza is baked at high heat, the intense heat coming from the ceiling of the oven causes the water within the dough to quickly turn into steam. This rapid steam formation creates bubbles. And bubbles exposed to high heat turn into leopard spots.
A wood-fired pizza oven can typically go from 800-900F. Some ovens can get even hotter. But what if you have a standard oven that only goes up to 550F?
So is it at all possible to get leopard spots on pizza without a wood-fired oven? I ran a tiny experiment, and it turns out it IS, in fact, POSSIBLE. All you have to do is get yourself a high-quality pizza stone and increase the preheating time by around 20 minutes. If the other variables are exactly how they should be, this minor modification can do the trick!
Cold Dough in Hot Oven
Although it’s not a traditional way of baking a pizza, I find that baking cold dough in a super hot oven works like magic. The science behind it is pretty simple:
The cold surface temperature of the dough slows down the heat absorption. This allows the dough ample time to rise and form those gorgeous bubbles on the surface. In contrast, room-temperature dough heats up more quickly in a hot oven. Thus, it naturally doesn’t allow for as much rising and blistering.
However, this technique isn’t fail-proof. Cold dough is more difficult to handle and can be prone to tearing or sticking. So it’s important to handle it with care when placing it in the oven. Moreover, baking the cold dough in a super hot oven can easily burn the crust if not monitored closely.
This is the least talked about factor when it comes to creating leopard spots on pizza. As long as the dough is adequately fermented, keeping the crust unevenly shaped allows the bubbles to appear more easily on the crust. Now all that remains to be done is to bake it at a very high temp. As simple as that!
Pro-tip for shaping the pizza:
Here’s what I do:
As I shape the dough, I move my hands in a circular motion from the bottom up. Then I’d give it a good slap to spread it out. I carefully make sure to avoid touching the middle as it will naturally spread out later.
I also refrain from stretching the outer ring of the dough as I want this part to form the crust. With the right technique, the crust will turn out a bit rustic-looking, which is exactly what we are after.
While leopard spotting on pizza is definitely something you should strive to achieve, don’t despair if the pizza doesn’t come out looking Insta-perfect.
Leopard spots don’t affect the taste or texture of the pizza as such. As long your Neapolitan pizza is nicely browned and crispy on the outside with a light and fluffy texture, you have nailed it!