A pizza starts as a dough-ball snoozing with its siblings in a large fiberglass tray. The Skin Flinger scoops one dough ball out of the tray with a scraper and tosses it onto a floured make-counter.
Let’s step back for a second here and discuss pizza dough. There are a variety of types of pizza crust, from the Chicago Style Deep Dish to the New York Style Thin & Crispy, to the California Style (although the Cali is noted more for it’s unusual toppings than a particular formula to its crust, but I believe it was this incarnation that made sourdough pizza crust popular). The deep dish crust is like bread dough placed into an over-sized cake pan for baking. The thin crusts are more of a cracker dough, which uses very little yeast and has little elasticity. Both are different from a traditional pizza dough so neither of these are flapped.
Traditional pizza dough is made up in a giant stainless steel baker’s mixer, the bowl tipped and the dough rolled into a heavy tray, placed on a table and a dough cutter uses a knife and scale to portion out the dough. Once portioned, it is balled up and plunked into the fiberglass trays in a grid pattern, leaving a requisite amount of space between them. At this point, the dough balls look like sticky baseballs or softballs. The trays are stacked in a walk-in refrigerator and allowed to age a bit before delivery to the stores, via a refrigerated truck, where they are again stored in a walk-in refrigerator.
During this aging the dough will rise and spread out. The upper surface develops a bit of a skin and is not nearly as sticky as when it was freshly cut dough, this helps a lot when it comes time to make the dough into a pizza because it is easier to handle with less flour flying around.
So, the dough ball is on the floured make counter, preferably with the “raw” or sticky side down in the flour. We accomplished this by using a large putty-knife like scraper to remove the dough ball and flip it upside down into our other hand, then reach over and drop it onto the counter, right side up again.
Sprinkle a little flour on top of the dough, and quickly pat the dough out, keeping it round. We did not spend as much time playing with it as the guy in the video below does; we’d flatten it a bit then curve our hands and use the pinkie-finger edges of our hands to quickly form the trough around the edges and finish by hitting it with a couple of quick passes with a rolling pin to flatten and smooth it.
Now comes the fun part: flapping. We were taught to keep our fingers together and thumbs tucked in against the 1st finger so as not to poke a hole in the dough. Slide a hand under the dough and lift, quickly flip it over the other hand so the edge “hooks” over the thumb and 1st finger, a bit of a twist to the wrist of that hand turns the dough and flips it back to the first hand. Repeat this several times to walk your way around the circumference of the dough, then with a smooth sweeping motion, raise your arm and snap the wrist to spin the skin over your head. You catch the flying “skin” on the back of your cupped hands and your forearms and flip it onto a waiting screen. If it’s a little too large, jiggling it a bit will cause the dough to draw up.
Here is a video demonstration that is the closest I could find to the way we did it Back in the Day.
Here is how a Culinary Artist does it:
This guy is just showing off – and that is NOT a pizza dough he’s using, I can assure you.
While leaning to “flap” a pizza, we started with – of all things – a wet towel. The kitchen towels we used were heavy terrycloth about 14” square (like the typical dish-towels you may have in your kitchen, but heavier and square rather than rectangular). When wet with water and wrung out (so we didn’t splatter water all over) they would behave like pizza dough, except they didn’t stretch. Even after learning to flap the dough, on slow nights pizza makers would pass the time by towel flapping and having contests to see who could achieve the greatest “hang time” after spinning it overhead. We justified this behavior as “keeping in practice”. My training manager often joined in, and frequently beat us all. I, however was really good at skin flinging and generally gave him a good run for his money.
One of my secrets to extended hang time lay in the fact that I am short. Someone who was a foot taller than me had a foot less “headroom” to work with. Hitting the ceiling was an automatic disqualification. So by flinging the skin just above my head, not as high as I could reach, there was more space for the skin to rise and fall; thus the time between release and catch was just a tick longer and I win again. Unless Gary came out of his office. How he managed to get that thing to defy gravity and just spin up there we never learned and he never told.
There was a big glass panel between the walk-in customer area and the pizza making station so customers could come in and watch us make their pizzas. On busy nights, speed and accuracy were far more important than hang time, but when time allowed I always tried to put on a good show for them, and sometimes they really seemed to appreciate it. But whether I had spectators or not, flinging the skins was my favorite part of pizza making.