Tonight I conducted a further experiment using the Caputo 00 natural starter. In the last test using the same starter, I used a very small amount of the starter, about 1/2 t., a fairly high hydration percent, and a long fermentation (12 hours) followed by a proofing ("ripening") period of 6-7 hours. The purpose of the most recent experiment was to see what would happen if I used considerably more natural starter, an even higher hydration percentage (along the lines of pizzanapoletana's "wet dough"), and even longer fermentation and ripening periods. What I was hoping to achieve was a thicker, more open and airy crumb and rim, while retaining the flavors created through the fermentation and ripening processes.
I started the dough for tonight's pizza last evening. I used the same ingredients in essentially the same quantities as before except that I drastically increased the amount of the Caputo 00 starter from 1/2 t. to 2 1/2 T., I reduced the amount of salt a bit to encourage greater rising of the dough, and I increased the amount of water to the point where the dough was really "wet"--essentially incapable of being handled without completely sticking to my fingers. I theorized that that was most likely the highest hydration level I would ever be able to achieve in a practical sense, and if I were successful using such a high hydration level the finished crust would be more open and airy than I have been able to achieve before.
Unlike the previous experiments using the Caputo natural starter in which the doughs were kneaded completely by hand, the dough for the most recent pizza was kneaded using my food processor. The steps I followed were the same as for hand kneading but using the food processor instead and the slightly different sequences made necessary from using the processor (e.g., the water and starter were added to the flour in the bowl rather than the other way around).
The finished dough was put on my kitchen counter where it remained unmolested for 14 hours. Unlike the dough that I had made using only 1/2 t. of the starter, which did not rise in any noticeable manner during the prolonged fermentation period, the most recent dough rose by about one-half during the 14-hour fermentation period. I punched the dough down and let it rise again for an additional 7 hours. During that time, the dough about doubled in volume. Since the dough was quite wet, I decided to shape it directly on the peel, using enough bench flour on the peel to minimize sticking. By handling the dough gingerly, I somehow managed to shape and stretch the dough to around 12 inches in diameter without the dough sticking to the peel. What I was hoping to see was a lot of bubbles formed in the dough. They weren't there, and I didn't want to wait around for them to appear for fear that the dough would stick to the peel in the meantime. After quickly dressing the pizza, it was baked in the same manner as previously described.
The photos below show the finished product. The crust was thicker, chewier and with a more open and airy crumb than the past experiments, and had a nice flavor. However, I concluded that I actually preferred the thinner versions I had made before, where the crust was more crunchy and flavorful because of the thinness and also the greater degree of browning and carbonization. But one of the key lessons I took away from tonight's experiment is that it is not necessary to use an excessive amount of the natural starter. The dough will have greater volume expansion if more starter rather than less is used, but that doesn't necessarily mean a better tasting crust. In fact, by using a smaller amount of the starter, the fermentation period and the succeeding proofing (ripening) period most likely can be prolonged and result in even greater flavor because of the increased by-products of fermentation. In some respects, this in not unlike what happens when a lot of commercial yeast is used. Consequently, what pizzanapoletana says about creating a dough that hardly rises seems to make good sense.
As for the hydration level, I am inclined to go back to something below the "wet dough" level, but still striving for higher hydration levels. I would also be inclined to go back to the original level of salt. I noticed the difference immediately upon biting into the crust, but by that time it was too late to compensate simply by adding salt to the pizza itself.