The Truth About 'Dough Doctor' Tom Lehmann

You can tell where a person lives in New York by what type of pizza they enjoy (or whether they fold that slice in half). If it's a thin-crusted Neapolitan-style slice, they're probably in New York City. If they want the thick, rectangular Sicilian pie, they could be in the suburbs of Mamaroneck, New York, home of Sal's Pizzeria. Are they craving a slice loaded with toppings? They could be in Brooklyn. Let's not forget the fans of pepperoni-topped, focaccia-like, mountain-of-cheese-laden pies in Buffalo. That's just in New York!

Outside of the Empire State, there's Chicago deep-dish pizza; the square, cracker-thin pizza of St. Louis; and the extra thick, caramelized Detroit pizza — not to mention the creative and sometimes bougie California pies. We could go on and on, as cities across the States have developed their own version of this famous Italian hand-held food. (Yes! Pizza should be held in your hand, not eaten with a fork and knife.)

And for many of the more than 75,000 pizzerias across the U.S. (via Statista), wholesale pizza manufacturers, and home cooks everywhere, Tom "The Dough Doctor" Lehmann had been their pizza guru for almost 50 years. Lehmann helped the pros solve the dilemmas of pizza making, including issues with flour, dough, and fermentation, until his death in December of 2020 from COVID-19.

What you knead to know about Lehmann

The self-proclaimed "Dough Doctor," Tom Lehmann began his career in 1965 as a food scientist at the American Institute of Baking (AIB) in Manhattan, Kansas, where he continued to work until roughly 2014 when he retired, per PMQ Pizza Magazine. His passion for baking began with a funny mistake while enrolled at his Chicago high school. Thinking that he had signed up for world economics, Lehmann arrived on the first day of class to discover that it was actually a home economics course and that he was the only boy in a classroom of 30 girls. Quickly getting over his embarrassment and realizing the odds were in his favor, Lehmann credited that mistake as "the spark that ignited [his] lifelong interest in baking."

After a couple of years at the AIB, Lehmann became interested in the pizza niche. Having successfully replicated the pizza from the team's favorite lunchtime spot, he earned a reputation as the staff's resident pizza pro. One day, a pizza manufacturer called Lehmann regarding their "shrinkage" (of dough, that is). His success there set in motion a chain of professional moves, including writing gigs about pizza technology and "consulting with independent pizzeria operators and wholesale manufacturers" (all set to the tune of "Old Lady Who Swallowed a Fly"). He soon became a pizza industry staple, appearing in articles and television segments on the subject.

Lehmann's pizza know-how

Lehmann's AIB role as the director of bakery assistance was to educate via classes and seminars, as well as his consultations for those involved in the pizza industry — and he was very generous with his advice. According to Pizza Today, Lehmann sometimes spent two hours answering questions after finishing his dough-related workshops at the Pizza Expo in Las Vegas. The Dough Doctor wouldn't leave until all the attendants who wanted to speak with him had. 

Lehmann also shared his know-how by writing for several publications, including Pizza Today, PMQ Pizza Magazine, the Pizza Making forum, and Pizza Quest, where he answered dozens of questions from readers after each article was published. Armed with science and experience from decades of research, Lehmann helped the industry create better recipes and make more money, and all of this was done from his office in Manhattan, Kansas.

What did he help pizza lovers with, specifically? The perennial and common issue plaguing pizza makers, according to Lehmann, was a misunderstanding of "dough management." Effective dough management begins and ends with controlling the timing and temperature of the dough. Although this issue came up often during Lehmann's tenure, it was a diet craze that challenged his talent above all else. 

Lehmann's greatest challenge came from the low-carb craze

Even Lehmann's breadth of knowledge in dough types and cooking methods was little match for the Atkins diet fad of the '90s and early 2000s. Mental Floss reports that developing a low-carb pizza dough to meet the demand of "carbavoids" (as Tom Boyles, senior editor of PMQ Magazine, liked to call them) was difficult for Lehmann given the standards of what constitutes a tasty, chewy pizza. In 2004, Lehmann remarked that pizza consumers should forget everything they love about traditional pizza when eating the different-tasting, low-carb version, adding that it was merely "edible" (not a rave review).

According to a Gallup poll, about 20% of Americans in 2003 were actively trying to reduce their carbohydrate intake, and this grew to 30% within 10 years. Not necessarily included in those numbers were the 25 million diabetics that needed to eat a low-carb diet (according to the CDC, that number has since risen to around 37 million). The Atkins diet may have lost its popularity, and Lehmann may have given up on ever discovering an appealing pizza crust alternative. However, thanks to these numbers, the low-carb substitutes keep coming. Annie Lampella, who blogs at Keto Focus, replaces AP flour with a combination of mozzarella cheese, egg, and almond flour for her keto-friendly margarita pizza recipe. Can't do nuts? Cauliflower can stand in for flour in a cauliflower pizza crust recipe.

Lehmann's legacy

In a touching tribute, PMQ Pizza Magazine reported the death of Tom "The Dough Doctor" Lehmann on December 12, 2020, "after a lenghthy battle with COVID-19." Lehmann wrote for the publication since its first edition in 1997, and his passion for the pizza community was so genuine, the tribute reads, that "he contributed hundreds of columns and articles" even into his retirement from the AIB and without getting paid. The magazine credits Lehmann with a "corny" sense of humor and for providing the support and knowledge that pizza cooks and pizzeria owners relied on for their success — evidenced by the comments on the article.

Readers of the publication reflected on the sad news and recalled their experiences with Lehmann, citing countless emails, phone calls, and patience from the scientist and friend to the pizza industry. Lehmann's lasting impression seemed profound and far-reaching: One former student of his recalled the invaluable lessons they learned from him over 20 years ago, while another called him "patient, articulate and really just the nicest guy ever." Though those who knew Lehmann remarked on the loss to the pizza world after his passing, it seems he is still teaching, with his recipes and articles memorialized on the internet for future generations to benefit from his knowledge.