Making pizza at home is its own art-form. I grew up in Brooklyn at a time where you really had to work hard to find a bad a bad slice – and some pizza places were truly extraordinary. So I have always had a high standard for pizza. It needs to have a dough that crisps up on the bottom, puffs up beautifully at the crust, but be tender and soft inside.
For many years, I considered myself a “pizza purist.” Pizza toppings consisted of quality tomato sauce made with oregano, olive oil, and fresh but mid-to-low moisture Mozzarella. The reason I felt this way was that many pizza places practiced what I would consider 'gilding the lilly.' For me, the essence of a perfect pizza is in its crust. They would load up this poor crust with so many heavy toppings that resulted in a fallen, overly moist and soggy crust. The true pizza artisan knows how to combine simple flavors to accentuate the flavor of the crust. So whether those toppings are tomato sauce and cheese, white sauce and clams, or pesto and mushrooms (for example)– they can result in a fantastic pizza.
Now, baking pizza at home can be a challenge. Most people don’t have these magnificent stone pizza ovens designed to generate high heat quickly in their home. A standard home oven is lucky to make it 500 degrees consistently. So, what’s a pizza lover to do?!
Well – you need some type of quality heat conductor—Pizza stone, pizza steel (my preference), or even a cast iron skillet (if you are making smaller pies) will work. If you have a charcoal grill, you can get it good and hot – around 800F with a pizza steel on the grates and bake it on there—but watch that you don’t burn yourself of set your hair on fire because it’s quite the inferno before those coals are ready! This yields a beautiful and quickly cooked pie.
If your oven can generate at least 500F consistently – then my current favorite method is to preheat a cast iron skillet in that 500F oven for about 45 minutes – around the time your dough is doing its final proof and shape. Then baking the pie inside the cast iron. This has yielded me the most consistent results – and it’s easy! It doesn’t require me to mess around with charcoal, or worry about setting my hair on fire. The cook time is a bit longer – between 10-15 min, but that’s okay. If I wanted to poach an egg on the pie (I sometimes like this), I just have to add it mid-way through the cooking process.
Now – on to the dough!
The type of flour you use matters. In fact, it matters a lot. I’ve been experimenting with pizza dough for many years now. Here is what I found.
A)I actually prefer using commercial yeast to sourdough as it gives me more consistent results. While the sourdough adds a wonderful complexity of flavor, the natural yeasts don’t always survive the long proof times I like to work with.
B)Cold fermentation is essential to a quality dough. I like to do all my fermentation in cold storage for pizza. It develops the right blend of flavor, elasticity, and gluten strength for that crispy crust, big crumb and soft texture inside. The perfect dough has been in the fridge between 3-5 days from the time I mix it.
C)Flour matters. To get this right, I needed the strength of a high gluten flour, but I wanted the flavor and texture of an AP flour. So, my current mixture uses 50:50 AP and HG.
D)Yes, you need both the olive oil and the little bit of sugar in the dough. The results are much tastier with them than without them.
Dissolve the malt in the water. Combine the flours, yeast, sugar and olive oil in the mixing bowl. I use a kitchenaid mixer. On slow speed with a dough hook, slowly add the water, watching the mixture form into a ball. The dough will be a little sticky but come off of the sides of the bowl (takes about 2 minutes). It will look shaggy. Once it forms a ball, cover it with a towel and leave it for 20 minutes to autolyze. After 20 minutes, add the salt and continue mixing on medium speed for exactly 5 minutes.
The First Ferment:
Using a dough scraper, pour out the dough onto a work surface and start to stretch and fold. Peter Reinhard does a much better job of explaining what a stretch and fold is than I do, so you can watch him do it here. I usually only need two or three folds before I put it into an oiled (with olive oil) container – large enough for it to expand 2-3x its size—and cover it. At this point, I put my dough in the fridge overnight.
Portioning your dough:
The next day – I take my dough out of the fridge and divide it. It’s at this point that I have to make some decisions – do I want big pies, or small ones. I usually get 4 cast iron skillet pies from this dough – or three large Pizza Steel pies. I will weigh the total dough and just divide it into 4 equal parts. I stretch and fold each part, and then put them into an oiled ziplock container (each respectively) and put them back into the fridge. I usually wait about 2 days from this point to start baking with them. Then, I have pizza for multiple nights during the week. I find it’s really perfect on day 5. It’s the magic sweet spot.
When I am getting ready to bake a pie, I take the dough out of the fridge and immediately preheat my oven and my cast iron skillet. I roll the pizza dough into a ball on my counter and cover it with the plastic bag. About 20 minutes later, I take the dough and begin to shape it into a pie. I will start by gently rolling the dough over my knuckles to start to shape it into a round flat dough. When I feel like I have a good enough shape, I then put it on a parchment paper and continue to shape with my fingers. At this point I start preparing my toppings.
When I think of toppings for pizza, I usually want a sauce, a cheese, and maybe something textural (like a mushroom). A few weeks ago, I made a giant batch of wild greens pesto (see recipe here), and it’s proven to be an amazing sauce for my skillet pies. I am also using fresh mozzarella cheese. I tested low and high moisture cheeses (because the mozz soaked in whey is just soooo good!) and found that a mid-moisture cheese is better for the pizza crust. Too low moisture and the cheese tastes like rubber; too high moisture and you have a soggy crust. Sometimes, I add sliced tomatoes (when I use a pesto base). Other times, I will add sliced mushrooms. I do love adding an egg to my pizza – but I only do that when I can cook it for under six minutes on a steel. The 10-15 minute cook-time of the skillet is just too long for a good egg pizza.
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I'm a home cook with a lifelong passion for learning, exploring and experimenting in my kitchen. You can find me at @Debs1 on Twitter and @Debs121212 on Instagram.
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