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Five essentials for the best homemade pizza

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Dan Lepard Dan Lepard | 15:42 UK time, Thursday, 15 September 2011

When homemade pizza is at its best it can rival or even better those from fancy restaurants and pizzerias. Yes, we’d all like wood-fired ovens at home but even with a kitchen oven you can be making pizzas to be proud of.

Homemade pizza can be thin and crispy

The American baking star Peter Reinhart started a pizza blog called Pizza Quest which goes into brilliantly geeky detail about the dough types, the flours, the different methods and sauces, and answers practically all your pizza making questions. But you must also look at “Slice” on the Serious Eats website. Adam Kuban, the founder and top dog editor, and publisher Ed Levine are obsessive about their pizzas and if it doesn’t get you revved up and into pizza mania then nothing will.

Pizza geekiness aside, you can turn out excellent pizza at home so long as you have these five essentials:

1. A really hot oven or grill

You ideally want an oven that will go to at least 240C/475F. The oven needs to have good even heat and the best way to check that is by baking a loaf of bread on a tray and once it’s cool check the base - if it’s much paler than the top then your oven needs help. A heavy pizza stone or a metal griddle placed in the cold oven and heated will help stop your pizzas looking flabby.

But if you don’t have a hot enough oven but do have a grill then Heston demonstrates a brilliant way that combines the hob and the grill for a perfect pizza from his In Search of Perfection BBC series.

2. Soft white bread dough

Essentially pizza is made with a simple flour, salt and yeast dough mixed with enough water to make it very soft and stretchy. And for a very basic pizza dough, a recipe like this from Antony Worrall Thompson will be fine. But of course, if you’re after pizza perfection you’ll want to personalise the ingredients and the method. As Ed says on Slice, “we should celebrate and praise crust diversity in pizza, not bury it.”

PIzza dough

Flour: Though an Italian 00 flour is essential if you want to replicate the traditional pizza from Naples, and that’s my preference, many prefer a strong bread flour as it can be coaxed out extra thin without too much worry. My choice for an excellent strong flour recipe would be J. Kenji Lopez-Alt’s “New York Style Pizza at Home”.

Fat, sugar and malt: Fat, whether you use lard or oil, slightly interferes with the formation of gluten in the dough, and that means a more tender crust less likely to turn brittle in the dry oven. It also helps the dough to colour quickly, as does a little sugar or malt. Pizza makers in Italy often use special flours that have an elevated natural maltose level, which means that they don’t have to add any extra to the flour. But at home, a little sugar, honey or malt (even a dark beer will do) will help your dough to colour quickly and stray crisp but moist and tender.

3. Stretch it in stages

One secret to getting a thin crust pizza is to divide the dough into portions (the site pizzamaking.com has a terrific online calculators for making the right amount of dough), say 200g/7oz dough for each 25cm/10in thin crust pizza. Shape these portions into rounds, place on a dusted worktop, cover with a cloth and leave for 15 minutes. This will make the dough relax, and then it will be much easier to stretch into perfect pizza rounds.

4. Dry your topping first

When most ingredients are heated they change in some way. The sauce, cheese, vegetables and cured meats soften and release liquid or fat, turning a delicious mass into an oily pizza pond. To avoid this, dry wet cheese like mozzarella out on a cloth, cook the sauce until it is thick and spreadable but not runny, and allow for the fat released from meats etc before adding any extra oil.

5. Go light on the topping

Less topping makes a better pizza. Memorise that phrase and you’ll make better, crisper pizzas. Ideally your pizza should have a thin ring of crust and be completely cooked through. Too much sauce, cheese and other bits will cause the topping run over the crust, stop heat from penetrating, lower the tray or stone temperature, and generally ruin what might have been excellent pizza.

Have you successfully made pizza at home? What are your tips for pizza perfection?

Dan Lepard is a food writer for the Guardian and a baking expert.

Comments

  • Comment number 1.

    Oh I totally geek out on homemade pizza too, I've spent many a evening trying to perfect my dough and pizza sauce! I like to roll my dough out in semolina to help get an extra crunchy crust. I've been tempted to invest in a pizza stone - are they really worth it?

  • Comment number 2.

    I think Heston's method is crazy and ineffective. Tried it once and set off every smoke alarm in the kitchen. And, like all his recipes, it's a complete faff and not worth the extra effort. On the other hand, cooking pizza on the barbecue works really well. I bought a circle of granite (Weber do one) and heat the BBQ to at least 200° with the granite in place. Slide the pizza off a peel, close the lid, and in under ten minutes you'll have a base that's both crunchy and the right kind of chewy. After the first one, they tend to cook quicker, so you'll have to be on your toes for the third.

    I use 00 flour (bought a big sack) and add a spoon of sugar. Flour brand recommends 65% water to flour ratio, which works really well. I only use a little olive oil to make the dough easier to remove from the bowl when risen.

    My top tip would be to mix a little grated gruyere with the mozzarella. You don't need much (a sprinkle is all), but it adds flavour to what is a very bland cheese.

  • Comment number 3.

    Hi Sammie,
    Is a pizza stone worth it: yes and no. ‘Yes’ in that it will heat up to the oven temperature and ensure that you get a crisp base on your pizza; ‘No’ in that they crack and break so easily, I’ve broken about six (not all my own, very embarrassing) and you’re better going cheap with a thick unglazed terracotta floor tile no more than 2/3’s of the breadth of the oven.

    Or…better still: the baker Mick Hartley at thepartisanbaker.wordpress.com gave me a Welsh bakestone, effectively a 25cm round and 1cm thick disk of heavy steel designed to be used as a griddle on the stove-top. But I use it as a baking “stone” in the oven and cook my pizzas on that. Extremely heavy, not one for “mail-order”, but indestructible and great for pizzas.

    Hi Rob,
    Didn’t get to the BBQ this year, always seemed to be dodging the rain in London this summer. Will have to try that. But curiously as you posted I got a tweet from @simonleake in Seattle telling me he always does the “broil+grill” technique for his pizzas, and uses J. Kenji Lopez-Alt’s method here from 2010
    http://slice.seriouseats.com/archives/2010/09/how-to-make-great-neapolitan-pizza-at-home.html
    You can see Heston’s demo here from 2006:
    http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=8uOng2plzZA

  • Comment number 4.

    lots of good advice here.

  • Comment number 5.

    This comment was removed because the moderators found it broke the house rules. Explain.

  • Comment number 6.

    Interesting blog Dan, thanks for those links, you have given me some new ideas to try.
    I have been making a pretty simple dough myself nothing fancy, I also use some of the non stick pizza trays with lots of little holes in the bottom. I stretch out the dough into a very thin base let it rise then put them in the freezer. Once frozen I pop them out of the tray for storage. To use I put back in the tray add toppings and nuke in a very very hot gas oven. Great if pushed for time.

  • Comment number 7.

    Hi Dan, I normally use a sourdough to make my pizza and manage to roll it into a nice thin circle, but then when I try to transfer it to the stone it stretches out of shape.
    I don't mind the 'rustic' look, but it stretches *a lot*!
    Do you have tips on transferring the dough to the stone?

  • Comment number 8.

    I make a basic olive oil based dough in the breadmaker (keeps really well in the fridge and improves over a couple of days). I also use semolina, Farola or something of that nature sprinkled onto the holey tin, then place the rolled dough over that and bake at the bottom of the oven at about 250C. When pizza is done (in about 5-7mins) I place it on a preheated pizza stone (which I've had for over 12years and use at least weekly for breadmaking). Keeps the pizza hot and the base nice and crisp. Usually make extra dough and roll it out really thin, sprinkle with olive oil and sea salt, bake it and it becomes a lovely flatbread appetiser with dips or on its own.

  • Comment number 9.

    I think a pizza stone is a must - it makes a huge difference. I also cracked and broke one, but when I read the instructions on the replacement, it turns out that I'd been setting the oven temp too high (about 250 - the max in my oven) and 220 is sufficient. I've also taken to using one of those very thin baking liners under the pizza, which stops it sticking to the stone.

  • Comment number 10.

    Hi Rachel,

    Yes there are a few tips for getting a disc of topped pizza dough onto the hot baking stone in the oven:

    1. Once you’ve shaped the dough, set it directly on a floured peel (see 4) and do your topping directly on that, shaking it from side-to-side every 15 seconds to make sure it isn’t sticking. This is by far the easiest way. But, if you want to be traditional….

    2. Speed: dough is curious as it tends to stick more when it’s left to sitting than when it’s moved quickly. If you watch someone in a pizzeria quickly turning out pizzas, it’s not just because all the tables are packed with customers. Speed also means the pizzas don’t stick as much. So get set up, have all your toppings on a plate or tray, with a spoon in the sauce. Flour the worktop where you shape your pizzas well, then ever-so-quickly spread the sauce around, scatter the topping on and it’s ready.

    3. A tool: a length of very thin thread. Wrap this around your fingers so you have a length you can pass across the table towards you under the pizza, in one swift move. This will make sure the pizza isn’t sticking to the table.

    4. One of the following: a pizza peel, a very thin tray with flat rather than lipped edges, or a thin sheet of stiff cardboard. You don’t want it any more than 3mm thick. Quickly slide this under the topped pizza with a side-to-side wiggle while pushing it forward. Once it’s on the peel, try and get it to rotate by moving the peel in a circular but horizontal motion.

    Then either way…

    5. Slip the pizza onto the pizza stone without delay. Even leaving the pizza on the peel for a few minutes can cause it to stick. So make sure your oven’s ready.

    Dan

  • Comment number 11.

    Mmm I love homemade pizza. I just use my breadmaker setting, and then I have a special microwave programme for cooking a pizza which works well. I could do with taking note of point 5, I always put too much topping on!

    liveforfood.co.uk

 

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