Monday, July 25, 2011

How to make a great pizza

I was working on my pizza skills for several years, trying to make a perfect crust. Now I want to share my findings to help people in avoiding mistakes that I made.

Over several years I read a lot of theory and tried a lot of dough recipes. Occasionally the pizza would come out great but most of the time it was hit and miss. Finally I found the magic ingredient - water. At the end it is all about hydration. The correct ratio of liquid to flower makes all the difference. We like very particular kind of pizza, chewier, stretchier crust, and that what was hard to obtain.

We make our dough in a bread machine, but mixer would work just as well. You would have to find a warm place to let the dough rise, but other than that the steps are the same. You definitely need a kitchen scale to measure the ingredients. I tried to use measuring cups but it is just too imprecise to get consistent results. This amount of ingredients makes one 12" crust or two smaller ones:
  • 300 g of all purpose flower or a bread flower. Bread flower makes for a better dough but regular flower works just as well.
  • 2 tsp of active dry yeast. You can use a little less but no less than 1tsp.
  • 3/8 tsp of table salt
  • 1 tsp of sugar or 1 tbsp of honey. Honey will make dough taste a bit on a sweet side.
  • 200 g of water, room temperature (70 - 80F)
  • 2 tbsp of olive or vegetable oil. We use olive oil from Costco which appears to be pretty good. You can use any vegetable oil that you like. I used safflower oil with great results.
Now all you need is time and patience. Put ingredients in above order in the bread machine. Turn on the bread machine and let the ingredients mix and form a dough at the bottom of the pan. It should take about 5 minutes or less. The dough ball does not have to be smooth, the ingredients just have to be mixed well. Now turn off the bread machine and set your timer for 20 minutes. This step is very important to make a stretchier dough. During this step gluten forms due to chemical reaction between water and flower.

After 20 minutes pass, turn your bread machine on the dough cycle and let the cycle complete. It usually takes around 1:30 min to complete. At this point your dough will be almost ready.
If you are using a mixer, knead the dough for about 20 minutes until it forms a ball that clears the sides of the mixing bowl. After kneading is complete, place the dough in the oiled container in a warm place to rise for an hour.

If you were using a bread machine, transfer the dough in to an oiled container and cover with clear plastic wrap. Container must be about 2x size of the dough ball as the dough will rise more. The dough will be sticky and to prevent it from sticking to your hands just oil them. After the dough is in the container and covered, put it in the refrigerator for a final rise. You can bake it immediately but pizza will be better if you let the dough rise. The dough will also be easier to work with when it is cold. The dough can be kept in the refrigerator up to 24 hours. Usually I make the dough in the morning and have the pizza for dinner so the dough is rising in the refrigerator for about 6 to 7 hours.

After few hours you are ready to bake your pizza. Real pizza places have big ovens that run at over 500F and a lot of people think that this is the only way to bake pizza. I think that this is completely wrong. One can bake pizza at home in a regular oven and get a great result. Modern home ovens go to 600 F which is more than enough. But even if your oven does not go that high you will be just fine.

To bake your pizza you will need a pizza stone and a pizza pan. The stone will let you to get a good crust. You can buy one online or in the store. The prices range from $10 to $50 but any stone should work. More expensive one probably holds heat better. We use one for about $20 and it works fine. When not in use you can just leave it in the oven. You can clean the stone with the rest of your oven on the cleaning cycle. The stone comes out like new.

Place the rack in the lowest position, just above the heating element. Place the stone on the rack in the center of the oven. Normally you can not bake anything directly over the element but the stone will block direct heat and protect your pizza from burning. Set oven to 500F and let it heat for a good 20 minutes or more.

After you started your oven, take the dough out of the refrigerator and place it on a flowered surface to warm up. After about 10 to 15 minutes stretch the dough in to a pizza pie. I use a 12" pizza pan, which is convenient for larger pizza. When selecting a pizza pan do not buy a heavy cast iron pan because it would take a long time to heat up. Aluminum pan with a large number of holes works well as it allows hot air trough and reduces weight of the pan and lets the pizza to get hot quickly.

If you are having trouble working with the dough, oil your hands a little or put some flower on your hands. The dough is soft and sticky as it contains high amount of water. This water will allow the dough to rise when placed in the hot oven. After you formed the pizza pie you can let the dough relax for a few minutes. If you want a thick, puffy crust, cover the dough with a kitchen towel and let it rise for 30 minutes or so. During this time you can cut your toppings and shred your cheese.

One thing to remember is not to overdo the toppings. When baked in a large oven, pizza can have more toppings but in the home oven overloaded pizza will come out soggy. My topping list consists of following:
  • about 100g of cheese - a rectangle an inch thick cut from the block of cheese.
  • quarter of a bell pepper
  • half of circle of a large onion about 5mm thick
  • one sweet Italian sausage split small pieces about 1/2" in diameter.
  • several tbsp of pizza sauce to cover the crust in a thin layer.
Total maybe 200g to 250g of toppings. You can try starting with this amount and slowly increasing making sure that your oven can handle the amount.

Put your toppings on the pizza and place it in the oven. Close the oven and lower the temperature to 460-450F. Pizza should finish baking in around 10-12 min depending on the amount of toppings. When the cheese becomes golden brown and bubbles all around the pizza the baking is finished. Also watch for the crust edges to become slightly golden. Be sure to monitor your pizza through the door as things can change quickly. Do not open and close the oven door because it lowers the temperature of the oven.

When pizza is ready, take it out the oven and let it rest for a few minutes. You can garnish it with fresh basil or shredded Parmesan cheese.

Enjoy your pizza!

These are few of mine.

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