It may sound cliché, but if I had to choose a desert island food, it would be pizza. I love all kinds from Chicago deep dish to traditional Neapolitan, but my favorite is a properly executed NYC-style thin crust. Specifically, the traits I’m looking for in my homemade pies are the following:
- The crust needs to stand on its own among the most delicious of breads. The thick outer ring of the crust – sometimes called the “cornicione” – should have a deep flavor, open crumb with plenty of bubbles, and deeply browned and crunchy surface. The thin part of the crust (the part underneath the toppings) should be stratified into three layers: a crispy cracker-like bottom, a bread-like center, and a soft, squishy top layer that almost seems to melt into the tomato sauce. I don’t want the slice to flop or fold too much when I pick it up – it’s got to have some structure.
- A bright tasting sauce that carries the essence of fresh tomatoes. It shouldn’t taste like tomato paste.
- Browned, bubbly cheese that has some body to it. It should stretch a bit when you take a bite, but not to the point of becoming stringy.
- Other toppings, if used, should not detract from any of the above. I’ve made the mistake of using too many watery toppings, such as peppers and onions, which inevitably lead to a soggy crust.
There’s many ways to make a great pizza, and everybody has their own favorite style. Over the past few years, I’ve been trying to develop a good base recipe that suits my own personal tastes. In this post, I’ll describe where I’m currently at – but I’m certain that as I continue learning and experimenting, my recipes and techniques will evolve.
Getting the sauce right proved to be very elusive. I spent years thinking that the secret lay within the ingredients – grating and then browning the onion before adding everything else, adding hints of nutmeg, using fresh tomatoes instead of canned, stirring in fresh basil off the heat once the cooking was done, and so on. No matter what I did, the tomato flavor ended up lacking. It tasted like tomato paste, or sauce out of a jar. I could never capture the “essence” of the tomato flavor. I eventually gave up on cooked sauce and started using a sauce made from raw, puréed tomatoes and salt. It’s supposedly more authentic as far as Neapolitan pizza goes, but it still didn’t do it for me. It tasted fresh, but it was too watery and too thin-flavored. There had to be a way to hold on to that freshness, but “unlock” the tomato essence that I knew was there.
It wasn’t until I picked up a copy of Marcella Hazan’s Essentials of Classic Italian Cooking that I had a breakthrough. Her recipe for tomato sauce with onions and butter found in the chapter on pasta sauce was exactly the sauce that I spent years searching for. It wasn’t just the ingredients, though – it turns out that my technique had been wrong all along. You see, I was cooking my sauce in a 12″ or 14″ skillet, and over medium heat with lots of bubbling. Over the course of cooking, the sauce would always become a darker, duller red and in the process pick up that tomato paste flavor. Once I switched to a 2-quart saucepan and used the lowest heat my stove was capable of providing, everything changed. Even with canned tomatoes, the gentle, low heat cooking preserved the fresh tomato flavor but also unlocked something more – the tomato “essence” I keep talking about. Now I cook my sauce at a simmer – no bubbling or boiling, just a steady stream of steam coming off the surface. Here’s the recipe I use nowadays. It’s similar to Marcella’s, but it calls for canned tomatoes instead of fresh, and less butter.
- One 28 ounce can of Muir Glen San Marzano whole peeled tomatoes
- 3 tablespoons of butter
- 1 medium onion, skinned and sliced in half
- 1 teaspoon salt. This is about right for the Muir Glen tomatoes, which are far and away my favorite. If you use a different brand of tomatoes, you may need to adjust the amount of salt you use, depending on how much sodium they already contain.
In a food processor on low speed, blend the tomatoes. They don’t have to be perfectly smooth, but all of the large chunks should be gone. Pour the tomatoes into a 2 quart saucepan, and add the butter, onion halves, and salt. Bring to a simmer, and then reduce the heat to very low. Apply enough heat to maintain a steady evolution of steam, but don’t let the sauce bubble or boil. Cook about 40 minutes, stirring every 10 minutes or so. Once the sauce is finished cooking, remove the onion halves and use them for something else – I often slice them and add them to a vegetable sauté. You can freeze the sauce, but I have found that I like the flavor best the same day it’s cooked. I find that it loses significant flavor when stored in the refrigerator.
After experimenting with many dough recipes, I settled on one which is pretty similar to what I use for French baguettes, but with the addition of a small amount of oil and sugar. I like to use a scale to weigh all of my ingredients, which has helped my breads be much more consistent. It only takes a few grams of water to go from 65% to 70% hydration; at 65% hydration, the dough is very workable, but at 70% it has the tendency to become much more sticky and harder to work with. Here’s the formula in baker’s math:
- 100% High gluten flour, such as King Arthur Flour Sir Lancelot. If you can’t easily obtain this, use a good quality bread flour such as the one made by King Arthur. I typically use about 500 grams at a time, which is enough to make 4 small pizzas, 3 medium pizzas, or 2 large pizzas.
- 65% water
- 2% olive oil
- 2% sugar
- 2% salt
- 1% yeast (I use the SAF Red instant dry yeast)
The first step is to autolyse the flour and water. Mix the flour and water until no dry flour remains, then let it sit covered for 30 minutes. It’s remarkable how much easier the dough is to work if you do this before adding the rest of the ingredients and kneading. Next, add the sugar, salt, and yeast, incorporating them uniformly into the shaggy mess of flour and water. I then knead the dough for about 6 minutes in a stand mixer fitted with a dough hook. Once the dough passes the windowpane test, add the olive oil and continue mixing a few minutes more until it’s incorporated. Take the dough out of the machine and knead it by hand a few times until it’s smooth, supple, no longer sticky, and you can stretch it into an impressively thin windowpane. Form it into a tight, smooth ball, and then put it in a bowl at least 4 times its volume. Cover, and put into the fridge to slowly ferment. Let the dough ferment anywhere between 1 and 3 days in the fridge. You will get a slightly different flavor and texture on each day, so experiment and choose the rising time which works best for you.
When you’re ready to make the pizza, start by preheating your oven to 500 degrees F. You’ll want to use a baking steel, stone, or tiles – I prefer the baking steel made by Nerd Chef, available here on Amazon. I put mine on the 2nd from the top oven shelf, and I let the oven preheat for at least an hour. This is a good time to take the dough out of the fridge to warm up. Divide it into 2, 3, or 4 pieces depending on how big you want your pizzas, and form each piece into a tight ball. Keep them covered with plastic wrap while they rest.
After the dough has rested at room temperature for about an hour, it’s time to shape the pizza. I like to use semolina flour on my work surface and peel to prevent the dough from sticking. To shape each pizza, place each ball of dough in the center of your floured work surface – a clean counter top or a large sturdy cutting board work well. Gently start pressing the middle of the dough outwards and away from you, rotate the dough, and repeat. Keep using this motion to form the ball into a disk, being careful not to completely deflate the outer ring of the disk – that’s the part of the crust you’re going to hold on to with your hands, and you want it to end up nice and puffy. Once you’ve formed a 6 to 10 inch disk, depending on the size of your pizzas, you can gently pick up the dough and start using your fists to stretch it. The classic “tossing” technique that you’ve probably seen pizza makers employ involves letting the dough hang over your fists and then using a quick toss to rotate it. Gravity and centrifugal force work together to stretch the dough. You’re looking for a thickness between 1/8″ and 1/4″ depending on how thin you like your crust. Try to keep it uniformly thick, and pay close attention to any spots that start to get too thin, because you don’t want a big hole in your crust.
Once the crust is shaped, gently lay it flat on a floured pizza peel. Working quickly, slather it all over with cooled tomato sauce, leaving the puffy cornicione bare. Then, layer it modestly with thin slices of mozzarella cheese. For my taste, thin slices of cheese win over shredded cheese – the sliced cheese seems to “stretch” a bit better. Most recipes for Neapolitan pizza call for fresh (high moisture) Mozzarella, sometimes made from buffalo milk but more commonly made from cow’s milk. Believe it or not, my personal preference is for the less expensive low moisture variety, especially when made from whole milk. In my opinion, low moisture Mozzarella browns much better than fresh Mozzarella, is a little bit more meaty, and has a richer flavor. If you’re counting calories, you can use part skim Mozzarella, but it’s not quite as tasty as whole milk Mozzarella. Now is the time to add any other toppings to your pizza, but be a minimalist. Too many toppings make the pizza more likely to get soggy, prevent the cheese from browning, and can even make the dough stick to the peel under their extra weight.
When you’re ready to slide the pizza into the oven, turn on the overhead broiler. Quickly slide the pizza from the peel onto the baking stone, giving it a quick jerk but being careful not to fold it or have it fly off the peel – years ago when I first started making pizza at home, I accidentally flipped a pizza off from the peel onto the bottom of my 500 degree oven…my smoke alarms promptly went off, and needless to say the entire rest of my evening was spent scrubbing my oven clean. If your pizza sticks to the peel anywhere, you probably didn’t use enough flour to line the peel. You can keep an oiled metal spatula ready to help scoot the pizza off of the peel in case of any sticking.
Once the pizza is on the baking surface and the broiler is blazing, you’ll need to watch the pizza like a hawk because it’s going to cook fast – mine are done in about 5 minutes. Your oven may have an automatic shut-off circuit for the broiler which triggers when the internal temperature gets too high – you can prevent this from happening by wedging your oven door open just a crack by using a metal utensil. Slide the finished pizza out of the oven and onto a wire rack to cool. Now is the time to add the final touches: I prefer finely grated Parmesan cheese, shredded raw basil leaves, and sometimes a tiny drizzle high quality olive oil. Once the pizza has cooled a little, it’s time to cut it and eat it!