My runner-up title for this post was “pizza:the guide your friends’ bellies hope you finally find.” Pizza is just one of those things that’s great to have around, and easy to make bad choices about. If you haven’t heard of it, pizza is a fairly round, flat bread that you slather with tomato sauce, bury under a layer of cheese, and then make every attempt to set on fire in your oven. At whatever point you give up on incinerating your bread, you remove it, chop it into triangles, and try to fit as much of it as you can in your mouth, immediately. You should definitely try it, the kids are all about it these days.
The thing is, pizza is a crowd pleaser. I went to an extremely large university, and something you may not know about large universities is that it is impossible for pizza places to fail there. Seriously– I’ve had pizza that tasted like rubber on cardboard, and while I stood vowing through tears of anger to never eat there again, 200 people were lined up behind me to make their own attempt at enjoying it.
Pizza is a big part of our lives, to the point where we’ll make a lot of unfortunate compromises in our quest to feed those six friends who don’t have any ideas for dinner. If you have a youth group, a grocery warehouse club card, or one parent who can’t cook, you know exactly what I mean when I say that not all pizza is created equal. Some varieties, like a few national chains or those weird ubiquitous Italian places at the mall, are okay in a pinch. Others, like almost every frozen pizza or ones made from something “creative” like bagels, are honestly awful (why would you have to claim your frozen pizza “tastes like delivery” otherwise?). Some of us have been lucky enough to find that awesome little local place where we will happily part with too much of our money for their amazing product, but this is by far the exception.
The reason for this post is because I realized that all the best pizza I’ve ever had has been homemade. Even half-hearted home attempts at pizza automatically rank near the top of the list, just because of the love and attention that went into it. I grew up with homemade pizza, have some friends who are excellent cooks, and make a pretty bangin’ pizza myself– all are ridiculously delicious. Making amazing pizza is easier than you think. And it’s time for you to join the club.
So this will be a long post; we’re going to take our time with this and enjoy ourselves.
Let’s start with the dough. The crust is by far the most important part of the pie, and deserves the greatest attention. The recipe below is a great starting point; I picked a dough that is simple to make and easy to work with. However, if you’d like to try some thin-crust or something a little more artisanal and focaccia-like, there’s a lot of room for growth (let me know in the comments if you’re interested in that kind of thing).
Pizza Dough: the recipe
3 cups bread (or “occident”) flour
1/2 cup whole wheat flour
1 cup water
1 tsp yeast
1 tsp salt
2 tb olive oil
If you’re unfamiliar how to bring together a dough and knead it, read the guide I put together here on the site. You won’t regret it (hopefully? It’s just kneading dough…). Get your dough kneaded thoroughly and leave it in a lightly oiled, covered bowl to rise for around an hour until doubled.
Once it’s risen, punch it down. This means either to literally punch it (which is the coolest method) or to find some other manner of deflating the dough somewhat of the gas buildup from the yeast. Let it rise again for another 30 minutes or so until back to double size.
Now your goal is to get that dough from a squishy ball into a wonderful, pillowy circle. This isn’t super hard, but takes a little attention, so don’t take it too lightly. For a little while, I tried to learn to toss the dough in the air like a pizza place. This is actually a really great method, but takes a lot of practice to get the right touch. I found myself often getting weird shapes or stretching the center of the dough too thin and having to restart, so I’ve since then relied on calmer methods to get the job done.
Something I wish I had known at the beginning of my pizza career was the importance of gentleness when it comes to shaping the dough. You really want to reward the dough for all the hard work it’s done trapping all the gas bubbles by leaving them in there. Shape your dough by hand, gently, without using a rolling pin or any more squishing than you need. Here’s how I do it:
Take the dough and press/stretch it into a thick discus. You can grab it by the “edge” and slowly rotate it through your hands, letting gravity pull it down and make it a wider circle.
Rest the dough frisbee over your fists, and gently stretch the dough outwards by moving your hands apart slightly. Keep your knuckles near the edge of the dough; it’s easy to make the center too thin and you don’t need as much “edge” as you think. Continue rotating and stretching until you have a fairly pizza-sized circle.
Return your dough disc to a lightly floured counter and continue stretching. Put the palm of one hand in the center of the dough and stretch the edge with your other hand, rotating the circle as you stretch each part. When it’s at the ideal size for your pan/peel/stone/oven, you’re done!
This bring us to a new discussion in terms of our pizza prep: what are we cooking it on? Um, on what are we cooking it? If this is your first time, I’d recommend a plain old pizza pan. They’re cheap and easy to work with, and you can use it for plenty of other things. If you’re ready for trying something new, I recommend a baking stone or pizza stone (same thing, different name and shape). These are flat ceramic stones designed to be put in your oven, and you cook the pizza or bread directly on top of them. They make a much better crust; pans tend to keep the bottom of the pizza kind of pale and moist in comparison. Again, harder to work with, but much much nicer. If you’re going this route, I’d recommend also getting some parchment paper and a pizza peel, which is the giant wooden spatula you can see in the title picture of this website. I tend to construct my pizza directly on a piece of parchment paper, then slide the whole situation right onto the stone rather than trying to deal with the pizza itself.
Back to the dough. If you have the time, get your dough to circle stage a little early and let it rise or “proof” again for a little while you do other things.
Take a fork or a fancy spiky roller thing and poke holes all through your dough. This prevents those giant dough bubbles that look like weird tumors on your pizza after baking.
Take your sauce of choice (preferably homemade! Or preferably-er, barbecue sauce for BBQ chicken pizza!) and lay it on thick, leaving a little room at the edges for your crust. You know that.
Follow up with cheese. Now, the crust is the most important aspect of your pizza, but second place goes to the cheese. When budget is a concern, I grab those bags of pre-shredded “Italian” cheese mixes, because it gives more flavor than mozzarella. My dad would go even fancier with a combination of mozzarella, freshly grated parmesan, and aged provolone. There’s a lot of great variations you could do here, so experiment and see what you like. Margherita style with fresh tomatoes, basil, and slices of fresh mozzarella is an awesome option to try out if you haven’t.
After the cheese, I like to sprinkle on some spices. This adds a lot of complexity and is what you think is “missing” from those boring pseudo-Italian pizzas you get sometimes at the mall. I go for oregano, black pepper, parsley, and basil, and you can choose some other herbs at your discretion.
Finally, toppings. Go crazy here, or don’t. The pizza you’ve just made is good enough to stand on its own, but I won’t complain if you throw a lot of meats or vegetables on there. Pre-cook anything other than leafy stuff like spinach, so it gets a head start and tastes less “raw” after baking the pizza.
I also usually brush the edge of the crust with olive oil before baking. It gives better color and makes it look less “dried out”.
Okay! Now it’s time to bake. This is what makes or breaks your pizza. All your work up till now will be wasted if you don’t give your masterpiece the heat it deserves. And pizzas love heat. Brick ovens can be as hot as 800 or 900 degrees Fahrenheit, and they make a great pizza. For the one you just made, we can go for something in the 425°-450° range, but it won’t complain much if you crank it up to 500° or more. The reason for this is that the high heat creates the character of the pizza. This isn’t a loaf of banana bread; you want bubbling and scorch marks and crispy spots and burnt cheese every once in awhile, otherwise why are you doing this? By the way, if you’re using a stone, heat it up WITH the oven rather than sticking it in once the oven is heated. It takes a longer time to heat up, and it will often break if it’s put cold into a hot oven.
Put your pizza in the oven and don’t mess with it for around 10 minutes. After that point, watch the cheese in particular to see when it’s done. The cheese will melt, then bubble, then start to brown, and that’s your cue. Anything before that will have a doughy crust and slimy cheese, and that’s just a waste of everybody’s time.
Remove the pizza from the oven, and DON’T slice it yet. Let it rest for at least five entire minutes (a.k.a. torture) before slicing, otherwise the cheese will slough off and ruin your day. Let things settle.
Then, slice it up and eat it all immediately.
There you have it! The best pizza you’ve ever made for you and your friends. Again, if you’d like some additional tutorials for a more specific approach to pizza, just let me know in the comments and I’ll see what I can do. What do you put on your pizza?
Also, why aren’t you signed up for the emails yet?