It all starts with the foundation: Crust. You can throw all kinds of amazing toppings onto a pizza, but if the crust is flabby or tough the enthusiasm of the crowd (even if it's a crowd of one) deflates quickly. Several important variables make or break good pizza crust, and if you pay just a little easy attention and know what to look for, you are the complete master of the process. As Stephen Covey says, "Begin with the end in mind."
First, you must take the temperature of your water. Yeast is a living organism activated by water. Think of your yeast as little sea monkeys... if the water is too cool, they stay in their state of suspended animation. If the water is too hot, you kill them before they have a fighting chance to entertain and delight. I aim for the high end (110°) as the water cools a degree or two as it is poured into my stainless steel mixing bowl. An ">insta-read thermometer is excellent for this job.
Two Sauces: Slow Roasted Tomatoes and Chard, Both From Our Garden
The other big trick is to have patience when stretching the dough out in the pan. As you knead your dough, long stretchy gluten strands form. Those elastic strands need to relax after such a hard workout before they are willing to relent under the touch of your hand. We've all had the ball of dough shrink back into itself like a rubber band as we are giving it the gusto, yes? Plop your ball of dough onto your olive-oiled pan or stone, give it a gentle pat or two, and walk away for 10 or even 20 minutes if it's a cool day. At this stage, think of your dough as a reticent lover... feign disinterest for a few moments and it will turn to putty in your hands when you return, willing to surrender to your affections and to be shaped and molded by your tender touch.
And then there's the oven temperature. Have you calibrated your oven lately? Most ovens need to be calibrated occasionally. Go to your owner's manual or look online for instructions on how to do yours. Your pizza will thank you. Your cakes and cookies will thank you. You will thank you for lessening your oven timing frustrations. One of these neat oven thermometer gizmos does the trick for this job. See how it will hang from your oven rack?
Once you are certain that your oven temperature is accurate, preheat the oven to 450° for convection; 475° if it is a standard oven. Preheating to the full temperature is important here. Pardon my irreverence, but you want to take your beautiful pizza to hell and back as quickly as possible. This is the only way to get your dough nice and golden and crispy on the bottom all the way to the center while not overdoing it with your toppings. Some people swear by a 500° oven for pizza: I've found that my toppings, especially cheeses, get far too brown and dry at that temperature before the crust is golden edge to edge underneath.
3/4 cup tap water, 100-110°
3/4 teaspoon yeast
1 generous teaspoon salt
2 cups all-purpose unbleached flour (I'm a fan of King Arthur flour in this application. The slightly higher protein makes great crust.)
Place water in bowl of your mixer. Sprinkle the yeast on top. After a minute, give it a quick stir, and allow it to sit for 5 minutes until it is completely dissolved.
Toss in the salt and 1 cup of the flour. With the dough hook, begin to knead on medium speed. As the first cup of flour is incorporated, add another 1/2 cup. After that is worked in, add another 1/4 cup. You may or may not need any or all of the remaining 1/4 cup of flour, depending on exactly how many drops of water you initially measured, the ambient humidity, and the moisture level in your flour. It should take not more than 10 minutes from the time you begin adding flour until it is done kneading. Some cooks adamantly weigh their flour rather than scoop it into a measuring cup. There's something to that, but in actuality the moisture variables still exist no matter how the flour is measured. It's best to learn to feel the dough and add more or less to touch.
Yellow Squash, Artichoke Hearts, Red Peppers, Onion and Proscuitto on the Left, Unbaked
How do I know what the dough should feel like, you ask? The dough should form a soft, loose ball on your dough hook and leave very little gooey residue on the sides of your mixing bowl. There may be a slight film of wettish dough clinging to the sides of the bowl, but very little. Allow the dough to knead for a few minutes before adding that last bit of flour to see how much of the water it will soak up in its re-hydration process. Too much flour/too little water always produces a tough pizza. You'll recognize this if your dough stays in a tight ball after kneading. If you suspect you've added too much flour, you can always correct this by adding back water teaspoon by teaspoon.
On the other hand, too much water/too little flour produces a flabby crust that will not crisp up until it's burnt. You can tell if you need more flour if your dough is extremely droopy after kneading. It should just be a softish, slightly sticky ball.
I never complete my kneading on a board with more flour to make it easier to handle, as I find this toughens the dough. Use lightly oiled hands to work with the dough. If the dough is the correct consistency it will stick to your hands without a little oil, so go ahead and put a few drops of oil on your fingers.
With lightly oiled fingers, I gather the dough into a ball and leave it right in its mixing bowl to proof, covering the bowl with plastic wrap. Rising can be hurried along if necessary by placing the bowl in a warm place, but the more interesting flavors will develop if you have time to let it raise in a cool place. I hesitate to give a specific time to allow, as temperature is a variant. It may only take 40 minutes to rise on a warm day or in a warm spot, and up to 1 1/2 hours if your kitchen is cold or you place the bowl in a cool place. I have even placed the bowl in the refrigerator overnight, allowing it to reach room temperature before proceeding, with terrific results. This recipe can easily be doubled (double everything except for the yeast), and it can be frozen to excellent result. I often make a double batch and freeze half. Simply thaw to room temperature and proceed from there.
Some other pizza success factoids: Toppings--less is more. Too many toppings, including cheese, and the moisture released from softening cell walls is counterproductive to that crisp-bottomed crust. Restrain yourself. Use highly flavored stuff, and you won't miss the bulk.
Pans: I have both a stone and a heavy black metal pan. Both work very well and give excellent results. In years past I've worked through every pan imaginable... Pans with little perforated holes, double-layered pans, etc., and have found that by following the above guidelines in regards to the dough, just about any pan gives a good crust. In other words, I learned that the problem wasn't my pans, but me.
Topping ingredients: Give verve to your pizzas by combining creamy, tangy, meaty (mushrooms, sausage, etc.), bitter (greens), tannic (nuts), sweet (onions, figs, raisins, etc.,) elements. We often scour the fridge and pantry for little interesting bits. While no two pizzas are ever the same that way, we eat pizza frequently and never get tired of the never-ending array. By blasting beyond a pepperoni rut, you open up whole new worlds of pizza nirvana.
Here's a link to the chard sauce recipe, pictured in one of the above pizzas. Just omit the nutmeg for a terrific versatile pizza and pasta sauce.
Because I'm in a spunky mood and this has been an excessively long post, if you've made it this far I'll put your name in a drawing for your choice of the insta-read or oven thermometers. Just email me by noon, Monday July 19, with your thoughts on this post, which thermometer you'd like, and you'll be entered.
Now you're off to the races. If any of you give these methods a try, please let me know how they work out for you.
To your success!