July 16, 2010

Pizza Crust: Everything You Knead to Know but Were Afraid to Ask

I've been making pizza a long time, and have made every mistake in the book. A nice pizza is about as close to food nirvana as it gets for me, so after some 30 years of seeking perfection, I turn out a pretty fine home pizza. As I was literally whistling through making a couple pizzas last night it occurred to me that my experience may be of some assistance to those just starting out. Here are some things I learned the hard way. Hang in with me for a few paragraphs, and it will all come together when you get to the recipe below.
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.

Pizza Crust
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.
Spanish Chorizo, Mushrooms, Red Pepper, Onion and Brined Olives on the Right, After Baking

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!

18 comments:

  1. Wow, I am definitely saving this post for future reference! So great to get tips from a pizza expert. ;) And those toppings are to die for!

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  2. I was just looking for a pizza dough recipe. I must try soon. I just got my pizza stone! Thanks for sharing.

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  3. Pizza is a weekly occurrence in our house! It's great to hear your advice about pizza crust. I've been spending the last few years practicing and by now I have a favorite crust recipe. I'll give your recipe a try, too. Oh, and that advice about the toppings is excellent. I would love to have had someone tell me that 2 years ago!

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  4. I love your sense of humor... And your pizzas look scrumptious to boot!

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  5. What a great post! I'm definitely saving it so I can use your tips and recipe to make pizza sometime soon.

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  6. Oh my God, those pizzas just made me soooo hungry, they look mouthwatering.

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  7. Looks amazing! I've tried on the grill - but it's tough.... I'm going to give this a shot, wish me luck!

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  8. Great tips, and the pizzas are gorgeous:)

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  9. Wonderful tips for great pizza. I agree that the crust is critical. Love all the different flavor combinations.

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  10. What great timing, I was just thinking I need to give making my own dough another try. Thanks for the tips!

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  11. I grew up in a pizzeria, watching my uncle Frank toss 'em high. I haven't tried to replicate his magnificent pies for decades. Your post has given me the encouragement to make another attempt with your dough recipe! Molto Bene!

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  12. Great tips for success with pizza dough, and your toppings are inspiring as well!

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  13. I like the suggestion at least is like Sea monkeys. It makes it easier to judge the water temperature.

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  14. patgstacey@gmail.comJuly 20, 2010 at 9:20 AM

    OMG I dont' eat wheat but I would have a difficult time refraining from this!!!

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  15. I really loved this post, and will be trying pizza this week. Thanks for the great writing and wonderful pictures (as always!)

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  16. Excellent post. I use Marcella Hazan's recipe of slapping the dough on the counter and for some reason this works better than my kitchen aid. I do the 450 but never thought of testing my oven temperature. I so agree with less topping is more. The double cheese American pizza delivery baffles me.

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  17. Hey Pam, you are a great inspiration that we followed and ate a great pizza this evening. Admittedly the wine we enjoyed did travel more than 100 miles up from our old stomping grounds in Sonoma - Zin and pizza is a super supper pairing!
    And thank you for the idea of the double batch. Our frezzer now holds the seed for another night of pizza splender.

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  18. You're right. I did KNEAD to know this. Not only are you a fine cook, but you're clever too!

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