I'm not sure when I turned into such a pizza fanatic, but when you're willing to drive six hours roundtrip to eat at a pizza place you read about online and put down several hundred dollars for an outdoor pizza oven, you've got to admit to yourself that pizza isn't just something you enjoy eating on Friday night — it's your passion.
For years, making great pizza at home always eluded me. The crust turned out too soggy or anemic-looking, the cheese didn't brown the way I wanted, and don't even get me started on the sauce (it always tasted off).
Then I got serious (or as serious as one gets about pizza). Our Friday night pizza habit, which used to include picking up the occasional frozen pizza, turned into my hobby. I made countless different styles, I experimented with different dough ratios, and I made sauce — lots of sauce. Finally, I nailed really good homemade pizza. Here's what I've learned.
1. I never use a stand mixer.
I always thought there were two methods for making sturdy yeast doughs: by hand or with a stand mixer. When I'd see recipes for dough that were mixed in a food processor, I thought they were ridiculous. Wouldn't the blade just tear the gluten to shreds?
Just the opposite, in fact.
What I mistook for food processor manufacturers trying to diversify their product line — "It slices! It dices! It chops! It makes ... dough" — turns out to be an excellent dough-making technique. Not only does pizza dough come together in seconds when made in a food processor, but the dough, much to my surprise, also rises better and the finished pizza tastes more flavorful than dough mixed in either a stand mixer or by hand.
There are some interesting food science theories about why small batches of yeast doughs made in a food processor turn out so well. While they intrigue me, what I really care about is my final pizza. Batch after batch has proven that this method gives me a light crust that rises like a champ. The fact that it comes together in under a minute doesn't hurt, either.
Before you make dough in your food processor, read this.
- You need a food processor with a capacity of 10 cups or larger.
- Follow a recipe that uses three cups of flour, max. A recipe larger than that will stress the machine.
- Use room-temperature water. The fast action of the blade warms the dough. If the water is too warm at the start, it can overheat the dough and kill off the yeast. You want the water temperature to be around 75 to 80°F.
- Use the metal blade. Some food processors come with a plastic dough blade; this blade tends to overwork the dough.
- Be quick. Overmixing in a food processor happens fast. When the dough is overmixed, its structure breaks down and it becomes sticky and tight. As soon as a dough ball forms, start counting. Mix the dough for 30 seconds and then stop.
2. I never use thin sauce (and never use too much).
One of the biggest issues I've faced with homemade pizza is the dreaded soggy crust. Even when I'd prebake the crust, sometimes the pizza would just get soggy. There'd be this thin line of wet crust that looked almost raw lurking beneath the sauce.
It drove me bonkers.
Happily there was an easily solution to this problem: Use a thicker sauce. I top most of my pizzas with a barely cooked sauce, but I thicken it enough so that it glides over the dough without bringing excess moisture. When I use hand-crushed tomatoes straight out of the can, I'll set them in a colander over a bowl to get rid of excess liquid. This simple step makes a big difference in the final pizza.
Then I don't put too much sauce on the pizza. This is tough for me because I could basically drink anything tomato-based. But I hold myself back when making pizzas. You really need less than you think. For a Sicilian pizza, I only use about one cup of sauce.
3. I never use pre-grated cheese.
If I'm going to go to the trouble of making pizza at home, I'm going to grate the cheese. There are lots of times where pre-grated cheese works just fine, but pizza is not one of those times. I'm all about whole-milk mozzarella on my pizza — it tastes great, it browns beautifully, and it stretches nicely. If I'm making a Sicilian-style pie, I go for a low-moisture mozzarella; for Neapolitan-style pieces, I use thin slices of fresh mozzarella.
4. I never bake below 550°F.
Professional pizza ovens get screaming hot. At home, I never set my oven to below 550°F. This temperature cooks pizza fast, giving me a crust that's crispy on the outside with a soft, pillowy interior.
5. I never bake without a baking steel.
A few years ago, baking steels hit the scene. They promised to deliver pizzeria-style pizza from a home oven since steel is such a good conductor of heat. I'd owned a pizza stone since the late '90s, which I liked but didn't love.
Then my friend Adam, who runs the popular popup Margot's Pizza, mentioned he used one. This got my attention. Adam knows pizza. Not only does he make pizza in professional settings, but he also makes pizza at home, which is often a rarity among professional pizza makers.
So I got a steel (well, my husband made me one — he works in a steel shop) and my pizza life hasn't been the same since.
I don't bake my pizza directly on the steel. I put the steel on the lower rack of my oven and preheat the oven for about 30 minutes (this allows the steel to get hot). While the oven heats, I prepare pizza. Then I set the pan directly onto the steel.
My pizza bakes in about 12 minutes and comes out with the crispy crust that rivals our local pizza place. Actually, that's not true — most of the time my crust is far better than our local pizza place.
6. I never get in a rut.
Getting in a pizza rut is so easy. I like what I like and tend to want to make it again and again. But where's the fun in that? One part of pizza-making that regularly challenges me is trying different styles and toppings.
As much as I adore my homemade classic-style pizza (whole-milk, low-moisture mozzarella with a cooked tomato sauce topped with pepperoni, black olives, mushrooms, green peppers, and onions) and my Neapolitan-style pizza (fresh sauce, fresh mozzarella, and fresh basil cooking in our outdoor pizza oven), I force myself to try different topping and sauces — because hey, I never know what my next new favorite will be!
7. I never just reheat it in the microwave.
Cold pizza is a thing of beauty. Microwaved pizza? Not so much. The entire slice gets limp and doughy. Blech.
To reheat pizza that tastes just like it came out of the oven, I microwave it for about 30 seconds. This heats the toppings and cheese. Then I slide it into a hot skillet that I've lightly oiled. The slice sizzles when it hits the skillet. After about a minute or so, the bottom crust crisps up and I'm rewarded for my effort with a piece of leftover pizza that tastes as good as a fresh slice.