Some people — yours truly included! — are always claiming that pizza is super easy to make at home. And in many ways it is. Pizza dough is simple to make, and once it's stretched out you just have to top it and bake it in a hot oven.
But even I consider stretching the dough a pain point. This winter I challenged myself to make better pizza at home and learned that just five small things can make stretching pizza dough a whole lot easier, and now I'm passing these tips on to you.
1. Bring your dough to room temperature.
Before you begin stretching, warm up your cold dough for at least 30 minutes at room temperature. Gluten, the protein that makes pizza dough chewy, is tighter in cold conditions like the fridge, which is why cold pizza dough will stretch out and snap back just like a rubber band. This step will loosen up the dough and make it easier to shape.
If it's in plastic from the grocery store (or freezer, you champ!) take it out of the plastic and move it to an oiled mixing bowl. Cover the bowl and set in a warm place for at least 30 minutes.
If you're working with homemade pizza dough made the same day, you'll be starting this step after the first 1 1/2- to 2-hour rise time, after you've split the dough in two portions.
Our tried-and-true recipe: How To Make the Best Basic Pizza Dough
2. Prep your workspace with olive oil to avoid sticking.
So you've got a relaxed pizza dough waiting in the bowl and you're ready start stretching out the dough. The trick here is to skip the flour. Flour is good for keeping some doughs from sticking, but too much flour can make pizza dough tough.
Instead, rub your work surface and hands with a little olive oil (about 2 to 3 tablespoons). Olive oil keeps the dough from sticking to your cutting board or sheet pan and also encourages a golden and crispy crust.
This is also a good time to line your pizza peel (or the back on an inverted sheet pan) with parchment paper or sprinkle it with cornmeal.
3. Press your pizza dough before you stretch it.
Now you've got pizza dough covered in olive oil in front of you. Before you stretch it, you first have to flatten the dough into a disc.
Press the dough down into a large flat disc using the palm of your hand. Next, use the middle three fingers on each of your hands to press the dough out from the center, widening that flat disc into a large circle about 6 inches across and about 1/2 inch thick. The dough should be soft and pliable and shouldn't shrink back when you press it. It is okay if the flattened disc isn't perfectly round at this point.
Rest again as needed.
If your dough slowly shrinks a little bit, that is totally normal, but if it snaps back quickly, rest the dough for 15 to 20 minutes under a clean kitchen towel and start with step 3 again, repeating the process until the dough holds it shape.
4. Stretch the dough with both hands and use gravity.
Stretching the dough with your knuckles and tossing it up in the air isn't the best way to learn how to stretch pizza dough — even though it might be pretty impressive. Instead keep the dough close to you and use hand pulling and gravity to get an even crust.
When you're really ready to stretch, carefully pick up the dough and hold it with both hands on one edge of the dough, letting the rest of the dough hang down. I like to have the top of my pizza dough facing towards me to keep an eye on thickness. Gravity is going to do some of the stretching work as you gently rotate the dough in one direction like turning a wheel. Slowly pull the dough from hand to hand as the dough hangs down.
Working quickly, stretch the pizza until it's about 11 inches in diameter and about 1/3 of an inch thick. Don't stress if there are thin spots or holes right now — we will fix them in the next step.
5. Stretch the dough out on the pizza peel and top.
Carefully move your stretched pizza dough to your prepared pizza peel or sheet pan. Take a look at your dough: Is it perfectly even and about 10 inches across? Then you're a real pizza pro! But if you're the rest us and your dough has some imperfections, now is the time to fix them.
The dough is probably shrinking back a little — we over-stretched it in the previous step to account for that. Press any very thick edges out to about 1/3 inch thick and conversely "pinch" thin or torn areas closed by pressing around them to bring dough together to cover the area.
Ultimately, the goal before topping isn't perfection but a mostly even 10-inch-wide circle that's about 1/3 of an inch thick without overworking the dough. Don't worry if the edge (or what will be the crust) isn't thicker than the center — the toppings will weigh down the center and the crust will puff delightfully in the oven.
A final tip, before you top your pizza: Give the pizza peel a gentle shake and make sure that the cornmeal has done it's job in preventing sticking. If you prepared your pizza on parchment paper, you can slide that directly onto your pizza stone.