PIZZA, ONE OF the great pickup meals, is being claimed by gourmets and faddists. Restaurants under the influence of California are putting goat cheese, sun-dried tomatoes, and onion confit on pizza and calling it nouvelle. So are trendy cooks, who are kneading exotically flavored doughs and declaring war on salty tomato sauce and stringy mozzarella. Is pizza actually better left to the familiar corner restaurants that satisfy late-night cravings with the contents of steaming, grease-spotted boxes? No. Whether you choose to copy an old favorite or go nouvelle, pizza is best when you make it at home.
Perhaps the main reason that homemade pizza is catching on is that even a klutz can make a good crust. Yeast dough invites abuse. It takes time, though, so it’s a good idea to make a lot and freeze it in individual portions. If you remember to defrost a package, you can pick up a few groceries or use leftovers and assemble a great pizza in a half hour. Or using another recipe you can start from scratch and in a half hour have a less-than-perfect pizza that’s still better than one from a store.
Even if you decide to stick to the last-minute version, it’s worth knowing how to make the classic kind. The standard pizza-dough recipe for one eighteen-inch or two nine-inch pizzas calls for between three and three and a half cups of flour and one envelope of dry yeast or one cake of fresh. If you’ve never worked with yeast before, you’ll be surprised at how cooperative it is. Begin by “proofing” the yeast: sprinkle or crumble it into a quarter cup of lukewarm water, mix it, and let it stand uncovered for about ten minutes, when it should start to smell slightly beery. If the yeast clumps at the bottom and nothing happens, it’s probably not because the yeast is too old (do check the date on the package) but because the water was too cold or too hot. The ideal temperature is 85[degrees] for compressed yeast and between 90[degrees] and 120[degrees] for dry yeast.
Several recent books on pizza would have you stir into the proofed yeast a small amount of flour–between a half cup and a cup–and let the mixture (called a sponge) stand, covered, in a warm place for thirty minutes to an hour before adding the rest of the flour and kneading. Evelyne Slomon’s The Pizza Book–the best introductory text–omits this step from the basic dough recipe, and I don’t miss it. The sponge method produces a fine crumb, but I like the uneven texture that Slomon’s fast-rising method produces. Slomon mixes the yeast with all of the additional water she calls for–a cup–and stirs in half a teaspoon of salt and two cups of all-purpose flour.
I never understood what an effective outlet kneading is for any frustration until I made a dozen batches of different pizza doughs. One good way to knead is to push hard into the dough with both heels of your hands and then pull the top edge toward you, so that it looks like the crest of a wave. When the dough is too stiff to be stirred, it’s ready to be kneaded. Cover a flat surface and your hands with flour, keeping track of how much you use by taking it from the remaining cup or so. Knead more flour in by tablespoons, adding it as the white powder disappears. You may not have to use all of it: flour is harder or softer in different parts of the country, and it requires more or less water to make a dough that fights back a little, which you want, instead of a tough and lumpy one. A dough scraper will help you take the dough off the board. Stop adding flour when you can knead the dough into a ball without using the scraper. After ten minutes of kneading–don’t cheat–your arms will hurt and the dough will be smooth and elastic.
You can both mix and knead dough in a food processor fitted with the steel blade. Put three cups of flour and half a teaspoon of salt in the processor bowl. Dissolve the yeast in three quarters of a cup of water, and add it in a thin stream while the machine is running. The dough is ready when it forms a ball over the blade and isn’t sticky to the touch. Add more water if you need to. This order, the reverse of Slomon’s, allows you to adjust water to flour. Letting a processor do the work feels like cheating, but machine-made dough tastes fine.
Many recipes instruct you to knead in one or two tablespoons of oil or a tablespoon of milk at the end. I don’t like either addition. Both make the dough softer and easier to stretch, and help to keep it fresh longer, but they take away from the chewiness I spend all that time kneading to achieve. Do, however, brush vegetable or olive oil on the bowl into which you’ll be putting the dough to rise; choose a bowl big enough to allow the dough to double in size. Turn the ball over so that it is coated. The oil will keep a skin from forming. (You can’t take off a skin without losing half the dough, and once you’ve tried stretching dough with crust scabs all over it you’ll remember the oil.) Cover the bowl tightly with plastic and set it in a warm place. A gas oven with the pilot light on is ideal. You can achieve a similar effect in an electric oven by turning it to its lowest setting for five minutes and then shutting it off. If the oven is hot the dough will rise too fast and the texture will suffer. Worse, you’ll ruin the bowl. Scraps of melted plastic don’t wash off, as several bowls in my kitchen attest.
Slomon’s dough rises only once, for between forty-five minutes and an hour. Julia Child, in From Julia Child’s Kitchen, gives a recipe that calls for two long risings. Her crust has a delicate texture and tastes like flat French bread. Slomon’s is less elegant but somehow seems more appropriate for pizza, and it has the advantage of being faster. If you want variety, avoid novelty doughs (whole-grain flours don’t make good pizza) and instead look for semolina, hard-durum wheat flour, or pasta flour. These are different names for the same thing–flour made from a hard variety of wheat. Both Marcella Hazan, who uses it straight in her More Classic Italian Cooking, and Slomon, who mixes it half-and-half with white flour, give good recipes for semolina dough. It makes my favorite crust of all–crackly and golden, with a nutty flavor.
STRETCHING DOUGH is the glamour part. For the daredevil and showoff Slomon has instructions on how to flip it in the air. Or you can stretch it with your hands after patting it out to a thickness of a half inch. The best way is to put both fists under the blanket of dough and pull them apart slowly. This method stretches the edges the least, so they form a thick rim, but it may also tear the dough (you can easily cut off a corner and patch holes) and it sometimes yields a very peculiarly shaped pizza. A rolling pin won’t be as much fun but it will give you a lot more control.
Your pizza can be whatever shape you like. What’s important is thickness, and here’s where you’re likely to start family fights. Most pizza parlors roll their dough at least a quarter of an inch thick. A version of Sicilian pizza first made popular in Chicago has a crest half an inch thick; it resembles bread. I like to stretch dough until it is paper-thin. You can’t put a heavy topping, such as sausage chunks, on it, and it is less chewy than normal pizza. But I love the crispness of it and the elasticity that sets it apart from flatbread crackers. Eating wafer-thin pizza with a glazing of browned cheese and slivers of sun-dried tomatoes (all right–I like them, for their fruity, intense flavor, both sweet and salty) is a whole new order of experience.
You must work fast with the topping ingredients, so have them all ready. It comes as a surprise to many people that in Italy cooks often omit tomatoes or cheese on their pizzas in favor of, sag, seafood. I recommend, though, that you start with tomatoes, mozzarella, and basil-pizza Margherita, the quiche Lorraine of pizza–because their flavors will tell you unmistakably that you’ve made pizza and that it’s better than what you’re used to. Slomon’s tomato sauce is a thirty-five-ounce can of imported tomatoes simmered with two tablespoons of tomato paste. I think that cooking tomatoes gives an acrid taste to a sauce that should be fresh and summery. To avoid it don’t use tomato paste and don’t cook the tomatoes: instead drain and press them through a sieve. Or, better yet, ask your fancy-food store for a carton of passata–crushed, strained tomatoes. Two Italian food manufacturers have just started exporting it: Parmalat (under the brand name of Pomi) and Cirio. It’s terrific stuff. You snip off the end of the carton and pour out what you need; it keeps for ten days in the refrigerator and for months in the freezer. (Freeze it in an ice-cube tray and store the cubes in a plastic bag.) Paula Wolfert, the author of The Cooking of Southwest France, who has moved on to the food of Sicily, uses passata as a base for a fast tomato sauce known as pic-pac. She adds an onion sauteed briefly in olive oil, and herbs such as basil and parsley.
Try to avoid supermarket mozzarella–it’s salty and tough. Most cheese shops now stock fresh mozzarella, which is the size of a billiard ball and is kept in water. The cheese is too soft to grate, so cut one ball into quarter-inch cubes and distribute them an inch apart over the tomato sauce (always leave a half-inch border uncovered). The cubes will melt and give the lovely spotted appearance that distinguishes Italian pizza Margherita from the American version, which is speckled with low-grade shredded cheese. (If you can’t find fresh mozzarella, Marcella Hazan offers a way of making packaged mozzarella palatable: soak it in olive oil for an hour.) If fresh basil is available, put on a few torn leaves as the final step. If it isn’t, use parsley. Dried basil is a last resort.
Any vegetable or meat makes a plausible topping, as long as it is in small pieces and well drained. Watery ingredients will make the crust soggy; thick sauces spread sparingly over the dough won’t if they don’t sit for long. Unfortunately for calorie counters, a final drizzling of olive oil is almost required on pizzas without cheese. Vincenzo Buonassisi gives by far the most imaginative pizza toppings in his book Pizza, which you should consult after studying Slomon. His ideas take little work and are unexpected and good. Besides simple and appropriate combinations of greens, peppers, onions, and seafood, he suggests, for example, a topping of grated apple and sweet gorgonzola, which is excellent. The ideas in Chez Panisse Pasta, Pizza & Calzone are unexpected, too, but they require exotic ingredients (quail eggs, crawfish tails) and a lot of work. The outr6 suggestions will get you thinking, though. You’ll soon formulate your own rules for which combinations of ingredients–dry and wet, pungent and sweet, heavy and light, crunchy and runny–make the best pizza.
THE GOAL IN racing through the dispersal of ingredients is to get the pizza in the oven as soon as possible. What it bakes on and how it gets there , are the most important issues in making pizza. Dough baked on metal isn’t nearly as crusty as it could be, and if it contains any oil it tastes fried and greasy. A stone surface, which absorbs liquid from the dough instead of trapping it, makes for a dramatically better crust. You can buy a pizza stone at a kitchen-supply store, but if it isn’t as wide as your oven’ it will be hard to work with. I think it’s worth going to a flooring or tile store to track down quarry tiles–six-inch squares of unglazed terra cotta about half an inch thick. (Get enough to cover your oven rack.) I don’t make this suggestion lightly. My resistance to space-taking tools that do only one thing has prevented me from buying a peel, or wooden paddle. Even though I know that it would make getting a pizza onto the tiles easier, the idea of displaying it in my kitchen is no more appealing to me than the idea of displaying a three-foot-high pepper grinder, so I make do with a big sheet of corrugated cardboard.
Sliding a pizza onto hot tiles (set the rack on the oven’s lowest rungs, and preheat the tiles for an hour at 500[degrees]) is heart-stopping. You’re doomed if the pizza sticks to whatever you use to transfer it: peel, cardboard, or cookie sheet. Avoid trouble by sprinkling cornmeal and, if you like, black pepper on the sheet and jerking it as you top the pizza to make sure that the dough isn’t sticking. Position the far end of the sheet at the back of the oven. A quick pull is all it takes for an expert to transfer a pizza, beautifully intact, onto tiles. If you can whisk a tablecloth off a table without disturbing filled wine-glasses, you won’t have any trouble with this maneuver. I still ruin all my efforts to distribute the topping evenly, by folding a flap of crust in the middle against itself or by depositing the whole thing lopsided so one corner hangs over the oven rack. But I recoup easily: the hot tiles set the crust immediately, and I am able to move the pizza back where it belongs. Even if topping spills onto the tiles through a hole in the crest, it comes off easily once the pizza is done.
A pizza baked on preheated tiles will be ready in ten to fifteen minutes. A pizza baked on a metal sheet will be ready in fifteen to twenty minutes, because the pan must heat before the pizza can start to cook. Pizza is done when the edges begin to brown and lift slightly from the tiles or pan, and when the cheese, if you’ve used it, is completely melted.
Use a serrated knife to cut the pizza. Start eating immediately, and critique. Is the crust too elastic? Next time, when you mix the water and flour, add some oil to the dough and it will be crunchier and stiffer. Do you want it to be more breadlike? Try a dough that requires two risings, and roll it thicker. Is the crust too dry? Next time spread a tablespoon or two of passata on the dough, or sprinkle more oil on the pizza just before it goes in the oven. You might find yourself springing up after two bites to roll out dough you’d planned to save so that you can try one more variation while the oven’s still hot.
Few people are organized enough to have frozen dough waiting to be thawed, or frozen pizza (you pre-bake it without any cheese) neatly labeled and ready to be heated. Slomon’s showpiece recipe is her 30-Minute Pizza, which calls for the new fast-rise yeast sold by both Fleischmann’s and Red Star. When I tried the recipe, using a processor and, against my will, a metal pan to save time preheating, I really did get pizza on the table half an hour after laying out the ingredients. If I’d kneaded by hand, it still would have taken only thirty-five; everything in the recipe is speeded up. The crust was properly chewy and breadlike. It had everything it was supposed to except character. More than any other I made, it reminded me of commercial pizza crust. The topping-Chez Panisse’s onion confit and toasted walnuts, which I loved despite my vow to be Italian and not Californian–was a lot better than that of commercial pizza, though, and I’ll make the compromise any time if the alternative is ordering out. I’ve found what amounts to a new kind of food, and I don’t plan to go back to the old kind.
Corby Kummer is an associate editor of The Atlantic.