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Pizza Hack: Broil Your Pies

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All photographs by Paupered Chef Blake Royer

"You want what?" The confused Domino's employee stared at us, scared, then turned his back and looked in desperation for the manager. No, we hadn't asked for all the money in the register. Or even a pizza with fresh buffalo mozzarella and rare black truffles shredded on top. We had simply asked him for some pizza dough. Raw pizza dough. You know, before it goes into the oven.

But there was only silence and confused stares. Some mumbling happened between employees, while the other patrons in the no-table lobby pretended to be interested in the dust gathering around the floor. We continued to smile and attempted to look angelic.

He returned with the manager. "Where are you guys from?" he pressed, suspecting spies from Domino's corporate.

"Um, we live around the corner."

"No, no. Where are you from? I mean, what are you gonna do with raw dough?"

"We're going to make some pizza," we said.

"You're gonna make ... Really?"

Yes, really. You, reader, are probably thinking the same thing. Good pizza at home? Are you crazy? Call the local pizzeria. It's not worth the effort.

It's true, most people have essentially given up on making pizza at home. But, Serious Eaters, that might change once you read this. We believe you can make a near-restaurant-worthy pie at home. And you can use Domino's dough to make it happen.

But let's back up for the moment.

Most people don't make pizza at home. Sure, it's possible, as the many take-and-bake pizza places—not to mention Boboli commercials—would lead you to believe. But those of us who actually care about their pies all know that's a lie. Why is this?

The elements of a great pizza are, for the most part, not mysterious. With a little extra cash, one can easily procure imported milky mozzarella; crisp, pungent fresh herbs; and a log of great pepperoni. There are probably some wonderful secrets to a great pizza sauce, but then again, some crushed tomatoes and fresh herbs will take you most of the way.

It's the crust. The majority of our fears, and the reason we hardly ever make pizza at home, are over the crust. How will it ever be charred and crispy while at the same time chewy and springy?

As any self-respecting pizza lover will tell you, even with the perfect dough and toppings, the home cook will always run into one problem: lack of heat. Unless you have a restaurant-grade oven in your apartment, you will never reach the 800 degrees or beyond that the best New York– and Naples-style pizza needs to cook correctly. Without this intense environment, all dough will become dry before it's done cooking. It's a simple, scientific fact. While a pizza stone may improve the bottom of the crust and help retain heat, if 500 degrees is your oven's limit, that stone isn't going to magically raise it 800.

There have been noble attempts. Jeffrey Steingarten rightly speculated that an electric home oven could reach the lofty 800 degree temperature on its self-cleaning cycle, and he tried it with a friend's oven. (This was after he wrapped the heat sensor on his own gas oven with a frozen rag, resulting in a call to an oven repairman). But he forgot about the safety latch that prevents you from opening it. His pizza, while he watched longingly, turned to ash.

Jeff Varasano, who attempted to reverse engineer the pizzas at Patsy's in East Harlem, fixed that problem. By cutting the latch, he was able to reach in and remove his pizzas at just the perfect time. After a year or so of experiments, he has created, in his opinion, some phenomenal pizza. That may well be the case, although we can't exactly recommend tampering with and ruining a high-powered and potentially dangerous electrical appliance—even we have limits.

And finally, Heston Blumenthal, the Michelin three-star chef at the Fat Duck in London and the author of In Search of Perfection, saw this problem, too. His book is a passionate quest for techniques which result in perfection—from fish and chips to spaghetti bolognese.

With pizza, he takes an unprecedented route. What he comes up with is radical, simple, and produces remarkable results.

The only equipment you'll need is a cast-iron skillet and your oven's broiler. You'll preheat the skillet on the stove over the highest possible heat for 20 minutes, then put the pan under the broiler upside down. A pizza slides on top of the pan's underside, and goes under the broiler for just 1 minute and 35 seconds. It comes out cooked through and bubbling, with artfully charred edges and crust (right) and a chewy inside. And you'll be amazed.

What's the catch? You'll be limited by the size of the pan, meaning that this will look less like a pie from your favorite pizzeria, and more like a personal pan pizza. You also can only make one at a time. It's more of an eat-while-standing sort of affair, ideal for a couple friends who care as much about good pizza as you do.

As simple as this technique makes the pizza, we went a step further. Sure, you can make homemade dough. With the right kind of flour, technique, and good-godly patience, exceptional dough is within reach. But it's also an enormous pain, which is why we didn't make any.

We're very lucky—we live in Brooklyn, home to hundreds of corner pizza stores that make decent, fresh dough every single day, and who won't flinch if you walk in proudly and announce that you'd like to buy some. It will cost about $4.

But we realize that other people aren't so lucky, which is why we found ourselves at Domino's on an unassuming weekday night. Although it took a little pressing (not to mention the fact they they charged $10—about the price of a cooked pizza—but we were in no position to barter), we walked away with a large pie's worth of dough in a little box. As if to remind us that this was a good deed, we were also told that "There will be no tax for that." Guess it was an under-the-table sort of deal.

And here's the good news: Although the Domino's dough looks horrid compared to the corner pizza's store (dense and flat and a weird color), for thin-crust pizzas made in this cast-iron-and-broiler fashion, Domino's is actually ... really good. In a four-person blind-taste test, the favorite between Domino's and our corner pizzeria was split right down the middle. Honest. People couldn't tell the difference. And the Domino's dough, probably due to some mysterious ingredients, was very, very easy to stretch into a pie. This cooking technique took dough from one of the worst pizzas available and made it taste good. The fact that Domino's foists doughy, disgusting pizzas on the public when it could easily do otherwise is almost a crime.

We'd like to once again thank Heston Blumenthal and give him all the credit. Although we'd love to claim invention of this technique, it really belongs to the chef at perhaps the most famous restaurant in the world. We can live with that.


BROILER PIZZA
While Domino's sold us our dough, we don't think they're normally prone to doing this. Try buying your dough from a local independent pizzeria, or you may find frozen pizza dough at your grocery store. Allow it to thaw and come to a workable temperature before stretching.

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1. Place an empty, clean 10- to 12-inch cast-iron on a burner over high heat. Then, turn your oven's broiler on full blast. Wait at least 10 minutes for everything, including your kitchen, to reach unprecedented levels of heat.

2. In the meantime, pour some good-quality crushed tomatoes into a small saucepan, and set over medium heat. Add some whole fresh basil leaves and a good couple pinches of salt. Once this mixture begins to bubble, reduce to a simmer and keep it warm as you make your pies.

3. Next, cut away a portion of your dough, and begin carefully stretching it. The best technique is to grab the edges and keep turning it, letting gravity pull the rest of the dough into a circle. On a small, floured piece of cardboard, lay out your dough (you need something small enough that you can slide the pizza easily onto the skillet later—flexible cardboard works well for this). Spoon on less sauce than you think you'll need, and less cheese. We finished ours with a drizzle of olive oil, after the inimitable technique of Di Fara in Brooklyn.

4. After about 10 to 15 minutes, turn off the heat on your skillet, and, using an oven mitt or towel, place it under your broiler, upside down. Let it sit under the broiler for a couple minutes to fully heat up, then get your pizza ready. Give the cardboard a shake to make sure the pizza will slide off easily, then, in as quick a motion as possible, open the door, slide the pizza onto the center of the skillet, and close the door immediately.
We experimented with timing, and for our particular broiler, 1 minute 35 seconds was ideal—there's a very slim window of time that the pizza reaches perfection, because of the very-intense-and-short cooking method. It may take a couple pies to get it right. You want a good char on the crust and bubbling but not burned cheese.
Once out of the broiler, plate the pizza and tear some fresh basil over the pie. Grate some fresh hard cheese, Parmesan or Pecorino or Asiago, and allow to cool for a few moments. Cut into slices, and serve/eat immediately.

UPDATE: Click here for Neapolitan Pizza At Home (AKA the Skillet-Broiler Method) »

About the author: Collectively, Nick Kindelsperger and Blake Royer are the Paupered Chef. For more on frugal but flavorful dining, visit their blog, thepauperedchef.com.

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