The Food Lab: 11 Essential Tips for Better Pizza
Making pizza is a year-round activity for me, whether it's a No-knead, no-stretch pan pizza in the winter, a grilled pizza party in the summer, or a Neapolitan pie baked in my Baking Steel/Kettle Pizza kit.
Pizza can be as simple or as difficult as you'd like it to be, but here are 11 good, universal rules that anyone who makes pizza should follow.
#1: Use a Scale!
In my experience, the majority of problems people have with making good dough comes down to incorrectly measuring flour, and the absolute worst way to do it is with a cup measure. The best pizza (and bread) recipes will call for ingredients by weight instead of by volume.
Why is this?
It's because flour is compressible. Measure your flour by sifting it into a cup and you'll end up with about four ounces of flour when the cup is totally full. On the other hand, measure your flour by firmly dipping that cup measure into a bag of flour and leveling it off and you can end up with as much as six ounces of flour in the same cup. That's a difference of 50%!
Using a scale will ensure that no matter how compressed your flour is, you'll always be using exactly the correct amount.
Not only that, but it allows you to measure your ingredients—flour, yeast, salt, and water—directly into the same bowl, making clean-up a snap.
#2: Learn How to Use the Metric System and Baker's Percentages
If you want to get really serious about your pizza game, learn how to read and think in baker's percentages, the standard notation for professional bakers. With baker's percentages, every ingredient is represented by its proportion by weight to the flour in a recipe. When coupled with the metric system and its logical base-ten measures, it helps liberate you from recipes.
So, for instance, if a pizza dough recipe calls for 60% water (also known as 60% hydration), 2% salt, and .5% yeast, that means that for every 1,000 grams of flour, you'd add 600 grams of water, 20 grams of salt, and 5 grams of yeast.
The advantage of the system is that it allows you to scale a recipe up and down freely without having to recalculate fussy cups or tablespoons. Once you get yourself a scale that measures in grams, you'll be throwing together batches of dough, large or small, in no time.
Read up a bit more on baker's percentages and start measuring!
#3: Choose the Right Flour
Flour is the main ingredient in pizza dough, and the type you use can have a big effect on the end result. All-purpose flour will work fine, but if you want a chewier crumb and a better hole structure, you should consider buying yourself some high protein bread flour. I use either King Arthur-brand bread flour, or imported Antimo Caputo bread or pizza flour (which is ground more finely than its American flour counterparts).
There's more information about flour choices here.
And for the record, no, there's nothing special about New York water. You can make great pizza with almost any water.
#4: Pick a Style
Before you start mixing your dough or firing up the oven, make sure that you know what type of pizza you're going for. Are you looking for hardcore Neapolitan-style pizza with fresh mozzarella and a soft, crisp crust? Or are you in the mood for New York-style pizza, with a more substantial crunch and a layer of grated, dry mozzarella?
If you're looking to feed a large crowd with minimal fuss and fool-proof end results, then you might consider attempting a Sicilian-style square pie, or an easy no-knead, no-stretch pan pizza. Our recipes are simple enough that a complete pizza noob can make them without fail on their very first try.
Of course, that's just dipping your toe into the world of pizza styles out there. Check out our Ultimate Pizza-Making Guide for links and recipes for dozens of other styles.
#5: No Stand Mixer? No Problem
Kneading develops gluten, the network of interconnected proteins that gives structure to baked goods. Sure, a stand mixer can help when you've got a lot of pizza to make, but it's not the only way to knead your dough. In fact, as I've discovered, using a food processor can actually help you develop gluten faster and better than you can in a stand mixer.
Don't have any fancy equipment at all? Not to worry. The No-Knead method uses time and a bit of physics to create gluten with no kneading whatsoever. Just stir together all of your ingredients, cover the bowl with plastic wrap, and let the dough sit out overnight. The next day your dough will be ready to shape, proof, and stretch. It's my method of choice for making dough that takes just one bowl and almost no clean-up. (And for the record, it will work with almost any dough recipe!)
#6: Cold Ferment for Better Flavor and Texture
Cold fermenting your dough—that is, storing it in the refrigerator after forming it—can help improve both its flavor and its browning characteristics as the yeast slowly gets to work digesting carbohydrates.
In the tests that I've done, dough gets better and better over the course of a few days in the refrigerator, peaking at about 3 days. When I have the time, I'll make my dough, throw it in a zipper-lock bag, and refrigerate it for a few days because taking it out, shaping it, and allowing it to proof at room temperature before stretching and baking.
#7: No Time to Make Fresh Dough? Just Buy It
We've all been there. You're craving fresh pizza, but you just don't have the time or inclination to make your own dough. Don't worry, most store-bought pizza dough does just fine. If you're lucky, you'll even find a local pizzeria who will sell you good raw dough. Heck, we even got Domino's to hook us up with some raw dough, which, when cooked using our skillet-broiler method was as tasty as you could hope for.
#8: Can't Stretch Like a Pro? Use a Pin
It takes practice to stretch out a ball of dough into a perfect circle with a slightly raised lip. But there are two good things for beginners to know: First, even a misshapen pizza will still taste darned delicious, and second, it's still possible to make good pizza even without proper stretching. A rolling pin may be scoffed at by the pizza snobs, but it'll do in a pinch. It's an especially useful tool if grilled pizza is on your agenda.
#9: Top Your Pies Wisely
It's a given that whether you're making a cooked sauce or simply using hand-crushed tomatoes straight out of the can, you should be using a good brand (I like Muir Glen or Cento). Similarly, the cheese you use is important, whether it's fresh homemade mozzarella or grated dry mozzarella.
As for other toppings, the urge to go crazy with them can be intense, but the best pies keep the toppings minimal and balanced. I try to limit it to two or three, asking myself at each step whether what I'm adding is complementing the ingredients I added before, and whether they all come together into a synergistic whole that is greater than the sum of its parts.
Does the pizza with four types of meat and seven different vegetables really taste better than the one that just has charred brussels sprouts and pancetta? Probably not.
#10: Blast That Heat
Why does the local pizzeria's pizza taste better than the stuff you make at home? It's likely because their oven is hotter than yours. A hotter oven leads to superior oven-spring—the early phase of baking during which air and vapor bubbles inside dough rapidly expand, causing the dough to become airy and full of holes. A hot oven also creates a better contrast between crisp, lightly charred exterior, and soft, cloud-like interior.
At the very least, you should be baking your pizzas as hot as your oven will go—generally in the 550°F range—but if you want to up your game even further, consider a higher heat approach like our skillet-broiler method, or—my method of choice— outdoors, using a Baking Steel/KettlePizza Weber grill conversion kit. It'll up your pizza game by several hundred degrees.
#11: Use a Baking Steel
A good, heavy, baking stone can hold tons of heat energy, releasing it rapidly into a pizza as it bakes, giving you a crisper crust and better oven spring.
But forget baking stones. The Baking Steel is where it's at these days. With a higher heat capacity, higher specific heat, and higher conductivity, The Baking Steel is like a baking stone on steroids, and it'll help deliver the crispest crusts you've ever had coming out of your home kitchen.