The Food Lab: Detroit-Style Pizza Is the Best Thing You're Gonna Make This Year

The Food Lab

Unraveling the mysteries of home cooking through science.

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[Photographs: J. Kenji López-Alt]

For the past year, I've been up to my neck in crispy cheese crusts. That's not a bad place to be, mind you.

When did Detroit pizza become a thing? I mean, I know that rectangular pan pizzas have been served in the Motor City since at least 1946, when, according to Pure Michigan, bar owner Gus Guerra and his wife, Anna, decided to throw a batch of her mother's Sicilian dough into a blue steel pan, originally used to carry auto parts, and bake it with cheese and sauce. The pizza emerged with a blackened, lacy, crispy cheese crust all the way around the edges, and a new pizza style was born. Buddy's, the restaurant opened by the Guerras, has been serving it ever since.

But that's not what I mean. When did it become a thing? Starting in early 2016 or so, everyone seemed to be talking about it or writing about it or opening up restaurants devoted to it. I first became aware of it back in 2008, when former Serious Eats editor and current bar pie specialist Adam Kuban included it in his exhaustive pizza style guide, but it wasn't until the following year, during my annual Michigan hunting trip, that I tasted it for the first time, at a Buddy's in Detroit.

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To be frank, I don't know why it didn't blow up earlier. The stuff is freaking delicious. Let's start from the bottom and work our way up: The crust comes out crisp and golden on the bottom, with a lightly fried texture that it gets from sizzling in the rendered fat that drips down from the cheese. Next, we move on to the crumb, which is chewy, with a medium-fine bubble structure. Not so rustic as, say, a focaccia, but not quite as soft and fluffy as a New York–style Sicilian slice.

Above that is where things get a little topsy-turvy. Instead of using the "sauce, cheese, toppings" order of a typical pizza, Detroit pizzas are built in reverse. Creamy, tangy Brick cheese from Wisconsin is cubed and applied directly to the top of the dough, where it bakes up gooey, buttery, and thick in the middle, crispy and dark brown around the edges. On top of the cheese is a sweet, thick tomato sauce, seasoned with plenty of garlic and spices and often applied in heavy parallel bands. If you order the pizza with pepperoni (the most common topping), depending on where you are, you might find it cupped and crisp on top of the sauce, or, occasionally, buried underneath the cheese, where its flavor seeps in and penetrates every bite.* It's crispy, fatty, cheesy, tangy, and glorious, especially those coveted corner pieces that give you that extra crunch.

* Should we call them "middlings" instead of "toppings" if they're stuck in the middle?

This is not everyday pizza. It's not every-week pizza. It might not even be every-month, if you want to live to a reasonable age. But damn, is it good pizza. So good that it's worth a trip to Detroit just to taste it. So good that it's worth devoting months of time, weeks of research, and dozens and dozens of experiments to developing a recipe to duplicate it at home. So that's exactly what I did. Here's what I found.

The Crust

I decided to start my testing by focusing on the crust. For these tests, I used low-moisture mozzarella and a jar of Rao's for the sauce. Since I already have an easy recipe for foolproof pan pizza, I started there, figuring I could tweak it to make it work for a Detroit pie. That recipe uses a basic no-knead method: Flour and water are combined with yeast (1% of the flour by weight) and salt (2.5% of the flour by weight) and mixed together in a bowl, just until a shaggy dough forms. The bowl is then covered and set aside overnight. During that overnight rest, yeast multiplies and produces bubbles of carbon dioxide that slowly expand and rise, in effect kneading the dough for you. In the morning, you wind up with a stretchy, relaxed dough with plenty of gluten development.

A little too much gluten development, as it turned out.

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Good gluten development and a nicely relaxed, high-moisture dough lead to a very rustic hole structure, with a hearty chew and a mix of big, small, and medium-sized bubbles. It's delicious, but Detroit pizza should be a little more uniform. Still, I liked the idea of a no-knead dough, so I tried it a few more times, using different ratios of flour to water. In baker-speak, this is known as "hydration level": A "60% hydration dough" is a dough that uses 60 grams of water for every 100 grams of flour. My original pan pizza has a hydration level of about 70%. I tried going down as low as 60%, which made a dough that had a finer hole structure (good!) but also a denser, tougher texture (bad!).

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After a few more experiments (mostly around adding a fat to the dough, with the idea of making it a little more tender), I decided to throw in the towel on the no-knead method and switch to a more traditional kneading-based approach.**

** NB: No-knead is still a fantastic way to make pizza or bread if a rustic crumb is what you're after!

In doing a bit more research, I found that Adam Kuban had gone down a similar path years ago while exploring hydration levels in Detroit-style dough. According to him, using all-purpose flour and a super-high hydration level of 75% is the key. I mixed up another batch, this time using my stand mixer to make the dough. I started by combining the ingredients and mixing them just until they started to come together, then let them rest for 10 minutes before continuing to knead.

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This is a method called autolyse, during which an enzymatic breakdown of flour protein occurs,*** making it easier to subsequently form gluten. Think of it sort of like converting a Lego spaceship into a castle: It's easiest if you break it down completely before starting to rebuild. Once the dough was kneaded, I let it rise for a couple hours at room temperature before turning it into a greased pan (more on that pan later). I let it rest once more to allow the gluten to relax, then stretched it out until it filled out the pan all the way to the edges, before topping and baking it in a hot oven.

*** Technically, an autolyse is made before salt is added, but I've never really found a big difference between adding the salt at the start and adding it at the end.

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Adam is right that high hydration is a great way to go (though I ended up scaling my water back to around 73% instead of 75%), but I wasn't fully convinced about the all-purpose flour. Because all-purpose flour is relatively low in protein, it produces a light, very tender crumb that doesn't have quite the chew or pull I was looking for.

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Swapping out that all-purpose flour for bread flour (I used King Arthur bread flour) was the real key, producing a crumb structure that was relatively open and chewy, but still squarely on the Detroit pizza end of the scale as opposed to the focaccia end.

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In the past, I've written glowingly about doughs made in a food processor, and I'm happy to report that this dough also works fabulously well in a food processor. Just dump the ingredients in, set the machine running until a ball of dough forms (that usually takes about 15 seconds), then let that ball of dough ride around the blade for 30 seconds longer. You'll be amazed at how quickly it develops an incredibly smooth, silky gluten structure. If you have a powerful food processor (the Breville Sous Chef is what I use these days) and are making only a couple batches of dough, it'll leave the stand mixer in the dust.

The Cheese

With the dough out of the way, I turned my attention to the cheese. Detroit pizza is unusual in two ways when it comes to cheese. The first is the use of Brick cheese, a high-fat aged cheese from Wisconsin with a uniquely tangy, salty, buttery flavor that's hard to replace with alternatives. The second is the edges. If you've ever been to Pequod's or Burt's Place in Chicago, or, better yet, had a pizza from Windy City Pie in Seattle (incidentally, the best Chicago-style pan pizza I've ever had anywhere, including in Chicago), then you're familiar with the concept of a crispy, blackened cheese crust—the shelf of crisp, lacy cheese that surrounds the edge of the pizza. This is where the real magic of Detroit-style pizza lies, and, as I found out, getting it is not exactly straightforward.

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For my testing, I ordered a ton of Brick cheese from Amazon. If you order in bulk, it's relatively inexpensive, and worth it if authenticity is what you're after. (Don't worry; I also found some viable alternatives sold in supermarkets.) When I visited Dave Lichterman, the man behind Windy City Pie, in his Seattle kitchen a few months ago, he showed me how he makes his cheese crust. He starts by filling out a pan with dough, then lays overlapping slices of cheese (not grated cheese!) on top, letting each one ride off the edge of the pan to line the sides, where they crisp and bake into shape.

I tried that method with my Detroit-style pizza, but the problem was slicing the Brick cheese—it's very soft, which makes slicing an almost impossible endeavor. Just for kicks, I tried using presliced supermarket cheeses of various flavors. None of them seemed to crisp up the way Dave's does.

I wondered if the shape of the cheese wasn't the only issue. Up until now, I'd been cooking my pizza in standard aluminum rimmed baking sheets. Maybe there is some truth to what people say about those special Detroit pans being the secret ingredient in Detroit pizza?

The classic Detroit pizza pan is a deep, 10- by 14-inch rectangle of metal with black surfaces (for better conduction) and sides that flare gently away from the bottom. While the original pans were made from blue steel, most modern pans are made from anodized aluminum and come with a nonstick coating. I tested a number of these pans and found that yes, the black surfaces really did make a difference in how well that cheese crisped.

The best one I tried was this one from LloydPans, which has been making these pans since the '80s. This is a specialty item for sure, but once you try this recipe, I can guarantee that you'll be using it with regularity. Still, if you don't want a dedicated pizza pan, I found that you can get decent results from a pair of deep, well-seasoned or nonstick 8- by 8-inch cake pans.****

**** The crust doesn't come out quite as nice when you use a pair of cake pans, but you do end up with more of it because of the two extra edges, so it's a pretty fair trade.

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After stretching my dough, I added a layer of diced Brick cheese, which I made sure to spread all the way to the very edges of the pan. Buddy's in Detroit claims that it uses a full pound of cheese for each pizza. I've seen some recipes that call for eight ounces or less. I ended up splitting the difference by adding 12 ounces of diced cheese. Don't get me wrong: It's still a ton***** of cheese, but not so much that eating it becomes painful.

***** Not literally a ton.

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Ya see how nice that cheese-and-pan combo works out? For the record, the cheese crust may look black, but I can assure you that it does not taste burnt or bitter. I can't explain it. In the wise words of Oscar Gamble, they don't think it be like it is, but it do.

Swapping out that Brick cheese for a different cheese turned out to be surprisingly difficult. Not only does Brick cheese have its own flavor, it's also extremely high in fat, which is important. As that butterfat drips down into the pan, it fries directly into the crust. Many people note that Detroit pizza has a buttery flavor despite containing no butter at all; that flavor comes from the Brick cheese fat.

At Tony's Pizza Napoletana in San Francisco, owner and pizza savant Tony Gemignani uses cheddar around the edges. The cheddar comes out reasonably lacy and crisp, but the flavor reminds me more of a crisp-edged grilled cheese. I tried sliced and cubed low-moisture mozzarella and young, soft Jacks. I even gave Havarti a go. In the end, the closest substitute I could find was a 50/50 mix of low-moisture mozzarella (which provides some of that clean, buttery dairy flavor) and Jack (which has plenty of fat and also tanginess).

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Like tuning into a Bill Nye marathon when you're in the mood for Mr. Wizard, it's not quite the same, but it'll leave you mostly satisfied.

The Sauce

Compared to the struggles I went through to nail the crust and cheese, the sauce was a piece of cake. Unlike a typically sparse Neapolitan- or New York–style pizza sauce, Detroit-style pizza sauces are usually heavily seasoned with aromatics. To make mine, I started by sautéing fresh garlic, a little pinch of pepper flakes, and a good amount of dried oregano in extra-virgin olive oil before adding tomatoes. I generally recommend using whole peeled tomatoes that you crush yourself by hand, as whole peeled tomatoes exhibit more consistency than other types of processed tomatoes. But in this case, without a food mill, it's hard to get the uniform crushed texture that you want in Detroit-style pizza sauce, so I opted for canned crushed tomatoes instead.****** So long as you use a good-quality brand, like Muir Glen, Bianco DiNapoli, or Cento D.O.P. San Marzanos, crushed will do just fine.

****** Little CA-living brag here: The very best sauce I made was from the San Marzanos I grew and canned myself last summer. Thpbhbpbhpbphpbtbh.

Some recipes call for canned pizza sauce or tomato paste. I find that both can dull flavor too much, so I prefer to simmer down my tomatoes until they're nicely reduced and intensely flavored.

My sauce was tasty, but it was still missing something. I'm generally a "fresh garlic all the way" type of guy, but I couldn't shake the feeling that granulated garlic powder might be that missing element. Turns out I was right.

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Adding a small dash of granulated garlic and granulated onion, along with a bit of sugar, was the key. Now, I know from experience how uppity people can get about sugar in their tomato sauce, so I'll tell you right now: I don't care. If putting sugar in tomato sauce offends you, by all means, keep it sugar-free. I promise I won't stop you. Meanwhile, I'll be over here, eating my delicious pizza, and no, you can't have any.

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There's a school of thought that suggests waiting to add sauce to a Detroit pizza until after it comes out of the oven. That's not a bad way to do it, but I prefer the cosmic oneness that the pizza achieves when the cheese and sauce are cooked together.

Topping and Baking

The only thing left to address is how to add toppings and bake this thing. You can feel free to use whatever toppings you personally like, but to my mind, pepperoni is the only real choice here.

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I mentioned before that some restaurants like to place the pepperoni under the cheese, while others place it on top. I really do like the way the flavor gets integrated into the dough when you place the pepperoni underneath, but giving up those crisp, charred edges from pepperoni cooked on top of the pie physically pains me, so I thought: Por que no los dos?

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Laying pepperoni out under and over the pie gives you the best of both worlds. Incidentally, make sure to use a high-quality natural-casing pepperoni, like this one from Vermont Smoke & Cure, or even Boar's Head (the stick version, not the presliced!). That's how you guarantee that your pepperoni will cup up into those crispy little grease chalices that Adam Kuban is so fond of.*******

******* You can read up a bit here on the fascinating science of what makes pepperoni curl.

The only thing left to test was baking, and, unfortunately, here's where things get a wee bit hairy. The problem is that ovens are not very accurate, or even uniform. Most ovens tend to heat more from the bottom than from the top, but some are the opposite. Some ovens maintain a steady temperature, while others fluctuate wildly up and down.

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I have a few pieces of advice here. First, set the oven as hot as it will get. In a home oven, that's 500 to 550°F (260 to 290°C). At those temperatures, you get good browning and crisping of the crust before the dough has a chance to dry out too much. But even then, you might find that the top of your pizza ends up cooking before the bottom does. If you know that your oven doesn't heat much from the bottom, or if you make the recipe and find the base is not quite as crisp as you like, you have a couple options.

First is to place the pan on top of a preheated Baking Steel, which will help pump heat into the base of the pizza, where it's needed most. Your second option is to place the pizza directly on the floor of a preheated oven, which will also give it a nice, quick energy boost.

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In a hot oven, the pizza cooks in about 12 to 15 minutes. You'll know it's done when the cheese around the edges is sizzling and black and the top is very lightly browned.

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Once it comes out of the oven, use a thin metal spatula to carefully prise the edges away from the pan, giving the whole thing a few shakes until it seems to move around freely.

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From there, transfer the pizza to a cutting board, and do your best not to immediately plant your face in it. That's rude. And also liable to give you severe burns on your eyeballs. That's something nobody likes.

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You know what's something that everybody likes? Delicious pizza. Like the one you're going to make this week.

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I mean, just look at that crumb. Oh, oh! And let me show you the best part:

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Now that? That's the stuff that dreams are made of. Welcome to Detroit, my friends.