This week on Ask The Food Lab: how to make sure that your pizza dough doesn't stick to the peel before launching it into the oven, as well as tips on how to make the best apple pie filling and crust.
"How do you unstick a stuck pizza?"
Is there a way to rescue a pizza that has stuck to the peel, other than turning it into a calzone or Stromboli? More than once, either thru forgetfulness or denial, I have not put enough flour or cornmeal underneath the dough, and regardless of wooden or aluminum peel, the dough inevitably sticks and makes a mess when I try to transfer it to the stone.
—Sent by Dave P.
How many times have you made pies that ended up looking like that misshapen beast above? Luckily, those pies still taste great, but I understand the desire to want perfectly round pizzas that slide magically off the peel every time.
There are a few keys.
First off, use a wooden peel. A metal peel can be used to maneuver and retrieve pies from the oven, but a wooden peel should be used to launch them. The pores in the wood help prevent a moist dough from sticking to it.
If the worst happens and your dough does get stuck, here's a quick tip we learned from Pizza A Casa founder Mark Bello.
Keep a spice shaker full of flour on your work bench. Whenever your pie sticks to the peel, just carefully lift the stuck-on segment with one hand or a bench scraper, and dust some flour onto the peel directly underneath. Your pie should slide around with no problems after that.
"What is the best way to make apple pie?"
What is the best way to make apple pie? How do the different apples impact the taste? The ripeness of the apples? There are a bunch of things that go into the perfect apple pie. Also, this question is seasonal!
—Sent by Rizzobert
Good question, Rizzobert—if that's even your real name—and fortunately we have extensive coverage on this very topic. There are basically only two elements to a great apple pie: a perfect crust, and a perfect filling. How do you achieve those? Here are some tips.
Choosing the best apples is really a matter of taste, but as a general rule, relatively tart apples make for the best crusts. Flavorwise, they'll keep your pie from tasting cloying after you've added sugar—lemon juice will help here as well. More importantly, tart apples have better texture. Why? Pectin.
Pectin is the glue that holds together plant cells. As plants and vegetables cook, this pectin breaks down, turning firm fruits mushy. The good news s that the breakdown is dependent upon pH—the more acidic the environment, the less pectin will break down.
So if you cook an apple pie using super-sweet, low-acid apples like a Red Delicious, you end up with something like this:
Whereas if you pick a higher acid apple like Granny Smith, Gala, or Golden Delicious, you get something that looks more like this:
For my money, Golden Delicious are the best compromise between aroma and acidity, at least of the readily available varieties.
The other thing you want to do is to par-cook your apples. It's anti-intuitive, but cooking your apples before they go into the crust will actually keep them firmer as they bake.
Cook a pot of apples on the stove too hot and indeed, they'll eventually break down into apple sauce. But cook them more carefully, and a pretty awesome thing happens: An enzyme naturally present in the apples will convert the pectin in the cell walls into a heat-stable form, very much like curing the cement mortar in between the bricks and allowing them to fully harden. You want to keep apples between 140 to 160°F for this to happen.
The easiest way? Pour a few quarts of boiling water over them before you construct your filling. (See the recipe here for detailed instructions).
Crust is another matter entirely, and frankly, most traditional recipes for pie crust are not easy to master. They take practice, and that's about it.
Or is it?
For most folks, the most difficult part about pie crust is rolling it out. Pie dough is dry by nature, and it cracks and crumbles as you roll. You'd be tempted to add more liquid to it, but doing so is a mistake—more water added to a pie crust will cause it to form an excess of gluten, which leads to leathery, tough crust.
There are two solutions to this problem. The first is to replace some of the water in the dough with vodka, a technique I developed for Cook's Illustrated Magazine a few years ago. Gluten does not form in alcohol, so you are able to add more liquid to your crust, while still allowing it to stay tender (get the complete recipe here).
The other key is that rather than simply cutting your entire amount of fat into your entire amount of flour, instead, combine your fat with only some of your flour, blending it together into a near paste-like consistency. Only afterwards, cut the remaining flour into it. This flour-fat paste will behave very similarly to chunks of pure fat in a dough (that is, it'll keep layers of gluten separated and flaky), but is far more malleable and easy to roll.
A dough made using this method has the texture of Play-Do, but comes out as perfectly flaky and tender as the best traditional pie crust.