Foolproof Pan Pizza Recipe

A pan pizza recipe for those who love a thick and crispy crust that's golden on the bottom, but puffy and soft under the layers of sauce and mozzarella.

Foolproof pan pizza in a cast iron skillet.

Serious Eats / J. Kenji López-Alt

9:58

Why It Works

  • A long, slow rise is a hands-free way to develop maximum flavor and chewiness in the crust.
  • With a hot oven and a cast iron pan, the crust bakes up deeply golden and crisp.
  • Shredded, low-moisture mozzarella keeps the pizza crisp and light.

I've got a confession to make: I love pan pizza.

It would arrive at the table in a jet-black, well-worn pan, its edges browned and crisped where the cheese had melted into the gap between the crust and the pan. You'd lift up a slice, and long threads of mozzarella would pull out, stretching all the way across the table, a signpost saying, "Hey, everyone, it's this kid's birthday!" You'd reach out your fingers—almost involuntarily—grasping at those cheese strings, plucking at them like guitar strings, wrapping them around your fingers so you could suck them off before diving into the slice itself.

That perfect pan pizza had an open, airy, chewy crumb in the center that slowly transformed into a crisp, golden-brown, fried crust at the very bottom (from a heavy duty cast iron pan) and a soft, thin, doughy layer at the top, right at the crust-sauce interface. It was thick and robust enough to support a heavy load of toppings, though even a plain cheese or pepperoni slice would do.

It's been years since I've gone to an actual Pizza Hut (they don't even exist in New York, aside from those crappy "Pizza Hut Express" joints with the prefab, lukewarm individual pizzas), but I've spent a good deal of time working on my own pan pizza recipe, to the point that it finally lives up to the perfect image of my childhood pan pizza that still lives on in my mind.

I'm not talking deep-dish Chicago-style, with its crisp crust and rivers of cheese and sauce. I'm talking thick-crusted, fried-on-the-bottom, puffy, cheesy, focaccia-esque pan pizza of the kind that you might remember Pizza Hut having when you were a kid, though, in reality, most likely that pizza never really existed—as they say, pizzas past always look better through pepperoni-tinted glasses.

If only pizza that good were also easy to make. Well, here's the good news: It is. This is the easiest pizza you will ever make. Seriously. All it takes is a few basic kitchen essentials, some simple ingredients, and a bit of patience.

The way I see it, there are three basic difficulties most folks have with pizza:

  • Problem 1: Kneading. How long is enough? What motion do I use? And is it really worth the doggone effort?
  • Problem 2: Stretching. Once I've got that disk of dough, how do I get it into the shape of an actual pizza, ready to be topped?
  • Problem 3: Transferring. Okay, let's say I've got my dough made and perfectly stretched onto my pizza peel. How do I get it onto that stone in the oven without disturbing the toppings or having it turn into a misshapen blob?

This recipe avoids all three of those common pitfalls, making it pretty much foolproof. To be perfectly honest, every single one of these steps has been done before, and none of it is rocket science. All I'm doing is combining them all into a single recipe.

Read on for a few more details on what to expect and how we got there.

No Keading

By now, everybody and their baker's heard about no-knead dough. It's a technique that was developed by Jim Lahey of Sullivan Street Bakery and popularized by Mark Bittman of the New York Times. The basic premise is simple: Mix together your dough ingredients in a bowl just until they're combined, cover the bowl, and let time take care of the rest. That's it.

Overhead shot of mixing dough for pan pizza

So how does it work? Well, the goal of kneading in a traditional dough is to create gluten, a weblike network of interconnected proteins that forms when flour is mixed with water. All wheat flour contains some amount of protein (usually around 10 to 15%, depending on the variety of wheat). In their normal state, these proteins resemble tiny crumpled-up little balls of wire. With kneading, your goal is to first work these proteins until they untangle a bit, then to rub them against each other until they link up, forming a solid chain-link fence.

It's this gluten matrix that allows your dough to be stretched without breaking, and what allows it to hold nice big air bubbles inside. Ever eat a slice of pizza with a dense, under-risen crust? It's because whoever made it didn't properly form their gluten in the process.

Now, you can see how this could take a lot of work. Kneading, aligning, folding, linking. That's why most pizza dough recipes takes a good 10 to 20 minutes of elbow grease or time in a stand mixer.

But there's another way.

See, flour naturally contains enzymes that will break down large proteins into smaller ones. Imagine them as teeny-tiny wire cutters that cut those jumbled-up balls of wire into shorter pieces. The shorter the pieces are, the easier it is to untangle them, and the easier it is to then align them and link them up into a good, strong network. No-knead dough recipes take advantage of this fact.

Over the course of an overnight sit at room temperature, those enzymes get to work breaking down proteins. Meanwhile, yeast starts to consume sugars in the flour, releasing carbon dioxide gas in the process. These bubbles of gas will cause the dough to start stretching and, in the process, will jostle and align the enzyme-primed proteins, thereby creating gluten.

Dough being transferred from bowl to work surface after overnight proof

Simply allowing the dough to sit overnight will create a gluten network at least as strong as a dough that has been kneaded in a stand mixer or by hand (if not stronger!), all with pretty much zero effort. Indeed, the flavor produced by letting yeast do its thing over the course of this night will also be superior to that of any same-day dough. Win-win!

Other than time, the only real key to a successful no-knead dough is high hydration. Specifically, the water content should be at least 60% of the weight of the flour you use. Luckily, high hydration also leads to superior hole structure upon baking. I go for about 65%.

Problem 1: avoided.

No Stretching

One of the happy side effects of having a loose, moist dough is that it practically stretches itself. Form the dough into a ball and let it sit around at room temperature, and you'll see it spreading slowly outwards until it's nearly disk-shaped. The only thing holding it back? Friction. It sticks to the countertop or board.

What do you use to eliminate friction? Grease. Coating the dough ball in grease and placing it on a smooth surface (such as, say, the inside of a cast iron skillet or round cake pan) allows it to stretch completely under its own power.

Pan pizza dough placed in greased cast iron pan to proof

All that's needed is a few gentle pokes with your fingertips to do the final shaping and to eliminate any ultra-large air bubbles.

You may wonder why we'd want to get rid of those bubbles, when an open, airy structure is what we're after. Well, it's because this dough is almost too good. It's so loose and easy to stretch that large bubbles will form giant domes, shedding their cheese and sauce, eventually collapsing into large, barren craters when you pull the pies out of the oven, like this:

Pizza baked in cast iron pan with tomato sauce and white cheese

Some simple fingertip docking eliminates that problem while keeping your dough plenty light and airy.

Problem 2: avoided.

No Transferring

Do I need to spell it out here? If your pizza is constructed in a pan, there's no need to use a peel or a stone. Just throw the pan straight into the oven.

Problem 3: avoided.

How to Make a Pan Pizza, Step-by-Step

What follows is a step-by-step guide to making a pan pizza with a crisp, olive oil-flavored crust; an open, airy, nicely chewy crumb; crispy, browned cheesy bits around the edges; and plenty of sauce and cheese. It ain't the classiest pizza on the block, but sometimes you're just looking for something cheap and easy.

Step 1: Mix and Proof

This is the hardest part of the whole process: weigh out your flour (400 grams), salt (10 grams), and yeast (4 grams) into a bowl, then add water (275 grams) and oil (8 grams) and mix it up, either with your hand or a wooden spoon. That's it. No need to knead, punch, massage, nothing. Just make sure there's no dry flour left, and you're good to go.

Wrap it up tightly with plastic wrap and let it rest, anywhere from 8 to 24 hours.

Step 2: Ball the Dough

After all those hours of you doing absolutely nothing to it, your dough should look basically like a big, puffy, lumpy-looking bowl of soup. When you uncover the plastic and knock the bowl slightly, you'll see the whole thing deflate a bit. This is A-OK.

Sprinkle the top of the dough with some flour, then dump it out onto a floured work surface. It's fine to use a fair amount of flour here; just don't knead it into the dough. This should not be hard, as kneading isn't on your agenda anyway. Divide the dough into two even balls.

Collage of hands showing how to ball pan pizza dough

Working with one ball of dough at a time, form and roll the dough on the counter using the sides of your hands to form a taut ball with a smooth, elastic top. Use your fingers to pinch and smooth out the bottom side of the ball of dough. Repeat this process with the second portion of dough.

Step 3: Proof Dough in Cast Iron Pan

Pour some olive oil into the bottom of a 10-inch cast iron skillet or a 10-inch round cake pan. If you want to bake your pizzas simultaneously, you'll need a pan or skillet for each ball of dough.

Alternatively, you can store unused dough balls in sealed containers in the refrigerator for up to three days (leave room in the container for the dough to expand) or in the freezer indefinitely. Place the dough you want to bake in the middle of the pan.

Turn the dough over a few times until it's coated on all sides with oil, then swirl it around the pan to get oil into all the corners and the sides of the pan. Cover the whole thing with plastic wrap, and let it sit in your kitchen for a couple of hours. Watch a movie, do your laundry, take your third bath of the day, you get the idea. Just leave it alone and let it do its thing.

Steph 4: Touch Up the Dough

Collage of photos depicting touching up pan pizza dough before baking: docking surface with fingertips and lifting edges to release trapped air

You should come back to find the dough has mostly stretched out to fit the pan.

Using just the tips of your fingers, poke at the dough a bunch of times, working it into the corners a little bit harder and popping any big air bubbles you happen to come across. Those big bubbles will inflate like balloons in the oven, shedding their cheese and sauce, if you don't take care of them now.

Make one quick lap around the edge of the pan, lifting the dough like a blanket. This is just to make sure that no large bubbles are hiding underneath, since air bubbles that form under the crust as it rises will pull away from the pan bottom, preventing the crust from browning and crisping properly.

Step 5: Sauce the Dough

Collage of photos depicting saucing a pan pizza dough before topping

You can use any sauce you'd like, or make your own from scratch. Whatever sauce you use, for a thick pie like this, you need a nice thick layer of sauce. I go with around three-quarters of a cup per 10-inch pie.

If you like having a rim around your pizzas, leave a little rim. I prefer going all the way to the edge with my sauce and cheese, which makes for some delicious crunchy bits later on.

Step 6: Add Toppings

Spread cheese over the top of the pizza (again, going all the way to the edges, if desired). Any good melting cheese will do—mozzarella is classic, but a young cheddar, provolone, Muenster, or Jack will work. You can even go extra crazy and mix 'em up.

Most of the time, I say go easy on the toppings, but a pan pizza with a thick, robust crust can handle some serious loads, so go wild here.

Step 7: Bake in a Hot Oven

Collage of hot pan pizza being removed from cast iron pan

Now you just have to place the pan in a hot oven. How hot? Very, very hot.

I max out my oven (550°F/290°C) when I bake pizza, since hotter cooking leads to a few differences in the end product. For one thing, it produces more micro bubbles on the exterior, giving your pie more crunch and character. These micro bubbles form because air and water vapor inside the dough expands rapidly under high heat, filling up and stretching out gluten-walled bubbles before they harden and crisp. The hotter the oven, the faster these bubbles will expand.

You can easily see the difference in the texture of a crust cooked at 400°F (200°C) versus one cooked at 550°F (290°C):

Side-by-side comparison of pizza cooked in 400 degrees Fahrenheit oven and 550 degrees Fahrenheit oven

High-temperature cooking also leads to superior interior structure for the same reason: Bubbles inflate rapidly, giving a pizza cooked at a high temperature a more open, airy crumb.

The difference is striking.

Step 8: Add Some Post-Bake Flair

Some toppings are best added before baking. But a few are better added once the pie emerges from the oven.

Overhead photo of pan pizza covered in cheese, pepperoni, and basil

Topping that list? Hard cheeses. I like to add grated Parmigiano-Reggiano by the fistful to the top of the pie after it's done baking. I love the contrast you get between the browned, bubbly bits of mozzarella and the sharp, fresh bite of the uncooked Parmesan.

Other than that, there's really not much to say. Like I said, the recipe is stupid easy. Mix together ingredients, then let 'em sit for a while. Top them and bake them. It's as easy as that.

Next time someone says to you, "I want to make pizza at home. Know any good recipes for beginners?"—and, if your life is anything like mine, you hear that at least a couple times per week—you'll know where to send them.

Recipe Facts

4.9

(104)

Active: 15 mins
Total: 10 hrs 30 mins
Serves: 4 servings
Makes: 2 pizzas

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Ingredients

  • 400g bread flour (14 ounces; about 2 1/2 cups), plus more for dusting

  • 10g kosher salt (0.35 ounces; about 2 teaspoons), plus more for sprinkling

  • 4g instant yeast (0.15 ounces; about 1 teaspoon), such as SAF Instant Yeast

  • 275g water (9.5 ounces; about 1 cup plus 3 tablespoons)

  • 8g extra-virgin olive oil (0.25 ounces; about 2 teaspoons), plus more to coat pans and for drizzling

  • 1 1/2 cups pizza sauce, such as our New York–style pizza sauce

  • 12 ounces grated full-fat, low moisture (dry) mozzarella cheese (see note)

  • Toppings as desired

  • Small handful torn fresh basil leaves (optional)

  • 2 ounces grated Parmesan or Pecorino Romano cheese (optional)

Directions

  1. Combine flour, salt, yeast, water, and oil in a large bowl. Mix with hands or a wooden spoon until no dry flour remains. (The bowl should be at least 4 to 6 times the volume of the dough to account for rising.)

    Collage of various steps of mixing pizza dough ingredients in metal bowl
  2. Cover bowl tightly with plastic wrap, making sure that the edges are well sealed, then let rest at cool room temperature (no warmer than 75°F) for at least 8 hours and up to 24. Dough should rise dramatically and fill bowl. In a hot kitchen, the dough may overproof near the end of that range.

    Covering large metal bowl filled with plastic wrap
  3. Sprinkle top of dough lightly with flour, then transfer it to a well-floured work surface. Divide dough into 2 pieces and form each into a ball by holding it with well-floured hands and tucking the dough underneath itself, rotating it until it forms a tight ball.

    Collage of risen pizza dough being removed from bowl and cut in half
  4. Pour 1 to 2 tablespoons oil in the bottom of two 10-inch cast iron skillets or round cake pans (see note). Place 1 ball of dough in each pan and turn to coat evenly with oil. Using a flat palm, press dough around the pan, flattening it slightly and spreading oil around the entire bottom and edges of the pan. Cover tightly with plastic wrap and let dough sit at room temperature for 2 hours (at room temperatures above 75°F, the dough may require less time to rise; at temperatures below 65°F/18°C deg;F, it may require more time). After the first hour, adjust an oven rack to the middle position and preheat oven to 550°F (290°C).

    Collage of pizza dough being coated in oil in cast iron pan
  5. After 2 hours, dough should be mostly filling the pan up to the edges. Use your fingertips to press it around until it fills in every corner, popping any large bubbles that appear. Lift up one edge of the dough to let any air bubbles underneath escape, then repeat, moving around the dough until there are no air bubbles left underneath and the dough is evenly spread around the pan.

    Pressing and shaping soft pizza dough into circle in cast iron pan
  6. Top each round of dough with 3/4 cup sauce, spreading sauce to the very edge with the back of a spoon. Sprinkle evenly with mozzarella cheese, all the way to the edges. Season with salt. Add other toppings as desired. Drizzle with olive oil and scatter a few basil leaves over the top of each pizza, if desired.

    Overhead image of cast iron pizzas covered in ingredients before baking
  7. Transfer pan to oven and bake until top is golden brown and bubbly and bottom is golden brown and crisp when you lift it with a thin spatula, 12 to 15 minutes. Immediately sprinkle with grated Parmesan or Pecorino Romano cheese, if using. Using a thin spatula, loosen pizza and peek underneath. If bottom is not as crisp as desired, place pan over a burner and cook on medium heat, moving the pan around to cook evenly until it is crisp, 1 to 3 minutes. Remove the pizzas and transfer to a cutting board. Cut each pizza into 6 slices and serve immediately.

    Slicing into a hot pan pizza with pizza cutter

Special equipment

Digital scale with gram measurements, two 10-inch cast iron skillets or 10-inch round cake pans

Notes

Although mozzarella is standard, any good melting cheese, such as cheddar, Jack, or young provolone, will work for this recipe. This recipe is intended to be made with dry (aged) mozzarella cheese, the yellowish variety that comes in firm blocks. Do not use fresh mozzarella, as it is too moist. If you want to bake only one pizza at a time, you can transfer one ball of dough to a sealed zipper-lock bag or container in step 3 and store it in the refrigerator for up to three days. Continue with step 4 when ready to bake.

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