Saturday, July 21, 2007


Although summer cooking amounts mostly to grilling, I am devoting time towards mastering pizza. So many factors contribute to the final result that there's a combinatorial explosion of experimental possibilities. Thoughts and observations ensue.

The first question is dough. I start with the standard cup of warm water, a teaspoon of sugar and a packet of yeast, giving the yeast ten minutes to get their little sugar fix.

Tweakable factors multiply rapidly. How much flour? How much salt? How much olive oil? My current answer is 3 cups of flour, a half a tsp of salt, and 3-4 tbsp of olive oil. I knead it together with my Artisan mixer dough hook for 5 to 10 minutes.

Corn meal? I've been experimenting with cornmeal. Last time, my "customers" were quite pleased with the addition of 1/3 cup of cornmeal (and another tablespoon of oil to compensate). It doesn't take much meal to change the texture dramatically. In my experience, it's pretty hard to screw up pizza dough. If it's too wet, add more water. If it's too dry, add more flour. Be not afraid.

There are a number of variations on dough--New York Style, Chicago Style, etc. Check out Pizza: More than 60 Recipes... by Diane Morgan and Tony Gemignani for a number of options.

Another question: How long should the dough rise? I've found the fudge factor here surprising. I shoot for 45 minutes, but I've found that in a pinch you can even get away with 10. Sometimes I make dough the night before and leave it in the refrigerator overnight, tightly covered with cling wrap (exposed dough gets crusty).

Getting the crust cooked right is a challenge. And if you get that right, there's the challenge of getting both the crust and the cheese cooked right. I recommend a decent oven thermometer. There's a pretty wide gap between the claims offered by my oven knobs and the actual resulting temperatures.

Lately, I've been using a pizza stone and setting the oven temperature at 475 F. Most books recommend an hour of preheating to get the stone hot. I found a great deal on a pizza making kit that included a cutter, a stone and a peel for $15, but the 4" OXO cutter is still my weapon of choice.

For rolling I use this OXO roller and a big and heavy white poly cutting board. Once the dough is rolled out flat, you can eliminate annoying dough bubbles by running a good docker over it. After docking the dough, I tend to flip it and sauce the flipped side.

Selecting the right amount of dough is important. When I err, I tend to error on the thin side with too little dough rolled too thin. The current ideal is a 13" circle rolled a thicker than 1/8" but less than 1/4". To get the crust edges right, fold the outer 1" of rolled dough underneath around the complete perimeter and press it down.

The next big question is the question of sauce. For quite some time I've been engineering my own sauce. I like a tangy sauce with a zing to it. Beyond that there's fennel. I think I first noticed fennel on a frozen Tombstone pizza. Good call.

Here's a RecipeZaar link to my pizza sauce recipe. I'm slowly bumping up the fennel, but the problem is that fresh fennel tends to be much more potent than fennel that's a few months old. Too much fennel might turn the creation into licorice sauce--and, of course, it all depends on one's liking of fennel. Googling [fennel pizza sauce recipe] will be fruitful.

Once the sauce questions are answered, there's the issue of ingredients. This is simply a matter of taste ranging from pepperoni to anchovy to pineapple or, as they do in Japan, even squid or corn. All I'll say about ingredients is that I think chopped fresh basil improves any pie.

Next, we come to cheese. The fundamental issue I've found with cheese is oven temperature. Some cheeses work fine at 400F, but turn into a plastic crust at 500F. And there's the question of how much cheese one prefers. How much cheese you use factors into how it responds to heat.

I've tried a number of cheeses and so far I've been happiest with Kraft's Pizza! cheese. It seems to melt and respond to heat better than anything else tried. I've also found Monterey Jack holding up well in higher heat, but I haven't experimented enough to make a recommendation. A Monterey Jack / Mozzerella blend might be what I'm looking for.

The final question is how to cook a pizza. I've cooked pies at variety of temperatures on all sorts of surfaces, and I'll relay the best results I've found.

First, there's the question of temperature. I've had reasonable success cooking pizzas at 400F on a cookie sheet / pizza pan, but at this relatively low temperature, I recommend pre-baking the crust for 5-8 minutes. After that, remove it, let it cool, top it and let it cook at the same temperature for about 10 minutes or until it seems to be done.

My preferred method is at a temperature high enough that I don't need to pre-bake the crust to get decent results. This brings us to the question of how to get the uncooked pizza on the stone without creating a big mess.

You can use a pizza screen, which is a thin woven metal screen, but I prefer baking parchment. The trouble with parchment is that most of the regular parchment you find in stores tends to be recommended for "up to 400F" and ideal pizza temperatures are higher than that. Commercial pizza ovens tend to operate in the 500F to 600F range.

Professional baking parchment designed for higher temperatures is available online. The trouble with professional baking parchment is that it tends to be sold in large quantities (1000 sheets a crack). Fortunately, enough people find themselves faced with the same predicament, so you can find smaller quantities on eBay (sold by amateur cooks in the same boat as you).

As a final note, if you cook at higher heat, be forewarned that things cook much faster and you gotta keep your eye on things. Depending on toppings, my cooking times range from 8 to 12 minutes. At higher temperatures a pizza can go from not done to overdone in a couple of minutes.


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