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What I've learned about making pizzaBy: Mike Gashler
With most foods, all you need is to follow a good recipe, and voila! The results will be as good as the recipe. Pizza is not like that. With pizza, the convective properties of your oven make a difference. The surface you bake on makes a difference. The flour you use makes a difference. Your kneading technique matters. The temperature of your fridge matters. The number of times your family members open the fridge makes a difference. The yeast makes a difference. And even the chemicals your city adds to your local water make a difference. So with pizza, it's really not about the quality of the recipe. It's about the skill of the pizano.
Pizanos come in three flavors: pizza artists, pizza engineers, and pizza scientists:
Artists want to reach people. They want to impress them, or make them happy, or connect with them, or affect them. The path to becoming a pizza artist looks something like this: Attend culinary school, learn techniques from masters, then make about a bajillion pizzas until you develop your own sense and style. Listen to the feedback from your customers, and seek ways to reach more people.
Engineers want to build great things. The path to becoming a pizza engineer looks more like this: Scour the Internet for information about how to make great pizzas. Compare and contrast the advice you find from many different sources until you form a pretty clear picture of how it's done. Combine the best techniques to produce a solid pizza recipe. Then build it, and revel in the greatness of the pizza you made.
Scientists want to learn and spread knowledge. The path to becoming a pizza scientist looks something like this: Do experiments. Document them. Do more experiments. Keep experimenting until you understand exactly what effect every possible ingredient has. Scientists have a lot in common with engineers. The difference is that scientists values knowledge more than achievements. Scientists think sharing what they learn is more important than the pizza itself. So they'll document what doesn't work as well as what does work.
Of course, no one really dedicates himself to just one of these three paths. There's a component of all three in every great pizano. I am not much of an artist. And I am not a great engineer either. But if you want some guidance toward developing your inner pizza scientist, this article is for you.
Making your baseline pizza
First of all, get a notebook. No, your memory is not good enough. No, we're not trying to train your fingers or develop a sense or a touch or a feel or a technique or a style. Just get a notebook! ...and a pen. We're going to use this notebook.
Okay, next you need a baseline. What is a basline? It's an extremly reproducible pizza you can always return to. Basically, it's like a recipe, but with notes ...lots of notes ...serious, hard-core detailed notes.
Now, you might be thinking, "I'll just use the last pizza recipe I followed as my baseline". No! That doesn't cut it. First of all, that recipe was lousy. You need a good starting point for your baseline. And second, you didn't write down every liberty you took with that recipe, did you? And you didn't take pictures or document the results either. Your baseline needs to be so thoroughly documented that you can reproduce it exactly. And you need to know exactly how it will turn out when you do. So start over. Today, we're going to make your baseline.
To help you get started, here's my baseline (below). But don't just accept it as is. Copy each step into your notebook as you follow it. Why? Because it needs to become your baseline. Make whatever changes you want, but carefully document every detail of what you actually do, not what you think you should do next time. It's fine to write down ideas for the future, but don't pretend you already tested them ...until you have actually tested them. Also, this isn't the time to be testing exotic ingredients or trying every cooking trick you know. Your baseline should include just the basic steps you are really confident about, and ingredients you can easily obtain any time. After you have established your baseline for comparison, then it will be time to try fancy ingredients and weird tricks.
Your baseline should not be the best pizza you can possibly make. It should be the best pizza you can easily make. Also, remember that you are not just following a recipe today. You are doing an experiment! So be alert and do it with a little passion. Take pictures. Take notes. And be sure to periodically raise a fist into the air and shout "For science!" If you're not having fun, you're doing it wrong.
So now, you've got a satisfying baseline, and you're ready to start driving it to become a stellar pizza. Great! The biggest rookie mistake people make at this point is they get too excited about trying a whole bunch of new tricks. The most important rule of any experiment is that it must differ from a previous experiment, or another pizza you are making in parallel, by exactly one factor. (Not two. Only one!)
Suppose you add 50% more sugar, knead the dough for twice as long, and try baking on a plain old cookie sheet. And suppose the resulting crust tasts better than your previous pizza, but comes out a little soggy. What does that mean? Did the extra kneading bring out the flavor? Or are you just tasting more sugar? Did the extra kneading cause the dough to retain more moisture? Or was that the cookie sheet?
We like to think of each adjustment has having exactly one effect, but The reality is, they are all combinatorial effects. So all of your adjustments had some impact on all of those results! And now you'll never be able to sort out what caused what. So what did you learn? Absolutely nothing! Sure, you got another pizza. That's nice. But science is about learning, and you just blew that part off. Never do that.
Remember, you're in this for the long-game. A little restraint now will slowly produce the knowledge that makes all of your future pizzas better. Yes, it's a long slow process. Yes, everyone else will think you're crazy for making sub-optimal pizzas again and again. Welcome to the world of science. But if you keep at it, some day you'll know more about making pizzas than all your critics. ...and then you'll show them! (This is where you get to break out into the maniacal laughter that betrays just a little bit more obsession with experimentation than is generally considered socially acceptable.)
And that's basically it! Just try stuff.
Of course, it's more efficient if your experiments are guided by the best available knowledge. And people have been making pizzas for a long time. So now, let's put on our engineer hats for a while and do some reading about other peoples' experiments. You can't really be a scientist without being a bit of an engineer. So go search for some tips about pizza making.
Or, if you really like my teaching style, I'll share what I have learned below. Since I generally enjoy experimentation more than research, my knowledge comes more from my own impressions than from reading other sites. That's both good and bad. On the one hand, if what I say matches what you find elsewhere, it's probably not just me repeating what I read somewhere, so there's likely some valid basis for it. On the other hand, I'm probably not completely up-to-date on the latest pizza knowledge, so you certainly shouldn't consider anything I say to be the final word on anything. If some pizano with 20 years of experience weights in, listen to her or him.
Anyway, I will proceed with what I have learned about making pizza...
Oven temperature (Importance: 10/10)
I have come to realize the most important factor in pizza making is oven temperature. Here is a picture from Jeff Varasano's Page of a crust that was baked at 800 degrees Farenheit.
Wow! I wish my crusts looked like that! Commercial pizza ovens range from 700 to 900 degrees Farenheit (370-480 Celsius). Some Neopolitan pizzas are cooked at such high temperatures that they are fully baked in just 90 seconds! Seriously.
Alas, my lousy oven only goes up to 550 degrees Farenheit.
Am I content with that? Of course not! The plans for my back-yard brick oven are already forming. ...but until I get that done, sometimes ya gotta work with what you've got, right? Honestly, I don't believe it is really possible to make a truly excellent pizza in a conventional electric oven. But there are a several tricks you can use to make a semi-decent one.
So, the first and most important trick is to heat your oven as hot as it can possibly go.
Really hot ovens make steam, which puffs up the crust. It also flash-bakes the outside of your crust to form a thin and crispy layer. If you cook at a lower temperature, you will have to cook for a longer time. And the longer your crust is subjected to heat, the drier and denser it gets. Don't be afraid of charring the outside a little. The best pizzas always have a little char on them. If there's no char anywhere, it's a lousy pizza.
Baking surface (Importance: 9/10)
When I first started making pizzas, I tried to bake them on a cookie sheet. My crusts always came out dense and soggy. Yuck! Eventually, I was gifted a pizza stone. That helped a little, but not a lot. Unfortunately, it wasn't really very big or heavy. It was just a half-inch thick tile circle. Eventually my pizza stone cracked, so I started using a big heavy cast iron pan. Suddenly, my pizza crusts started getting a lot better.
The purpose of putting something heavy under your pizza is to directly subject your crust to intense heat. It needs to be heavy so it can hold enough heat energy. And it needs to be metal so it transfer the heat fast enough into your crust.
The reason people think pizza stones are a good idea is because the brick ovens that expert pizza makers use tile surfaces. Tile is great if your oven can reach 800 degrees. But in a conventional oven, tile retains most of its heat and cooks the pizza too slowly. So, to compensate for your lousy oven, you need some sort of heavy metal surface.
Here's a great paper by some physicists who did the math to determine exactly how to bake a perfect pizza in a conventional oven: The Physics of baking good Pizza. They independently came to the same conclusion I did that cooking on steel works better than tile in conventional ovens. Based on some mathematical calculations, they claim that steel can even over-cook your crust at temperatures conventional ovens can reach. Unfortunately, my experimental results disagree. My crusts don't even start to burn until they've been sitting in my cast iron pan at 550 degrees Farenheit for 7 whole minutes! (Also, as I'll describe below, the amount of oil in the dough also seems to affect how fast it bakes.)
A secondary purpose of putting something big and heavy in your oven is that it helps to retain more of the heat while the door is open and you are transferring your pizzas.
Broiling (Importance: 8/10)
In a brick pizza oven, the under-side of a pizza is cooked by heat that transfers from the tile beneath. The top of the pizza is cooked by infrared radiation emitted by the hot bricks overhead. In a conventional oven, we use a steel pan to transfer heat into the crust. And to reproduce the infrared radiation from overhead, we turn on the broiler.
In the picture above you can see how infrared radiation from the broiler crisps the cheese and toppings, and carmelizes the exposed top surface of the crust.
Some recipes I found on other sites recommend turning on the broiler half-way through the baking process. But since I only bake my pizzas for 5 minutes, I find it works best to have the broiler on the entire time. So I turn it on just before I insert a pie.
(Between pies, I switch back to bake because the internal oven temperature seems to fall slightly while the broiler is on.
Bread flour vs. All purpose flour (Importance: 6/10)
A lot of recipes say you can use either bread flour or all purpose flour. I agree that a quality pizza can be made from either type of flour, but this is not some trivial matter. It makes a huge difference in the style of pizza you will get.
Bread flour contains more gluten. Gluten is what creates a stretchy chewy texture. So if you want a light airy crunchy vacant crust that stays out of the way, all purpose flour is for you. If you prefer a chewy stretchy substantial crust that commands attention, bread flour is for you. If you think the crust is a canvas, and the toppings are the art, use all purpose flour. If you think the crust is the masterpiece, and the toppings are just the frame, use bread flour.
I enjoy both styles of pizza, but frankly I think a commercial oven is needed to do justice to an all-purpose-flour crust. Besides, after baking pizza, I'm usually hungry for something substantive. This is what I like to see in my crusts:
See those stringy strands clinging to the two halves as you pull the crust apart?
See the blistering surface texture?
See how non-uniform bubbles form throughout the crust?
Aww yeah. A pizza like that will leave me satisfyingly full. And then it's time for a nap.
Stirring before you add the remaining flour (Importance: 5/10)
Gluten is a long stringy protein. When you stir a goopy mixture of flour and water, you spin those proteins into forming even longer chains. These long chains of gluten are what make your dough stretchy and elastic. And when you bake the crust, they gives it a more springy texture.
Kneading with all the flour (Importance: 3/10)
Almost anything you read about pizza-making will talk about the importance of kneading. So there was a temptation to repeat that advice here. But when you do science, you're never supposed to let your biases influence how you report results. And in my experiments, I honestly couldn't tell the difference between crusts made from dough I had kneaded for nearly a half-hour, and crusts I made from dough I had barely kneaded into a ball. As far as I could tell, the initial wet stirring had far more impact on the gluten than the dry kneading.
So take that how you will. Kneading is supposed to be important--everyone else says so--but I'm not going to say I know it is until I have personally validated it. ...and I failed to validate it. Maybe you should just do it superstitiously. Or maybe it's something you could settle with your own comparative experiments!
Resting the dough (Importance: 3/10)
When you knead dough with gluten, it tenses up. But if you let it rest, it relaxes. You can physically see the difference just by watching how the dough behaves when you stop kneading for a while. And when you start up again, it feels different than if you just keep kneading tense dough.
Why is that important to do? I'm not really sure, but it seems to make wet dough feel less sticky and easier to work with. And since I prefer to use a wet dough, resting mid-knead seems to be a good thing to do.
Wet dough (Importance: 3/10)
Using a fairly wet final dough has a few benefits:
There are some disadvantages. For example, you'll have to use a little flour to keep it from sticking. And you can't really spin it over your head to show off. But do you really need to do that anyway?
Salt (Importance: 3/10)
I read somewhere that salt is hard on the yeast, but is necessary for the flavor it adds to the dough. I wasn't really into salty flavor, so I made a lot attempts without salt. ...and my crusts were consistently lousy. It wasn't the flavor that was lacking. It was the yeast.
The yeast just seemed like it was dead, and my crusts came out dense and flat. Apparently what I read was completely wrong. So contrary to what my reading says, my experiments say the yeast needs salt to do its job. I don't think you need a whole lot, but apparently bad things happen if you just leave it out.
Supplementary gluten (Importance: 2/10)
If you really like stretchy dough, you might want to add a little supplementary gluten. Adding extra gluten will make it even easier to get that springy stringy rubbery texture. I almost added it to my baseline recipe, but I decided not to because I ran out, and my regular grocery store doesn't carry it. So until I make a trip to the natural foods store, I'll be baking without it.
But don't imagine that extra gluten will magically create a fabulous crust. You still have to knead the dough well to make the gluten form those strands. You still need the long rising time to let the slow bonds form and the yeast to ferment. And you still need the extremely high oven temperature. I've made a lot of bad crusts with extra gluten. ...but a little extra gluten can do good things if you use it prudently.
Natural gluten (Importance: 3/10)
If you don't have any supplementary gluten, but you're feeling hard-core today, there's a way you can concentrate the gluten yourself. Gluten is hydrophobic. So to concentrate it, you just need to rinse away all the starch:
Some of my best-ever crusts came from this technique. It seems to produce even better gluten than the supplemental powdered gluten you can buy. It's just such a bother that I don't like to do it very often.
Yeast (Importance: 2/10)
My reading says that the yeast you pick makes a big difference. But I've only ever tried instant dry yeast. So that's a variable you get to tune in your experiments. So I don't really know how important this is. I guess I'll give it a 3.
Long fermentation (Importance: 3/10)
My reading suggested if you use your own sour dough starter, rising over night in the fridge can produce a very nice-tasting crust. I was using regular instant dry yeast, but I decided to try fermenting over night in the fridge anyway, just to see how it would turn out.
I couldn't sense a flavor difference, but my crusts turned out much better. I'm not sure exactly why. Perhaps letting the dough sit for a long time gives the gluten a chance to relax and fuse into the dough. Or maybe I'm just imagining it. I'm not entirely sure. But the bottom line is, my crusts seemed to turn out much much better when I gave them a day to rise in the fridge. So that's how I make all my crusts now.
Foil (Importance: 3/10)
Experienced pizanos know how to put just the right of meal or flour on their peel. They know just how to flick it so the pizza slides right into place every time. But alas, I am not an experienced pizano.
When I use too much meal or flour, it always makes a mess. And when I don't use enough meal, then an even bigger mess sometimes ensues! Hot oven! Thrown pie! Toppings everywhere! The dough inevitably starts oozing through the rack onto the burner. Some of it falls on the bottom of the oven and burns, filling the room with smoke! Or it lands part-way out of the door, so I can't shut it until I clean it off, but it's all much too hot! Then the smoke alarm starts going off, and all the children come running into the kitchen to see what's going on! Chaos ensues, and a dog somewhere starts barking for no reason. (And that's extra alarming because I don't even have a dog!)
Putting the pies on a sheet of aluminum foil makes it super easy to just slide them around as needed. I'm sure it interferes somewhat with the heat transfer. I'm sure there are probably very good reasons professional pizanos never put a layer of foil under their pizzas. But in my opinion, the foil makes life a lot easier.
Corn meal (Importance: 3/10)
Even though I use a sheet of aluminum foil to make my pies easy to slide around, I really like the texture and taste that a little corn meal adds to the underside of the crust. So I just add it for texture and taste purposes, even though I don't really need the lubrication. Something about having that gritty texture under the pizza just feels right to me.
Cooling rack (Importance: 2/10)
The purpose of the cooling rack is obvious. I don't like escaping steam making my crust soggy. The cooling rack prevents that.
Sugar (Importance: 1/10)
Sometimes I add a little extra sugar because I imagine it will make my pizzas more appealing. Every time I do, I regret it. Sweet pizzas are garbage. Obviously, you need a little sugar to feed the yeast. But adding more sugar doesn't make the yeast bloom any better. It just makes everyone feel sweeted out after they are done eating. Note to self: Just stop trying extra sugar. It's a bad idea. Try less sugar.
Oil in the dough (Importance: 1/10)
This site says oil softens the dough and ruins the crunch. It says that oil keeps dough in commercial pizzas from drying out during long baking times, but the best Napoletana pizzas are baked at very high temperatures for very short durations, and therefore need no oil.
I wasn't sure, so I decided to do a thorough side-by-side comparison with and without oil. I made one batch with no oil, and another batch with 3 TBSP extra virgin olive oil. To give both batches approximately the same texture, I added slightly less flour to the one with no oil.
As you can see, the oil makes the dough slightly more yellowish.
When I baked them, the pie with the olive oil was done after 5 minutes. The pie with no oil seemed under-done, so I put it back in for an extra minute. After that, they both appeared about equally cooked. (I'm slightly uncertain about whether the broiler was on the same setting for both pizzas, so I might need to repeat this experiment to confirm this result.)
To my surprise, there was little difference between the two pizzas. Both puffed up nicely. Both developed pretty similar texture structures. Both tasted good.
I decided that I slightly preferred both the taste and texture of the one with the oil, so I decided to keep oil in my baseline recipe. However, the difference was admittedly very small. If you prefer not to have superfluous ingredients in your pizza recipe, I think it would be just fine to have no oil.
Oil between the crust and toppings (Importance: 0/10)
This site suggests brushing your dough with a little oil before topping it with sauce to prevent the sauce from producing a gum-line with your dough. Supposedly, it lets the crust crisp by keeping the sauce away from it. It makes sense. After all, oil repels water. Surely, this will work, right?
My experiments say nope. In fact, just the opposite seems to occur. When I brushed my dough with oil, it never fully cooked, and it made a gooey mess with the sauce. Yuck!
Maybe it works with pizzas that bake for a long time in a cool oven. But it seems to be a very bad idea for rapid-bake pizzas in hot ovens.
Carmelizing the crust surface (Importance: 0/10)
Starches and sugars are what carmelize to make the surface of your crust brown and tasty. So if you rinse away too much of the starch, your crust might taste bland. I suspect that a certain popular pizza chain may achieve its characteristic crust texture by removing a lot of the starch, but then replacing it with sugar. I haven't sufficiently confirmed that, though, so it's just speculation.
One straight-forward trick might be to brush something on the crust surface that will carmelize. I've tried butter, milk, egg whites, and sugar-water. I was never happy with the results. Parmesean cheese on the crust adds a nice flavor. But I personally prefer plain un-coated crusts. And, of course, doing nothing is always easier.
Finely-ground flour (Importance: 0/10)
Supposedly, finely milled 00 flours are best for pizza dough. Alas, I haven't yet done enough experimenting to confirm that for myself. Some sites claim that this makes a big difference. Others suggest it is little more than a meaningless gimmick. So this is something you get to discover with your own experimenting!
Sifting (Importance: 0/10)
Supposedly sifting makes the flour more fluffy and light. As far as I can tell from my experiments, however, it makes no difference on the final product. So I say, don't waste your time.
Vanilla extract (Importance: 0/10)
In my opinion, vanilla extract makes things taste like graham crackers. Does that flavor enhance pizza crusts? Nope. And, in case you're wondering, root beer extract doesn't tast great in pizza crusts either. And neither does mapleine. Just leave that cupboard closed. There's nothing in there worth adding to your pizza. ...but I had to try it. C'mon, it was for science!
Corn starch (Importance: 0/10)
I tried adding corn starch in a few different crusts. It seems to make the crust a little more crunchy, but I didn't like what it did to the internal texture. Same with potato starch. I read that starch will help carmelize the crust, but I never haven't had any problems with that anyway.
Whey protein (Importance: 0/10)
Since gluten seems to make textures I like, and gluten is a protein, what about adding other sources of protein? Well, it seemed like a nice idea at the time, but it didn't seem to really do anything useful. And I tried several times. I'm pretty convinced gluten is the best protein for a nice texture. The whey protein seemed to make it really dense, but didn't enhance the texture much all. So, meh.
Dough conditioners (Importance: 0/10)
I did some experiments with Soy Lecithin. I didn't like the results. I think it made bubbles tiny and the dough all uniform and bready. That's not what I wanted. I also tried L-cysteine. It's weird stuff. It made the dough behave like a liquid, no matter how much flour I added. But the final crust turned out about the same as usual.
Honestly, I haven't done enough experimenting to say for sure, but my impression is that dough conditioners are not the great secret to excellent crusts. After all, people have been making great pizzas since long before dough conditioners were synthesized. And they're such a bother to hunt down and purchase anyway.
Ascorbic acid (Importance: 0/10)
I love the flavor of ascorbic acid. And just a little seems to make the yeast more active. I always add just a little when I'm making bread--it makes the dough rise higher. A little bit of ginger seems to make yeast happy too. But I don't think any of that really helps with slow-fermenting pizza dough.
Docker (Importance: 0/10)
A docker is a spikey roller used to pop large bubbles in the dough. I actually like big bubbles in my crust, but some of my favorite crusts happened when I used a docker. The places where the spikes smashed the dough seemed to form little pellets of nice texture. I don't think it really makes much of a difference, but it's so easy to do that I just do it superstitiously. Maybe it's just a silly waste of time--I'm not really sure.
Cheese (Importance: 2/10)
Real mozarella cheese comes floating in liquid. It is far too soft to grate. If you try, you will just smear it all over your cheese grater. You can only slice real mozarella cheese. Also, it's expensive. And it tastes so fabulous! If you're trying to impress someone, get some authentic mozarella.
...but the dry pre-shredded stuff is so cheap and easy. If you're focussing on making a great crust, you can always worry about the toppings later. Don't try to make the perfect pizza all in one shot.
Sauce (Importance: 1/10)
Making your own sauce is pretty easy. Here's a basic recipe:
The reason for the blender is because those darn tomatoes always have skins. It's far too much of a bother to remove them. And if you just cook the sauce with them, you'll end up with curled tomato skins on your pizzas, which isn't awesome.
...but an even easier solution is just to open a jar of marinara sauce. Sure, the home made sauce tastes more fresh. Sure, a really great pizza needs fresh sauce. But in my opinion, pizza is about the crust. So if you haven't made a perfect crust yet, perfecting your sauce can wait.
Pizza cutter (Importance: 0/10)
You know those nice round rolling pizza-cutters? Everyone's got one. Don't bother. A big chef's knife will do a better job of cutting your pizzas. It will cut straighter, and it won't roll sauce into some hard-to-clean location. I suppose you might want your pizza cutter if you're making a 24" pizza. But for small personal pizzas, a knife works better.
Pineapple (Importance: 0/10)
It's okay if you like pineapple on pizzas. And it's okay if you don't. But don't be a snob about it. Adults should be confident enough in their own opinions to not feel a strong need to push them on others.