DH came through the door last night just as I was slicing up the pizza I’d made. He dropped his keys, leaned over the counter, and grabbed a slice.
“I swear,” he said. “Your pizza is better than the ones we get out.”
I smiled and said thank-you, but didn’t tell him the truth, which is that the things that make my pizza good are more about technique than recipe. For the most part, crust is crust and sauce is to-taste and the cheese comes out of the grocery store in a bag, and I don’t do much to doctor those up. But I have tricks up my sleeve that came from a lot of thought about the pizza recipes I tried that were so-so, and the way my local pizzeria makes its pies.
Think about what happens when you walk into a pizzeria. You approach the counter and hit a wall of heat, yes? That’s because pizza ovens are screaming, center-of-the-sun hot. And they’ve been that way for hours before you order. Ditto for the pans your pie bakes on–have you ever seen a pizza chef toss dough into the oven on a cold pan? You have not. They prepare the dish on the countertop and use a pizza peel to slide it onto a hot pan.
You do not need a pizza oven or a peel or anything else fancy-schmancy to make restaurant-quality pizza. But you do have to follow a few rules and be willing to chuck the recipes a bit.
The one thing I recommend you buy is a pizza stone, which you can find for about $15 in your local Target or Wal Mart. Fancy is not on the agenda–cheap is your friend. These are unglazed ceramic and they are magic when it comes to crispy-chewy crusts. My stone lives in my oven all the time (it’s also phenomenal for making bread) so it doesn’t take up cabinet space or need any prep. I never wash it (oh stop–it lives in the oven, y’all, and gets sanitized several times a week), but I do take it out after it cools and scrape it down well with a bench scraper (you can grab one of those for a few dollars at Ikea or Target) before returning it to the oven.
I use a rimless cookie sheet as a pizza peel and it works beautifully. You want something dough can slide off. And the secret to that sliding? Cornmeal. You want a good layer of cornmeal on your cookie sheet and on your pizza stone before you bake (right before with the stone–cornmeal smokes up very quickly, so sprinkle it onto the pizza stone seconds before you slide your pie in the oven).
Preheat your oven a good long while before you want to bake–30 minutes at the minimum–with the stone in there, and crank that bad boy up to 450 degrees. You will not burn anything! (Turn on your exhaust fan at the outset if the previous owner of your house was a rocket scientist like the previous owner of mine and installed a hardwired smoke detector in the kitchen. Just trust me on that.)
Make your dough. My recipe is below, but really, you can use any one you like. The trick with this is to use half bread flour and half all-purpose flour. That bread flour gives the crust protein, which gives you that amazing crispy-chewy quality that your local pizzeria features. I wouldn’t go more than half and half on it, though, or your crust will be too soft. And the other trick with this is to prick the crust with a fork after you’ve rolled and stretched it into a circle, which will prevent the under-sauce part from rising in the oven. See?
You want to sprinkle oregano between your sauce and the cheese. And my final trick is to use a blend of cheeses that, at a minimum, includes mozzarella and cheddar.
I said cheddar. Once you try it, you’ll never go back. Promise. I use an Italian blend of cheeses that includes cheddar and can find that even in my sad Soviet-esque market, so I’m sure you’ll see it too.
So. You’ve heated up your oven and stone, made your dough, rolled and stretched it out, pricked it with a fork, transferred it to a cornmeal-coated rimless cookies sheet, covered it with sauce and oregano and cheese and toppings, and slid it into the oven right after sprinkling more cornmeal on your stone. The last thing you need to do is turn on your oven light and keep an eye on your pie without opening the door. You want all that gorgeous super-hot air to stay in there and crisp things up. When your cheese starts to brown–and not before—very carefully use that rimless cookie sheet to slide under the pizza, ease it out of the oven, and enjoy. (Turn off your oven and let it cool several hours before you try and scrape your stone–it takes awhile to reach room temp after this).
So that’s it. You’ll enjoy delicious pizza at a fraction of the price of your local delivery shack, and you won’t believe the results.
I use commercially-prepared pizza sauce (we’re partial to Trader Joe’s) and cheese (I like reduced-fat, which saves me from the pool o’ grease on top of most pizzas). To my my favorite crust, you need:
1 1/2 cups all-purpose flour
1 cup bread flour
2 1/2 tsp yeast (one package if you’re using the envelopes)
1/4 tsp salt
1 cup warm water
1 tbsp olive oil
Mix the above together in your bread machine on the dough cycle.
If you don’t have a bread machine, mix the ingredients together with a mixer until they’re just blended, then knead by hand for about five minutes until the dough is soft and elastic. Spray a bowl with cooking spray or olive oil, put the dough in there, cover with a clean towel, and let it rise about an hour.
Punch the dough down, stretch and roll it into a pizza circle (make it a bit thinner than you want–it’ll rise again in the oven), prick with a fork, and then follow the directions above to make a pizza.