Pizza. A food that can be oh-so-amazing or can go horribly wrong. Soggy dough, rubbery cheese, dripping in grease; these are just some of the things that can go awry. (Sorry, New Yorkers. Not really...) But with a few tools, some technique and know-how, you can be whipping up pizza that is better than most take-out.
The hardest thing to replicate is the intense, dry heat of a wood-fired oven. A pizza stone will provide a decent facsimile. It will heat up, hold the heat and help pull moisture from the crust while cooking. The main issues with pizza stones are that they only get as hot as your oven, which is about 400 degrees cooler than a wood-fired oven gets. And the other problem is that most pizza stones tend to crack after some usage if you are not careful.
We have solutions to both these problems!
The main reason they crack is that most pizza stones are made of coarse terra cotta, which is great for pulling moisture from the dough, but is also great for absorbing oils. When oil is absorbed into the clay, it expands at a different rate than the clay does during pre-heating, thus creating stress fractures in the stone. After doing this a few times, the stone will crack.
The solution? A better stone. Emile Henry makes our favorite pizza stone because it is glazed, yet still able to pull moisture out of the dough due to the crazing effect. Crazing is name for the small cracks that appear in the glaze. They won't affect the ceramic underneath, but will help increase the amount of moisture the stone can take in. So the more you use it, the better it gets! The 12 and 14 inch round stones even have ridges that lift the pizza up and help create air-flow underneath and more room for moisture to escape. These also have a raised lip on the rear of the stone to prevent overshooting it and causing a pizza disaster! They also come in a rectangular option for you non-conformists/pizza rebels.
As for the temperature issue, take your Emile Henry stone outside and use it in a Big Green Egg. The egg can get up to 900 degrees, and with ceramic walls and directional heat it makes an amazing pizza! If you want to use your Big Green Egg or regular grill for pizzas, we highly recommend the Grilled Pizzas and Piadinas Cookbook.
Now that we have the where and how to cook your pizza figured out, let's talk about the pizza itself.
Since it’s the base the pizza is built on, you should not give the crust short shrift. If the crust has no flavor, the whole pizza will taste flat. (See what we did there?)
Like most simple things, the ingredients are key. David, from our Half Moon Bay store, frequently makes pizza at home. He insists on using Italian Doppio Zero flour in place of the all-purpose flour prescribed in most recipes. Doppio Zero (or “double zero”) flour is very finely milled, and is the flour that by law has to be used in Naples to make pizza dough. This is his favorite recipe for dough, here.
A traditional tomato sauce is a great thing, a nice blend of sweet, acidic and herby flavors to counter the yeastiness of the crust and the mellow cheese. You could make your own, but if you make the dough ahead of time for quick weeknight meals, we suggest having some tasty but shelf stable sauces on hand, such as the Pomi Pizza Sauce. If you want to season it your own way, try the Contadina Passato di Pomodoro which is just tomatoes put through a food mill and a bit looser in texture than the Pomi Pizza Sauce. You can cook it down a little if you want, or leave it as is for a different experience.
Speaking of different experiences, why stop there? Other options that make a great sauce are pesto with goat cheese, mushrooms and sun dried tomatoes; vinaigrettes, like an Italian herb and shallot vinaigrette with cheddar cheese and broccoli florets and even sweeter jams or compotes, especially when paired with sharp cheeses or salty meats.
Don’t go too crazy when adding toppings; just a few good things spread evenly over the pie, but not piled on. Remember, you gotta get this thing in the oven and you don’t want stuff rolling off all over the oven and burning! Leave about a ½” clearance to the edge of the crust.
For grating your cheese we recommend the Cuisipro graters. They have a laser-etched and grooved surface, resulting in very little drag especially when doing semi-soft cheeses like cheddar or mozzarella. Grating block cheese is better for pizza, as the anti-caking agents in pre-shredded cheese packaging can affect the flavor and texture.
When using a pizza stone, you will need a peel to get it onto and off of the hot stone. Our favorite is the Epicurean pizza peel from the same people that make our favorite cutting boards. The thing we love about it is that you can cut on it without gouging it like wooden peels, and when you make a bunch of pizzas for friends and family, you KNOW you’re going to run out of cutting board space!
Once your dough is rolled out, lightly flour the peel and place the dough on it. Give the peel a little shake to make sure the dough slides, loosening it in spots where it doesn’t if needed. Top the pizza as desired. Give the peel another little shake to make sure the pizza still moves now that it is topped. Get the edge of the dough as close to the lip of the peel as possible. Open the (preheated) oven, and place the front of the peel just above the back of the hot stone. Holding the peel at a very slight angle, give it 2 or 3 little shakes to get the edge of the pizza onto the stone. When about a third of the pizza is on the stone, give the peel a good yank to get the rest of the pizza on the stone.
Use the peel during cooking to lift up the crust and check for doneness. When cooked to your liking, use the peel to get the pizza out of the oven. Let it rest for a couple of minutes and then cut. We like the Cuisipro pizza cutter for its ergonomic design, which allows you to get your hand over it giving you more leverage, as well as its easy-to-clean removable wheel. For something a little different, we suggest the Epicurean Pizza Cutter for quick and easy slicing of pizza and quesadillas. A quick rocking motion is all you need….
When you try out a new pizza joint (for those times you don’t make it at home!) try the plain old cheese pizza. That gives you a chance to see what they put into the simple stuff: The crust, the sauce and the quality of the cheese they use. If they don’t get these right, chances are the rest of the pizzas won’t stack up either.