Crispy crust, gooey cheese, salty toppings, all served hot right from the oven. What’s not to like about pizza? Food technology and mass production, however, have turned what could be the most perfect self-contained meal into a mean joke—cardboard wan crust, rubber cheese, and lifeless artificial toppings—that doesn’t deserve to be called pizza. So here’s an idea: let’s go back to making pizza. Not microwaving pizza, reanimating pizza, or ordering pizza, but making pizza. I’ll show you how to make a pizza from scratch to table in under 15 minutes*.
*Not including oven preheating but come on, how hard is that?
First things first: the crust. Here’s the basis of good pizza. You can shave curls of rubber from your shoe and sprinkle kitty litter on your pizza and if this crust is good, you’ll be forgiven. Almost. So here’s the magic trick with homemade crust: the freezer. Give yourself some time once a month to make a large batch of dough, separate the dough into Ziploc freezer bags, label them with a date, and stack them in the freezer. Weeks can go by and your dough will still be better than 95% of pizza out there. Really. The pizza below was made last night from dough I made on December 29th, 2010.
Making dough from scratch? Sounds hard? How about three ingredients: flour, salt, and water. Here’s secret #2: if you make the San Diego sourdough on this page, that dough can be used for pizza crust. In fact, that’s what is shown above. Make yourself a loaf of bread and reserve the rest for pizzas. I usually make a quadruple batch and freeze it all for pizzas, which will give you around eight balls of dough, depending on pizza size. If sourdough seems too challenging, try a yeasted version, like the basic dough found in Artisan Bread in Five Minutes a Day. Make a batch of that and freeze it up.
Now the hard part is done, and you’re ready for some pizza. Take your dough out in the morning and leave it in its plastic bag cocoon on the counter to defrost. Or take it out at lunch. Or if you decide at 7 that you want pizza at 7:30, hold the bag under running lukewarm tap water and massage it with your hands until it’s workable, while assuring your hungry guests that, yes, pizza is on its way. I’ve done this and it’s fine, especially since stretching out the dough will get it up to temperature anyway.
An hour before you want to make your pizza, preheat the oven as hot as it will go. You can jump start it by putting the broiler on for a while then setting it to max heat. Above 500 is better! Hopefully you have a pizza stone. If not, may God have mercy on your pizza, because a baking sheet won’t give you the same results. Form your dough into a nice tight ball, dust it with flour, then flatten it out in a disc. It may resist stretching, so give it a five minute rest and it’ll be more pliable. I like my crust thin, and if you want to play pizzaolo, give it a toss in the air and catch with closed fists. Lay your crust on a sheet of parchment (which will burn in the oven but that’s okay), or dust your pizza peel with cornmeal. Don’t have a pizza peel? Use an upside-down cookie sheet. Don’t have cornmeal? Use flour. Either way, your parchment will turn black and smell like burning, your cornmeal will burn, or the flour will burn. This is good! Pizza wants a hot oven and the smell of burning means it’s working! However if your pizza is jet black and crumbly or you see open flames it might be too hot.
Toppings: keep it simple. Pizzas don’t have to have tomato sauce. This one has pesto and garlic paste. The second one below does have tomato sauce, and gets a topping of lemon-juice-tossed arugula after it comes out of the oven.
Mostly, don’t lay on the cheese or sauce too thick, and try to minimize the variety of toppings. “Supreme” pizzas are like that because they want to distract you from the awful crust. There’s a reason the Pizza Margherita Napoletana has tomatoes, olive oil, fresh mozzarella, and basil, and nothing else. Don’t use skim mozzarella because it’ll burn–cheese needs some fat at these high temperatures to melt. Baking time should be slightly longer than you dare. Let the crust and toppings get little spots of black on them. That extra time on the hot stone will make your crust crispy and the cheese gooey and on the edge of caramelization.
Simplicity, honesty, technique, these are the things that will make your homemade pizza extraordinary. So get out there and make it yourself!