Had Marie Antoinette been American, she would have said, “Let them eat pizza.” So much better than brioche. When you think about it, pizza’s so much better than most things. Slice after slice, time after time, it’s our most reliable pleasure. No matter the thickness of the slice, everyone understands the basic architecture: the toasty notes from the outside of the crust, then the layer of sweet, elastic dough, with its teasing tug against the teeth. Pit this against the acidic topping of tomato sauce and caramelized mozzarella, and you have the national dish.
But there’s something odd about our love affair. While most of us eat pizza, few of us cook it. Pizza comes from pizzerias, which guard their monopoly with tales of secret ingredients and high exertions. Real pizza must contain flour from Italy, or water from New York, and be cooked in ovens fired only by timber felled along the Appian Way.
It makes a $1.25 slice taste even better, until the realization sets in that it has to be gastro-hooey. There can’t be pizzerias on every corner because making pizza is difficult. The ingredients aren’t rare, but common, and, it merits stressing in these hard times, they’re dead cheap too. It’s not even like pizzerias spare us drudgery. Making pizza at home is easy. The biggest surprise is that, for good clean fun, it’s genuinely fun.
Until recently, I was typical: a pizza eater, never maker. What prompted a conversion, I can’t say. Maybe a bump on the head. As I set out to learn how to do it, this much I knew: commercial pizzerias use flour that is unusually high in protein, as much as 14% or 15%. This accounts for the remarkably elastic doughs. But working with high-protein flour is hard. So I phoned Sue Gray, director of product development at King Arthur Flour in Norwich, Vt., to see if I needed to go to the gym before kneading. She assured me that a good all-purpose flour was fine and working it would not be difficult. Her use of “good” merits stressing here. Most flour packages don’t list protein ratios, so go for flour from a reputable producer. King Arthur all-purpose has one of the highest standards, with 12.7% protein.
My second question concerned flour age. When overtaken by the impulse to bake, I tend to forget that I already have flour, and buy more, meaning I have cupboards full of flour of indeterminate age. What about that sack that might go back to last Thanksgiving? Gray assured me that if it hadn’t attracted pests, or absorbed funky smells, it was probably fine.
White flour is produced only from the milled endosperm of wheat grain, she explained, and not the seed coating, so there are no oily constituents to become rancid. But whole-wheat flour, which contains the milled seed coating and its protective oils, goes rancid within three months, she warned. She quickly added that whole-wheat flour wasn’t right for pizza anyway. It’s too bitter and the bran interferes with the elasticity of the dough. If you see whole-wheat pizza on a pizzeria menu, it’s pandering to whole food masochists. Just say no.
It’s all about the five basics
And so to the recipes. Pizza recipes, like most formulas in baking books, tell us what to do, but rarely why, so I went to Danielle Forestier, a Bay Area baking instructor recommended by a wheat physiologist at UC Davis. Forestier was only too happy to explain how pizza dough works, starting with the roles played by each of the basic ingredients -- flour, yeast, water, oil and salt.
The flour, yeast and water start fermentation, she said. Flour consists mainly of starch (along with that 12% to 15% protein). When you add water and yeast, the yeast will begin to ferment the starch, forming gas bubbles, which make the dough rise. It will also convert a certain amount of the starch to sugar, transforming a dull, starchy taste into the sweet, wheaten notes that we associate with good bread.
As the yeast works on the starch, it’s the pizza-maker’s job to go to work on the protein, she said. We do this by kneading. The water converts the protein into an elastic, gelatinous state. As we knead, these protein gels, or glutens, will form the bonds that make the dough elastic, and then extensible into pizza shapes. When it comes to kneading, it is just like bread. We should not knead by pinning dough with one hand and pulling with the other. This will tear the glutens. Instead, we should fold it to trap air, then press and roll -- fold, press and roll.
The water and added olive oil also serve to keep the dough supple. The best way to understand what water does is to picture what happens as it evaporates during baking, when the crust becomes firm, and then what happens as bread becomes stale: Those proteins are heading back to their original grainy state.
The salt will act as seasoning, but it will also slow the fermentation so the dough doesn’t rise too fast, and the yeast has time to convert more starch to sugar. A touch of this sweetness is desirable in pizza crust, she explained. Unlike sourdough, it stands up to the acidity of tomato sauce.
Forestier doesn’t like using food processors to mix dough because they overheat it. Heat, more than yeast quantity, she says, will dictate how fast the dough ferments and rises. The hotter the faster, the cooler the slower.
Most recipes call for dried yeast. The recipe we give here is for a fast-rising, same-day pizza dough. However, once you master it, try reducing the yeast slightly (by a third is about right), then allowing the dough to ferment slowly in the refrigerator for a day, or up to three days.
“If you let the fermentation go a long time, you begin to develop organic acid byproducts, and they contribute a lot to flavor,” explained Forestier. “The bakers who are doing no-time doughs, it comes out looking nice and has nice air bubbles, but it gets stale very quickly and has a flat one-note taste.”
With pizza, which is eaten right away, a fast dough is no crime, she added. But allowing it to rise overnight, and making the sauce in advance, makes it perfect for parties. On the big night, all you have to do is heat up the oven, roll the dough and assemble the pizzas.
Once you make the dough, there is the little matter of twirling it. Next stop: Angeli Caffe on Melrose, where Agustin Garcia, for eight years the pizza chef there, kindly agreed to demonstrate his pizza-tossing technique. After flattening a fermented, aged ball of dough, he deftly began tugging the dough, then tossing it in circles and using centrifugal force to stretch the center to an even thinness. The center needs to be thinner than the outside edge, he explained, because once you apply sauce, it will cook more slowly.
This brought to mind Forestier’s remark that the most common flaw she sees in homemade pizza is undercooked dough.
Garcia gave me a dough ball. I stretched too tentatively. After he tugged it out for me, he showed me how to toss it. I tried, it fell. He showed me again. I fumbled it again. We left it with me tugging and him tossing.
It was time to make pizza on my own. I invited a group of neighbors over for a Sunday night dinner, then mixed the dough in advance. The flour was easy to work just like Gray said it would be. And it blended just like Forestier said it would. I must have been putting on pizza expert airs as my guests assembled, because as I flattened 8-ounce balls for tugging and tossing, Garcia-style, one of my neighbors called her daughter over for a tutorial, as if I were a master. But as the child tugged at the dough with her little hands, it kept popping back into a tight ball. I took it from her, as if to demonstrate how to do it right. It popped back at me too. It was tempting to call animal control. Instead, I had to confess to my guests that I hadn’t done this before.
Then I remembered Forestier’s warning that the protein in dough, the thing that makes it elastic, can also give it an “inherent nervousness.” The trick then, she said, is to let it rest, after which it will become extensible. After doing this, it did indeed submit gracefully to handling. By now, everyone was hungry. It was approaching the child’s bedtime, and there was no time for more tugging and tossing. I used a rolling pin. It worked just fine.
Let a stone give you the edge
As we got into the final stage of production, it became clear that although you don’t need special equipment to make pizza, it helps. There is no crime in baking pizza on a greased and floured cookie sheet. The American Institute of Baking in Manhattan, Kansas, recommends this. But it won’t help you overcome the home baker’s single greatest pizza-making obstacle. Oven heat.
A commercial pizza oven will easily sit at 600 degrees. A restaurant’s wood-burning oven will be even hotter, 800 degrees. Meanwhile, even if we preheat home ovens to 500 degrees, they lose at least 100 degrees the minute we open the door. The result can be a thick, doughy, undercooked crust.
The trick, then, if using a cookie sheet, is to be sure the crust is thin in the center. Or use a pizza stone. Set one of these in your oven and it will help trap the heat that is so easily lost in small domestic ovens when the door is opened. To bake on a stone, you’ll also need a bread peel (the flat paddle-like pizza-slider), either wood or metal, to slip the dough onto it.
My first ever pizza was not the occasion to try some fancy topping. I went for a basic Margherita, albeit with my special sauce with caramelized onions and wine. As I ladled out tomato sauce, dotted around mozzarella on my first pizza pie, and peeled it into the oven, all five guests gathered around the stove. Relief was palpable. As the crust turned yellow, then gold, and the toasty smell filled the kitchen while the mozzarella began to bubble, there was a sort of collective euphoria.
But as I slid it out of the oven using a spatula and oven mitt, a dilemma. How to cut it? I did not possess one of those wheelie thingamajigs, those rolling pizza-cutters. A knife simply wasn’t right. Besides tossing skills, the main thing pizzerias have on us home pizza-makers is all the gear. Then one neighbor remembered owning a cutter and bolted to fetch it. When he returned with it, the trade now had nothing on us, except a big oven.
Home pizza-making is a pie-at-a-time business. As the first was sliced, a second was rolled out, topped and put in the oven. Corks popped. Salad was tossed. And, lo, it was good. We baked and ate and baked and ate the national dish until we ran out of fixings.