If you’re serious about pizza, it may seem impossible to create really good pizza at home. While there’s definitely a ceiling to what you can do without a coal- or wood-fired stone pizza oven that gets up to 1,000 degrees Fahrenheit, the goal of beating your local delivery joint in a pizza battle is definitely obtainable. This article runs through the best home cook practices of making the dough, making the sauce, shaping the dough, topping the pizza, and cooking the pizza. Gone are the days of pizza crusts you pop out of a can and roll into a rectangle on a baking sheet. Here are the days of impressive homemade pizza nights.
It should be noted that pizza styles and preferences obviously vary wildly. Here, we’re focusing on the New York Neapolitan-type pie (those in the know should think Roberta’s, not Two Boots). We’re looking for a doughy, chewy crust rolled thin, with a good lip and really great sauce. We’re looking for dark spots on both the top and bottom, and a little less greasy than a standard two-napkin N.Y. pie. We’ll break tradition, though, and discuss topping combinations beyond just a few circles of mozzarella cheese. Live a little.
Joe Kohen/Getty Images for The Italian Culinary Academy at The International Culinary Center
1. The crust
There’s a noticeable difference between your standard slapped-together, one-hour rise pizza dough and a really good, flavorful crust. The difference is found equally in the dough hydration and the rise time. The more water in the dough, the crisper it will be on the outside and the chewier it will be on the inside.
The longer you allow the dough to rise — slowly, preferably — the more flavor you’re extracting from the flour as the yeast slowly eats its way through the sugars. To make the idea of starting your dough the night before more appealing, we’ll cut all the kneading from the equation with Jim Lahey’s No-Knead Pizza Dough. Coming from Epicurious, this recipe calls for enough flour to make six 12-inch pizzas. That’s a lot of pizza, so we’ve halved it. If you’re having a pizza party, bring it back to the full recipe.
Note that this recipe calls for an 18-hour rise. This is, for most people, not the right number of hours: Your life is going to get in the way. It’s OK. More rise time is great. If you let the dough rise for a couple of more hours, especially in a slightly cooler area of your house (not cold!), nothing bad will happen.
3¾ cups all-purpose flour, plus more for shaping dough
2 teaspoons fine sea salt
¼ teaspoon active dry yeast
1½ cups water
Directions: Whisk flour, salt, and yeast in a medium bowl. While stirring with a wooden spoon, gradually add water; stir until well incorporated. Mix dough gently with your hands to bring it together and form into a rough ball. Transfer to a large, clean bowl. Cover with plastic wrap and let dough rise at room temperature in a draft-free area until surface is covered with tiny bubbles and dough has more than doubled in size, about 18 hours.
Transfer dough to a floured work surface. Gently shape into a rough rectangle. Divide into three equal portions. Working with one portion at a time, gather four corners to center to create four folds. Turn seam side down and mold gently into a ball. Dust dough with flour; set aside on work surface or a floured baking sheet. Repeat with remaining portions.
Let dough rest, covered with plastic wrap or a damp kitchen towel, until soft and pliable, about 1 hour, before shaping your pizzas.
2. The sauce
This recipe comes from Deb Perelman of Smitten Kitchen when she had the uncooked sauce epiphany. One of the secrets we’ll get to later is to not use too much sauce on your pizza. This will make enough to cover your pizzas in sauce like a pro. If you really, really want extra sauce on your pizzas, though, double the recipe.
1 (28-ounce) can whole peeled tomatoes
1 clove garlic
½ teaspoon kosher or sea salt
Red pepper flakes, to taste
½ teaspoon dried oregano, if you like really zesty sauces
Directions: Strain the tomatoes thoroughly in a colander set over a bowl, squeezing with a fork to drain more liquid. Save the juices for tomato soup, chili, or a Bloody Mary.
Add remaining ingredients to the tomatoes and transfer to a blender. Blend well. If the sauce tastes too acidic, add a pinch of sugar.
3. Shaping the dough
The dough will be wet and shaggy, and that’s good. It’s not going to be the easiest to work with, but that’s OK. Go with it. Don’t add too much flour when you’re shaping, or your pizza crust will be tough rather than doughy. If you need to, wet rather than flour your hands to keep the dough from adhering. Remember, hydration is the key to a chewy pizza crust, and flour is thirsty and greedy.
Roberta’s is one of those places that people will leave their neighborhoods in New York City for, and that doesn’t happen often. In its cookbook, available straight from the restaurant’s website or from Amazon, it describes how to best shape a pizza. Roberta’s also has a rule for making pizza at home: Don’t try to make the dough paper-thin. This works for pizza ovens that get up to 900 degrees Fahrenheit, but at home, you’ll just make a dry pizza cracker. The restaurant recommends going no thinner than ⅛ of an inch.
Lightly flour your hands and your work surface (if you find that the no-knead dough is too sticky to make light flouring an option, try a piece of parchment paper and wet hands). Start with one dough ball on the work surface. Use your fingers to push down any bubbles in the dough, but treat it gently and, for goodness’ sake, don’t punch the dough.
Starting from the middle of the dough ball, gently start pressing the dough flat with the tips of your fingers. Don’t try to push it out or stretch it, which will make it tough and render the whole ball useless. Just gently flatten the ball into a disk.
From here on out, let gravity help you. Pick up your dough disc and hold your hand parallel to the floor. Curve your hands ever so slightly into soft cups and begin moving the dough back and forth between your hands, rotating it 90 degrees each time and letting gravity stretch it slightly between passes. Do this until your pizza is a close approximation to a 12-inch circle. You’ll get better with practice.
When the oven is hot and the stone/steel is hot, slide the pie into the oven. Then, switch on your broiler. This will allow the oven to get even hotter right above the pizza, making for a superior pie. If your broiler cycles on and off, crack the oven door slightly with a spoon jammed into the door. Don’t burn down your house. Watch the pizza cooking; it should only take 4 to 5 minutes. Let darker brown spots form; these are the good bits. Let the stone/steel heat up for a few minutes before cooking your next pizza.