Making homemade pizza is one of the most fun things we do. It satisfies on so many levels: creatively, kinesthetically, intellectually, sometimes spiritually, and after all that you end up with pizza!
Not only that, but if you make pizza like we make pizza, it’s the best pizza you’re likely to find for many miles around you. We mean better than 70% of the pizzerias on the streets of New York these days.
A little background
Lillian grew up watching her Grandma Antoinette making homemade pan pizza. Cary had never had homemade pizza until he met Lillian. He always kinda thought pizzamaking was some kind of alchemy that required kitchen whites, an Italian accent, and a Bari or Baker’s Pride deck oven. Tasting Grandma Antoinette’s pizza was a revelation. At some point, Lillian’s Uncle Lou, the late Dr. Louis Cutolo Sr. (not really her uncle but a dear close family friend, it’s an Italian-American thing) made pizza for us. Uncle Lou had a passion for pizza, a love of cooking, and at the Cutolo’s summer home, a wood-fired brick oven in the backyard. We can still conjure up the taste.
When we started passion-4-pizza.com in 2007, we had never made a pizza. It was another couple of years before we tried. We started out with Peter Reinhart’s recipe from his book American Pie. We asked Uncle Lou for a tip – he said “use King Arthur’s Bread Flour.” We did. We still do.
Our first pizza looked like a pale amoeba..
What went wrong? Simple – we didn’t know how to stretch the dough, we didn’t know how hot to make the oven, we didn’t know how long to bake it. Strangely enough, it still tasted pretty good. And so we learned that making homemade pizza is a flexible and forgiving practice.
Then, classes with Peter Reinhart, Tony Gemignani, Anthony Falco, lots of practice, and we’ve gotten pretty good at it.
How can I make pizza better than a pizzeria can?
Well, on one level, you can’t. Home ovens can’t get as hot as pizzeria ovens, and heat is one of the fundamentals of great pizza. The hotter the better. A wood-fired oven goes 900 degrees or more, and coal can burn hotter than that. Our home oven tops out at 550°. Sure, a few people have removed the governor on their oven, which voids the warranty and has led to exploding oven doors, etc. Don’t do that.
There are pizza kits available for your backyard grill that’ll give you the heat you need, and grilled pizza is another option, but in this post we’re staying in the kitchen, so make sure you have at least a pizza stone or two. We use a stone on the middle shelf and unglazed quarry tiles (paving tiles) above to create a ‘heat mass’ in the center of the oven. If you go this route, make sure you get un-glazed tiles (the glaze is made with lead, not a good thing in your oven).
But heat is only one factor, and you can still make great pizza in a home oven.
What should I have on hand?
Get a pizza peel or two for moving your pizza in and out of the oven. For more on pizza peels, read our pizza peel post. In our dough recipe post, we strongly recommend weighing all your dough ingredients, so a digital scale is a good thing to have. Here’s a link to the one we use. A stick blender for sauce. We’ve done a post with a mise en place (everything in it’s place) list for pizzamaking. Here’s the link. Meanwhile if you think of any necessary items, please tell us in the Comments section below!
Please bear in mind that the suggestions that follow are not rules; they’re things we’ve learned along the way and the result of decisions we’ve made. If you do what we’ve done, you’ll get something like the pizza we get. Then make changes and adjustments to get what you like.
For example, some pizzaiolos use the top of the doughball as the top of the pizza, others turn the doughball over and use the bottom. We’re not sure it matters, but Cary likes to use the rounded top of the doughball as the bottom of the crust.
Making homemade pizza, step by step
First, you’ll need to make the dough. If we’re having pizza on Sunday, we make the dough on Thursday night or Friday. You’ll find our dough recipe at this link. Make your dough two days in advance. Three if your refrigerator is really cold.
The day before you bake the pizzas, check the doughballs in the refrigerator. They should have grown some, maybe even doubled. It’s time to make sauce and prep your toppings.
The sauce is simple because you don’t cook it. Use the best canned tomatoes you can get. Some people swear by tomatoes from the San Marzano region of Italy. Be careful – just because a can says “San Marzano” doesn’t mean the tomatoes really come from there. Read the label.
Why not cook the sauce? Peter Reinhart told us that since the tomatoes are cooked once in the canning process and we’re going to cook them again in the oven when we make the pizza, the flavor of the tomatoes can best be preserved by not cooking them three times.
We use Bianco DiNapoli organic tomatoes, grown in California. Salt, pepper, lots of basil, and fresh garlic. Blend with a stick blender and refrigerate. This gives the flavors of the ingredients a day to blend.
This is also the day we assemble toppings. For us, the principal toppings are cheeses, fresh basil, salt, pepper, good quality olive oil, whatever vegetables you like, sliced meats if you must (Lillian is a vegetarian. Cary isn’t quite there, but doesn’t need meat on a pizza).
Cheeses: we like to use both low-moisture mozzarella and fresh mozzarella.
Fresh mozzarella is very wet – use it sparingly. Our favorite brand for fresh mozz is BelGioso. You can get two 16oz sliced logs at Costco for a great price.
If you’re buying it unsliced, you’ll want to slice it. If you’re using ovolino (little balls of cheese), you’ll pinch off pieces to put on your pies. In fact, you’ll be pinching off pieces of your sliced cheese. As we said, use it sparingly.
For low-moisture mozzarella (the kind that’s on most New York style pizza), we like Polly-O. It’s a great quality cheese made in New York and can be difficult to find out of town.
Shred a pound of the low-moisture mozzarella. Tip: Freeze the cheese, then use a food processor for shredding. Otherwise, a cheese grater will do the job.
We place our pizza stone on the center rack. As you practice, look for the hottest part of your oven and place your stone accordingly. We then take small quarry tiles (pavers) and line them up on the rack above. The goal is to create an oven-within-an-oven. We want to get every additional degree we can. Also, in an ideal situation, the top and the bottom of your pizza should cook at the same rate.
Here’s a pic of the oven setup used by our friend Randy Johnson of Coeur d’Alene, Idaho:
We turn the oven on about two hours before we start making pizzas. Overkill? Maybe.
We line up our toppings on the counter so we can get to everything, and take the dough out of the refrigerator about a half-hour before starting. Longer if the weather is cold.
Stretching the dough
There are almost as many ways to stretch the dough as there are people making pizza. “What’s the best way?” we’ve been asked. “The way that works best for you,” is Cary’s answer.
As we said earlier, we use the top of the doughball as the bottom of the pizza, and we like to make the pizza on a wooden peel. While it’s actually better to stretch the dough on a stone countertop (it’s cooler and smoother than wood), it’s neater on the peel. And Cary is lazy when it comes to cleanup.
Here’s what we do: flour your work space first. Some pizzaiolos (Paulie Gee, for example) flour the dough, not the counter. That’s even neater, but we flour the peel. Keeps the dough from sticking. Next, put the dough ball down, bottom up. Don’t touch the edge. Please don’t use a rolling pin; that breaks up the gluten, messes the hole structure of the crust, and gives you no cornicione (edge). Use your hands. Press the dough down with your fingertips, pushing from the center to about a quarter-inch from the edge.
This step is just to flatten it out some, not to stretch it to full size. At this point, you just want to get it wide enough so you can do this:
Pick it up with the backs of your hands (top of the pizza facing you), and start turning the dough using your knuckles. Don’t pull – let gravity stretch the dough. It helps to learn from the masters. Tony Gemignani taught Cary how to push, Peter Reinhart taught Cary how to stretch, and then Paulie Gee taught Cary how to make them round.
Cary: It takes practice. I was terrible at it – I sucked . I kept on making pizzas that looked like amoebas. Everyone said “practice.” Then one night, practicing at Paulie Gee’s in Brooklyn, Paulie looked at one of my pizzas and said, “We make them round here.” Somehow that put me on track.
You don’t have to make them round. It’s a nice goal but it has no effect on the flavor.
There’s the “steering wheel” stretch, where, instead of using the backs of your hands, you hold the dough around the edge and turn it like a steering wheel, again letting gravity do the stretching.
Dressing the pizza
We can’t give you exact quantities. Well, we could, but it would be wrong – and so would the amounts. You need to experience. And find balance, grasshopper. A two-ounce ladle of sauce is probably enough for a ten-inch pizza. start in the middle of your stretched dough and pour it out in a spiral to the outer crust. We use the bottom of the ladle to spread it out.
Take a handful of shredded mozzarella and spread it over the sauce. If you want to use fresh and regular on the same pizza (Cary’s favorite), put a few pieces of fresh mozzarella around the pizza. Not right in the middle; it melts wet and will make the middle soggy.
Then your other toppings. Again, balance. Use less than you think you should. And don’t forget the basil and a drizzle of olive oil. We also like to use romano or parmesan as a ‘finishing’ cheese.
Baking the pizza
Okay, the oven is hot, the pizza is on the peel, now for the transfer. Make sure the pizza isn’t sticking to the peel by moving the peel forth and back a couple of inches, swiftly but smoothly. If the pizza moves, good. If not, you’ll need to un-stick it. Tip from Albert Grande: unwaxed dental floss. Slide between pizza and peel.
The first few times you transfer the pizza from the peel to the stone, it may be tricky. Just try not to miss the stone.
Cary likes to peek at the pizza. You probably will too. Keep in mind that every time you open that door, your oven will lose some heat. This seems to be even more true of electric ovens, although I don’t know why. We have gotten to a point where we turn the pizza (using a metal peel) only once, usually about two to three minutes in. Lift the edge of the pizza to make sure the bottom is cooking at the same rate as the top.
If this is your first time, leave the pizza in the oven a little longer than you think you should. A little char won’t hurt. Our early pies had big puffy corniciones and the really good ones were dark.
Questions? Corrections? Comments? Arguments? Please use the Comments field below!