Everything You Wanted to Know About Pizza

And some things you didn’t. 

Since I got married in 2oo8, I have been cooking, cooking, cooking. Seriously, the cooking just doesn’t stop. In my early days, I was very dependent on allrecipes.com, which I still consider to be a wonderful resource, especially for those who are just starting out learning how to cook.

Something I always loved to eat was pizza. Ooey, gooey pizza made with delicious cheese and perfect sauce. At first, I started with the Mama Mary’s whole wheat pizza crusts. My memory is a little unclear, but I believe this is when I started making homemade pizza. These crusts were okay, but pretty flat. I love baking (as you may know by now!), so I decided that I wanted to try making my own pizza.

Pizza is a process. It’s not hard to make, but there is a lot of wait time. The crust is everything. And it’s a lot like bread making. If you want to learn how to make homemade bread without a bread maker, learning how to make pizza crust is a perfect place to start. Next thing you know, you’ll be wondering about homemade pretzels and all different sorts of breads.

But let’s not get ahead of ourselves.

THE RECIPES

Like I said before, the place where I started was allrecipes.com. I found a recipe called “Jay’s Signature Pizza Crust”. Oh, man, is it good. It makes a very nice, soft crust that is hard at the bottom.

I used this recipe for many years. But what about whole wheat pizza, you ask? If you want to make your pizza healthier, you could swap out all or half of your flour for whole wheat flour. All we keep in this house is King Arthur Flour, so that is a good way to go. They make great whole wheat and even a “white” whole wheat.

But since then, my recipe has evolved just a little bit. My mom gifted me the King Arthur 200 Anniversary Baking Book. It’s an excellent resource on the history of the King Arthur company, pastries and breads, as well as cakes, pies, and pie crusts. It has an entire chapter devoted to pizza crusts and it doesn’t disappoint. I learned so many new factoids about pizza making in this book!

I mention King Arthur flour a lot on this blog — I swear they’re not paying me in free flour! Though that would be awesome.

At any rate, the recipe that I have ended up with lately is a bit of a mixture of the two. Through trial and error, I have come up with a pizza crust that I really love and enjoy. I make pizza crust so often that I have the recipe memorized. Cook books? They are in my head now.

SAUCE (OR is it called gravy?)
I haven’t done too much research on sauces. I have been using the same recipe since 2008 and I haven’t looked back. It is super simple and works well enough for me. It’s called Exquisite Pizza Sauce.

Sometimes when I am feeling lazy, I will use a pre-made pasta sauce, such as our favorite Bertolli pasta sauce. However, when I dump it on our crust and spread it around, you can see some separation between the water and the sauce. It makes the crust really runny.

There are also sauces available on the market that are specifically for pizza. We have used these before and they work much better than pasta sauces.

ACTIVATING YOUR YEAST
If you haven’t made a yeast dough of any kind, you  may be saying “activating my what now??”

Activating your yeast is making sure that your live yeast is active. “But my yeast says that it is active dry yeast, what gives?” Well, that is true, and your recipe may very well still work without activating your yeast, but it’s a fun step, and it’s always good to make sure your yeast is fully activated to get a good rise.

So here’s what you do: Get 1 and 3/4 cups of warm water of about 110° F (I don’t take the temperature of my water; I just ran the tap until I see steam coming off of it) and place it in a bowl. Then you add one tablespoon of white or brown sugar. Jay’s calls for brown; King Arthur calls for white. I don’t see much difference either way. Mix your sugar in so that it dissolves. Then you gently sprinkle 2 and 1/4 teaspoons on top of your warm water. And don’t move your bowl! And don’t mix your yeast in!

This is what it will look like at first:

After 5-8 minutes, it will look frothy like this:

“But Nichole, mine didn’t froth up! What shall I do! All those ingredients — wasted!”

Hey, it’s okay. Like I said before, if it doesn’t froth up, that’s fine. It’s ACTIVE dry yeast. No worries. It may not rise quite as nicely, but it will still work! Don’t give up now.

Then, as above, pour in 1/4 cup of extra virgin olive oil (EVOO for short). King Arthur calls for 1/4 cup, while Jay’s calls for 2 tablespoons. I really like going crazy with the 1/4 cup because I really think it makes it taste so much better. Fat is good!

A little bit more about YEAST: In the picture above is my yeast that I buy in bulk from BJs. I store it in the fridge in a glass mason jar. You can also buy individual packets, which equal 2 and 1/4 teaspoons. Easy-peasey with the packets because you don’t have to measure anything at all.

But if you find that you enjoy making pizza, it pays to buy the small jar or the large bricks of yeast. But you have to store it in glass in the fridge. Perfect excuse for a mason jar.

Yeast Brands: I have used both Fleischmann’s and Red Star Active Dry Yeasts with great results.

NEXT: Add 1 tsp of salt. Because it’s tasty.

And grab your flour. Like I said, I use unbleached all-purpose flour by King Arthur. I use it for my pizza and my cakes. I buy it in bulk at BJ’s Wholesale club for $7 for 10 pounds. We go through a lot of flour in this house!

Add one cup of flour and mix it around. It will look all curdled and gross, like this:

About the Flour… This is where it gets tricky and requires some trial-and-error. Add too little flour and you have a sticky mess. Add too much flour and your dough is going to be ultra tough and won’t stretch very well. You want something pliable, soft, and yet not sticking to your hands.

The King Arthur Cookbook calls for a whopping 6+ CUPS OF FLOUR. Sheesh, that is a lot of flour. Maybe they’re weighing it, maybe they’re not. Maybe their climate is different than mine, but I doubt it. I usually weigh my ingredients, but not when making pizza. I usually add two more cups of flour, and mix, then see how it is. If it’s super sticky, I add a bit more. Still sticky? Add a bit more. You want to get it JUST at the point of not sticking to your hands.

When you get to a good point where you can create a ball with your flour, sprinkle some flour on your clean counter or work surface and dump your dough mixture out.

PRO TIP: RIGHT NOW, get a medium bowl and pour some EVOO into it. You’ll be thankful later.

Now, get kneading. Adding a little flour at a time, get your dough into a nice smooth ball. Remember, don’t add TOO much. You don’t want to make rubber,  yuck. It won’t roll well and will be a pain to work with.

This is usually a good point to stop.

Knead time:Many recipes call for 5-10 minutes of kneading. I believe this has to do with developing the gluten. It makes a light and airy crust. I only knead for a few minutes until it feels soft and pliable. If I have time, I will put on the timer and knead for 5-10 minutes. Other people use their bread mixer or kneed their dough in their mixer with the dough hook attachment. I have mostly used my hands!

Next, pick up that dough ball and dump into into the medium bowl that you already poured EVOO into. Aren’t you glad you did that already? Now you don’t have to dirty up your extra virgin olive oil container with your messy flour hands.

CLEANING YOUR HANDS: The best way to clean your now-doughy hands is to get some flour, put it in your hands, and rub The flour between your hands. This breaks up the dough on your hands. I do this over the sink. Then wash with warm soap and water.

WHAT TO DO NEXT ….
Is up to you. Are you using your dough today? Right now? Later today?

MAKING YOUR CRUST EARLY IN THE MORNING? If it’s really early (think 8-12 AM), and your’e not eating until 5-7 PM, you can put your dough in the fridge to rise all day. This is what I do most of the time.

To do this, cover your bowl with plastic wrap and put it in the fridge. I happen to favor Reynold’s Press and Seal wrap. If you’re using regular plastic wrap, be sure that your dough is well-oiled so it doesn’t stick to the plastic. When you’re ready to bake, take it out about an hour before so it can get room temp. My baking book says 15 minutes, but I found that is not nearly enough time for it to warm back up. 15 minutes, really? If it’s cold, it’s more difficult to get it to stretch out nicely. It will work, but it takes longer to really work it.

RIGHT NOW? Sure, you can use it right now if you are really in a rush, though it won’t rise nearly as nicely.

IN A FEW HOURS … This is probably the BEST WAY, but you really have to get your timing right. First, you cover your bowl with a towel and let it rise for an hour. THEN, you uncover it, punch it down, divide it in half, and let it rise again, uncovered, for an hour. Then you’re ready to use it. Some recipes will say “let rise in a warm, dry place.” Most of us don’t have proofing drawers, but you can use your oven (turned off!). I usually like to let my pizza rest on my stove top under my stove lights. They generate enough heat to get my pizza rising well.

NEXT WEEK? NEXT YEAR? Maybe you’re a super organized person and you’re making your batch well ahead of time. I have found that super fresh dough is the best. It rises into a very flaky crust with a hard bottom and doughy inside. It’s also easy to work with.

But sometimes life isn’t like that and you have to plan ahead. You can put your dough into freezer bags or an airtight container and throw it into the freezer. When you’re ready to use it, put it in the fridge overnight or for several hours. Then take it out of the bag and transfer it to a bowl for it to warm back up to room temperature.

This is what your dough will look like after a full rise (below). I get two crusts out of this recipe. I like to freeze half for the next week, which means I only make pizza dough every other week. I know I said I like it super fresh, but it’s nice to not have to make it EVERY week.

SAUCE: Here are some quick pictures of me making my sauce. I usually make it the same day. It’s a no-cook sauce, which is great for people who are in a rush (like myself).

I like using Hunt’s Tomato Paste because there aren’t any weird extra ingredients.

The recipe calls for 6 ounces of hot water, so all you need to do is fill your empty can with hot water and add it to your paste.


See the recipe, but you can add whatever you like to your sauce. Have pre-mixed Italian seasonings? Dump in a couple teaspoons of that, by all means? I like to add Parmesan cheese, garlic powder, salt, a little pepper, a teaspoon of sugar (or honey), basil, and oregano. If you like things spicy (like me), go ahead and add some red pepper flakes! But my family is super lame (sorry, kids), so I usually just add red pepper flakes on my pieces after my pizza is done baking.

Hallelujah! After all that hard work,  you are finally ready to make some friggin’ pizza!

I say friggin’ pizza, because I watch a lot of “Last Man on Earth”. Friggin’ Todd.

Anyway, a note about CHEESE. The more expensive and freshly shredded the cheese, the more delicious and absolutely freaking amazing your pizza will be. Pre-kids and pre-business when I had a lot of time and money to burn, I shredded my own cheese. But a wedge of cheese does NOT go far. I needed at least two, so it really added up. But, like I said, fresh cheese made for the best pizza ever.

Like mozzarella? Pick up a fresh ball of mozzarella! Here is a note about them: They will make your pizza SUPER WATERY because they contain a lot of water. Here is what helps: Rip your mozzarella ball apart and put it on a paper towel and roll it up for a while. The towel will help absorb some of the water. When you’re ready, spread the mozzarella far apart from each other on your pizza. Why? Because mozzarella spreads a lot! You’ll be surprised. It’s all a learning process, like I said before.

And if you don’t want to shred cheese, just buy your cheese pre-shredded. That’s the point that I am at now. There are some extra added ingredients that prevent your cheese from clumping up, but don’t sweat that too much. And if you are sweating it, then by all means, shred your own cheese. But watch your knuckles!

How much cheese do you need? About two cups per pizza. Sometimes if you put on a ton of cheese, it takes longer for your crust to cook because of all the added moisture. It’s happened to me before, so we keep it light.

PIZZA, ASSEMBLE! Flour your surface and roll out your dough. I like to use a non-stick rolling pin, NOT a wooden rolling pin. My pizza dough would always stick to it. The first time I used my fondant roller on pizza dough was a EUREKA moment. Or an “a-ha moment”, as Oprah would say.

Roll and pull. Try picking up your pizza and stretching it with your knuckles. Keep working it until it’s stretched.

Spray your pan and put your dough onto it. Stretch and form some more.

ABOUT THOSE PIZZA PANS .. Yes, I have notes about pizza pans. I use a Wilton pan with holes in it. It’s the Wilton “Perfect Results” pan. The holes assist in getting a crunchy and well-cooked crust. But don’t cut your pizza on it! You will RUIN this pan. You must transfer it to another surface. I transfer our pizzas to an old cookie sheet to cut it. Don’t cut it on a good cookie sheet, or you will ruin it and it won’t be good for baking cookies on anymore! You could also cut your pizzas on a large cutting board.

Other people like baking stones. I tried it and hated it because I found it impossible. When you use a stone, you put the stone in the oven to heat up for 15-20 minutes, then you make your pizza and have to try to slide it on the stone. Forget that noise! I couldn’t ever get it to work. I think that it would also be helpful to have a peel, which is a large paddle in which you can transfer your pizza to your stone. But that’s for you to discover. I like my Wilton pan!

OVEN TEMPERATURE. A lot of people will tell you this: home ovens just don’t get hot enough to make a proper pizza. And, hey, maybe that is true. I consider homemade pizza and take-out pizza to be two totally different things. Then there are BRICK OVEN PIZZAS, and they are heaven on earth, but you’ll be hard-pressed to find some of them at home.

Speaking of brick oven pizzas, PICCINI PIZZA IN OCEAN CITY, NEW JERSEY, is the most amaze-balls pizza that I have ever had. Though I wouldn’t turn down Bertuccis. Oh, wait, there’s also the Pizza Wagon Catering company. Oh, my, that stuff is out-of-this-world good. And you know they’re using the expensive cheese. Hint: Sometimes you can catch them at the Tyler Arboretum. You’re welcome.

Anyway, I like 400° to 450° Fahrenheit. I bake my pizza on the second to the bottom rack of my oven so the bottom of the crust gets crunchy and well-done. If you bake it too far up in the oven, your crust won’t get crunchy and your pizza will be soft and hard to hold. OR .. you can prick your pizza crust with a fork and pre-bake it for 5 minutes.


CORNMEAL
Another thing you can do is also to dust your pan with cornmeal. I know a lot of pizza places do this, and if your favorite place does this, feel free to try it yourself! I usually still spray, though I have done the cornmeal thing without spraying.

TOPPINGS
Next, top your pizza! This is where it gets fun. We’ve done all sorts of toppings. You can just do sauce and cheese; or sauce, cheese and veggies; or sauce, cheese, veggies and some meats…!

A note about veggies … Remember, some veggies have a lot of water. You are baking your pizza at 400-450 degrees, so it’s sort of hard to cook out all of that water. I like to slice my tomatoes and suck out a lot of the water with paper towels, which helps. One time, I cooked up some frozen spinach and then dabbed out a lot of the water.

Sometimes it helps to pre-bake if you know you are going to put on a ton of toppings. It’s all about preference.

Meats: It should go without saying that you should pre-cook your meats. I love taking some ground chicken, tossing it in Frank’s Red Hot, and adding it to my pizza. I enjoy my buffalo chicken pizza with some ranch for dipping. Mmmm.

Obviously, pepperoni doesn’t need pre-cooking.

DRIZZLE WITH OLIVE OIL
I used to watch a lot of Man Vs. Food, and on one episode, I saw him review a pizza shoppe where they drizzled their pizza with some olive oil before baking. I LOVE THAT. I have done it ever since. It gives the pizza a very nice earthy taste. See below.

RISE AGAIN
If you don’t have impatient and hungry kids breathing down your neck, it is a wonderful idea to let your pizza rise after you’ve put everything on it. I read this in the King Arthur Cookbook. See how much you learn from reading?? Anyway, all you do is let it sit for 15 minutes and see how the crusts puffs up after the resting period. After you bake it, it’s extra fluffy and crispy on the outside. It’s simply magical.

But most of the time, my kids don’t want to go for that!

Here is my pizza after the rise:


I know the difference is subtle, but believe me, it makes a difference! Some times it REALLY puffs up and the pizza is wonderful.

BAKING (finally!)
I like my pizza to look like it does below. I cook it for about 10-12 minutes or until the cheese starts to get a little browned. You may like it less cooked or even more cooked. Like I mentioned earlier, I put my pizza on the second to the bottom rack position in the oven. The very bottom position seems like it would be a little TOO close to the heat source in my oven. This way, the bottom of the pizza gets crispy fast and the cheese still melts. If you put it in the middle of the oven it might take longer to get the bottom of your pizza crispy and then your cheese will be overcooked. You certainly don’t want that!

CAN I BAKE TWO PIZZAS AT A TIME?
Short answer: NO.
Long answer: I have tried baking two pizzas at once before. I tried rotating my pizzas half-way through. Sometimes that works a little bit. But what really happens is the heat source gets blocked and it just doesn’t work well. Plus, opening your oven to rotate them lets out the heat, which is never good. You end up cooking your pizza for longer. Sometimes one turns out more cooked than the other.

So if you are making two pizzas out of your dough, it’s best to do it one at a time. Just like you only bake in the middle of the oven when baking cakes. It’s the same principle.

And if you have two ovens, I am totally jealous. You rock those two ovens and save a lot of time!

And there you have it, the perfect homemade pizza! Like I mentioned before, to prevent ruining our non-stick pan, I transfer our pizza to a cookie sheet and cut on that.

We LOVE our homemade, pizza. We really do. Last week we got take out as a “break” and it was horrible! The crust wasn’t nearly as flaky and soft on the insides as our favorite homemade creations.

Here is my recipe in summary:

Homemade Pizza Crust
Makes 2 pizzas or one REALLY thick pizza. Or make on a large cookie sheet for a Secilian pizza (but don’t cut on your cookie sheet).
Adapted from King Arthur 200th Anniversary Cookbook  (1992) and Jay’s Signature Pizza Crust

Ingredients:

1 3/4cup warm water (110° F)

2 1/4 teaspoon active dry yeast

1 teaspoon white sugar or brown sugar

1 teaspoon salt

2 tsp OR 1/4 cup of olive oil

4+ cups of flour (approximately)

Making your dough

  • Place warm water in bowl. Dissolve sugar in the water. Sprinkle on the dry yeast and let proof for 8-10 minutes until frothy.
  • Add olive oil, salt, and a cup of flour. Mix. Add 2 more cups of flour. Mix until you form a nice ball of dough.
  • Oil a medium bowl and set aside.
  • Sprinkle flour on work surface. Knead your dough until it isn’t too sticky, but not too dry. Stop right when it loses its stickiness. Knead for 5-10 minutes.
  • Transfer to oiled bowl. Cover with towel for an hour.
  • After it has doubled in size, punch down and divide it in half.
  • Let sit, uncovered, in a warm, dry place for another hour.


Baking

  • Preheat oven to 400-450° Fahrenheit for at least 15 minutes.
  •  Roll out half of your pizza dough and place on a well-sprayed pizza pan.
  • Top with favorite sauce, cheese, and other toppings. Drizzle with extra virgin olive oil.
  • If time allows, let your pizza rest for 15 minutes to rise.
  • Bake for 8-12 minutes, depending on how well done you like your pizza.
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