When I was around seven or eight, I had homemade pizza for the first time. I was spending the night at a friend’s house, and her parents made us pepperoni pizza for dinner, and it was the best thing I had ever tasted. Up until that time, I didn’t know you could make a pizza from scratch. We had the occasional carryout one, and the cardboard kind (i.e. frozen). I think that began my obsession for making pizza. I remember begging for those pizza-in-a-box kits (on the shelf! Includes cheese! Why that didn’t sound strange at the time is beyond me…), and for those Boboli crusts when they first arrived on the shelf. Later, I got into the refrigerated pizza crust—you know, the canned kind. That is still OK. Not great, but certainly edible.
Sometime after college I got on a bread-baking kick, and started playing with yeast doughs. Epiphany: I can make my own pizza crust. And it’s not that hard. We have since acquired a variety of pizza equipment: two with holes for crispy crusts, one huge deep-dish pan that could double as the bottom layer of a wedding cake, a pizza stone, a pizza peel (the wooden paddle that you use to get the pies in and out of the oven), a variety of cutters and servers.
My favorite method involves a pizza stone, and a technique that I learned from Alton Brown’s Good Eats.
Move your bottom oven rack as far down as it can go, and put the stone on top. If you have a fancy oven that does not have an exposed electric coil in the bottom, you could try putting the stone directly on the bottom of the oven. Turn the oven temperature up as hot as it will go (500 on my oven), and preheat for about an hour.
Yes, I said 500 degrees, preheat for a whole hour. Don’t worry, that hour will give you time to make the sauce, prep the toppings, and toss the dough.
Roll or Toss
A good, yeasty pizza dough will not behave for a rolling pin. Plan to stretch the ball by hand into a circle-like shape. Its supposed to be homemade, so if you end up with an amoeba instead of a circle, that’s just fine. If your dough gets too tough to handle, put it down and let it rest for 10 minutes, then try again. The gluten in yeast dough tenses up when it’s handled a lot.
And to keep the dough from sticking to the counter and the pizza peel and the pizza stone, don’t bother with the cornmeal trick. I have never found cornmeal to be effective. Maybe its my dough recipe. I use parchment paper. You can buy it in the baking aisle, and it looks like un-waxed waxed paper. DO NOT substitute waxed paper or freezer paper, or you will melt wax all over your oven and your pizza.
Tear off a sheet of parchment that is about the size of your pizza stone (or just a little bigger than your pizza). If your stone is a circle, like mine, use a pair of scissors and cut the corners off to make a rough circle. It doesn’t have to be perfect, but if you let extra paper dangle off the stone and onto the heating coil, it could catch on fire. BTDT.
I set the parchment on top of the pizza peel, and mold the dough directly onto the parchment. Top with sauce, cheese, and fixings. Then, use the peel (and potentially an oven mitt) to slide the parchment-based pizza onto the stone. Bake about 10-15 minutes, depending on how thick your dough and toppings are. Adjust up or down as necessary. Turn the light on in the oven and peek at it every couple of minutes until you’re comfortable with your timing!
A properly heated stone will bake the bottom of your crust to a nice crispiness without being soggy.
I don’t usually need to pre-bake the crust before topping, because my homemade crusts tend to be rather thin. If you’ve got something fluffy or are planning to add 2 pounds of sauce and cheese, then bake the crust part or all the way done before topping. Otherwise, you’ll be eating the center with a spoon.
No Pizza Stone?
You can get good results without a pizza stone as well. Use a thin cookie sheet or one of those perforated pizza pans. Ease up on the heat—500 degrees will burn a pizza on a metal pan. Try around 425, and move the oven rack up to at least the second notch from the bottom.
Because my pizzas cook quickly, and because I cook them low in the oven (and not under a broiler), there is not a lot of time for the toppings to really cook down in the oven. There are some things I like on pizzas—namely bell peppers, onions, and mushrooms--that I prefer to pre-cook. Just sauté them with a tiny bit of olive oil in a non-stick pan. You can do this way ahead of time and refrigerate them. They will get hot in the oven with the pizza. This is an individual preference kind of thing—I like my onions lightly caramelized, and the peppers softer.
Of course, if you’re using a meat product like Italian sausage or chicken, definitely cook it ahead of time. Pepperoni and bacon will crisp up in the oven, but anything thicker might not. Don’t give the diners food poisoning, please.
Cooking for a crowd? Unless you’ve got double-ovens, then you might have some aerobics to do. Do not attempt to use two pizza stones at once. Unless you’re willing to let your oven preheat all day. Seriously, those stones absorb the heat and keep the oven from heating well. They heat slow, and they cool slow.
If I’m making 2 or more pizzas, I try to get the first one done and ready early, and have the second one topped and ready to slide in. With thinner crusts, each pizza only takes about 10 minutes to cook, so there’s not a huge delay.
Do not plan to remove a hot pizza stone between pizzas. It’s heavy, hot, and would do better to just stay in the oven. That’s where the parchment comes in so handy—your cooked pizza should slide right off the stone and onto your peel (or a cutting board, or a cookie sheet).
If you’re using metal pans, you could possibly cook two at once, but plan to swap the top and bottom pies mid-way through the baking time. Unless you have a convection oven. And then, well, pbbbbbbttt.
Pizza Stones and Frozen Pizzas
So, now you’re in love with your pizza stone, so you’re thinking about using it for your frozen pizza as well. Good luck with that. We make frozen pizzas when we’re short on time, and the pre-heat required by a stone cancels out the convenience factor. If I try to shorten the heating time, I get a soggy crust. Your mileage may vary. I did mention that we own 2 perforated pans in addition to the stone, yes? No bakeware goes to waste in my house…
Check back later this week for my own personal pizza crust and sauce recipes. Or, check out Alton Brown’s. My crust recipe was derived from his anyway….