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How to Make a Really-Great Pizza:

(C) Copyright 2004, by Thomas P. Gootee


I did a lot of searching, trying to find out how to make a really-great pizza dough. I finally found a wonderful recipe, modified it slightly, and came up with the best pizza crust I've made so far, by far. Several "true pizza connoisseurs" have said that it is the best they've EVER had, even better than any commercial pizzas. I don't know if I'd go quite that far. But it IS excellent, and quick and easy to make. It can be used to make thin- OR thick-crust pizzas, with or without puffed-up edges. And even when it's very thin, it still won't sag or droop. NO time needed for the dough to RISE is a plus, too.

The KEY to making good pizza crust may be mostly in the METHODS and procedures and processes that are used. So I'll try to explain *HOW* I make the dough, and the pizza, in detail. And I'll try to explain it as if you've never cooked anything, before.

PIZZA DOUGH INGREDIENTS:

Water - 3/4 cup, at a temperature of 110 deg F to 115 deg F

Yeast - "active dry" type, 1 packet, or: up to 1 tablespoon of bulk active dry yeast

Sugar - white cane type, 1/2 to 1 teaspoon for yeast and 1 to 2 teaspoons for dough

Salt - pinch for yeast and 1/2 to 1 1/2 teaspoons for dough

Flour - 1 3/4 cup unsifted "All Purpose" flour (I like "King Arthur"-brand flour.), plus some to use while kneading dough

Olive Oil - about 1 tablespoon, partly for oiling dough before spreading sauce and partly for drizzling on top of pizza just before baking (and, if not cooking on a pizza stone, for oiling pizza pan)

Optional - You can try adding things to the dry dough ingredients. Nestle's Quick powdered chocolate drink mix is pretty good (about 1/2 to 1 teaspoon). And garlic powder (1/2 teaspoon) and Italian Seasoning (1/2 teaspoon) is pretty good. Onion powder would probably also be good. You could also substitute brown sugar, or something else, for all of part of the white cane sugar. Etc...


THE PROCEDURES:


0. PREHEAT THE PIZZA STONE (IF USED):

IF you're going to use a pizza stone to cook the pizza on, put it on the LOWEST rack in your oven and turn the temperature up as HIGH as it goes. Just turn the knob as far as possible, until it stops, without worrying that there are no temperature marks or numbers for when it's set that high. (But, on some ovens, turning the knob TOO far might make it click into the "Cleaning" setting, in which case it probably won't get very hot. So don't turn it THAT far.) With the temp knob turned all the way up, the oven should reach a temperature of around 600 degrees Fahrenheit (deg F). Later, when you make another pizza, you could experiment with setting the oven slightly lower, perhaps at 550 or 500 deg F, or even 450 deg F, to see how it affects the cooking of the pizza.


1. START THE YEAST:

a) Get the water to the right temperature: I use a kitchen meat/yeast thermometer, in a 2-cup glass measuring cup. I adjust the kitchen sink's faucet until it feels very hot and then fill the measuring cup and check the thermometer. I keep adjusting the water temperature until it's measuring about 120 deg F, in the cup, since it will cool, by the time everything is added to it and dissolved, and will end up at about 110 to 115 deg F, I hope.

b) Pour the excess water out of the measuring cup, until there's only 3/4 cup of water.

c) Add 1/2 to 1 teaspoon of sugar and optionally a pinch of salt to the water. Stir the water until it's completely dissolved (i.e. until you can't see any more granules).

d) Add the yeast and stir the water until it's dissolved.

e) If you want to (or if it's one of your first few times making this), check the temperature of the water/sugar/yeast, again, to make sure that it's AT LEAST 105 degrees Fahrenheit (deg F). If it's too low, you can microwave it for about 10 seconds to raise the temp by about 5 degrees, with an 1100-watt microwave. [Try shorter microwave times, if you're not sure. If it gets TOO hot, it will kill the yeast and you'll have to start over, after waiting 5 or 10 minutes before you realize you killed it.]

f) Let the yeast RISE, in a warm place, for at least 10 minutes: I usually cover the top of the measuring cup with a towel or a double-folded paper towel AND set the cup ON a towel (part of the same one) or on a double-folded paper towel. That way, it's insulated from the cooler surface it's on and its open top is also protected from the cooler air around it.

Sometimes yeast may be slow to rise, while other times it may be fast. I usually let it rise until the top of the "foam" is up to about the 1 1/2 cup mark. But I have heard that perhaps it should be timed and only allowed to rise for 10 minutes and no more. i.e. "Your mileage may vary." If it's slow to rise, I use it anyway, after 15 minutes at the most, usually. But it SEEMS to be OK to wait even longer, if necessary. [Of course, if it hasn't risen above the 1 cup mark or thereabouts, after 10 or 15 minutes, maybe you should just start over.]


2. MIX THE DRY INGREDIENTS:

While the yeast is rising, mix the dry ingredients in a medium-size mixing bowl (or whatever you've got). The bowl that I like to use holds about 2 quarts (8 cups). And it has fairly steep sides. I like to knead the dough while it's still in the bowl, and that size and shape make it easier.

Measure 1 3/4 cups of all-purpose flour into the bowl. Add about 1 teaspoon of salt and about 1 teaspoon of sugar. Stir it well. Keep the flour handy, because it will be needed later, during kneading, to keep the dough from sticking to your hands (which also should eventually result in adding the proper amount of additional flour to the dough, so it doesn't end up being too moist and sticky). [Note that the amounts of salt and sugar (and optional ingredients) can be adjusted, to experiment with how they affect the crust, if you like. But you should probably try the recommended amounts, the FIRST time you make it.]

If there's any time left, now is a good time to start cutting up the toppings. I usually dice up about half of a medium to large red or white onion, and slice three or four or more fresh white mushrooms, and cut some thin strips of green bell pepper. If I previously fried some fresh ground pork sausage (with at least some fennel added [Fennel is a spice.]) and froze it, I get a bag of that out of the freezer. I also like to use Canadian Bacon, and often some pepperoni. I like ham, too.


2A. PREHEAT THE OVEN, NOW (if not using a pizza stone):

If you're not cooking the pizza on a pizza stone, now is probably a good time to preheat the oven. I usually cook the pizza at a very high temperature; often at 600 deg F. But it will work at any temperature, as long as it's 400 deg F or higher. For your first time, 450 or 500 deg F is probably a reasonable place to start. But, if you're in a hurry, just crank it up as far as the knob will go and it'll cook in five or six minutes, especially if your pan is of the "dark" variety (rather than silver).


3. MIX IN THE YEAST:

Pour the entire contents of the measuring cup (the one with the yeast in it) into the bowl. Stir the liquid into the dry ingredients, with a spoon.

It is sometimes a bit difficult to mix them, after a few seconds. And it may seem like there's no WAY the dry ingredients will ever get moist enough. At SOME point, you will have to change from using the spoon to using your hands. But I usually mix with the spoon until it becomes difficult (which is very shortly) and then change my grip, so that my thumb is pushing down into the spoon and my other fingers are wrapped around the base of its handle. Then I can start "kneading" the mixture by pushing the head of the spoon into it, with my thumb doing most of the work. Just keep pressing the wetter parts into the drier parts, pushing from different angles, and flipping it over if necessary, etc. After the mixture starts to get combined better, and more doughy, it will eventually become more like a lump of dough. At that point, I switch to using my hands.


4. KNEAD THE DOUGH:

Knead the dough FOR AT LEAST TEN MINUTES:

Sprinkle some flour onto the dough, in the bowl. Use enough flour so that the top of the dough is pretty-well covered with a fairly-thin layer of flour. Then, just make a fist and push it into the dough. Push it in again. And again. And again. Keep occasionally flipping the dough over and folding it in half or quarters and then pushing your fist into it over and over, sprinkling more FLOUR onto it whenever it sticks to your hand. [I like to use my hand to sort of "roll" the dough at the same time, by rotating my knuckles from the side of the bowl toward the center of the bowl as they contact the dough. It pulls some of the dough up from the bottom, each time, so I don't have to pick it up and fold it over as often.]

After about ten minutes of fairly-strenuous kneading, the dough should no longer be sticking to your skin, and should also be kneaded enough. (And you might be a little worn out, or even sweating.)


5. SHAPE THE DOUGH:

Take the dough out of the bowl and flatten the dough out, somewhat, by pressing on it with your hand(s). I usually push on it until it's at least six inches across and shaped more or less into a circle, with about the same thickness everywhere. If I'm making a rectangular pizza, I try to make it into an oval, instead, i.e. longer in one direction than the other.

There are lots of different way to make the dough into the shape of a pizza crust. But I'll just tell you how I usually do it. I used to use just my hands, pressing the dough in the inner sections to get it to go toward the outer areas. You could use a rolling pin, too. I have used a rolling pin. It works bery well. but I don't use one, any more, because I like to be able to leave a thicker area all the way around the edge of the crust. And a rolling pin flattens it too much. Now I use a "miniature" rolling pin method: I use a spice jar as a small rolling pin. I start in the center of the dough and roll toward the outside, but NOT quite all the way to the edge. I do that from the center toward different parts of the edge, to keep the thickness about even and to make it get into the right shape. Occasionally I might have to roll it ALONG the edge, to re-distribute a thicker part to a thinner part, or to make the shape right.


6A. PREPARE THE PAN'S SURFACE (if not using pizza stone):

PAN: If you're going to use a pizza pan instead of a stone, then put about a teaspoon of olive oil on the pan and smear it around until the pan is completely coated with it. This recipe makes enough dough for one 14-inch round pan. But I've heard people say that they've used a rolling pin to make it into TWO 14-inch pizzas, although I've never tried that. A dark-colored pan will cook a pizza faster, or will get the crust darker on the bottom, than a silver one. I use the thin-metal types of pans. I don't like to use the "air-insulated" pans, or the pans with lots of tiny holes, etc., because I like a crisp, strong crust. But "your mileage may vary".

6B. PREPARE THE PEEL'S SURFACE (if using pizza stone):

STONE: If you're using a stone, and it's been preheating for 30 or 40 minutes by the time the pizza is ready to cook, you'll need to assemble the pizza dough, sauce, and toppings on something ELSE, and then slide it onto the stone when it's ready to be cooked. The "standard" item to use is called a pizza peel. It's a big wooden paddle, usually about the size of your stone (or at least as big as the pizza you're going to make), usually having a handle. If you don't HAVE a pizza peel, you can use something else. Almost anything that's flat should work. I've used cookie sheets (even the *backs* of the ones with 1/2-inch sides on them, in a pinch). And even stiff cardboard might work.

WHATEVER you use as a peel, it needs to be sprinkled with cornmeal, or possibly flour, so the pizza can be easily slid off of it and onto the stone. Cornmeal works MUCH better than flour, by the way, at least in my experience. When you're pizza is all loaded up and ready to cook, and you're searing your face with a 600-degree blast from the oven, and the pizza WON'T BUDGE when you try to slide it onto the stone in the oven, it's "a bad thing". So, if you DO have to use flour instead of cornmeal, make sure you occasionally gently "jerk" the peel (or whatever you're using), to check to see if the pizza will still move. If NOT, lift up the edge and throw/slide some more flour under it, until it WILL move. (Note that getting oil or liquids on the peel will usually make it harder to get the pizza to slide.)

HINT: If you plan on making a very THICK pizza, then at this point you should probably partially-cook the crust. Otherwise, too much sauce or toppings or cheese might make the pizza crust end up too soggy, or not crisp enough.


7. ADD THE SAUCE:

a) OIL the dough: Place the dough onto the oiled pan or the cornmealed peel and then pour about a teaspoon of olive oil onto the dough and smear it around until the whole thing is covered with a thin layer of olive oil, all the way to the very edge. (If you're doing it on a peel, try not to get any oil onto the surface that the pizza is sitting on, so it'll be able to slide off onto the stone, more easily, later.)

b) Spread the PIZZA SAUCE: Pour some pizza sauce onto the dough and spread it evenly. BUT, DON'T spread it all the way to the edge of the dough. If you leave enough un-sauced space around the edge, maybe up to one-and-a-half inches, it USUALLY will "puff up" into a nice, big, chewy rounded crust edge (which makes me think that this dough would also be quite excellent for making breadsticks). I usually use about 1/4 to 1/2 cup of sauce. If you like a very crisp pizza, don't use as much sauce (You'll have to experiment.).

Canned pizza sauce from a grocery store will usually do, well enough. Or, in a pinch, you can make some by mixing some sugar and spices with a small can of tomato paste. I like to dabble in making homemade pizza sauce. It's usually MUCH better than anything from the store. But that will have to be a recipe for another webpage. I guess even spaghetti sauce would work, if you have nothing else.

To spread the sauce, I often just use the back of a large-ish spoon. But a spatula or hamburger flipper that has a perfectly-flat edge works very well, too (or almost anything with a straight edge, I suppose). AN IMPORTANT HINT: If your sauce doesn't have a spice called Fennel in it, or not enough of it, you should probably add some to your pizza. If you grind the seeds up, first, you shouldn't use nearly as much of it, then, or it will be too strong. Something like 1/2-teaspoon of the seeds, spread evenly over the sauce on the pizza, would probably good to try, the first time.


8. ADD THE TOPPINGS:

A word of caution: If the toppings end up too thick, the pizza may end up somewhat soggy, unless you practically burn the edges.

Use whatever toppings you love. Here's what I love: A fairly-dense layer of sliced fresh white mushrooms, and some type of meat (usually either fresh ground pork sausage fried with fennel and probably other Italian spices, or Canadian bacon, or pepperoni, or ham, or bacon, or a combination of some or all of those), and often some strips of green bell pepper, and, without fail, a whole LOT of onion (Sometimes I use enough diced red or white onion to almost completely cover up all the other toppings.). You almost can't ever get too much onion on a pizza. Trust me! The more you use, the better the pizza will be!

CHEESE: I *love* cheese. But if you put TOO MUCH of it on the pizza, the pizza probably won't cook well-enough and might be soggy, or not crispy enough.

ALSO, BEFORE adding the cheese, read the beginning of the "Add Spices" step, below, in case you decide that you want some or all of the spices to be UNDER the cheese.

You can use almost ANY kind of cheese for pizza, in a pinch. It's a good idea to have at least SOME cheese on top of a pizza, just so the toppings won't tend to fall off while you're trying to get the pizza to your mouth. Of course, for pizza, most people think of... *Mozzarella* cheese. And WOW, it IS great on pizza. But, Provolone is good too. Even the Colby/Monterey Jack (or Cheddar/Jack) shredded mixtures that are sold at many grocery stores are quite good on pizza. You can also experiment with different mixtures of cheeses. Many people also like some Parmesan cheese sprinkled on their pizza, too. The only one that I didn't think was totally acceptable on pizza was plain cheddar, by itself. But, "your mileage may vary".

Lately, though, I have started using, gasp(!), **SWISS** cheese. And it is *unbelievably* GREAT on pizza! It doesn't really have the swiss-cheese FLAVOR, any more, after the pizza is cooked. It tastes almost like mozzarella, to me, when it's done. BUT, it has a REALLY-wonderful extra RICHNESS-of-flavor that's better than any other cheese that I've ever tried on a pizza. (It usually also seems to make the pizza feel much more filling (and satisfying), to me). At first, I just ADDED some grated (or pre-shredded) Swiss cheese on TOP of the mozzarella. But after a while, I tried it all by itself and it was even better. Lately, Swiss is ALL I've been using. I can't seem to get enough of it. "Highly Recommended."


9. ADD THE **SPICES**:

The spices COULD be added BEFORE the toppings, or just before the cheese, if you prefer it that way. I used to al sprinkle heavy layers of garlic powder, and a layer of pre-mixed "Italian Seasoning", AND some Fennel (try about 1/2 teaspoon), onto the toppings, just before adding the cheese, and then sprinkle a layer of Oregano on top of the cheese.

When you think you're all done and ready to cook the pizza, DON'T FORGET to drizzle a couple of teaspoons of olive oil on top of the cheese. If you have a small kitchen SPRAYER, that works very well, for applying the olive oil.

DELICIOUS HINT: If you like breadsticks, and you have left a large open edge around the outside of the pizza, so it'll puff up into a big rounded edge when it bakes, sprinkle some extra garlic powder and probably some Italian Seasoning onto the un-sauced, olive-oiled edge of the crust, just before you put the pizza in the oven. Mmmmm...


10. BAKE IT!

If using a pan, I usually put it on the bottom rack of the oven. Sometimes, when the pizza is almost done, I take it off of the pan and put it directly onto the oven rack, in order to get a crispier crust on the bottom.

If using a stone, carefully but smoothly, and maybe somewhat-quickly, slide the pizza off of the peel and onto the stone. Make sure that the far edge of the pizza lands first on the far edge of the stone. Then jiggle the peel, if necessary, while pulling it out from under the pizza, trying to center the pizza on the stone.

COOKING TIME: If your oven is very hot, it may not take very long! Keep an eye on it! At 600 deg F, a half minute can make a huge difference. At 600 degrees, a pizza on a stone will usually be ready to come out within 5 to 7 minutes (but maybe less and maybe more). And on a pan, it won't take much longer. AT 425 F, on a pan, I always let a pizza that has a lot of toppings cook for at least 20 minutes, and usually at least 25 minutes, or even more. BUT, I usually like my pizza very well done, and crispy, with the cheese partially browned. [Other people often call them "burned". And, actually, sometimes the edges of mine ARE burned.]


11. DONE!

When the pizza is ready to come out of the oven, take it out the same way you put it in and then put it on a wire "rack" (without the pan or stone), so it can cool without getting soggy on the bottom. Mine usually have to cool for about 15 minutes, before I cut them. Again, "Your mileage may vary.".

If you used a pizza stone, which should still be in the oven at this point, you'll want to pretty-quickly get the cornmeal off of it. Otherwise, it will start to burn and smoke, especially if you had the oven at a high temperature. I usually use a couple of very thick potholders to pick up the stone and then dump the cornmeal into the sink (if it has a garbage disposal unit installed), perhaps brushing it off with a paper towel, if you have a helper or can manage to do it yourself without geting burned or dropping the stone. But be extremely careful with the hot stone. I usually try to make sure all of the cornmeal is off of it and then put it right back into the oven. If it contacts anything that's not hot, the thermal stress could damage the stone, not to mention whatever it touches!


12. ENJOY!


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