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November 29, 2010

The Secret to Perfect Pizza

With new pizzerias introducing styles of pizza that are relatively new to Richmond, the quality of the pizzas that we make in our own kitchens should be skyrocketing from all of the inspiration. Anyone who’s been to Bellytimber is probably not about to bring home a Boboli to dress up for dinner. If you’ve had Aziza’s snappy thin crust, then a spongy pan pie will probably feel like a brick in your belly by the second slice. Making the pizza rounds in Richmond can be an exciting roller coaster, with new spots like Belmont Pizzeria and Fresca on Addison joining in and keeping it interesting. But for many of us, the real taste adventure begins at home, when we try yours hand as amateur pizzaiolos. This entry will hopefully start a compilation of shortcuts and best practices to help you (and me) make better pizza – for dinner and for fun.

Saucey and cheesy with melt-in-your-mouth dough.

Back in June, amidst all of the hype over woodfired ovens (a favorite flavor generator of mine), I weaseled my way into an invite to the Pizza Club gathering that had been meeting for most of the year. Victoria and Joe’s communal food party had just landed in Richmond Magazine, and the guest list was starting to get unwieldy for a Richmond row house. All the same, I really wanted to see what I could learn about making pizza from the folks calling themselves the Pizza Club, so I stopped by, totally unprepared (no pizza toppings or wine to contribute – just my cute toddler as a foil for my sleuthing).

White pizza with spinach.

Once I got past the Pizza Club’s secret knock, I made a bee-line for the backyard to check out this alter of fire that had monthly magnetized people to this Museum district house. What I found was a surprisingly small adobe igloo-looking thing (more or less like this one), and Joe babysitting the fire and the discs of dough as he shuffled the before and afters to and fro.  It was puzzling at first. There were more questions here than answers. The clay hut seemed like it could barely hold a 12″ pie with burning embers relegated to the edges of the mini-dome.  But, Joe made the most of the tools he had, and he’d clearly had opportunity to learn through trial and error ( he was steward to about 40 pizzas at each Pizza Club gathering).

Flame kissed at Pizza Club.

One thing Joe did was to rotate the pizza to lightly char it all the way around (after the bottom had started to sear and it had released from the hot firebrick).  At home, on a pizza stone, we can rotate the pizza too. Under a broiler, if you choose that tactic, you better be ready to move or remove the pizza, strategically. As a last step, Joe scooped each pizza and lifted it up to the apex of the dome, exposing it to convection where the real high temps gather.  So, maybe the upper part of your home oven is the place to bake the perfect ‘za, but I quickly learned that the battle for pizza perfection is only partly about woodfire vs gas/electric, and mostly won or lost before the ingredients are shoved into an oven. No offense, Joe.

In the kitchen, Victoria has dozens of dough balls prepared ahead of time. She uses Italian double-zero flour, but would condone good quality bread flour, if buying ingredients at your average grocery store.  She stretches them out thin on a floured pizza peel, maybe a little olive oil at the edges,  and then she paints a thin layer of homemade sauce before adding toppings.  And away the pizza goes to Joe (and probably a cold beer for his trouble). When it comes back, it’s light, crisp in some spots, chewy in others, and the toppings just sing. So, did you catch the magic trick in there? Me neither. Maybe we need a slow motion demonstration.

A pizza packet from Pizza Tonight.

Fast forward a couple months and Victoria has announced a new endeavor called Pizza Tonight, an outgrowth of her pizza parties.  That heavenly dough and zippy red sauce are now available for purchase (along with several other accoutrement).  And it’s not just to keep her growing network of pizza fan friends from invading her house (the Club still meets).  She sells pizza-making packets to anyone in the Richmond area who wants to get a head start on a great homemade meal through Facebook and Fall Line Co-op (and starting December at Nates Taco Truck Stop at 315 N. Second Street and next year probably at two farmers markets).  As  someone who loves to taste and talk about dough and sauce, I might like to try buying all of Richmond’s varieties of each while making my own versions for comparison, but I don’t think you can really do much better than the components that Victoria assembles for sale.  As soon as I heard about Pizza Tonight, I jumped at the offer and begged Victoria to make a pizza with me so I could pick her brain for pizza pointers.  And to my surprise, she came over.

In my kitchen, I asked Victoria to take charge so I could jut soak up the technique.  But, beforehand, I had already interfered.  I have a pizza stone and a somewhat obscure trick for getting the pizza onto the stone – sliding wet dough off of the peel being a real stumbling block for most home cooks.  Victoria’s solution: parchment paper.  Little need to flour the surface, so the pizza isn’t powdery on the bottom.  Even heating, top and bottom. No mess.  I was skeptical, but as many times as I’ve tried it since, I’ve been impressed every time.  Still, stubborn as I am, we went with my method, at least for entertainment purposes, as you will see (further down).

Victoria put the dough on the work surface in a relatively flat circle and let it rest . The 10-20 minutes of downtime lets the dough’s gluten fibers relax for easier stretching. She picked it up on the backs of her hands and the dough just draped over her slightly bent fingers, gravity doing most of the work.  The center was thin and the edges were left with some pudge for a bubbly, chewy cornicione.   Awe heck, let’s just let her show you how it’s done:

We both agreed that a perfect circle isn’t as high a priority as avoiding over-handling the dough.  For those craving a perfect loop, make the pizza on the cutting board, carry it to the oven, then back to the cutting board, and there’s your circle. (she has more dough handling tips here)

Toppings went on lightly. This is important for pizza purists who want to show off their crust, which is generally considered by far the most important element of a pizza.  But, if you’ve got a bunch of heavy toppings that will go great together, and the wine demands it too, then maybe a little thicker crust is in order to keep the pie proportionate. Personally, I’m partial to NY Style: thin everything, but big on flavor and texture.  I know I promised the secret to a perfect pizza, but since there are so many palates to satisfy and processes that you may need to adapt, perfection is going to be subjective.  Luckily, the choose your own adventure approach makes for even more secrets.

For Victoria, the perfect pizza is one that’s fun to make and involves the whole family. She and Joe have a 15 and an 18 year old, so making pizzas that everyone enjoys means being flexible and not taking it too seriously.  If it makes you happy, it’s good.  If it makes teenagers happy, it’s perfect.  That’s right, pizza is subject to its environment. But, that doesn’t mean that Victoria isn’t dead serious about accumulating every iota of pizza-making wisdom that there is.  Shortly after we found out that we both shared a major inspiration in Peter Reinhart’s American Pie: My Search for the Perfect Pizza, Victoria had signed up to attend one of Reinhart’s baking seminars in Colorado.  If that’s not going straight to the source, she made a trip to Italy not long before, sampling the pizzas of Naples among other Italian destinations.  After all, there’s a big demand for culinary authenticity these days.

All of this happened in the few months since she was over at my house!  I imagine by now, she’s probably got that glow when she touches the dough (you know, like in The Last Dragon when Bruce Leroy fights the Shogun of Harlem).  So, besides practice, passion is one of the secrets to perfect pizza. Personally, I just hope some rubs off on me when I pick up my pizza packet. And maybe with enough prodding, she’ll show up here, answer questions, and take part in a discussion in the comments section.

So, I guess I should include my own preliminary conclusion that the quest for pizza perfection is relative to the pizzaiolo.  Peter Reinhart went to absurd lengths to figure out what elements make up the best pizza and then maps out instructions on how to make your own in his book.  Victoria has followed in his footsteps (foodsteps?) to a degree while also investing in a woodfired oven and convening enormous informal focus groups in her own home.  And I’ve bought dough from everybody who will sell it to me in Richmond and conducted some crazy pizza stone experiments in my kitchen.  So, whoever you are, it’s a process. Euphemistically, perfection is about the journey, not he destination.

Here’s a funny anecdote to kick off my short list of best practices. I asked Victoria to demonstrate proper dough handling for me and she asked where she’d be placing the dough for saucing and topping? I pointed to the butcher block and said no pizza peel or parchment would be necessary. Her eyes widened. Crazy talk. How are we going to transfer it? Magic!  Just wait. She clearly viewed my plan as a recipe for disaster, a waste of dough, and sauce, and cheese, and time. She didn’t say, “your funeral dude,” but it was evident as she floured the work surface liberally so the dough wouldn’t stick.  After adding sauce and cheese, we just had to get the thin, raw, wet, delicate creation into the oven in the same shape as we’d made it.So, how would we scoop it and slide it?  Impossible, right?

Introducing the Super Peel.  After my amateur pizza-making was almost shelved by nightly nervous breakdowns as the pie refused to slide off of my pizza peel, my wife got me one of these as a present. I’d compared every alternative I’d seen online, but couldn’t swallow the price tag on a gadget that seemed too good to be true. Luckily, Karen made the decision that I wasn’t able to.  Now, I get all giddy every time I pick up raw dough and place it in the oven without my blood pressure going up in the slightest. For many of you, this could be the secret to pizza sanity, if not perfection. Keep in mind that parchment paper accomplishes a similar result, as you can put it on the oven grates or on the pizza stone with the help of a rimless cookie sheet.
Here are a few of my suggestions for making better pizza at home.

Nothing but the oven grate under the parchment. And yes, it turns brown, but don't eat it.

Bake close to the broiler, in case you want to brown the crust. However, the toppings may burn before your crust gets to where you want it.  Maybe broil before adding the cheese. And if you’ve got a convection fan, give it a whirl. They’re supposed to accelerate cooking and even out the temperatures throughout the oven (probably won’t work with the broiler).

Turn off the TV and watch your pizza baking. If the heat is high enough, it could burn before you know it. Also, you’ll want to give it a turn to make sure it cooks evenly and that the crust is getting crispy.

When the pizza comes out, take a picture. I’m not suggesting you blog it, or keep a journal. But, unless you have a photographic memory, it’s hard to remember what went right or wrong with past pizza-making experiences. A picture might jog your memory.

Pizza has a handle on the end. It’s intuitive enough even for a toddler to eat (unless the cheese got burnt by the broiler).  At age 2.5, Jasper wants to be involved in pizza-making, and unlike most everything else we serve him, he’ll actually eat it.  This tip is just about being social, relaxing, and let the family/friends/neighbors in on the fun.  Bad pizza is better than no pizza. And was the pizza really perfect if no one was there to share it?

Peek at the underside of your pie.  Remember what your perfect crust looks and feels like.  This one was done on a stone, still had some flour stuck on it, and it was rigidly snappy, just the way I like it.

The cooling racks ain’t just for cookies.

Let the pizza cool a bit before cutting it. More importantly, don’t let it sit on a cutting board immediately out of the oven.  The crust is likely to steam and go limp (see Stuzzi’s nastiness) under the hot sauce without some air circulating underneath. Here I used a cooling rack, but if you don’t have one, just put the pie on the grates of your gas range for a few minutes. Besides, burning your mouth does not pay homage to the pizza.

Here’s a peek underneath a parchment paper baked pie. Notice how thin I got it and how little flour residue there is. Bonus!


This pizza isn’t pretty.  And what’s that black stuff? (it was caramelized onions)  The important thing is that it tasted great. And I was really glad to make use of the tail end of a zucchini that needed to get used. Pizza is convenient like that. Whatever you got could be a topping.  If it goes terribly awry, hit it with Sriracha and wash it down with a beer.  Or maybe the dog deserves a treat (no onions for the dog, please).

Cast-iron broiler pizza.

This might be the best way to approximate the woodstove effect at home.  You leave a cast iron pan in the oven until it’s screaming hot. Have dough, sauce and cheese ready. With a thick pot-holder, pull the pan out, drop the dough in it (there will be goofs here – notice the folded over crust on the left side of this one). While the dough is hissing and recoiling from the pan, sauce it quickly.  If possible, use a fresh tomato sauce or use crushed San Marzano toms with garlic and herbs.  Put it under a high broiler. Within a minute or two, the crust will be golden or dark brown in spots and the sauce will reduce a bit (ideal for the water in those unadulterated crushed toms),  Pull it out and throw your cheese/meat/veg on top and put it back under the broiler 1/4 turned to make sure it cooks evenly.  Pull it out when it looks perfect. Let the pan cool for a couple minutes before sliding the pizza out (again, potholders). The dough edges should be fantastically crackling and poofy.  Don’t do this drunk.

don't stare. go make one yourself!

Forget the sauce. Pizza is all about the crust. (just brush on some olive oil) Sometimes the sauce undermines the flat bread with its wetness anyhow. If you’ve got that part down pat, then just show off some toppings. This pizza has goat cheese, vegan chorizo, fresh corn, chives and avocado (added after baking).*

That’s all I’ve got to share for now. Hope you enjoyed my encounter with Victoria, the Pizza Club, and Pizza Tonight. If you absolutely must have more pizza porn pics, search for “pizza” on my blog or better yet, go here.

*actually, there was a really thin layer of red sauce, but you get the point, and it’d have been good without it.

38 Responses to “The Secret to Perfect Pizza”

  1. Bonoca says:

    Jason,

    Great tutorial…I’ve got a pizza stone that I’ve never used and this has inspired me to get cracking!

    BTW, is it safe to bake pizza on parchment paper in a hot oven? Just didn’t know if any “chemicals” on the parchment possibly leach into the food?

    • jasonguard says:

      My pizza stone lives in my oven. I never take it out. So, when I heat the oven up high, the air in my house has a slightly minerally smell that goes away quick. Parchment paper, however, isn’t so durable. If you leave it in there long enough, it will turn to carbon. But then again, so will your pizza. As for chemicals, parchment is food grade. No worries there. But, if you’re really concerned, skip the parchment (cuz it’s totally cheating ;o) and contend with the peel-sliding conundrum. Now, with that provocation, maybe Victoria will jump in with her two cents.

  2. Sal says:

    Wow, you were able to weasel your way into Pizza Club. How much free pizza did you mooch?

    • jasonguard says:

      Sal- Have you not been yet? There’s a non-disclosure agreement about the gluttony that takes place at Pizza Club. But, suffice it to say, I haven’t been back. It could be that my pizza mania is just dialed up inappropriately high for such a casual event. Fortunately, I got to purge some of those demons here.

  3. Victoria says:

    Here I am weighing in on parchment. I use it because, well, it’s easy plain and simple. I think sometimes people feel that I can’t make pizza at home because I don’t have… a peel, a pizza stone, a pizza cutter various assorted things that we’ve all been told we need. But really all we really need is the idea to make pizza and an oven.

    When we want to make a pizza quickly we crank it up to 500 degrees and then use the parchment technique. There is no waiting for the pizza stone to heat up and it is less likely to get that condensation under the pie if the stone is not heated through.

    Also it’s a great way for a home baker to get crispy results right off the bat. Also it solves the problem of “the transfer” into the oven, when if you don’t have enough flour under your pie you might have a mishap. I’ve never found that the parchment imparts any sort of taste although I have found that the edges of the parchment will get dark brown and frail if you use it more than once. My kids love it because there is no clean up, just toss the parchment into the recycle box.

  4. liz says:

    I have been using a silpat on a baking sheet when I bake Victoria’s dough. Seems to be working just fine! Victoria produces a primo product!

    • jasonguard says:

      I’ve never thought to use a Silpat with pizza. I’m skeptical, but if it acts like reuseable parchment, then I’m for it. The baking sheet, however, is probably preventing heat from getting to the underside of your pizza. Plus, the metal has to warm up. A pizza stone may not be for everybody, but I think the only other way to go is Victoria’s parchment approach.

    • Cail says:

      I just used a Silpat tonight, Liz. It is truly a testament to Victoria’s product that I was able to roll it out wrong, overknead it, use ricotta salata instead of mozzarella, etc.*…and STILL have my pizza turn out deliciously.

      *I was REALLY hungry.

  5. Stephen says:

    So, I agree the perfect pie is in the dough, this is why I’ve studied dough technique to get it just so (as often as possible). Are you exploring dough-making technique next? I’m thinking an impromptu, knock-off pizza club is in order. I’ll bring flour (i keep at least 100lbs at the house at any given time).

    • Bonoca says:

      Stephen, You have me curious…why would you keep 100# of flour at home? And how do you store such a large amount? Right now I have 15# in the fridge but only cuz the holidays are looming and lots of baking to do.

    • jasonguard says:

      I have to admit that I’ve only ever made one pizza dough consistently and that’s Peter Reinhart’s Napolitana style dough (using bread flour). It’s super easy, but it’s not really ready to bake until the next day or so, and I’m just not that good at planning ahead. Hence, why I’m advocating Victoria’s dough as a real problem solver (and hers is just plain better than mine – probably the double zero flour). But, yes. Let’s make dough. I have a new oven. New and old friends are welcome over.

  6. Eugenio says:

    The best of homemade pizza is letting the kids make as much as possible, the dough, the sauce, the toppings, great fun.

    • jasonguard says:

      I just got a book called Gastrokids that’s supposed to help foodies indoctrinate – I mean share their affinity for food adventurousness with their kids. There are several pizzas and they advocate an oblong somewhat rectangular shape that you divide up into sections for different toppings. That way, you can have a kiddie section that’s got a clear separation from the “yucky” parent part. And it’s easier to let the kids decorate their part (and it’s easier for you to start migrating some of your veggies over into the kiddie part of the pie). Gonna start doing this. Sounds like fun.

      • Victoria says:

        Eugenio/Jason I love your idea of getting the kids involved with making pizzas. That is part of what I am trying to promote with making these pizzas at home. Getting the kids into the fun of preparing their own food. When I saw how much fun people had making pizzas at pizza club every month it was only a small jump to getting the idea for my business going. Pizza is fun to make and is generally loved by both kids and adults. My son just recently turned 15 and had a pizza making party here at our house, he had about 20 friends over and the kids really enjoyed participating in making their food. Getting kids involve in cooking early is a great habit to promote and a healthy one. Once your kids know how good food can taste they will be less inclined to buy/eat all that over processed stuff that passes as food now.

  7. Stephanie says:

    Great post, Jason! I love our little local pizza scene, but Victoria’s ‘Pizza Tonight’ is, by far, the best. Plus, her white sauce and antipasti (especially the red onion confit) are AMAZING!

    • jasonguard says:

      I need to try her white sauce. Victoria was still perfecting that when we made pizzas together. And the red onion confit is delicious. We put it on everything, except for pizza.

      • kristelpoole says:

        White sauce! White sauce! White sauce!

        My favorite! Last time, I made mine with Nufchatel, white truffle oil, herbs and spices and cream. Or something like that. I have never looked up a recipe but I probably should.

  8. jasonguard says:

    In each pizza packet that Victoria sells, you get something she calls “magic sprinkles.” Basically, no pizza is complete without some of these herbs and spices scattered on top (right Victoria?). I put too much on mine when she was at my house and she warned me that I’d over done it. Yup. There’s crushed red pepper in that magic mix. It’s not kids’ stuff. Anyone out there swear by it? Hate it? I know that local NY style pizza connoisseur, Mariane Matera, demands green speckles on any pie if she’s going to praise it. Maybe she needs to pick up some magic sprinkles.

    • kristelpoole says:

      I put red pepper and spice spreckles on every pizza. It’s a must. Sometimes, if I sense an overly wet pizza, I’ll bake the crust for a few minutes first before adding toppings. If I do that, I’ll brush with olive oil, herbs and spices and it imparts an awesome flavor right into the pizza, not just the cheese.

  9. jasonguard says:

    For me the “secret” to perfect pizza is (aside from Pizza Tonight pizza packets)… the SuperPeel! Part pizza peel, part conveyor belt, made of canvas. I love it. I wanna take it to parties and do tricks and win bets with it. Okay, maybe that’s a little overstated. What did you all think of it?

  10. Eugenio says:

    The superpeel is very cool, same idea as the back saver for your pickup.

  11. jasonguard says:

    I just read the best pizza-making article in the Feb 2011 issue of Cooks Illustrated, “Foolproof Thin-Crust Pizza.” The author, Andrew Janigian, really captures the obsession of perfecting your homemade pizza, the painstaking process of trying to get it right, and he goes into food chemistry that’s over my head. Luckily, it includes the recipe for their best thin crust, best sauce, and type of cheese. Can’t wait to try it out.

  12. veron says:

    I tried pizza tonight’s dough today and I ended up with plastic pizza. Did I overwork the dough, or stretch it too thin? I

    • jasonguard says:

      I’m sure Victoria has your answer, but for me, working or kneading Pizza Tonight dough is kept to a bare minimum. Stretching, yes, but it’s so light that I go real easy and gentle. Also, really high heat preserved the moisture and chewiness. I mean, I have day-dreams about that dough and plastic is never a descriptor that comes to mind. Redo?

      • Victoria says:

        Hi Veron- sorry to hear about your dough experience. I think Jason is right the less you work the dough the lighter it is. For best results I’ve found that bringing the dough to room temperature helps, using a good amount of flour right from the start also helps in the handling of the wetter dough. Gently stretching or hanging it over your knuckles is a good way to go. I don’t recommend using a rolling pin or kneading it because it makes the dough toughen. I hope that you give the dough another try and get a better result. I appreciate your input.I’m excited to look through your amazing website and would love to purchase some of your macarons. Do you sell to any local outlets?

        • veron says:

          Thanks Jason, Victoria! I have 3 more balls in the fridge and I’m not about to give up. I never kneaded it or used a rolling pin, but I must have overworked it somehow. I think I like it a bit smaller too than what I made it since I do not want it too thin. I’ll keep you all posted!
          If I use a pizza stone do I set the temp still at 500F?

          I do not sell my macarons at any local outlets yet…but maybe this year. :)

          • Victoria says:

            Vernon so glad to hear that you’ll give the dough another try. I’ve found the hotter the oven/stone the better. Let me know if you are looking for any local outlets for your goods- I’ve found the online csa’s to be a pretty great way to get product out. I’m currently using Fall Line Farms and Relay foods.

            Cheers!

  13. veron says:

    Victoria
    I’ve tried the pizza dough 2 more times and am happy to report we’ve figured out what works for us. The less I work with it the better. I made one for lunch, and hubby made one for dinner. 500F with the pizza stone is perfect and takes approximately 9 minutes. I’ve been looking through this post but couldn’t find my answer but how long will the dough keep for optimal use?
    oh…I occasionally have macaron stock on relay foods but not for January as I’m off playing. :)
    We’ll definitely be buying more dough balls, the pizza is so rewarding with so little work.

    Thanks!
    Veron

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