How to make great pizza: from scratch, at home, without a pizza oven

17 Apr

After many requests, here it is! My essential guide to making exceptionally tasty pizza at home, from scratch, without a pizza oven.

We’ve been making pizza at home for many years, at least once a week. Pizza is obviously a popular item all over the world because it’s tasty, but making it at home is also a great way to spend time together and get people excited about midweek dinner. You won’t be able to serve 6 pizzas at once, but it will be a sharing-kinda-evening with everyone choosing their favourite toppings. My 7 year old daughter has always loved pizza, but now that she’s gotten used to my homemade version over the past few years, she’s turning her nose up at restaurant pizza (which is becoming a problem when we do eat out!).

So let’s talk pizza: this is almost a New York-style pizza with a thin crust (but not the thick outer rim), freshly made with Italian whole peeled tomatoes, grated mozzarella cheese (not fior di latte), salami and fresh basil leaves – you can leave the salami and add whatever you want. New York-style pizzas have a signature way of cooking where the tomato sauce and grated cheese integrate in the oven to form an almost “orange” top with a slight release of oil from the cheese, resulting in a look very different from the Italian (Neopolitan) classic made essentially with white blotches of fior di latte (fresh mozzarella) and a wood fired oven which results in spotty, blackened crusts.

Of course I also enjoy a proper wood fired Italian pizza made with fior di latte, but I’ve found that this semi-New York-style satisfies a much wider audience in my house.  There’s no pizza oven at my place, so I’ve learnt how to use my regular oven (a Bertazzoni La Germania Americana) with a few tips and tricks to reach incredible temperatures, straight onto a pizza stone (using a regular sheet of baking paper) without extra flour or a baking shovel. The results are just this: you’ll want more.

Here are my top 10 tips for making great pizza at your home. Once you try it, you might never order in again.

  1. Make a pizza base sauce from scratch: This is probably the biggest contributor to the flavour of your pizza. Most store-bought sauces just don’t hit the spot. If you think you can use tomato puree straight out of a can as a base sauce, you are horribly mistaken! Please don’t do it. My recipe includes no tomato puree (I find it too concentrated), but rather canned whole Italian tomatoes, pureed. Use a little more olive oil (than you think is adquate) to fry your garlic in, this way the garlic won’t burn easily. I add salt, pepper, sugar and dried origanum. My secret ingredient, smoked paprika, is optional, but adds phenomenal smokiness. Simmer and reduce the sauce for about 25-30 min over low heat, with a lid partially on so it doesn’t splatter all over your stove top. You’re looking for a hearty, bright red tomato puree that is slightly chunky.
  2. Use a good quality flour for your dough: For me there’s only one option, and that is stone ground white bread flour. Not only is it a more natural choice, but the texture result is far superior to processed and bleached commercial cake flour (there are scientific reasons for that, like the strength of the gluten etc. – I won’t go into it here). I’ve recently converted from making dough in my stand mixer to making dough in my food processor, after reading about it on Serious Eat’s Pizza Lab (a great read, by the way). It’s so much faster to make, and results in a really smooth dough that rises a little faster too.
  3. Be choosy about cheese: Not all mozzarellas are equal. Choose a good quality mozzarella and grate it coarsely, by yourself (ready-grated mozzarella are usually coated with a floury substance that prevents it from sticking together, and when that melts the result is just not the same). And don’t be tempted to use too much – it makes the pizza heavy and the base will be soggy.  If you are using fior di latte, tear it into chunks and arrange it with some space inbetween, as it will melt and “pool” to the sides. For this option, you won’t want to cover the full base, you’d still want some red spots inbetween.
  4. With toppings, less is more: This is a rookie mistake I see over and over again. A Margherita with salami, bacon, mushrooms, onion, red pepper, feta, artichokes and extra garlic WILL be a soggy mess. Choose 2 of your favourite toppings, if you must, and add it sparingly. That way, you’ll enjoy a much better end result with proper crunch. Lastly, remember to put the toppings on top of the cheese, not under (otherwise nothing gets cooked, it only gets horribly mushy).
  5. Properly preheat your oven: That means at least 30 minutes to an hour. You’ll be surprised how much it changes your game. Pizzas need exceptionally high temperatures to bake from scratch and cook through all the lovely layers. A moderate hot oven just won’t win the game.
  6. Choose the right oven setting and rack position: In my Bertazzoni La Germania Americana, I’ve found that the convection oven gets hotter quickly, but it doesn’t give enough directional heat from below – which is what you specifically want for a crispy base. The regular baking setting, using the top and bottom elements at the same time without convection, works fantastic for me. To make the most of the bottom heat, the pizza should definitely be baked on the lowest rack.
  7. Choosing between a pizza stone or a baking tray: I’ve had great results with both options, but the pizza stone still wins. I recently bought a nice cheap-ish one from Agrimark for only R220,00 (it even includes a pizza slicer!). The cool thing about the stone is that it absorbs and radiates heat, which means that it contributes to raising the heat even more with proper preheating. Remember to place it in the oven BEFORE you turn it on, otherwise it might crack (and only remove it after the stove has cooled properly). Another option is to buy untreated terracotta tiles from a tiling company – I’ve used it many times with phenomenal results. This way you can also pack them tightly together to create a larger baking area on your bottom tray for baking more than one pizza at a time – great for entertaining larger crowds. Last note about using baking trays: assemble the pizza on the BACK of the tray, that way it will slide off easier without having to go over a lip (see next point about using baking paper for sliding). These days you can also find lipless baking trays that work perfectly.
  8. You don’t need a shovel: Cooking the pizza directly on the hot pizza stone is what you’re aiming for. If you had a proper pizza oven, you’d use a shovel to get it in and out – it looks great, but it’s quite a technique to master, using just the right amount of flour/semolina underneath the fully assembled pizza to slide it onto and off again – believe me, it can be a disaster. In your kitchen, you probably won’t have the space for it anyway. So make your life easier by just using sheets of regular, non-stick baking paper (NOT wax paper). Transfer the rolled dough onto it, then assemble from there. This way, you’re left with an easily sliding device: sliding it onto a tray, onto the stone, off the stone, onto a board – you’ll easily get the hang of it. You can tug on the edges because it never really becomes too hot to touch (just be careful not to touch the actual stone or the oven). The paper will turn a little brown, but it won’t catch fire (unless you forget it in the oven…).
  9. Serve it on wood: Slice and serve the pizza immediately after cooking, on a flat wooden board. Hot pizza on regular ceramic plates turn sweaty quite quickly – not nice. Top with fresh herbs for extra flavour and texture.
  10. Condiments, anyone?: Many people love a little extra salt and freshly ground pepper on a pizza, but if your base and sauce is properly seasoned it shouldn’t even be necessary. I do like the crunch of a few salt flakes on top, so I always add that. Hot sauces like Tobasco or Sriracha are also crowd pleasers, so make a little condiment station in the middle of the table if you want to – totally optional.

Pizza base sauce recipe: (serves 6-8 – recipe can also be halved)

  • 45 ml extra virgin olive oil
  • 2 large garlic cloves, finely grated
  • 2 x regular cans whole peeled Italian tomatoes, pureed
  • 10 ml sugar
  • salt & pepper
  • 5 ml dried origanum
  • 2,5 ml smoked paprika

Heat the oil over medium heat, then fry the garlic until fragrant but not brown. Add the tomatoes, sugar, salt, pepper, origanum and paprika, stir and bring to a simmer. Cook over low heat for 25-30 minutes until almost reduced by half (keep partially covered to prevent splattering).

Pizza dough recipe: (makes 8 medium or 6 large – recipe can also be halved)

  • 600 g (4 cups) stone ground white bread flour
  • 10 g (15 ml) instant yeast
  • 2 teaspoons (10 ml) sugar
  • 1,5 teaspoons (7,5 ml) salt
  • 1,5 cups (375 ml) luke warm water
  • 15 ml extra virgin olive oil (plus extra for oiling hands and bowl)

Place the flour, yeast, sugar, salt in a food processor and pulse to mix. Add the water and olive oil and mix for 15-20 seconds or until it forms a ball. With oiled hands, remove the dough and place it in a large, lightly oiled bowl. Cover with plastic wrap and let if proof in a warm place for about 30 minutes until doubled in size.

To make your pizza:

  • flour, for rolling out dough
  • about 125 g mozzarella per medium pizza, roughly grated (about 1 kg for 8 medium pizzas)
  • toppings of your choice (optional, like sliced salami, ham, mushrooms, crumbled feta, wilted spinach, etc.)
  • fresh basil leaves (optional)
  • condiments like hot sauces (optional)
  • salt flakes & freshly ground pepper (for serving)

When you place your dough in the bowl for proofing, then is a good time to start pre-heating your oven, with shelf on bottom position (if using a pizza stone, place it on the bottom shelf before turning the oven on). When the oven is hot (more than 240 C) and the dough has doubled in size, divide the dough into 8 portions (for medium pizza). On a floured surface, roll out the dough into thin circles (about 27-28 cm for medium), then transfer to a square sheet of non-stick baking paper on the back of a baking tray or on a lipless baking tray. Use the back of a spoon to cover all over with the cooked tomato pizza base sauce (see above), then top with mozzarella and your choice of topping, used sparingly. Carefully slide directly onto the hot pizza stone (or if you don’t have a stone, just place the baking tray in the oven). Bake for 4-7 minutes until golden brown on the edges and bubbly on top. Remove by carefully tugging on the baking paper and sliding the pizza onto a tray again. Transfer to a wooden serving board and remove the baking paper. Slice, top with fresh basil and serve at once.

Find more info about my Bertazzoni La Germania Americana stove on www.chefspride.co.za.

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