Thursday, February 4, 2010

In Search of Pizza Perfection

It's a thankless job, but someone has to do it :) We've been having pizza every now and then lately in order to try to really dial in our pizza recipe and technique.

The problem, of course, with making pizza at home is that your oven just doesn't get hot enough. My oven's top temp is 500 degrees F, some go up to 550, but still, that doesn't come anywhere near the temp needed to recreate the great Neapolitan/neo-Neapolitan etc. pizza's coming out of all the great artisan pizzerias with their schmancy wood fired ovens (which, seriously, as soon as we are settled in a house I know I am staying in, I will be building one). Those ovens are typically cooking pies at upwards of 800 or 900 degrees. Some have tried to replicate this by disabling the locking mechanism on their oven and cooking the pizza using the self-clean function, but I'm not willing to blow through a few ovens in this endeavor - I know, fair weather baker indeed.

So, working with what tract housing has given us, one should still be able to eat some great pizza. A large part of that is wrapped up in how one is preparing their dough. As this is all a work in progress, I will update with specifics of the dough once I feel comfortable with a recipe. The key is, sourdough and a slow, cool fermentation to bring out the flavor in the dough. This has the added bonus of making it easier to prep. You mix the dough the night before you plan to make pizza, knead it up a bit, form it into dough balls, and store in the fridge overnight. The next day, just take them out about a hour before you plan to bake (and while you preheat the oven) and you're good to go.

We've been saving some dough for the next morning and making breakfast pizzas. This one has sausage, thyme, and an egg. Just crack the raw egg onto the other toppings and cook as usual. It will firm up just enough and still have an awesome yolk run over the pie. It may sound a bit weird at first, but it's awesome.

The other key is of course toppings. Make a simple but vibrant sauce, source quality ingredients, and don't over do it. Most pizzas suffer from topping and cheese overload. Use a light hand, let the real flavors come through, you want to taste that delicious crust after all.

The main things we have been working on lately is technique. Given the 500 degree limitation, how does one get nice charring on the bottom crust, cooked pizza, and bubbling hot toppings? I've gone through few different trials and think I am honing in on it.

One important element is the pizza stone. If you want to take your pizza seriously you need a baking stone. They store crazy amounts of heat, and are porous to wick moisture out of the dough and help it crisp up. I started by just preheating the heck out of my stone and baking the pizzas on them. With a thin crust pizza this is okay. Pies take about a 8-12 minutes to bake, and they are good. Really, they're fine. If this is all you do, you beat the socks off any delivery pizza just because you've used better ingredients and it's homemade. But it doesn't really begin to reach pizza nirvana.

The next trial was to move the stone to the very top of the oven (I use a gas oven) and preheat the stone with the broiler on. This gets hotter than the regular bake function on the oven. I haven't tested the temp, but the oven says it gets up to 525. Again, preheat the heck out of the stone and slide your pizza onto the stone and let it cook. This got the time down to about 5 minutes (not too bad) but by the time the top was done and starting to dry out even, we didn't have the gorgeous charring on the bottom crust. In fact it was a bit underdone. Hmmm, not quite there yet.

The best option so far is a two part process. Heat the stone under the broiler as before for at least 30 minutes. It will cycle on and off, but will still heat up. About 10 minutes before you are ready to bake the first pie, heat a cast iron pan (I use one with no sides, like a comal, makes it easier to get on and off) on your strongest burner on your stove. Crank that flame up to high and let that bad boy get scorching hot. Turn on vents, and open windows at this time (hey, I never said the process wasn't going to be messy, but the results are worth it). While the cast iron pan heats up, prep your dough - don't make it bigger than your pan obviously - top it with your chosen sauce and toppings and then slide it onto the pan.

Come on, that looks rad, right? Look at that nice char.

This is going to give you the nice leopard-spotting on the bottom, the charring in spots that crisps up the bottom crisp and gives you that wood fired flavor. Keep an eye on it, lifting with a spatula to take a peek often. It's not going to take long, maybe 2 or 3 minutes max. If it's burning all over you can turn the heat down, or just transfer it earlier.

Once the bottom crust is looking good, transfer the pie to the preheated baking stone under the broiler. This step will finish the top side of the pizza, which really hasn't been cooked at all while on the stove. Again, this will only take a few minutes, so keep a close eye on it. Once it looks bubbling and delicious, pull it out, slide it onto a cutting board, slice it up and eat.

I use a pizza peel to transfer the pizza around and I think it makes life much easier, but you can get by with a combo of good spatula and the back of a cookie sheet if you must.

If you are looking for great pizza, I recommend giving this technique a try. I'm still fine tuning but I think we're on the right path.

Another great breakfast pizza.

We've also made some crispy, thin crust pies based on Jim Lahey's no-knead method. It is super duper easy and makes a good pizza. The crust goes together in a few hours only, no kneading and it gets spread on an oiled cookie sheet, topped and baked in a hot oven. No special techniques need. R is a fan, I think it's okay, but I prefer the more labor intensive method above. But for a quick family pizza night, it ain't bad.

This is a sausage and fennel pie, using the Lahey method.

The crust gets crispy from the oiled cookie sheet. Not too shabby, for a quick pizza fix.


Grandma said...

amazing - you didn't tell me you had the best pizzeria in the neighborhood right under my nose. thats what i want for my birthday!

Ruthie said...

That can be arranged.

Danielle said...

i want one of those breakfast pizzas when i'm there. vegetarian, bien sur. although, it'll be summertime. do you pizza in the heat?

Katia said...

Wow! You're incredible. I could almost taste the pizza via pics. Thanks for sharing your knowledge.

Grandma said...

and it is, indeed, the best pizza i have ever tasted. with the home brew (and the family) it was the best birthday feast.


Peggy said...

definitely some good lookin' pies!