My experience with homemade pizza has always been about the fun rather than the flavor. Baked as instructed in online recipes and those shared by friends, my pizza crusts came out thick, white, and with just enough flavor to be mildly repulsive. Actually, repulsive might be a little strong. Let’s just say the pizzas were okay, their saving grace being the enormous amounts of cheese piled on by helping hands.
I would have continued with my cardboard pies, intermittently favoring the quaintness of “homemade” over the practicality of “edible.” But then the bar got set high… real high. Coscino’s Pizza in Mandeville was the culprit. Their pizza is so outstanding that I was compelled to replicate it. Convinced that they had the magic crust formula, and that it was all I needed to make the perfect pizza, I asked our server for the recipe. I soon found out that they apparently do have the magic crust formula, because all their employees must sign some kind of secret-recipe-anti-disclosure form and I was not going to get it out of them.
Still determined, I started exploring some other avenues: different dough recipes, different cooking times, different toppings, etc. One of my most recent disasters went something like this. After letting the dough rise for an hour, I fought it all (two pounds worth) into a very large, shallow cookie sheet and folded the dough over the edges to keep it from springing back to the center. It was a real Schmitz job. I piled it with toppings and shoved it into the oven. It came out not too bad, but not so great. First of all it was hideous, and second, it didn’t taste like pizza. It was like a big square piece of lame bread with a bunch of half raw, half dried out stuff on it. But since it wasn’t terrible, I headed back to the kitchen to get myself another piece and… “What’s this? Is the crust still rising?” It most certainly was. As the afternoon progressed, the pizza grew taller and taller. I was barely able to comprehend, but unable to deny.
I knew I hadn’t just happened to stumble on a series of bogus dough recipes. Clearly, something else was amiss. I went to the internet and really did some research on how people cook pizza in real Italian pizzaiolos. I found that while the dough recipe itself might make the difference between an excellent and supremely excellent pizza, what you do with the dough matters so much more. I suspect that since these techniques I found work with a dough recipe that calls for beer and baking powder, they’ll work with any of your favorite recipes. You can even buy pizza dough at stores or restaurants. You don’t have to know what’s in it, just how to treat it.
Here are some basic rules for thin crust pizza:
- Decide if you’re going to want pizza tomorrow because the dough should sit in the fridge overnight. It can be stored for up to three days if you get sidetracked.
- When you portion out your dough for pizzas, you don’t need much, even for a large one. Six ounces will do it, eight if your pizza is really big (like 16 inches). If you don’t have a food scale, you can guess – make them each about the size of a tennis ball.
- One or two hours before you’re ready to make the pizza, take the dough out of the fridge, push each dough ball into a disc about 6 inches in diameter, and let sit while lightly covered on a well oiled surface. This is really important because it allows the dough to relax and will make it more cooperative when you’re throwing it.
- Yes, I said throwing it. Watch this video and then do it. It helps if you get your work surface, your hands, and the dough really well floured because it keeps it from sticking to you or to itself once it’s a giant disc.
- Get your oven as hot as possible. That probably won’t be higher than 550 but take whatever you can get.
- Pizza stones are tricky. Unless you have a pizza peel to transfer your pizza to the preheated stone and are confident that your thin crust will keep its shape during the transfer, just use a round, metal pizza pan. If you put the dough onto a cold stone and into the oven, you will be rewarded with a white cardboard pie.
- Forget the cornmeal. If you’re using a metal pizza pan, liberally oil it. Don’t waste your olive oil on this – canola is just fine. Then evenly lay out the dough onto the pan.
- Decorate simply and with the driest ingredients possible. Brown your mushrooms, wring out your spinach, slap your tomato slices, whatever you have to do get the excess water gone. I find that oil based sauces (like pestos) work the best to keep the thin crust stable because they don’t dampen the dough like tomato sauce does, but either kind will do.
- Bake it until it tells you it’s done. You’ll see and smell it. If you want exact numbers, I put my pizza in for 10 minutes on the top rack at 550, then rotate it (since the back of the oven is hotter) and cook it for another 2-3 minutes on the bottom rack.
You can cut the pizza immediately, but I like to let mine sit for a couple of minutes. It’s so molten when it comes out of the oven that it takes a cut better after it has cooled off a little.
I guess I’m only halfway done here because that wasn’t even a recipe. I’ll give you one that is not exactly traditional, but delicious and versatile. The beer makes the dough so fragrant and the flavor so deep that that you won’t be able to justify ordering pizza again unless you’ve lost the use of your arms.
a King Arthur Flour recipe
- 4 cups bread flour
- 2 teaspoons active dry yeast
- 1 teaspoon baking powder
- 1 1/2 teaspoons salt
- 2 tablespoons olive oil
- 1 1/2 cups room-temperature beer (dark ambers will be most fragrant)
- Dissolve yeast in the beer, then mix and knead together all the ingredients until you’ve made a smooth, soft dough. My preferred method is about five minutes in the stand mixer with a dough hook because it can accomplish kneading while the dough is still very moist without sticking. If you do it by hand, make sure your hands are oiled so that the dough doesn't stick to them.
- Cover the dough in an oiled bowl and allow it to rise for about an hour.
- Oil your hands and squish the dough down. Divvy it up into four or five equal sized balls. I usually make four 8-ounce balls which makes four very thin crust 14" pizzas. When you form the dough balls, rather than rolling them like clay, form a c-shape with one hand and push the dough upward through the c, kind of like you’re signing the word “grow” in sign language. Stretch the dough tight over the top of the ball and cinch it underneath. You’re trying to make the dough surface tight and tense.
- Put each ball into a plastic bag and seal, or cover each ball completely but not too tightly with plastic wrap, and refrigerate overnight.
- The next day, at least one hour before cooking time, press your dough balls into 6" discs and lightly cover with plastic. Two hours might be even better. Prep your toppings while the dough relaxes.
- When you’re ready to throw the pizza dough, oil the pan. Then drink a beer or a glass of wine. Then get some speakers in your kitchen and play “That’s Amore” by Dean Martin. I know it sounds silly but this step is really important. I can’t throw the dough without it.
- Flour your hands, the dough, and your work surface very generously. Throw the dough until it’s the size you want it. If you get a hole in it, don’t worry about it. Just patch it up.
- Put your dough and toppings onto your well oiled pan, and slide the whole affair into the hottest oven you can muster. Take it out when the crust is brown and it looks done.
- Enjoy with your favorite wine and people.