Pizza

We've been making our own pizza for years and luckily, Michelle enjoys it just as much as I do, if not more.

I make the dough and shape the skin, while Michelle creates the sauce, blends the cheeses and assembles the pizza. The baking is very much a mutual-effort.

During my childhood, I lived right near an Italian pizzeria on Long Island, NY. The vivid memory of those slices and pizza pies are the benchmark for what I am always trying to achieve at home: a thin and chewy crust that can be folded without tearing, with great sauce and stretchy, chewy mozzarella cheese.

I want a pizza where you're always thinking of the next bite...

I have experimented with more pizza dough recipes than I can possibly remember. Trust me, I am no expert here, but we do have plenty of fun doing this. At a small family get-together, I received the highest compliment when I was told I had made it just like my Italian grandfather.

14" NY Style Tom Lehmann Pizza:

2 cups Flour (AP or Bread)  (263 grams)

3/4 cup Water (166 grams)

3/4 teaspoon Salt (4 grams)

3/4 teaspoon Sugar (4 grams) (optional)

1/2 teaspoon Olive oil (2.5 grams)

1/2 teaspoon Instant Dry yeast (IDY) (1.3 grams)

With a few exceptions, I no longer measure my ingredients. I weigh them in grams using a digital scale. That's because measurements are just far too inaccurate, this is especially important when you are trying to fine-tune a particular recipe.

Just measure out 5 individual cups of flour and weigh them. Each will have a different weight, but 100 grams of flour will always be 100 grams of flour. No more, no less.

I have also become a big advocate in using the baker's percentage.

A baker's percentage is how a recipe actually breaks down, based on the weight of the different ingredients. It's the secret code to a dough recipe, and anyone can use this information to tweak their dough any way they want. Here's what I mean...

Flour is the primary ingredient in a dough recipe. So percentage wise, it is always 100%. All other ingredients are divided by the flour to give their individual percentage.

The above recipe used 263 grams of flour and 166 grams of water. Divide the water (166) by the flour (263) and that's 0.63, or a 63% hydration level.

At 63%, the dough won't really stick to our hands and it will be easy to work with. The baked crust will have a nice chew and still be a tad moist in the rim.

If we use less water, we lower the hydration (some recipes go down to 50%), resulting in the baked crust becoming much drier and crunchier. Going over 63% will give a harder shell to the crust, while the inside remains nice and chewy.

By using baker's percentages and adjusting the amount of water used, we can modify any pizza dough to our own individual liking. Pretty neat, huh?

At 1.3 grams, the yeast is 0.49%. That's good for making a same-day dough and giving it a room temperature rise, but if I'm going to refrigerate a dough (I find 48-72 hours is the sweet-spot), I will lower the yeast percentage to 0.2% or 0.25%.

Any recipe can be converted to a bakers percentage. 

If a recipe is provided in measurements, weigh the individual ingredients (do an average of 3) and simply do the math to see how each ingredient matches up against the flour.

Here is how one of my own 14" recipes breaks down... 

Bread Flour (86%): 207.57  g

Semolina Flour (14%): 33.79  g

Water (63%): 152.06  g

IDY (0.2%): 0.48 g

Salt (2%): 4.83 g

The flour, still at 100%, is divided between bread flour (at 86%) and semolina flour (at 14%). I've tried several different ratios for the semolina, and 14-15% tastes the best to us. 

I like the idea of making the old-style artisan Italian pizza pies, so many recipes do not include any oil or sugar - just flour(s), water, salt and yeast. Some recipes may include some form of preferment (sponge, biga, poolish or starter).

I certainly didn't start off weighing my ingredients, using baker's percentages and preferments like some mad scientist down in a basement laboratory with fluttering bats. I was simply tired of getting inconsistent results when making my dough and I wanted to improve my overall pizza making experience.

A quick search lead me to the folks at pizzamaking.com  and that's when things really changed. I did a LOT of reading, kept a LOT of notes and spent the next 6 months getting a crash-course on the subject by people who actually knew what they were talking about. Among them, was the late Tom Lehmann.

I quickly realized I was doing a great many things wrong, and the first change came about when I decided to start weighing my ingredients.

I was rather reluctant at first, but about a year later I figure I'd look into what this baker's percentages talk was all about. When I started doing the math on a few recipes, that's when things really took off.

The Tom Lehmann NY Style recipe was truly the first pizza recipe I came across that produced something which reminded me of my childhood.

I initially followed Tom's recipe using measurements, but when I decided to start experimenting and using bakers percentages, his recipe was (and still remains) my control.

Now, let's talk about ingredients...

First, they are at room temperature. I use King Arthur All-Purpose flour, Bread Flour or their High-Gluten flour because it's so readily available in our region. Some people even go the extra-step and sift their flour.

For greater chew and flavor, I may include Semolina pasta flour in my dough, something which harkens back to one of the first bread machine pizza dough recipes we followed. I have received rave reviews any time I served pizza where semolina flour was included.

For a few recipes, I also use the ultra-fine Italian 00 flour. This flour is evenly matched with AP or Bread flour BY WEIGHT (50/50) because on its own, 00 flour does not bake well in a regular consumer oven. It needs high heat, well in excess of 800°F.

Use filtered or bottled water.

110°F to bloom Active Dry Yeast (ADY),  90°F (or so) for instant dry yeast (IDY). Whatever delivers a finished dough temperature in the 80-85°F range (use a digital temperature probe).

As for the yeast, IDY is my go-to, but I still use ADY from time to time.

I prefer using fine sea salt. Salt is added not so much for taste, but to keep the yeast in check. I generally keep salt in the 2-2.5% range, otherwise I begin to taste the salt in the crust.

Some people add regular olive oil (1-2%) and/or sugar or diastatic malt (1-2%) to help in the baking of the pizza in a consumer oven. DON'T USE DIASTATIC MALT IN A HIGH-HEAT OVEN!

Mixing and kneading can be done either by hand, using a stand mixer, a food processor, a bread machine or a whole slew of other available mixers.

I made great use of our KitchenAid for years, then upgraded to an Ankarsrum spiral mixer which I just totally love. For dough making that's nice and fast (30-45 seconds), I will employ a food processor.

Setting a mixer for "10 minutes @ Speed 2 for kneading" will deliver a good enough pizza, but it can be better. I start by adding the water first, and find that mixing low and slow, while gradually adding each ingredient until it fully incorporates into the dough mixture, will deliver a far superior pizza in the end.

Our objective should be to get a dough that feels good - allowing us to pull and stretch the raw dough, without it leaving any sticky-residue on our fingers. It's a feeling that comes through practice and experience. When hand-mixing a dough, this is easy to identify, but if we are using a machine, we need to pay attention to our dough at all times as it slowly develops. TIP: If using a KitchenAid, stop the machine every few minutes to scrape the hook down.

By far, the biggest secret to a great pizza: Autolyse

There are 2 methods...

The first is the original, mix together JUST the water and 75% of the flour until no raw flour remains. Give it a 20 minute covered rest.

The second method is to combine ALL of the ingredients (but only 75% of the flour), give it a 20 minute rest.

With the Ankarsrum, I am currently following the original method while only using a 10 minute autolyse.

Once the autolyse is over, I add each remaining ingredient incrementally, allowing each to incorporate fully before adding in another, before finally... gradually... adding in the flour a little at a time until I reach a completed dough.

I now need to knead, which I also do at a very low speed.

Dough can then be risen at room-temperature (warm fermentation) or in a refrigerator (cold-fermentation).

The early pizza makers in New York made the dough and let it rise at room temperature before baking. When refrigeration came on the scene decades later, most pizzerias gave their dough a cold 24 to 28 hour rise.

I prefer 48 to 72 hours. After 72 hours, there begins a loss in chewiness and foldability to the final pizza, but it really gains in flavor. I've known people to generally do a 5-day cold fermentation and I personally have gone as long as 11 days with delicious results.

The thing is, the yeast percentage must be reduced, say to 0.17%, if going beyond a 72 hour cold fermentation. Otherwise, the refrigerated dough will get blown out and you'll end up with a great big gas bubble right in the middle of your beautiful dough (that was my 11 day dough).

When placed on the counter for a room-temperature fermentation, the dough is in a sealed plastic or glass container. When going in the refrigerator, I leave the cover slightly askew to allow for ventilation. I give it a good 90 minutes to acclimate to the cold temperature before sealing it completely. This way I don't trap condensation in the container as my warm dough cools down.

When baking in a home oven, I will place inside a cold oven either a baking steel (6" from the broiler) or a baking stone (lowest rack), then preheat at the highest temperature for 1 hour.

I usually give a cold dough a 30-60 minute room-temperature acclimation period. So I'll take the dough out of the refrigerator to coincide with the conclusion of the preheat cycle.

When it comes to dressing a pizza, Michelle starts with the sauce first, spreading it to within 1" of the edge (rim). Don't worry about bare spots. (Some do cheese first, then the sauce.)

When making your sauce, it's generally advisable by many to not cook it on the stove because it will be cooked again when the pizza is baked. Just mix it up cold and refrigerate for 24 hours minimum so the sauce ingredients can fully blend. Once the sauce is spread on the pizza skin, sprinkle some sugar on top to cut down on acidity. Michelle also adds a touch of salt to balance the sugar.

Veggie and meat toppings go next.

Cheese is added in the shape of a donut, starting from within 1-2" of the rim and stopping short of the center. Leave the middle devoid of cheese!

When the pizza bakes, as the cheese melts and the sauce heats up, they will both gravitate towards the center. If you already have sauce and cheese in the middle, it will just collect in one big pool and your baked pizza may suffer.

Please, do not use pre-shredded mozzarella cheese. That stuff is coated with corn starch to prevent it from clumping together in the bag and unfortunately, the corn starch prevents the cheese from melting properly.

We use a dry block of whole-milk mozzarella, some freshly-ground Parmesan (NEVER the container stuff) and Monterey Jack for our (current) cheese blend.

Finally, it is topped off with a pizza seasoning.

Baking is the Achilles's heel for the home pizza maker...

A high-temperature oven is the best way to go, but not everyone has access to one. The typical home oven only goes up to 550° F (if we're lucky), while the old pizzerias would use coal-fired ovens, reaching in excess of 900° F. 

Various pizza ovens are available, using either gas (Blackstone Pizza Oven), wood or wood-pellets for fuel (Ooni). There is also an attachment to turn a Weber charcoal grill into a pizza oven.

We employ a pizza peel to get the dressed pizza on the stone/steel and bake away. Some people, like myself, will even employ the use of an aluminum pizza screen.

In my opinion, people remove their pizza from the oven far too early. They see a little browning and think it's done, it's not. You want the char which only comes from a truly well-baked pizza, because that's when the taste of the crust will truly come alive.

The pizza you make is whatever you want for it to be, it doesn't need to be fancy. Michelle and I still make english muffin pizzas from time to time and that's perfectly fine with us, the same with French bread pizza. The thing is to make the pizza your own and have fun doing it.

Happy Baking!

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