Great Pizza From Scratch

If you want to learn how to make a really good and simple pizza at home, I suggest this recipe from the website of Laura Vitale.

Laura's family operate several pizzerias in New Jersey, so she will expertly show you how to go from raw ingredients to a baked pizza in a little over 2 hours.

Watch her video and pay very close attention to how Laura handles the dough when shaping it into a round pizza shell. Those are well-practiced hands, my friend.

Laura's recipe is easy and accessible to pretty much anyone with a stand mixer and a regular oven. We have made this same recipe many times with very satisfactory results, so I have no problem recommending it to people.

However, this recipe is for a quick, one-rise, room-temperature dough. In fact, yeast-doughs should have a second rising time, anywhere from 15 minutes to 1 hour, to develop its gluten potential.

The sad reality is that people simply don't have access to the same ingredients, mixers and high-heat ovens (600-1000°F) that the professionals do.

So right from the very beginning, we are at a disadvantage but there are several tricks we can employ that will help us to even the odds.

In fact, the average pizzeria simply can't do some of these extra steps because of the fast-paced nature of the business. When armed with such information, we can make a pizza that is just simply better than what we get at any big-franchise location.

What I provide here is the result of my own research and personal pizza experiences, along with the simply massive education I received from the kind folks in the forum of PizzaMaking.com.

This website is where the professionals reside, the ones who currently run their own pizzeria or have in the past, along with people in the food industry and serious pizza makers worldwide. It may take a while to get up to speed on their lingo (their Pizza Glossary is a must-read) but once you do, that's our lightbulb moment.

I quickly discovered my mistakes, namely that I needed to stop measuring my ingredients and start weighing them in grams.

Measuring flour is simply NOT accurate. Laura's recipe calls for 3 ½ cups of flour. One website states that 1 cup of flour equals 120 grams. While others run anywhere from 125  grams to 145 grams! I did 5 different tests myself using the standard scoop-and-sweep method and got: 132, 139, 133, 141 and 136 grams.

This inconsistency means we could make the same exact recipe every single week, but it would be different every single time because by measuring the flour, we are always getting an inaccurate result.

But when you weigh 100 grams of flour, you always have 100 grams and if there's one thing we need in our recipes, it's consistency. This way we know what is going right and if something went wrong, how to correct it for next time.

I also learned about something called the baker's percentage, which is the secret code for how a yeast-dough recipe breaks down.

Here is a recipe for a 14" round NY style pizza: 

Bread Flour: 253.36 grams

Water: 157.09 grams

Instant Dry Yeast: 0.32 grams

Fine Sea Salt: 6.33 grams


With baker's percentage, the Flour is always 100%. All the other ingredients are divided by the flour's total weight.

Here, the water is 157.09 grams. When divided by the flour weight of 253.36 g, we get 0.62, which is a very nice 62% hydration (water-to-flour ratio). 

Accordingly, when divided by the flour, the Instant Dry Yeast is 0.128% and the salt is 2.5%.

Now, let's see why this matters so much...


INGREDIENTS

Most of the time, I am using only one main flour (AP, Bread or High-Gluten), but sometimes I also use a little Semolina pasta flour because it significantly adds to the baked crust in both taste and texture. Currently, I like a 75% main flour and 25% Semolina flour blend.

AP is a good overall flour to use. Bread flour gives more of a chew to the baked-crust, while High-Gluten flour takes this chew factor up an extra notch (it's also perfect for baking in a high-heat oven). Semolina flour is a pasta flour, that takes the taste and chew factor of a baked pizza crust to a whole other level.

Pick a good flour to use (in my region, King Arthur Flour is commonplace) and stay with it so you get a good education on how it handles from one dough to the next.

Let's talk about water, which in this case is at 62%


A regular consumer oven only reaches 550°F maximum, so generally I will have my hydration percentage anywhere from 58-66%. If I am using a high-heat oven, then I will increase the hydration from 66% to 70%.

Handing a low-hydration dough (50% to 63%) won't stick to your hands like it would with a higher-hydration dough (64% and up), but low-hydration doughs will not stretch as easily and the final baked result will be a dry, dense crust.

However, by increasing the hydration percentage, we have a dough that may be harder to work with in regards to stickiness, but it stretches much easier and the final baked result has a more crispy outer shell, with a light and airy crust on the inside. This really comes out by cooking with high-heat ovens OR using a Baking Steel in a regular consumer oven. (Baking stones are good, but using a Baking Steel is much better, IMHO.)

Use filtered water with a temperature which will result in a final dough that is in the 80°-85° range.

In a cold New England winter, that would be about 93-95°F, while in summer, maybe 75°F.

If I'm using a food processor to make the dough, I will start with refrigerated water, about 46°F, because those blades will warm up a dough extremely fast during its short mixing process.

With yeast, I find that most of the pizza dough recipes out there have far too much yeast in them, to the point that it is tasted in the final crust.

Yeast amounts should be determined by percentage, not by package-contents. To find out what this percentage should be, we need to add up any and all rise periods (both temperature and duration) a dough will undergo during the entire fermentation process.

With bread, a warm room-temperature rise (or two) is commonplace, with an overnight refrigerated-rise providing even better results. With a pizza dough however, room temperature rises are good, but we get far better results with longer, cold-fermentation periods.

With bread or pizza dough, the very first rise is THE most important rise of them all.

This is where a dough will develop its flavor and reach peak performance. All other rises will add to our dough, and build upon the impact of that very first rise. 

A refrigerated 18-24 hour rise is what most pizza places gives us, and this delivers a much better dough (taste and texture) over a 2 hour room temperature rise.

With a 36 hour to 72 hour rise however, things take a more healthy change for the better.

By now, the yeast has eaten away much of the sugar in the flour and will leave behind the good, complex carbs. Such long-fermented doughs also promote healthy gut bacteria.

So there are indeed advantages of long, cold rises.

[After much testing with my refrigerator dial, I found the sweet-spot where my dough would be at a nice 38°F temperature for those cold rise periods.]

To figure out just how much yeast to be using, I go to this website: Dough Fermentation Calculator

In the Calculator, I will set Time and Temperature values accordingly, along with the "Yeast Type" I am using (usually IDY). In this particular case, the values I set were: 72 hours @ 38°F + 1 hour @ 72°F and using IDY.

I now press the "Calculate Yeast Percentage" button and am presented with an accurate yeast percentage for my recipe, which in this case is 0.128%.

I personally have found that 2-3 days is the sweet spot for cold rises.

After that, we lose the chewiness-factor of the dough, but gain in the flavor department. I have even gone as long as 11 days with very delicious results.

If I were making a same-day pizza like my Italian grandfather would have made, I would set the Time and Temperature values accordingly.

If performing fermentation at room temperature, I can do anywhere from a single rise to as many as three, because after the fourth rise, yeast will lose its leavening power and the dough will no longer rise.


Salt is used to keep the yeast in check, thus preventing it from expanding out of control. Salt adds some taste, but only as much so that the dough doesn't taste like a big bland-nothing.

Salt percentages can run in the 0.5-3% range, and my recipes generally run 1.5-2.5%. After that, I can begin to taste it in the crust. As for the salt-type, I use fine sea salt over regular table salt.

Pizza making falls into one of 2 camps: Using ONLY the 4 basic ingredients (Flour, Water, Yeast and Salt), or adding extra ingredients like Olive Oil (dough), Sugar (baking), Diastatic Malt Powder (baking) and/or some form of preferment like a Poolish, Biga or Sourdough Starter (taste).

Neapolitan and other artisan pizzas use only the basic 4, and that's good, but adding a poolish or sourdough starter significantly adds a wonderful boost to the taste of the finished crust. Even adding semolina flour to the mix (pun) would be frowned on in some circles, but you know what? WE like it and I always get rave reviews from people when it's added.

So add what you want or keep it basic, whatever works for you.

Unfortunately, consumer ovens (550°F max.) won't get us anywhere near the temperatures which pizzeria ovens operate (600-1000°F), so adding sugar and/or diastatic malt powder allows us to even the odds in getting a good char to a baked crust. In both cases, 1-2% maximum is the baker's percentage range. [NOTE: diastatic malt powder is for consumer ovens ONLY!]

Olive Oil (1-2%) gives a nice sheen to the dough after it's been mixed and kneaded, but a little of the oil will seep out and imbed itself in a pizza stone during baking.

One pizza certainly isn't going to matter, but one after another will add up over time. Also, the addition of olive oil can also lead to straining the dough as we are stretching it into shape. Still, I use regular olive oil from time to time.

Using a preferment (I've seen anywhere from people using 10% to 40%), is a whole other subject for those smarter than I...

Now that we have an idea of the various ingredients at our disposal and their overall percentages, we can create a dough formula unique to our situation by utilizing another website, a Pizza Dough Calculator

Using this calculator is how I created the 14" round NY style pizza recipe listed above and a great many others, including one for a Sicilian dough. Once you get used to using the calculator (It took me a while, too), you'll just love it's ease of convenience.

So, moving from top to bottom, here is how I would enter in the appropriate information to get a formula...

CREATING A FORMULA

Set the DOUGH CALCULATOR to "Metric"

For APPROACH, set to "Dough Weight"

Then set your DOUGH WEIGHT accordingly.

For a 14" pizza, I personally find that having a final dough weight in the 405 grams to 410 grams range gives me just the size I need.

You can however, decide to use "U.S. Customary" instead. In which case, the standard rule-of-thumb is: 1 ounce of dough equals a 1 inch of pizza.

Now enter in the number of "Dough Balls" being made (we generally make 2 pizzas for the leftovers).

The "Hydration%" is next.

As I said before, my preferred range is 58-66% for a regular consumer oven and 66% to 70%+ for a high-heat oven. Choose what you want. (Some pizzerias even go as low as 50%!)

I now set the "Yeast Type" to what I am using, then enter in the percentage I acquired earlier from the Dough Fermentation Calculator.

I'm not adding in preferment, but if I were, I prefer using good ol' pencil and paper to do the math.

Salt is next, both the "Type" and the "Percentage" and I run from 1.5% to 2.5%, no matter what my yeast is. 

I'm not adding in any other ingredients, but if I were, I just click the button to "Add Ingredients".  (For olive oil, sugar and diastatic malt powder, it runs from 1-2%.)

Finally, there is "Bowl Residue Compensation %."

This is how much dough gets lost in the mixing process, sticking to the mixing bowl and attachments. Right now, 2.99% seems to be the magic number for my Ankarsrum mixer.

That's it!

On the right-side of the screen, I am presented with a dough formula all ready to go.

I use a scale that weighs down to 0.01 grams because the U.S. Standard Weights (Pounds, Ounces, etc.) has just too much of a difference between their different established weights, where grams do not.

MIXING & KNEADING

How do you currently make your dough? By hand? Using a bread machine? A planetary stand mixer like a KitchenAid? A food processor? Or a spiral mixer such as Ankarsrum or Bosch?

Whatever method you are using now, keep using it. Then move up if you feel the need to. I currently use an Ankarsrum spiral mixer and I just love it. The learning curve is steep, but that's because I had to unlearn everything I knew about mixing dough using a KitchenAid.

The food processor is lightning fast and will heat the dough up very quickly, so use cold water. Total mixing time will be under 2 minutes and we can only make 1 dough at a time. (Food processors are widely used by many professionals when making a single pizza at home.)

A KitchenAid or similar stand mixer, will also heat up the dough, though certainly not as much as a food processor. Mixing by hand or with a spiral mixer, has a minimal impact on increasing the dough temperature.

Working by hand is the best method, since we are actually feeling the dough come to life right before us. By hand was how dough used to be made by the old pizza masters in New York City, the birthplace of pizza in America. My Italian grandfather made his at home, by hand and with no refrigeration as well. True artisan pizza.

Whether using an Ankarsrum or KitchenAid, I utilize a long and slow process to make pizza. (When using a KitchenAid, I stop the mixer after each ingredient has been incorporated so I can scrape off the dough hook.

MY ANKARSRUM MIXING PROCESS

I use the roller and scraper attachments and begin by adding the water first, then 75% of the flour. (If also using semolina, the 75% will contain ONLY the main flour.)

I mix on a Low speed for about 60 seconds or until no raw flour remains.

I scrape off and remove the mixing attachments and cover the mixing bowl with a tea towel. I let it rest (called an Autolyse) for 20 minutes, to relax the gluten strands in the dough.

Afterwards, I return the mixing attachments and resume on Low, adding the yeast (and Semolina) and mix for about 1 minute.

Adding the salt, mix for another minute.

The Ankarsrum has a rotating speed dial, allowing for small increases in power. I turn the speed up slightly to the 1 o'clock position. (With a KitchenAid, I will increase speed as the dough starts to come together, you'll know when.)

Increase to the 2 o'clock dial position, and over the next 6 minutes add the remaining flour to the point that when I poke and pull on it, the dough won't stick to my fingers. Now is the time to stop adding the flour, as the dough mixture has reached peak performance. (Of course, there are also those who add all the remaining flour to follow a particular recipe to the letter.)

Increase speed to the 3 o'clock position and knead for about 10 minutes.

(If used, I would add the sugar, malt and preferment when I added the yeast. For oil, I would actually add that after the remaining flour has been added and fully incorporated, then mix for 1 minute before proceeding with the 12 minute kneading period.)

WINDOWPANE

Afterwards, I may perform a Windowpane test.

This is a time-honored test to determine if a dough has been properly mixed and kneaded or not.

To test for windowpane, tear off a golfball size piece from the dough and form it into a round ball. Stretch and shape it into a mini pizza, gently stretching it so you get a very thin membrane in the center of the dough without it tearing.

If it tears, keep mixing for another 4 minutes and then try again.

To be honest, sometimes you will achieve windowpane and other times, in spite of your best efforts, you won't. It will still be a good dough, but it will not have reached its true potential that would have the pizza gods smiling down upon you.

Afterwards, I will divide, ball, then transfer to a lightly oiled dough tray or container. Create a nice indent in the dough's center, because pizza dough chills better as a hockey puck than a round ball.

Finally, I place the container in a refrigerator for that long 3 day slumber.

IMPORTANT: The dough is still very warm, so leave the cover askew for 2 hours to allow for ventilation as it cools down. Afterwards, seal it up.

BAKING DAY

On baking day, I make sure everything is in place and ready to go before I remove the dough from the refrigerator. In a cold oven, baking stones are placed on the bottom rack. If using a Baking Steel, it is 6" from broiler element (second-to-top rack on my oven).

I take the dough out of the refrigerator and still keeping it sealed, place on the counter and set a timer for 1 hour. At the same time, I set the oven to 550°F.

When the hour is up, I remove the dough from the container, then dredge it in a plate of bench flour (By weight, 50% AP flour + 50% Semolina flour).

I dredge one side of the dough, then another, rolling it on the edge so I get everything. I don't want to see any wet areas on the dough.

There will be a noticeable difference between the two sides of the dough. The drier side is the one which was exposed to the air during the entire fermentation period, while the moister side was protected on the bottom.

TIP: If making a high-hydration dough, remove the cover of the sealed container 2-3 hours before removing it from refrigerator to help dry out the top-side of the dough that much more. Remember to reseal the container before removing it from the refrigerator.

Once dredged, place the dough on a clean and sanitized work station, coated with a little bench flour and start shaping the dough into a round pizza shell.

Seriously, go back and watch Laura's video again!

Notice the ease in which she shapes the pizza dough into a nice round shell. That is a skill  achieved through hours and hours of repetition. 

After the dough is shaped into a round shell, it’s time to dress, then bake the pizza.

Want to know how much cheese, sauce and toppings to add? 


PIZZA TOPPING PORTION GUIDE


This is actually an industry guide sheet (more of a consensus, really) that many pizzerias go by, or at least use as a benchmark to build upon.

Just look up the pie's size and decide if you want to go Light, Moderate or Heavy on the toppings. Us? We have found that medium delivers a great balance.

There are two major preferences for dressing your pizza: Sauce first, then cheese OR cheese first, then sauce. Either way is fine.

I'll admit, sauce is still a work in progress for us, and I will be posting our unfancy sauce recipe when I'm satisfied enough with it.

The problem is that tomato-products I have available to me, may not be available to you, and vice versa. So each of us is left to our own devices, based on what's available, and that's always been the way, too.

Some pizza recipes use a sauce that is cooked on a stovetop first. They're good but the sauce will end up being double-cooked when all is said and done. My opinion is that pizza sauce should only be baked once.

Sauce can be made at room-temperature, then chilled for 24 hours (then removed 1 hour prior to making the pizza) OR it can be made and applied directly onto the pizza shell with no waiting. All these camps have very strong advocates, so try them and judge for yourself.

Vegetable toppings go under the cheese to maintain their freshness, while meat toppings go on top, so their oils can seep and mix with the cheese(s).

As for the cheese, we like a blend of whole-milk Mozzarella (79%), Provolone (20%) and Parmesan (1% and fresh, not from a can).

The fresh parmesan cheese is actually put down first. Spread around to provide good coverage. We never weighed it because when shaved, parmesan is light as a feather, so I'm guessing it's about 1%.

Provolone goes down next and at 20%, it adds flavor without the pizza being too oily on top.

The star of the show is of course, the mozzarella cheese.

Do NOT use pre-shredded mozzarella cheese or thou will most greatly offend the pizza gods. Seriously, they coat that stuff with starches so the cheese doesn't clump together in the bag. Unfortunately, the starch also prevents the cheese from melting properly, so you end up with a hard shell of skin on the top.

We get our mozzarella from the supermarket deli counter, having it sliced into round discs to about 1/4" thickness. (The provolone can be had at the deli counter as well, and their pre-packaged version doesn't contain the dreaded starch.)

If whole-milk mozzarella cheese is pre-packaged and wet coming out of the plastic bag, press it between several paper towels and several dish plates for several hours to squeeze out the excess liquid.

Strategically place the mozzarella cheese discs for maximum coverage. The reason I like mozzarella cheese in discs as opposed to being shredded is the wonderful cheese stretch factor of a New York pizza. (So don't forget to put a disc dead-center.)

We top our creation with King Arthur Flour's Pizza Seasoning and into the oven it goes.

BAKING

As for baking, well... that's another factor which is specific to each of us.

No two ovens bake alike and my instructions may not work for your oven. You're just going to have to bake some pizzas and find out for yourself. (Keep good notes)

With a baking steel placed on a rack 6" from the broiler element, I find that 4 minutes, then rotate, 4 more minutes and anywhere from 15 to 45 seconds on Broil delivers a killer pizza with only flour, water, salt and yeast.

When using diastatic malt powder, I will go 3 minutes, rotate, then 3 minutes and judge the results. Sometimes I need the broiler, other times I won't.

As for a baking stone, place it on the lowest rack and anywhere from 8 to 13 minutes (or more) should do the trick. (Just remember, a baking steel and baking stone MUST be put in a cold oven BEFORE turning on the heat.)

Always, always, always keep an eye on your pizza as it is baking.

Remember, you are baking both the bottom crust AND the top. So this is something you're just going to have to learn in regards to how well your specific oven bakes.

The bottom should have a nice golden brown color and some nice char. The top should have a nice browning of the cheese, but not excessive.

I alternate between using my home oven and a high-heat Blackstone Pizza Oven (now discontinued). The Blackstone features a platter, turned by a rotisserie motor, with a high-power propane blower heating the pizza from above. Instead of a 1 hour regular oven preheat, I can do it in 15 minutes and reach around 800° F (though I can go higher).

Bake time is around 3-4 minutes with a baked char that just can't be beat. (I have even baked a pizza in as little as 90 seconds.)


Many times, people will remove their pizza from the oven before it is really done. They see a little browning on top and consider it done, where another minute or so can have a significant impact on taste. Again, check the bottom.


So that's it. My insights and experiences on making great pizza from scratch.

Like with photography, it's the journey that matters, so have fun. Yeah, you'll make mistakes. Big deal, we all do. Just keep trying and remember to keep good notes so you can learn from those mistakes.

Ciao!

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