Pizza Perfected

This is a long read so make it more bearable by quaffing some good wine alongside!

The recipe

My recipe is based on one by Nancy Silverton from the Mozza cookbook. What set it apart from the other recipes was that she adds a pre-ferment (which adds more flavour) and the fact that the dough was way wetter than any of the other recipes I had tried. The changes I made, after lots of trying, testing and eating, were:

  1. To refrigerate the dough balls after shaping. I find colder dough much easier to shape, especially for relatively wet dough like this.
  2. Add sourdough starter, as I always have some in the fridge. This is purely optional, and you will get great pizzas without it.
  3. The edge – Silverton advises keeping a 1” edge, which I personally find too wide, so I just keep a 1/2 “ edge which I don’t cover with the toppings.
  4. Baking time, see notes below.

You need 2 pieces of “specialist’ equipment, without which it’s rather tricky making homemade pizza:

  • A pizza stone – a stone absorbs and distributes heat evenly, which helps achieve a crisp crust. Ideally, buy a quality stone that will not crack from extreme heat. I now possess such a stone (bought from Lakeland UK), which is excellent, and more importantly a good size. Do not buy a round stone (unless your placement skills are very good, and you can aim the peel precisely in the centre of the stone) and don’t buy anything with an edge as it just makes it harder to transfer the pizza. Before the Lakeland stone, I used just ordinary, unpolished granite which I had cut to fit the oven. Unfortunately, it does crack eventually, but at least it’s cheap to replace.

Heat the stone on the oven floor.  Oven manuals discourage from putting anything directly on the oven floor, but I must admit I have often done that. If you are concerned, use the bottommost oven shelf, but if your stone is heavy it might damage the side rails.

  • A pizza peel – a tool with a long handle and a large, flat metal or wood surface for sliding pizzas in and out of the oven. Mine has a steel surface, but I know purists prefer wood, as the pizza is less likely to stick to it. Do make sure that the edge is thin so it’s easy to slide it between the pizza and the stone.
Flour types

The type of flour you use makes a big difference to the structure of the crust. A very high protein flour (like Canadian flour) makes the dough easy to handle as the strong gluten helps the dough stay intact when you are stretching it. Initially, for several years I used only Canadian strong/bread flour, and although the result was very good, I found it quite chewy.

Italian recipes will always call for “00” flour, where “00” indicates the fineness of the flour, as opposed to gluten/protein the flour (although apparently in Italy it does indicate whether the flour is meant for pizza, bread or pastry).

I have finally settled on a mix of Italian “ 00” and unbleached all-purpose flour a little Canadian bread flour, as the dough is easy to manage and makes an excellent crust. Feel free to use all Italian or a mix and see what works best for you. Note that higher protein flours like Canadian flours absort more water, so the quantity of water might need to be reduced slightly if you drop this flour from the mix.

Note that higher protein flours like Canadian flours absort more water, so the quantity of water might need to be reduced slightly if you drop this flour from the mix.

fat free

The AVPN (yes, there’s an organisation that regulates pizza in Italy) permits only four ingredients in a Neapolitan pizza dough: water, salt, yeast and flour. In fact, it specifically disallows “all types of fat”.  Having said that, Giorgio Locatelli  & Jamie Oliver add olive oil, and the River Cafe recipes use milk.  In this respect, I stick with the purist view and don’t feel the need to any fat to the dough.

scale for success

As with other baking recipes, a weighing scale is highly recommended. You can convert the recipe into cups, but weighing takes the guesswork out.

Bin the pin

Don’t be tempted to use a rolling pin for shaping the pizzas. Firstly, the dough is too soft to be rolled out and secondly, you want to have a nice chewy crusty edge. That edge gets flattened with a rolling pin. A rolling pin only works if your aim is a crispy crust New York style pizza.

Sponge it

The preferment or sponge helps build flavour in the dough. Don’t skip this step. You can make a straight dough, i.e. combine all the ingredients and get going, but the dough won’t have the same suppleness and the flavour. If you want, you can make the preferment the night before and keep it in the fridge overnight. Continue with making the rest of the dough in the morning.

Malt powder

Silverton’s recipe calls for a small amount of barley malt. Malt is added to aid browning of the crust. I use diastatic malt powder (a specialist bread ingredient) as I stock that for bread. Barley malt (syrup) can be found at health food stores, else if it’s too much hassle, just use honey.

Use the chill

I recommend refrigerating the dough balls after shaping. However, if you are in a rush, you can proof the prepared dough balls at room temperature, for about 45 minutes and proceed, with no difference in the end result. Refrigeration at this stage just makes the dough easier to stretch and handle.

Also, like with bread dough, if you need to prolong the proofing time because you have sudden errands to run, just pop the dough in the fridge, and take it out and continue when you come back. The chilling will slow down the process.

Water temperature

The ideal temperature of the finished dough should be 24-25C. So if your kitchen (and therefore you flour) is cool, use slightly warm water to make the final dough. If it’s hot, use cold water. In the absence of the thermometer, just monitor the dough, if it looks very bubbly and risen ahead of time, shorten the proofing process, and vice versa.

The Cheese
  • Any good pizza must have whole milk mozzarella, not low fat/skimmed. The best types are the ones that come in a block and can be cubed/chopped. If using expensive buffalo mozzarella, add it at the end of the baking time to maintain the soft texture and creaminess. Adding it, in the beginning, will only result in an oily mess.
  • Other good cheeses include Italian melting cheeses like Fontina or Taleggio.
  • Grated Parmesan to finish off (after baking) is a nice touch.

Less is more. If you notice, the pizzas are topped sparingly with both cheese and other toppings. The crust is thin and delicate, so don’t overload it. Click here for topping ideas. Else make a simple and delicious garlic bread.

pizza to peel

Transferring the pizza to the stone can be fiendishly difficult. Silverton, Reinhart and others suggest using the peel to push underneath the topped pizza and then transferring it into the oven. I find this method unreliable, perhaps because my dough is stretched thin. I prefer to transfer the dough to a well-floured peel, once the pizza is shaped, and the edges anointed with the oil and salt. Then, working quickly, I complete topping the pizza whilst it is on the peel before transferring it to the oven.

Need for friction

To enable the pizza to slide off the peel without a hitch you need friction, and fine semolina is my preferred solution. Fine polenta or cornmeal works too. At a pinch, you can use flour, but you need to use more and it’s not as effective.

Baking time

Although my recipe is largely based on Silverton’s, I bake my pizza for a shorter time than the 10-12 minutes recommended by Silverton, because my dough is stretched thinner than hers. As a thumb rule, the hotter the oven and the shorter the baking time, the better the result.

How to eat pizza

It’s not enough for me to tell you how to make pizza; I insist on specifying how it should be eaten. Forget knives and forks. After you cut wedges, roll up the wedge starting from the centre to the outside, then eat it sideways. I saw someone doing this in a small Pizzeria in Rome and was struck by the ingenuity of it. With every bite, you get a bit of the edge and a bit of the centre. Bliss!

shaping videos

Lastly, videos to help with the process of shaping. You can see how light and airy the dough is from these.

Print Recipe
Pizza Perfected
A foolproof recipe for homemade pizza. Surprise your family and give it a shot. It's such a convivial recipe to make, family and friends can get involved in the pizza making.
Cuisine Italian
Prep Time 45 min
Cook Time 1 hour
Passive Time 8 hours
10"-11" pizzas
Pizza dough
To finish:
Cuisine Italian
Prep Time 45 min
Cook Time 1 hour
Passive Time 8 hours
10"-11" pizzas
Pizza dough
To finish:
12pm : Make the pre-ferment.
  1. Mix all the flours together. Then in the bowl of a standing mixer first, pour in 400g of the measured water. Then add about half the mixed flour (370g), the yeast, and the rye flour. If using sourdough starter, mix that in now.
  2. Stir with a spoon to combine the ingredients. Wrap the bowl tightly in plastic wrap (or use a shower cap as I do) and cover with a tea towel. Set the dough aside at cool room temperature (ideally 20-21C ) for 1 1/2 hours.
1:40pm: Make the dough
  1. Uncover the bowl and add the remaining 190g of water, the remaining flour, and the malt or honey.
  2. Fit the mixer with a dough hook, place the bowl on the mixer stand, and mix the dough on low speed for 2 minutes. Add the salt and mix on medium speed for 6 to 8 minutes, until the dough starts to pull away from the sides of the bowl. Note that the dough will not pull so much that it completely cleans the bowl, but if the dough is too sticky and is not pulling away from the sides at all, throw a small handful of flour into the bowl to make it less sticky. If the dough is cleaning the bowl, add a little more water. (You can see the dough strength and wetness from this photo of the dough being worked).
  3. While the dough is mixing, lightly oil a bowl large enough to hold the dough when it doubles in size. Turn the dough out of the mixer onto the counter. Give it a few slap and folds to shape it into a round and place into the oiled bowl. Cover the bowl as before. Set the dough aside at warm room temperature (24-26C) for 45 minutes.
2:45pm: Turn & fold
  1. Dust your work surface lightly with flour and turn the dough out onto the floured surface. Acting as if the round has four sides, fold the edges of the dough toward the center. Turn the dough over and return it, folded side down, to the bowl. Cover the bowl again with plastic wrap and set it aside for 45 minutes.
3:30pm: Divide dough
  1. Dust your work surface again lightly with flour and turn the dough out onto the floured surface. Divide the dough into 7 equal segments, each weighing approximately 200g.
  2. Gently tuck the edges of each round of dough under itself. Cover the dough rounds with a clean dishtowel and let them rest for 5 minutes.
  3. Meanwhile prepare 2 baking trays or a few plates by generously sprinkling flour (I use a sieve, as that seems to provide a nice even layer of flour which is important so that the delicate dough doesn’t stick).
  4. After 5 minutes, lightly flour your hands and use both hands roll each round of dough on the worktop into a taut ball. This section of the worktop needs to be free of flour else you won’t get the traction needed to tighten the ball. (See video above).
  5. Place the prepared dough rounds on the baking trays and dust again with some flour. Leave sufficient gaps between the balls as they will flatten out and expand.
  6. Place the tray/plate into large plastic bags (like shopping bags) and blow them up so that the dough doesn’t touch the bags. Place in the fridge to proof slowly.
6pm: Prep the oven & stone
  1. Remove the oven racks from the oven and place a baking stone on the floor of the oven. Switch on the oven to the hottest setting. I normally use the fan setting at the highest temperature of 250C (which is the max in my oven).
6:30pm: Final proof for dough balls
  1. Take out 1 tray of dough balls and leave on the counter for about 30 minutes before using. Take out the 2nd tray later, as you need it, remembering it needs about half an hour at room temperature.
  2. Prepare your pizza station with all the topping ingredients at hand. In addition keep sea salt flakes and a small bowl with olive oil and a pastry brush handy. Have a large bowl of flour ready for dusting the counter, and semolina for dusting the peel.
7pm: Make the pizzas:
  1. See video for this section. Generously flour the work counter and place one round of dough in the center of the floured surface. Dust the dough lightly with flour. Using your fingertips as though you were tapping on piano keys, gently tap the center of the dough to flatten it slightly, leaving half-inch edge untouched.
  2. Pick up the dough, ball both your fists, and with your fists facing your body, place the top edge of the dough on your fists so the round stretches downward against the backs of your hands, away from them.
  3. Move the circle of dough around your fists like the hands of a clock so the dough continues to stretch downward into a circle. Focus on the section just next to the edge, as that’s the hardest bit to stretch out and thin.
  4. When the dough has stretched to about 10-11 inches in diameter, lay it down on the flour-dusted surface.
  5. Brush the rim of the dough with olive oil and sprinkle kosher salt over the surface of the dough. Sprinkle semolina on the pizza peel and then transfer the prepared dough to the peel.
  6. Working quickly, dress the pizza according to the recipe you have chosen, making sure to leave edge with no sauce or toppings.
  7. Once your pizza is ready to bake, shake the peel gently once to determine whether the dough will release easily in the oven. If any sections are sticking to the peel, carefully lift that side and throw some more semolina under it.
  8. Open the oven door and slide the dough onto the preheated pizza stone. To do this, position the peel well into the oven, and as soon as the edge of the pizza has touched the stone, in one move, pull the peel towards you to leave the pizza on the stone.
  9. Bake the pizza until it is golden brown and the cornice, or edge, is crisp and blistered, 5-6 minutes. Cooking times will vary according to the power of your oven or the thickness of your crust.
  10. When the pizza is done, slide the peel under the crust, remove it from the oven, and place it on the cutting board or round. Finish of with a sprinkling of Parmesan and a drizzle of good olive oil.
  11. Make another pizza. Remember to take out the next batch of dough 30 minutes before you need it.
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