This is a long read so make it more bearable by quaffing some good wine alongside!
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:
- To refrigerate the dough balls after shaping. I find colder dough much easier to shape, especially for relatively wet dough like this.
- Add sourdough starter, as I always have some in the fridge. This is purely optional, and you will get great pizzas without it.
- 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.
- 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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
- 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.
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!
Lastly, videos to help with the process of shaping. You can see how light and airy the dough is from these.