Making pizza at home is not difficult. We do it all the time.
There are the cheat pizzas for instance, the faux facsimiles that are improvised with rounds of flat breads loaded with cheese and toppings to make up for a blasé base and a weaksauce weak sauce. We may even take the effort to make the dough and sauce from scratch, shaping the dough by hand or rolling it out nice and thin.
Even with this extra effort, in most cases you’ll still likely end up with a pizza base that lacks soul. A pizza base that’s limp, light and lacking any flavour or stiff, dry and crunchy with a biscuit or cracker like bite to it. A pizza base that serves more as an edible platter for toppings than a foundation of flavour in its own right.
It is possible to make a good pizza at home. One with a thin crispy base, that’s flavourful and has a nice chew to it, similar to the kind you can find at a good pizzeria. However, in order to make pizza like this at home, there are a number of challenges that a home cook needs to understand in order to overcome these issues.
This is the first post in a series on making a good thin crust pizza at home. The topics covered will include:
Challenges: Challenges that home cook face and some lessons learned.
Dough & Sauce: Recipes for a good pizza dough and sauce.
Cooking 1 – Barbecue Method: Using a barbecue and pizza stone to turn your good dough into a great pizza.
Cooking 2 – Frying Pan Method: An alternate method of cooking a pizza that doesn’t require a pizza stone, barbecue or even an oven.
Instant Gratification – How to go from zero to a good pizza in around 90 mins.
There are many challenges that we face when making a good pizza at home. Two of major challenges we have to overcome, the ones that have the most impact, have to do with the oven and the pizza dough recipe.
The greatest obstacle we face when attempting to achieve pizza nirvana is that it’s not possible to do so with a home oven, as they are unable to reach the temperatures required to cook a pizza the same way it’s done in a restaurant. Home ovens on average reach a maximum temperature of around 250-260C (approx 500F) though some can reach a little higher. On the other hand, a wood fired brick pizza oven can reach temperatures ranges of around 370-540C (700-1000F).
However, it’s not just the issue of absolute temperatures that need to be considered but also the nature of that heat and how it affects the pizza.
Restaurant brick ovens cook the pizza using three different types of heat:
Conduction – Heat transfers to the pizza by direct contact with the floor of the oven.
Convection – Heat transferred from the movement of hot air in the oven.
Radiation – Radiated heat from the flames within the oven, as well as heat radiated off its inner surfaces not in direct contact with the pizza.
Home ovens transfer heat the same ways that restaurant ovens do through conduction, convection and radiation. However, not only are you dealing with lower cooking temperatures, you also have considerably less conduction contact heat transferred.
The floor of a restaurant pizza oven, usually made of brick or some other stone surface, acts as a sponge absorbing and storing a lot of the oven’s heat. This ability for a material to absorb and store heat is referred to as thermal mass. Restaurant pizza ovens have a high thermal mass, meaning that when a pizza is placed onto its surface, it doesn’t lose as much heat when the relatively cooler pizza comes in contact with it and thereby is able to cook the base of the pizza as a high heat and recover from the heat loss quicker.
On the other hand, in a home oven the surfaces that the pizza will come in contact with, such as a baking tray, will have a considerably lower thermal mass. This means that it’ll lose more heat when it comes in contact with the pizza and it’ll take longer for to recover the lost heat. So, the base of the pizza will take longer to cook which leaves you either with a base that is underdone and limp or a pizza that’s overcooked. Even the floor of a home oven (assuming it’s not obstructed with a heating element) likewise has a low thermal mass as the walls of the oven tend to be fairly thin, lacking the ability to absorb and store much heat.
A pizza stone can help with the issue of low thermal mass by being able to store and deliver more heat which tends to produce better results. However, firstly not all pizza stones are equal in this regard, as a thinner pizza stone will have a lower thermal mass than a thicker, heavier one. Secondly, the pizza stones need to be preheated for a fair while in order to absorb a sufficient amount of heat. Naturally, thicker pizza stone will require more time to come to temperature. Generally you’re looking at an oven preheat time of 30-60 mins though the longer the better. Lastly, even if you have a good thick pizza stone, you’re still dealing with the lower oven temperatures of a home oven.
Another issue has to do with balance of heat within the oven so that, ideally, both the top and bottom of the pizza finishing cooking around the same time. My experience with ovens, from my old crappy one at home to brand new digital models, is that they tend to finish cooking the top before the base is done. The results were the same with a properly preheated pizza stone in service, albeit a relatively inexpensive one. While it did produce better results and even introduce a slight crispness to the base, it was still sadly lacking. You’re left with the decision of either living with an underdone base that’s beige and floppy or cook the base through and overcook the top and turn the crusts crunchy with a dry, biscuit-like bite.
Finally, the lower temperature of the home oven itself affects the outcome of a pizza. Leaving a pizza in the oven for longer, even if you have the balance issue sorted out, has an impact on the pizza’s flavour and texture. For instance, the higher temperatures of a restaurant oven allows the pizza to form char spots on the underside the pizza as well as its exposed crust, adding a nice smoky dimension to the pizza. Whereas with the home oven, it’s generally not possible to get those charred spots without overcooking or drying out the pizza.
I’ve made a lot of very disappointing pizza bases in my time. Recipes from well respected celebrity chefs whom you’d trust would provide good results. However, I’m left having to deal with failure after failure wondering what I did wrong. Why is my pizza so limp. Why does this pizza taste so bland and sweet, and why is the texture so soft and unsatisfying. Why is the best that I can manage at home no better than a frozen pizza base.
I’ve achieved frozen pizza quality. Yay.
I’ve tried different recipes. I’ve tried kneading more and then kneading less. I’ve tried different flours. Fresh yeast vs the dried yeast. All these lead pretty much the same disappointing result. As indicated above, a lot of the issue has to do with our ovens and the nature of heat transfer involved. However, the pizza dough recipes has a lot to answer for as well.
The majority of pizza dough recipes that I’ve come across, whether online or in cookbooks, don’t produce good results in my opinion. Even in an ideal cooking environment. Certainly not the kind of results you’d get from most Italian pizzerias. In my experience, the issues with the pizza dough recipe have less to do with the quality of the ingredients used (though this does have an impact) and more to do with two specific aspects – time spent proofing the dough and how that’s done, and additives included into the recipe known as browning agents.
Time is a crucial factor with the flavour and the texture of a pizza. The problem is that most recipes don’t allow for sufficient time to develop these flavours as they’re not designed to do so. They’re designed more for convenience and ease. When given the choice between a recipe that will net you a freshly baked pizza in around a couple of hours versus my favourite recipe to date which requires three days and two separate recipes, you know which recipe most people would choose. Much like the path to the dark side, the convenience recipes are quicker, easier, more seductive. However, while the latter takes more time, it doesn’t take that much extra time and effort from you to prepare it. It’s also just as easy to make.
The reason for the majority of the time for the three day recipe has to do with a process known as cold fermentation. Cold fermentation, as its name indicates, requires the yeast to ferment and proof the dough in the cold environment of a refrigerator. Cold fermentation allows for several things to happen. Firstly the extra time allows for the starch in the dough to be better hydrated. The leads to more gluten to develop, which improves the texture of the pizza. Secondly, it slows down the fermentation by the yeast in order to allow it to develop more flavour in the dough as well as allowing enzymes within the flour time to break down the long chains of gluten allowing it to be more extensible and more elastic. It also means that less yeast is required to proof the dough, as you don’t need as much of it to give it the quick rise required in convenience dough recipes. The great thing about cold fermentation is that even convenience dough recipes can benefit with an overnight layover in the fridge, improving both its flavour and texture.
However, cold fermentation is affected by the Goldilocks Principle in that the the time the dough spends fermenting has to be just right. Too little time and the dough is underdeveloped in flavour and texture. Too much time on the other hand leads to sour and off flavours and a weak dough that doesn’t rise as much. Kenji López-Alt of Serious Eats had conducted a great experiment to find this Goldilocks zone, which ends up being around 3-5 days. In the case of the cold ferment dough recipe in next post in this series, I found the butter zone was more like 2-3 days but there are other reasons for the shorter timeframe.
The other aspect with regards to issues with most pizza dough recipes has to do with an additive referred to as a browning agent. A browning agent assists the dough to brown faster as its cooking and under lower temperatures. The most common browning agent used in these home recipes comes as some form of sugar, whether it’s granulated sugar, honey or some other sweetening product. As the yeast feeds on sugars, the addition of it supercharges the yeast’s production allowing for a quicker rise.
Browning agents also change the flavour of the dough in a number of ways. Firstly as a sugar, it sweetens the dough. Secondly, it helps the dough to caramelise while it’s cooking which adds some flavour as well as improving the appearance of the pizza. Lastly, products like honey or malt syrup introduce their own flavours to the dough, which helps to make up for the lack of flavour developed by the yeast.
While the browning agent adds flavour and improves appearance, it’s really just a crutch to compensate for a lack of flavour development and insufficient cooking temperatures. However, if you allow the dough to undergo cold fermentation to develop better flavours and overcome the issues of the lower cooking temperatures at home, browning agents not only are unnecessary, they also negatively impact the flavour of the pizza.
There are more aspect of issues regarding most pizza dough recipes than just these two mentioned. However, some of these other aspects and their solutions will be covered in later posts.
Making pizza at home is not difficult. Anyone can make a cheat pizza. However, when it comes to making great pizzas at home, the good news is that it is also not difficult.
As you can see, there’s a lot going on under the hood even with just these two issues of the oven and the pizza dough recipe that needs to be understood in order to overcome these challenges. High temperatures are vital to a good pizza as well as the nature of the heat transfers involved. It’s also important that the dough is given enough time to develop flavours and improve texture. Also by overcoming the issue of cooking temperature, you do away with the need for browning agents.
If you’ve made it this far, thanks for sticking with it until the end. Later posts should hopefully be more concise as a fair amount of it will call back to this background information. If I’ve lost you along the way, don’t fret as the upcoming posts on recipes and cooking processes are simple and very straightforward.
Keep an eye out for the next post in this series on recipes for pizza dough and sauce.
Please like and share this post and feel free to leave a comment below with any questions regarding the above material or any stories of past experiences with making your own pizzas at home.