This was written for another venue but I'm not one to ignore a gauntlet.
How to Make Perfect Pizza
(and Why You Really Don’t Want to)
When I was 24 years old, I made perfect pizza.
Pizza: The Americanized version. If you’re Italian, all that follows will be heresy. I’m talking standardized, reproducible, served on an aluminum pan, sitting around the table with a bunch of friends and a pitcher of beer, watching the game on the big screen, pizza. I other words; I had a pizza joint.
My journey to perfect pizza began when I was 17 and landed a job as busboy in a local restaurant. Over the next five years, and several locations, I worked my way up from busboy to cook to dough roller to assistant manager to delivery manager. I made manager at the ripe old age of 21when the company I worked for opened a new store in the little town where I had attended high school. It was the nicest restaurant in town. The position also brought with it certain karmic benefits. The small minded losers who had given me hell in high school were now coming to me looking for a job. A good time was had by all. I 1986 I took my accumulated knowledge, and a loan from my brother-in-law, and opened my own place.
My perfect pizza was named The Heavenly Combo. Again, this will make a purist shudder, but if you like your pizza loaded, the combo gave you both barrels. The Heavenly Combo contained pepperoni, Canadian bacon, mushroom, water chestnut, hamburger, sausage, Italian sausage, green olive, black olive, bell pepper, onion, jalapeno, pineapple and baby shrimp. Anchovies available on request. A 15” large weighed in at just under five pounds
There are five elements to perfect pizza.
1. The crust.
2. The sauce.
3. The cheese.
4. The toppings.
5. Ovens & oven tending.
Great crust is the foundation for great pizza. It has to hold up to the weight of everything piled on top. It should crisp enough to give you a stable platform and yet yield to teeth without difficulty. It should be cooked through but not over cooked; the only thing worse than chewing a pasty mass of uncooked dough is biting into a burnt cracker that shatters and drops a hot pepperoni on your white shirt. Since pizza is the only fast food that comes with an edible handle, eating pizza with a knife and fork is just bad form. Think of it as drinking beer from a champagne flute; it doesn’t show class just pretension. The outer crust should give you a comfortable handle for lifting and be crunchy/chewy like French bread. I know, New Yorkers like it floppy and Chicagoans like it thick and chewy but we’re talking about my perfect pizza.
Pizza dough is a very simple concoction. The ingredients are high gluten flour, water, olive oil, sugar, salt and yeast. The high gluten flour (bread flour at the grocery store) provides a sturdy matrix for the little yeasties to do their magic. Olive oil adds flavor and texture. Sugar provides food for the yeast. Salt gives flavor and regulates the growth of the yeast. Lastly, and most importantly, the yeast. The yeasties are one celled organisms. They eat the sugar and expel carbon dioxide which gets trapped as little bubbles in the wheat gluten. Yeast gives us our lovely, fluffy, crunchy, chewy, bread-like texture.
One little bit of inside information. I also added ½ teaspoon of black pepper. It was there for only one reason. As much as you strive for the highest quality ingredients, all commercially milled flour contains a very small percentage of “other stuff.” Field material from incomplete threshing, bug parts run through the grinder, weevil larvae; you know, “other stuff”. Were you to find a black speck in your pizza crust and ask me what it could be, I could answer in all honesty, “Why sir, we put a little pepper in our pizza dough.” And it might actually be pepper.
Measurements for pizza dough must be made by weight, not by volume. Fluctuations in humidity can alter the weight of a cup of flour by as much as ten percent. Eight ounces is eight ounces and always weighs the same (if you’re on the surface of planet Earth). One cup may always measure one cup but the actual amount of flour can vary depending whether you’re on the Gulf Coast or the High Plains.
Water temperature is also very important. Yeast require three things to grow; food, water and warmth. The baseline temp for water is 100˚F. Minor adjustments can be made if the ambient temperature varies a lot. Since most restaurants are climate controlled (we hope) 100 is just about perfect.
My recipe for perfect pizza dough:
25# high gluten pizza flour
11# water @ 100˚F
¼ cup olive oil
4 oz. sugar
2 ½ oz. salt
2 packets yeast (no I didn’t weigh the yeast but it’s ½ oz)
½ tsp pepper.
What? You were expecting a recipe you could make at home? Maybe you missed the subtitle. I suppose you could apply the ratio of flour to water and come up with something like this.
16 oz. bread flour
7 oz. water @ 100˚F
2 tsp olive oil
1 tsp sugar
½ tsp salt
2 pinches yeast
1/8th pinch pepper.
Mix water, oil and spices with a whisk. Modern yeast doesn’t require proofing unless it’s very old or may have gotten wet. Bread makers will have noticed the relatively small amount of yeast in proportion to flour. Bread typically rests for an hour on the first rise. We’ll be giving our dough 8 hours to rise.
This is a Hobart 60 Qt mixer. It’s the industry standard. The controls are pretty simple; black go button, red stop button, the lever with the black knob is speed control and the wheel at the back raises and lowers the bowl.
With the kettle lowered, pour in the wet ingredients then the dry. Start the machine on low speed and raise the bowl. This prevents a flour explosion. Once the flour is moistened you can shift to second gear. That’s a fast as you want to go. The dough hook travels in an elliptical pattern as it rotates; reaching all parts of the bowl, mixing and stretching the dough. This kneading motion develops the gluten in the flour. You don’t want the dough to mix too quickly or the gluten won’t have time to develop.
After eight to ten minutes all the liquid will be absorbed and the dough will be in two to three large lumps. You don’t want to over knead the dough. If you continue mixing until the dough has formed a single ball the gluten will be overdeveloped and you’ll have a tough crust. There should be about a palm full of crumbs left in the bottom of the bowl. The dough is then transferred into a well oiled, 50 gallon food safe container. It looks just like a trash can except they are usually white. Food safe containers are made from virgin, not recycled, plastic. Three batches of dough will fill one container about two/thirds full. Now put on the lid, also well oiled, leaving about a finger width gap for air circulation. The rising room should be about 75˚F and preferably without a lot of air motion which can dry out the top of the dough. Eight hours later, the barrel will be completely full of lovely yeasty smelling dough.
Now it’s time to make the crust. Again, I will annoy the purists by stating a few facts.
I have never had a hand tossed pizza that was
b. uniform, without thick and thin spots
c. worth a crap.
Yeast dough is a picky concoction. It likes to rest after being put under stress. Shaping a crust and then immediately saucing and topping it gives you a tough crust. It can’t be helped; it’s the nature of the beast.
I used an Acme dough roller for uniform thickness.
The process is simple. A pre-weighed lump of dough is formed into a ball and sent through the top roller. This gives you an oval. After flouring both sides, the oval is turned 90 degrees and pushed through the bottom roller giving you a roundish crust.
This crust is then cut with a pizza ring to give you a perfectly round, perfectly uniform crust.
Though whoever took this picture needs to have his butt chewed. That’s way too much waste! A good dough roller can produce blanks that are almost perfectly round with no more that ½ inch of scrap around the outside. The final weight of the crust should be.
15” large – 24oz.
12” medium – 18.5 oz.
10” small – 10 oz.
8” mini – 6.5 oz.
The final crusts are brushed free of excess flour and layered between aluminum foil. A packet of 10 crusts is topped with foil and sealed tightly but with room for the crusts to rise. The packet is then allowed to rise until the crust has doubled, usually 1 to 2 hours, and then put in the refrigerator. This second rise makes perfect crust. The gluten has been allowed to relax and the dough gets puffy and soft again.
Just before the pizza is topped, we applied a medieval torture device called a dough docker.
The metal spines perforate the dough allowing any trapped CO2 bubbles to escape. This lets the crust rise for a 3rd time as it cooks. An un-docked pizza crust will literally puff up like a balloon.
I can’t give you my recipe for pizza sauce. I could tell you, but then I’d have to kill you.
I can tell you some of the ingredients.
Red wine vinegar
…and some other stuff.
Mix together and bring to a simmer for about an hour to bloom the spices. You’ll have a dark black, fragrant concentrate. Mix one part concentrate to six parts tomato puree. The ingredient(s) in puree are: tomatoes. Tomato sauce may contain sugar, salt and unidentified spices. The taste can vary from manufacturer to manufacturer and even from batch to batch from the same manufacturer. Using puree will ensure a consistent flavor regardless of the brand used.
Perfect pizza sauce should provide the backdrop for the cheese and toppings. It should make its presence felt without overwhelming the rest of the flavors. Too much sauce will prevent the crust from cooking through and the cheese from melting; too little will result in a dry lifeless pizza. The perfect amount of sauce…
15” large – 6 oz.
12” medium – 4 oz.
10” small – 3 oz.
8” mini – 2 oz.
Apply in an even layer leaving a 1” crust around the outside.
If crust is the foundation of perfect pizza, then cheese is the mortar that binds the construction together. I prefer smoked provolone to mozzarella for several reasons.
Provolone has a much higher milk fat content than mozzarella; 1.5 times full milk and almost twice part skim. This gives your pizza a much richer flavor and mouth texture.
Smoked provolone has a delightful smoky flavor as opposed to the flavor neutral taste of mozzarella.
Provolone has a higher melting point than mozz, allowing you to cook at a higher temperature without burning the cheese.
Provolone is a firmer cheese so it’s easier to work with. It comes in 4” diameter sticks which can be sliced for perfect portion control. Five slices equal three and a half ounces.
By using sliced cheese it’s possible to completely seal in the sauce. The high sugar content of pizza sauce will cause it to burn if exposed to the direct heat of a pizza oven. Slide the slices toward the center to create a perfect circle of cheese.
Now that we have our perfect crust, sauce and cheese we’re ready to build a Heavenly Combo.
I preferred Hormel. Most commercial pre-sliced pepperoni is sliced too thin, anywhere from 16 to 20 slices per ounce. That’s fine for a sandwich but under the high heat of a pizza oven it tends to crisp up like a piece of bacon or even burn. I bought my pepperoni in sticks and sliced it myself at 10 slices to the ounce. This yields a substantial piece of meat that still cooks through.
I preferred Oscar Mayer. Here you have the opposite problem. Commercial pre-sliced Canadian bacon is sliced too thick. Real Canadian bacon, as opposed to ham, ain’t cheap. You want to give the customer a good taste without breaking the bank. I sliced it myself; 5 slices equal 2 ounces.
A bit of a shocker here; I preferred to use canned mushrooms. I like the flavor of fresh mushrooms but I had problems finding a consistent vendor. In addition, fresh mushrooms release their water as they cook. This can leave wet, uncooked spots. Domestic mushroom producers save their Grade A product for fresh so the best canned mushrooms tend to be imported.
This was included for the crunchy texture. If I were still building pizza today, I would use jicama instead. It has the crunchy texture as well as a lovely slightly sweet, slightly starchy flavor.
I cooked my own. Starting with a 60/40 blend of ground beef and pork with salt, pepper, sage, rosemary, red pepper, and MSG. Before you scream allow me to say that MSG is called a flavor enhancer for a reason. I tried cooking without it but the finished product had a flat and uninteresting taste.
Ground beef, salt and pepper, no MSG required.
I used the links of sweet Italian sausage and baked them in the oven, after poking with a fork to avoid explosions. After cooling I quartered them lengthwise and chopped into bite-sized chunks.
Pre-sliced green olives are a mess. I bought queen-sized stuff manzanilla olives and sliced them using a Tomato Pro slicer.
Imported ripe olives have usually been processed for their oil and then re-hydrated. The best sliced ripe olives are domestic.
Bell Pepper & Onion
To achieve a uniform dice, I processed the peppers and onions with a French fry cutter.
Pre-sliced jalapenos are too thick. You want a “My, that was spicy.” not an “OMG give me the pitcher!” experience. I bought whole jalapenos and sliced them like the green olives.
Pineapple tidbits are just the right size for pizza; in their own juice, no heavy syrup. In a pinch quartered pineapple chunks will work.
Thawed salad shrimp work best.
Anchovies are placed on top of everything else so they are clearly visible. Since they are the most infrequently ordered ingredient, anchovy prep requires a trick. Anchovies usually come in a flat tin, packed in olive oil and salt. Separate and rinse the fillets and layer them between wax paper. They can now be frozen and used as needed.
Oven tending and the Zen of pizza....
Still to come.