Killer Pizza, Part Two: Oven Technique

Pizza Stretching
Photo by Flickr user Jeff Kubina
​ In Part One, we talked about how to ferment a wet pizza dough recipe slowly in your refrigerator. This week, we'll talk about tips and tricks to shape that dough and turn your home oven into a reasonably good replica of a brick-lined deck oven like you'd find in a New York City pizza shop.

Know right now that I'm biased toward that style of pizza. If you prefer a softer, lightly sweetened CPK-style California blonde  crust or God forbid, a deep-dish monstrosity, my dough formula and technique won't work for you.

This oven technique gives you a crisp, dark brown crust with some charred spots, and if you pick up a slice, it's stiff enough that the end just barely droops. When folded in half like New Yorkers do, the crust folds in half with a snap.

There are two pieces of equipment you'll need to create a pizza with the proper crisp bottom and the right amount of char: a pizza stone and a pizza peel. Select the largest pizza stone that will fit in your oven. A 14" rectangular stone is a common size available at local kitchen supply stores like Chefs' Toys, 2000 Plus, Williams-Sonoma and Sur La Table and should cost between $40 - $70. Also check online at A 14" peel costs $25 or so. Pick up a 14" aluminum pizza plate while you're at it, and a pizza cutter if you don't already own one.

The weighty ceramic baking stone absorbs a great deal of heat energy, and transfers it quickly to the bottom of your pizza crust. It also brings your oven back up to temperature more quickly after you've opened the door and allowed the heat to escape. It's a piece of equipment that improves your oven's performance in other situations to, so you should have one in your oven at all times.

The stone's direct contact with your raw dough causes the tiny air bubbles trapped inside to expand and your dough rises almost immediately - a phenomenon bread bakers call "oven spring." In the middle phase of  baking, the hot stone helps bake out the moisture in the wet dough, and sets up a crisp crust, and toward the end, it will have colored the crust a dark brown.

Without the direct baking on the hot stone surface, my dough recipe will not cook out the moisture adequately. In other words, don't use a mesh screen as used in most takeout pizza shops unless you want a "dirty blonde" crust. On the flip side, the reason pizza shops use a pizza screen is ease of handling - even minimally trained employees can slide an uncooked pizza off the peel without wrecking it. But you'll never get the correct crisp texture if you use a screen. Your choice.

Preheat the oven: Place the pizza stone on the top rack of your oven and crank the heat as high as it will go. For most home ovens, that means 500 or 550F. Most commercial deck ovens will go up past 650 degrees, which means they can cook their pizzas in less than 8 minutes. If you follow my recipe, allow 10 minutes to bake your pie.

You're using the top rack of the oven to place the pizza so the ceiling of the oven directs heat at the pizza, cooking the top as quickly as the stone cooks the bottom. Preheat your oven for at least 45 minutes. You want the stone and the oven walls thoroughly preheated. 

Pizza Stretching
Photo by Flickr user Jeff Kubina

Shape your dough:
If you're new to pizza making, start with my recipe in Part One for an 8" pizza. Work up to the 14" pizza as you gain confidence. You shaped your dough into a perfect ball, and the next day, it should have risen slightly; it won't be anywhere near doubled the original size like most bread recipes, but don't worry.

Generously flour the raw dough, and also dust your kitchen counter with flour. Working with your fingertips, flatten the ball gently into a circle. Keep working with your fingertips and spread the circle bigger, until it's about two hands' width in size. At this point, pick up the dough, and lay it across the back of your knuckles. Close your hands and make a fist so your fingers don't poke holes in the dough.

Spread your fists apart a few inches at a time, then spin the dough circle a 1/4 turn, and repeat. As you spread your hands and rotate, the dough will grow in size. Allow the dough to drape down across your knuckles, and keep spreading your hands apart until your dough is stretched to the desired size. The dough will be wet and stretchy, and will want to droop readily, so work quickly.

Lightly dust the entire peel with flour, and lay your dough carefully on top of the peel. Take a minute to practice sliding the dough off of the peel back onto the counter at this point. Keep the peel level, and practice the forward wrist-snap motion to slide the first few inches of the raw dough off the peel. Aim that drooping edge of dough at the back edge of your counter. Those first couple of inches of contact will give you enough traction to slide the peel out from under the rest of the raw dough. When it comes time to bake for real, you'll aim at the back edge of your pizza stone and repeat this  same feel.

TIP: If you like a pizza with lots of random bubbles, stretch your dough by hand. If you don't like bubbles, use a rolling pin to flatten and stretch the dough. The pin closes the many little bubbles created when the dough rises, while hand-stretching retains those microbubbles that expand in the oven.

I'm no videographer, so I'm going to demonstrate the dough ball shaping and stretching technique through Margaret Emily MacKenzie's great documentary. Pay attention to the hands of the legendary Dom De Marco, the pizzaiolo of DiFara Pizza in Brooklyn.

The Best Thing I Ever Done HQ from MargaretEmily MacKenzie on Vimeo.

Did you catch the way De Marco shapes the dough ball and sealed up the seam on it's skin? Did you watch the way he formed the pie? Notice he doesn't throw the pie up into the air. There's no theatrics with his dough, just great mastery of fundamental technique.

Sauce your pizza: Many New York City pizzerias sauce their pies with canned, ground tomatoes right out of the can, perhaps doctored with dried herbs and garlic. The uncooked tomatoes tastes bright and fresh, rather than concentrated and overcooked. If you can't find ground tomatoes (pureed isn't quite the same), then take canned whole tomatoes (drained) and pulse them in a blender until you have only coarsely ground pieces left. Again watching the De Marco's video as a guideline, ladle just enough sauce on to cover the pie lightly with sauce. Too little is better than too much. If you like sprinkle a little sea salt, pepper, and dried oregano atop the sauce.

Cheese your pizza: Always grate your own mozzarella with a box grater, rather than buy pre-shredded. The anti-clumping agents in pre-shredded cheese will prevent it from melting as it should. Sprinkle the cheese lightly on the pizza. Too much cheese will melt into a watertight "cap" and prevent the moisture in the dough and sauce from escaping. You should see as much red sauce as white mozzarella. Trust me on this.

If you're an extra cheese fan, wait 5 minutes after you put the pizza in the oven, and sprinkle on the extra cheese at that point. By waiting, you allow the pizza to bake off that moisture in that crucial first half of it's bake time. For the same reason, don't smother your pizza with too many toppings during the crucial first half of baking. Otherwise your crust won't rise enough, and will feel leaden and soggy.

Slide it onto the stone: Did you practice the method I described above to slide the pizza off the peel? Since your peel is the same size (14") as the stone, any pizza that sits on top of your peel should fit just right atop of your stone. Again, aim the pizza toward the back edge of the stone, and pull the peel out form under it.

Bake the pizza: At 500 degrees F, a thin crust pizza will take about 8 to 10 minutes to bake. Midway during the baking, rotate the pie 180 degrees using your peel. That will help the pie to bake more evenly.

If you want to add toppings, do it at this midway point. Meats like sausage or chicken should be fully cooked before you add them - raw meat will not cook completely in the short time you have left. After 8 minutes total bake time, look at the bottom of the pizza - you should have a dark brown crust, and even some lightly charred spots. At the same time, the cheese should have melted  completely.

Slice your pizza on the aluminum pizza plate, not on the wooden peel. Cut marks on the peel will ruin its smooth surface, which makes it more difficult to slide pizzas off.

Were you expecting fancy toppings and a "gourmet" recipe? Sorry to disappoint you. This is a primer in the fundamentals from a committed pizza fanatic. Even though it covers only the basics, it's an admittedly huge post. If you have questions, feel free to comment here!

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