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Creating Perfect Pizza Crust

Thin or thick, crisp or chewy—it's all in how you treat the dough

Fine Cooking Issue 03
Photos: Ruth Lively
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Everyone knows that the perfect crust is the basis for the perfect pizza. Ultimately, a good pizza results from the balanced union of a well-cooked crust and appropriately selected toppings. The crust can be thin and crisp, risen and light, or thick and chewy, depending on how the dough is handled. The toppings can range from a simple combination of coarse salt, fresh herbs, and olive oil, to a spicily sauced, sausage-studded, cheese-and-vegetable melange. Whatever style I choose to make, I want to be sure that the crust has good flavor and is fully cooked to a light crispiness—not doughy in the middle or wet and pasty under the topping.

Choose the right kind of flour

I start with a basic dough recipe and then control the variables of rising, resting, and baking to get the crust I want. The recipe makes enough dough for three or four small pizzas or two large pizzas.

I’ve achieved the best results when using an all-purpose unbleached flour. Most such flours have a protein content of 11 to 12 percent, which is indicated on the bag’s nutritional information panel. This is also the gluten-factor indicator, which determines the elastic qualities of the dough. Higher-gluten flours are better for breads and pasta, lower-gluten flours for cakes and pastry. Cheaper flours usually contain less protein and therefore are less suitable for breads.

The addition of whole-wheat or rye flour is optional, but I usually add one or the other for more flavor and nutrition. You can use as much as 1 cup of whole-wheat flour, but adding more than 1/3 cup of rye flour per recipe will yield a dense, heavy dough, due to the lack of gluten in rye. I have made pizza dough using just bread flour with good results, though the higher gluten content of bread flours can make the dough stubbornly elastic when trying to make a thin crust. Using all bread flour is fine if I’m going to store the dough overnight in the refrigerator (chilling overnight gives the gluten a chance to relax). Bumping up the yeast by an extra 2 teaspoons gives an all-bread-flour pizza dough better rising action.

Whatever flours I choose, I mix the dough carefully to avoid adding too much flour. Because the moisture content of flours may vary, slightly more or less flour than called for in the recipe may be needed to achieve the correct light and springy consistency. Too much flour, either added initially or kneaded in later, can make a heavy dough, and the crust will be dense or tough. Too little flour will make a sticky dough that’s liable to tear during shaping. The ideal dough is soft, springy, and pliant, but not rubbery.

Mix the dough and let it rise

I usually make my dough plain, preferring to add the spices and cheese in the topping. Occasionally I add to the dough sautéed chopped onions or herbs, such as oregano, thyme, rosemary, marjoram, or crushed red or black pepper. I know some cooks add grated cheese to the crust, but I’m wary of the cheese burning in the high temperatures at which I bake my pizzas.

First I proof the yeast for 5 to 10 minutes in 1 cup of warm water and a pinch of sugar, until the yeast dissolves and the liquid begins to appear creamy. This tells me that the yeast is active. Red Star is the brand of yeast I prefer, simply because I’ve used it for years and I’m familiar with the way it acts. I don’t use fast-rising yeast for pizza dough. It works so quickly that it can get away from me, and it isn’t suitable for dough that I’m going to store in the refrigerator. (Chilling doesn’t stop the action of the yeast, but merely slows it down.)

Next I add the remaining water and 1-1/2 to 2 cups flour, including the whole-wheat or rye flour. I beat this well (a hundred strokes) until it’s smooth and soupy, and then let it stand for 10 to 15 minutes, until it’s bubbly and swollen. I then add the salt and olive oil and proceed to stir in the rest of the flour by the cupful until I get a stiff but still slightly sticky dough. I always stir the dough in the same direction so that the gluten strands retain a smooth, consistent pattern (this isn’t readily discernible).

When the dough begins to form a cohesive mass that’s thick enough to hold its shape, I turn it out onto a lightly floured surface and let it rest while I clean and oil the bowl. I knead the dough, turning it clockwise by quarter turns and sprinkling a little flour on top and on the surface underneath before folding it over. I add just enough flour so the dough doesn’t stick and tear. (A dough scraper is invaluable for lifting the mass of dough cleanly from the counter.) Kneading takes about 5 to 8 minutes. When the dough is smooth, springy, and pliant—earlobe-soft—I return it to the oiled bowl, cover it with a damp cloth, and let it rise until doubled. This generally takes between 35 and 45 minutes at 70° to 75°F.

Choose from three different crust styles

I have three options for handling the dough after the first rise. I can form the crust, assemble the pizza and bake it immediately. I can punch the dough down and let it rise again before baking. This doesn’t substantially change the resulting crust, but it gives me more time if I need it before baking the pizza. Or, I can refrigerate the dough for several hours or up to two days. In this case, I give it a final punch down after it has chilled for about 40 minutes and put it in a plastic bag.

By letting the dough mature in the refrigerator, the gluten ripens and relaxes. The dough becomes less sticky, and it will stretch farther when I work with it. With this refrigerated dough, I can obtain a thin, crisp crust, or a thick, chewy crust, depending on how thin I roll or stretch the dough when forming it, and on whether or not I allow it to warm up and rise before baking it. A thick crust made from chilled dough is likely to have larger air bubbles and be less delicate and more chewy—rather like the difference between regular and sourdough breads. I believe crust made from refrigerated dough has a better flavor, too.

For a light, risen crust, I like to use a freshly made dough, although you can use a chilled dough. For the highest, puffiest results, I add 2 teaspoons more yeast to the recipe and use the dough within three hours of making it. For a finer-textured crust, I simply roll it out thinner and let it rise to the same height. I let the dough rise until it’s puffy, and my fingertips disappear when I press on it. This takes about 10 minutes with freshly made, room-temperature dough, or about 15 minutes with chilled dough.

A thick, chewy crust can be made either with fresh or chilled dough. I stretch or press the dough to about 1/3 to 1/2 inch thick and let it rise just slightly. Whether I end up with a thick and chewy crust or a light and risen one depends on how thick I roll it out and how high I let it rise.

For a thin, crisp crust, I use dough straight out of the refrigerator. I roll it out as thin as I want it—usually about 1/4 inch—and get it into the oven within minutes, before it has a chance to rise.

Go easy on the toppings and put them on halfway through baking

I assemble the pizza on an oiled, rimless cookie sheet. A third of the dough recipe will make a 12- to 16-inch round crust, depending on how thin I roll or spread it. The smaller the circumference of the pizza, the easier it is to work with.

I lightly form the dough into a ball, and then stretch it out. First, I hold it vertically by one edge and turn it in my hands, allowing gravity to stretch it as I turn it. Then I lay it on the cookie sheet and press out the dough, starting from the center. I’m careful not to tear or poke holes in the dough. A floured rolling pin is handy for rolling out thin crusts. If the dough springs back, I let it rest a minute or two, or chill it in the fridge, and then continue to work it out. If I’m using a sauce, I spread it on sparingly so that the dough shows through. Otherwise the crust will be soggy on top. If I’m not using a sauce, I’ll drizzle some olive oil over the dough and season it with salt, pepper, herbs, and perhaps garlic.

Next, I arrange the toppings, usually three to four items, so that they don’t overlap. I apply the cheese a little more than halfway through the baking process. By adding the cheese when the crust is just lightly browned, I can tell when the topping is sufficiently cooked and also avoid overbrowned, leathery cheese and an undercooked crust. Those toppings that don’t need much cooking, like blanched spinach or asparagus, paper-thin prosciutto, or steamed shellfish, also go on at halftime, along with the cheese.

I bake pizza in a very hot oven—475°F. I’ve baked pizzas on heavy baking sheets and on a baking stone. If it’s sufficiently preheated, the stone yields a superior, dry, uniformly crisp crust. Without a stone, I can still get an excellent crust with an oiled sheet. I sometimes use both if my pizza is large and heavy, partially cooking the pizza on the baking sheet first, and then transferring it to the stone halfway through, when I add the cheese (a thin, raw dough can buckle when sliding onto a stone). This way, I can maintain an even, thin crust while getting the benefits of the baking stone.

Pizza toppings

I usually use raw vegetables on my pizza, but leftover cooked vegetables work well, too. Sliced thin and spread sparingly, raw onions, bell peppers, scallions, garlic, sliced fresh tomatoes, eggplant, or mushrooms will cook nicely. Drizzling a little olive oil over raw vegetables enhances their texture and taste. Leftover ratatouille, cooked asparagus, broccoli, zucchini, and mushrooms also work well as long as they’re not overcooked initially and are fairly dry when they go on the pizza. I always leave space between the items I put on a pizza. This prevents their juices from seeping into the crust and making it soggy on top.

I use only cooked meats, such as ham, chicken, sausage, or beef, either leftovers or precooked. Shrimp, scallops, and mussels can be used raw as long as they aren’t buried in the topping sauce, or they can be precooked.

I check the pizza during baking and rotate it if it appears to be cooking unevenly. Also, I lift the crust to see how it’s cooking underneath. If the bottom is still pale while the top seems almost done, I’ll turn the oven temperature down and leave the pizza in longer.

When the crust is lightly browned and the toppings are cooked, I sprinkle on the cheeses. Then I bake the pizza an additional 8 to 10 minutes, or until the cheese is melted and bubbly. By this time, the crust will be perfectly done.

If I’m using a pizza stone, I slide the pizza onto a cookie sheet, or remove it with spatulas to a cutting board. I cut it into wedges with a long, sharp chef’s knife or a pizza cutter. To keep it hot, I may serve only part of it at once, leaving the remainder on the stone in the turned-off oven. I rarely have any leftover pizza, but if I do, I thoroughly enjoy the remainder for lunch or a snack the following day, either at room temperature or reheated in a 300° oven just until warm. The crust will no longer be crisp unless it’s reheated, but it remains as tasty as ever.


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