Back in July 08, I wrote a post entitled Making Your Own GREAT Pizzas At Home. The title was not an exaggeration. I had experimented with multiple pizza recipes before developing one I particularly liked, and with further tweaking over a period of months was consistently getting results that I was pretty pleased with. My pizzas were on a par with all but one of my favourite local pizzerias, and given the restrictions of a domestic oven, I was chuffed with that.
Naturally, I slipped into evangelical mode and posted my recipe on the web for anyone interested. The response was underwhelming, although a few folk emailed me privately to enthuse after trying the recipe. But there were hundreds of pizza recipes on the web, I reasoned – why should massive tribes of pizza pundits flock to my blog? I sulked vaguely for a short time, then got on with enjoying my home-baked lil’ luverlies.
That was not the end of the story – not by a long way. Driven by a restless and at times self-defeating perfectionism, I continued to experiment with my pizzas, but could not improve on the recipe I posted. Then I happened upon a remarkable site of obsession and instruction that set me back on my increasingly well-padded bum with a jolt: Jeff Varasano’s Famous New York Pizza Recipe. (Update: There is now a doco series being shot about Jeff and his pizza adventures. If you want to check it out and/or subscribe to future Youtube episodes as they’re posted, see here.)
It took all of 20 seconds browsing to conclude that Varasano was a bona fide pizza maniac! He had travelled the world in search of the best pizzas, researched the Italian masters, and wrote in a didactic tone that resisted challenge.
As I pored over the site, it quickly became apparent that the man was no web blowhard. He was obsessed with pizza, and a genuine authority. His quest for the optimum pizza made mine look petty indeed. And one of his paragraphs seemed to point an accusatory finger directly at me!
There are about a hundred books and internet recipes that claim to give an authentic or secret pizza dough recipe. Oddly, while many claim to be secret or special, they are practically all the same. Here it is in summary. If you see this recipe, run screaming:
Sprinkle a yeast packet into warm water between 105-115 F and put in a teaspoon of sugar to feed it. Wait for it to foam up or ‘proof’. Add all your flour to a Kitchen Aid heavy duty mixer, then add the yeast and salt. Now mix until it pulls away from the side of the bowl. Coat with oil and leave in a warm place until it doubles in bulk, about 1-2 hours. Punch down, spread on a peel with some cornmeal to keep it from sticking and put it on the magical pizza stone that will make this taste just like Sally’s in your 500F oven.
I dunno who Sally is, but I do know that the dough recipe Varasano was dissing with such contempt was pretty close to mine! And I had to admit that his claim was correct that the numerous dry yeast pizza dough recipes strewn over the web are, indeed, pretty samey. I had made a few small changes, including adding a little rye to the dough, but really, my tweaks were just tweaks. Now, here was someone claiming he had something different, more authentic, better!
I read the site and re-read it, and the excitement mounted. He was advocating using sourdough starter in the dough! I had recently started baking sourdough bread at home, and was already an addicted breadhead. Anything sourdough was electrically charged for me. Add pizza and the equation was combustible.
On the edge of spontaneous immolation, I spoke sternly to myself. I’d be reduced to smoking ashes soon enough, relatively speaking (which hopefully means a couple of quality decades ahead yet!). So I calmed down to hyper, and set off on a new quest for a home-baked pizza that smashed through the dry yeast barriers to new levels of yumdom.
Jeff Varasano’s recipe was my starting point, and I fully acknowledge him for showing me the way, the truth and the light of home-baked pizzas.
I adhered as closely as possible to his recipe and directions at first, then began to experiment until further tweaks seemed counterproductive. In other words, I think these sourdough pizzas are now about as good as domestic kitchen pizzas get. And yes, I’m gonna share the lurve, right here, right now…
I’ve slightly increased Varasano’s recommended dough hydration, and have adapted his technique to suit my preference for hand-mixing (he uses an electric mixer). This adaptation has necessitated including a small proportion of olive oil in the dough – if anything, I think this enhances the flavour. My topping preparation is also a bit different from Jeff’s.
I stopped short of following his recommendation to tamper with the oven to elevate its maximum temperature to 500C! While I admire and respect that sort of fanaticism, I quietly contend that it is entirely possible to turn out wonderful thin-crust traditional-style pizzas from an unmodded domestic oven. Not charred at the edges and super-light, as is only possible at 500C+, but still up with the best I’ve had at commercial venues, and immeasurably superior to the crappy things franchises like Dominos, Pizza Hut, etc sell by the millions (how’s that for lowering the bar?). Not as good as the incredible thin-crust ones I had from an old woodfired oven pizzeria near the Trevi Fountain in Rome, but not far off, either. I say this not out of boast, but as a pizza tragic (although not on Jeff’s level!) speaking on a wavelength shared by others of my kind. You’ve gotta try this!
Alright, here we go. You’ll need a sourdough starter, which if you’re starting from scratch will take 7 to 14 days to develop to full leavening capacity. Follow the directions here, and you can’t go wrong.
In fact, you may get a whole lot more than you bargained for. An active wild yeast starter is the key to a wondrous new world not only of knockout pizzas, but of home-baked artisan breads and other goodies… if you choose to open that door. I strongly recommend that you do! See these previous posts:
Sourdough Rising – The Home Artisan Bread Baking Revolution
Baking Sourdough Bread At Home: A Beginner’s Guide.
- Large plastic mixing bowl
Plastic dough scraper
Small, round plastic Glad containers (or similar) with lids
Pizza peel or back of cookie baking sheet
Dough Ingredients (1 pizza)
Multiply ingredient weights by however many pizzas you want to make, or re-scale using bakers’ % provided in right column:
|Tale of Tales|
*I use a 100% hydration white starter, or rye/white flour starter. The proportion of starter used here is very small, so the starter hydration is not crucial.
Dough Method (as stated, I do all mixing by hand):
1. Mix all ingredients except salt, cover and rest for 20-40 mins (autolyse).
2. Add salt, and do 20 or 30 stretch-and-folds in bowl with a plastic dough scraper.
3. Pour about 1 tbls olive oil on to bench surface, scrape dough on to bench, knead/squelch between fingers and stretch this way and that until oil begins to be absorbed (2-3 minutes). Change kneading method to “air kneading” (slapping dough repeatedly on bench – see youtube demo video below).
4. If sticking too much during air kneading, add more oil to bench surface and repeat 3.
5. Repeat 4 until gluten is well-developed and dough is smooth and stretchy (but it will still be quite a wet dough). This should take about 5 minutes in total, but always go by dough feel. Return dough to lightly oiled mixing bowl, cover, and rest 20 mins or so.
6. Divide dough into however many pizzas you’re making, using a scale to ensure each piece is equal in weight.
7. Roll into balls and transfer each into its own small lightly oiled plastic container, roll around to cover evenly with oil, and put on lid.
8. After short rest, transfer to fridge. Retard fermentation in fridge 2-3 days (I prefer 3).
Demo of slap-kneading technique
Watch the entire video and as the gluten develops you’ll see the dough transform from a sticky blob to a lovely, manageable, well-integrated dough.
1. Take dough out of fridge about 1 hour before baking (pre-heat oven and pizza stone to max temperature possible during this time). When dough has returned to room temperature (45 minutes or so, but could be shorter or longer, depending on ambient temperature), empty one dough ball on to moderately floured surface. Forget about showing off that pizza dough tossing technique you’ve been working on – this dough is far too wet for that. Instead, gently and gradually stretch the dough evenly with your fingers, working from the centre out, leaving a small rim at edges. Be firm but not rough – the dough should be very manageable and stretchy, but be careful not to stretch it so thin it tears.
2. When at the size and thickness you want, transfer to semolina-sprinkled peel (or back of cookie sheet). This transfer process can be a bit tricky. I get my partner to lift one side of dough while I lift the other. It will distort in shape in transit, so re-shape when on peel (not always easy – but who cares if it ends up ‘rustic’ in shape, anyway?). Keep giving the peel a shake to make sure the dough is not sticking. If it does stick, work a little more semolina under the sticking part. It is vital to keep checking that it is not sticking as you put the toppings on. I have made the mistake of assuming a tiny bit of sticking shouldn’t matter, that the weight of the pizza would free it for launching with a bit of jerking of the inclined peel and send it sliding cleanly on to the pizza stone – I was spectacularly wrong! (The stuck part remained anchored to the peel while the toppings and rest of the dough ended up in a mess on the hot pizza stone – try cleaning that up after you stubbornly went ahead and decided it was a sort of open calzone you were baking rather than a pizza!). Yup, if the dough sticks to the peel AT ALL, EDGE SOME SEMOLINA UNDER THE PROBLEMATIC PART UNTIL IT DOES NOT STICK ANY LONGER!!
3. Drip olive oil over the dough and spread it evenly with your fingers. Next, swirl a bit of tomato sauce over surface and thinly spread. Quickly assemble your preferred toppings. KEEP TOPPINGS LIGHT! Then transfer to pizza stone in maxed-out pre-heated oven.
4. Bake about 8-10 mins max (note: the thicker the dough and spread of toppings, the longer it will take to bake; I like thin crust pizzas lightly topped, so mine only take 8 mins @ 250C).
5. I like to serve mine with freshly ground black pepper over the toppings, and scattered with torn basil leaves, with some chopped fresh chillies in quality extra virgin olive oil spooned over.
See: Making Your Own GREAT Pizzas At Home.
And remember, for thin-crust traditional-style pizzas, LESS IS MORE. Load the toppings on and you risk ending up with a soggy, half-cooked pizza. Bake it longer to compensate, and the rim will be over-baked and too brittle.
I don’t take great pics – poor lighting in the kitchen, and I’m too impatient to start eating! These don’t do justice to these pizzas, but will give some idea of the way they turn out.
Yes, the degree of difficulty of these pizzas is higher than that of the dry yeast versions. Yes, the time involved is days, not hours. And yes – it is worth the extra effort!
Tip 1: Try par-baking your olive-oil-spread pizza bases for 2 minutes or so, then remove carefully from oven and put on toppings before returning to oven to complete the bake. Par-baking gives a nice bubbled crust effect.
Tip 2: For last 2 minutes of bake, turn on your griller (‘broiler’ is the term in the States, I think). This will give you a char on the edges, similar to a wood-fired oven (but not as good, since you don’t get the same hint of smokiness in the flavour).
I don’t see myself going back to dry yeast pizza dough, but there is a short-cut alternative for those who might baulk at beginning a wild yeast starter culture just to make pizzas: a biga or poolish, which is basically a starter made using commercial yeast (dry or compressed).
Whether you use a natural or commercial yeast pre-ferment, the secret to more complex, developed flavours is to retard fermentation of the dough overnight or longer in the fridge.
I’m not much interested in exploring the use of a commercial yeast biga. Why would I be, when I have a gloriously active wild yeast starter that I fawn over like a pet and that serves me so well? As ever, though, the choice is yours. Just don’t harbour the delusion (as I did before I knew better) that those dry yeast pizza bases are as good as it gets – they ain’t! Not out of a domestic oven, at least.
Sourdough pizzas are top of the wozzer. Try ’em!