After spending more than a year perfecting my pizza recipe, I’m finally ready to share it with the world. Before we get started, I must first stress that this isn’t a standard recipe that you try once for fun—this is an art and a craft that requires time and sacrifice. I’m passing on knowledge that will likely make your pizzas better than just about all pizzerias within ten miles of where you live, but it will require a commitment on your part. Therefore, unless you are willing to try this recipe at least five times, and all the techniques that it entails, it may be better for you to close this window and call up Dominos or Papa John’s for their soybean oil special. I recommend you select a day of the week where you can make pizza for five consecutive weeks, and by the end of those five weeks, sit down with your family and make a decision of how best to continue.
I decided to learn how to make pizza in the Neapolitan style (from Naples in the south of Italy). I chose this style is because it is the best pizza in the world. I made this conclusion based on extensive experience and travel, the latter of which put me in Naples in the year 2005. All other pizzas are inferior variants. To Italians, pizza is a bread dish, not a cheese dish like in America, and so the quality of the crust in an Italian pizza should be given the highest priority. Consider that cheese on a pizza was an innovation, not the original tradition, and you will come to understand the abomination that is American pizza, of which the cheese layer is actually thicker than the bread! When I eat my homemade Neapolitan pizza, I think, “I’m eating delicious bread, and as a consolation to my weakness for additional flavors, I’ve also added cheese and other things to it.” If bread is life, pizza is decadence.
Here is how a classic Neapolitan pizza should look:
My pizza training came from two sources: Italian YouTube and an Italian friend of mine from the south of the country. I would send him photographs of my pizzas and cross sections of the crust and wait for his stern assessment. When his grandmother approved of my pizza, I knew that I had gone as far as I could go. Through many months of trial and error, I present to you my recipe but more importantly my technique, which plays a more decisive role in the quality of the final product.
There are four tools you need to buy before continuing:
1. Pizza stone. Pizza needs high heat for the crust to develop in an airy fashion. If you don’t have a pizza stone, your pizza crust will have the consistency of a breadstick, without the exterior crisp and interior pillow lattice. A pizza stone is a flat ceramic slab that is preheated with your oven for 45-60 minutes. The second that raw dough is placed on a hot pizza stone, which retains heat better than a metal pan, gases violently expand inside the crust, leading to proper crust formation. This process does not happen on typical pans. I use a 16″ diameter pizza stone. If upon measurement you discover your oven rack is too small for a 16″ stone, you can purchase a smaller stone. (Disable adblock if you do not see the following image.)
2. Pizza peel. This tool transfers your pizza onto and off the pizza stone and allows you to rotate the pizza midway through cooking. It’s theoretically possible to use a wood cutting board as a makeshift pizza peel in an emergency, but pizza peels are cheap enough. I use a 14″ metal pizza peel.
3. Digital scale with 0.1 gram increments. Italian pizza masters may be able to add ingredients based on eye, but we are not masters. I always use a scale to measure dough ingredients. Only when it comes to some pizza toppings is it okay to go based on feel. If you don’t have a scale then I can’t help you. (A scale with 1 gram increments can be used but you may have to round, which is dangerous.) One advantage of using a scale is that I’ve been able to micro-adjust my recipe so that it is as perfect as I can get it. This is the main scale I use:
Pro tip: Digital scales can be temperamental with measurements under 5 grams. When measuring lightweight ingredients, it is best to first put a portion of that ingredient onto your palm and then plop it down at once into a bowl that is placed on a tared scale. If you gradually add tiny amounts to the scale, it may not register properly.
4. Plastic dough scraper. The pizza dough we use is so wet that it will stick to the counter. Forget about the lies you learned about adding flour to dough until it doesn’t stick anymore… we’re not making crackers! You will use the dough scraper while kneading and also to transfer dough balls. A large rubber spatula can be used as an alternative but it will not look professional.
Thankfully, it’s almost impossible to create a pizza that is not edible. On the first try your pizza will not be as good as mine, but you will be able to eat it. Even if you undercook your pizza, which you won’t after reading this article, you can still eat it. It’s a paradox that making perfect pizza is so hard, but making an edible pizza is so easy. Meditate on that while you’re in the kitchen.
The importance of gluten
It’s sad to live in an age where gluten is demonized. Gluten is simply a protein that provides structure and support to bread. Man has been able to tolerate gluten for ages. Jesus Christ fed the multitudes with bread and did not have to ask anyone if they needed a gluten-free alternative. So why is gluten suddenly a boogeyman? I believe it comes down to three reasons.
First, grain is no longer processed the way it used to be. Some farmers use chemicals to increase their yield prior to harvest, and these chemicals are not totally eradicated by the time wheat becomes flour. I suspect gluten-free flour is processed with extra steps that reduce the concentration of those chemicals. Second, many breads you buy from the supermarket are adulterated with fake-food ingredients that you may unknowingly be allergic to. Lastly, there is the phenomenon of gut inflammation. Due to the presence of all types of toxic substances in our environment, our body responds with inflammation to mitigate their harm. Certain foods will amplify existing inflammation in the gut, and for some people it’s bread, just like how some of those who have had Lyme disease can no longer digest meat protein.
To give you an overview of gluten, let’s compare two classes of baked goods: cakes and breads. Cakes are meant to be soft, delicate, and moist, with a “melt in your mouth” texture. You shouldn’t have to chew on a piece of cake. This is because cakes often use low-gluten flour (often called cake or pastry flour), which is 7-9% gluten, and is baked in a way to minimize gluten formation. Have you ever used a pancake or brownie recipe that said, “Stir just until mixed”? This is to prevent the development of gluten, leaving your cakes soft.
The percentage of gluten in bread flour is 12-14%. When in the bag of flour, the precursors of gluten are inert, but when water is added to it, those precursors bond to form active gluten, ready to form a strong network of chemical bonds. The more you manipulate the dough (i.e. mixing or kneading), the more the gluten interacts with the water, forming more bonds, and the stronger those bonds get. I will spare you the technical science, but the act of kneading is not to mix the dough as much as to form strong gluten bonds. Don’t you hate it when a big sandwich you’re eating falls apart, creating a big mess? In such a case, the gluten in that bread wasn’t developed enough, or the flour didn’t have enough gluten.
A pizza crust should be able to hold the weight of its toppings, or else the moisture of the toppings turn it limp and soggy. In other words, you need gluten when making pizza, because the crust is a physical support structure, similar to the foundation of a house. It’s perverse to make pizza with “gluten-free” flour, but I have some great news: the pizza recipe I share is friendly to gluten sufferers because of the long fermentation time, which you’ll read about later.
Now this is where things get a bit complicated. Gluten is not indestructible like cement: its bonds can be broken when you manipulate the dough or through the action of yeast, which can start to eat the bread and disrupt its gluten bonds when there is not enough sugar for it to feed on. We want pizza that can hold toppings, but we don’t want a cracker. Therefore we form the dough to maximize gluten, then prolong the fermentation time to where just enough gluten breaks down to create a tender crust that is digestible, but still strong enough to hold the toppings. This balance comes down to a window of 30 minutes when the dough is resting at room temperature right before baking. If I let the dough rise too long once it is at room temperature, I will notice little holes and tears in my crust, meaning that too much gluten broke down.
Understand that Italians promote a digestible pizza. They use the word “digestible” often, because how many times have you eaten a pizza that sat in your stomach for hours, making you feel bloated? This is especially true if you order from a chain restaurant like Dominos, Papa John’s, or Little Caesars. First, they use cheap ingredients, including GMO soybean oil instead of extra virgin olive oil. Your stomach hates that. Second, they use a dough that is easy for their minimum wage employees to stretch, which means a high-gluten dough where it’s harder to make mistakes. Third, it’s not monetarily conducive to prolong their fermentation times, so their shorter fermentation times mean you’re eating a solid gluten baseball that your digestive system has to work really hard on to break down. One compliment I get on my pizzas is that it’s “light.” I had a friend who was gluten sensitive, and would only eat all the overpriced gluten-free products from the grocery store, but he could tolerate my pizzas without any problems.
One more thing about gluten I have to share is its grumpy demeanor. When you manipulate dough in any way, you are both tearing apart existing gluten bonds and creating new ones, putting it into a stressed state. When you let dough rest, you are creating gluten bonds only, leading to a rested state. In bread recipes you’ll often come across directions like, “Let the dough rest for 5 minutes.” This means, “Let the structure of the dough strengthen before you do something else with it.” I’ve done experiments where I didn’t let the dough rest, and the result is a weaker dough that breaks more easily. Of course it breaks, because not all the gluten bonds were formed, and it’s those bonds that allow the dough to stretch.
Begin preparing the dough 24-36 hours before you want to eat the pizza. The actual dough preparation takes about one hour. The dough balls sit outside for an hour and then is put into the refrigerator. The next day, you reform the dough balls with your hands when it is convenient for you. Then 2-3 hours before it’s time to cook, you remove the dough balls from the refrigerator and let them warm at room temperature. Then you form the pizza shape, add your toppings, and cook it for 6-8 minutes on your oven’s highest temperature setting. Click here for a printable version of the pizza recipe.
Here’s my typical schedule:
2pm: Make dough
3pm: Let rise for one hour
4pm: Put in refrigerator (begins bulk fermentation stage)
You can also make the dough in the evening.
~2pm: Reform cold dough balls (begins proofing stage). Return to refrigerator.
5:30pm: Take out dough from refrigerator
7pm: Preheat oven, prepare toppings
8pm: Bake pizza
The one task you have the most flexibility on is reforming the dough balls. It can be done at any time the next day up to taking out the dough from the refrigerator.
Ingredients for two 10-inch pizzas
You will probably be annoyed at my precise weight measurements, but I’m a perfectionist. These weights are perfect and have come from the trial and error of making over 100 pizzas in four different kitchens. One day you will be able to do your own thing, but I highly recommend you follow my recipe as closely as you can when starting off. I cannot be responsible for mediocre pizza if you deviate from my specifications.
The following recipe makes two 250 gram dough balls, which equates to two 10-inch diameter pizzas (one pizza is sufficient for a grown man though sometimes too much for a woman). If you double the recipe, you will of course make four pizzas. I don’t make big pizzas because Italians don’t make big pizzas (unless they are selling them by the slice). My goal is not to innovate but to maintain the tradition with the most minimal of adaptations.
- Dry yeast: 0.9 grams
- Sugar: 4.3 g
- Warm water: 203 g
- Bread flour: 294 g
- Fine sea salt: 4.3 g
- Extra virgin olive oil: 13 g (almost 1 tablespoon)
Let’s talk about the ingredients…
Yeast. There are two kinds of dry yeast you can buy in the supermarket: active dry and instant. I recommend you use instant, because the yeast particles are smaller and get to work faster. If you have active dry, you may encounter debates on whether you need to “activate” it in water and sugar for 5-10 minutes before adding flour, but I advise you not to worry about it. Use either type of yeast and proceed with the recipe in the same way.
Fine sea salt. You can also use normal table salt. I wouldn’t use coarse sea salt because it may not be distributed properly throughout the dough.
Sugar and extra virgin olive oil. No comments.
Warm water. Use spring water or filtered tap water. The water should be slightly warmer than room temperature, but of course not hot. At the risk of overcomplicating things, let me share how I achieve warm water. I have a jug of spring water sitting at room temperature. I boil one-sixth of the water amount and then add that boiling portion to the rest of the water. The result is perfectly warm water for my kitchen environment. If you’re using active dry yeast, definitely ensure the water is warm. If you’re using instant yeast, you can be lazy and use room temperature water, but if you’re genuinely lazy then you wouldn’t embark on this recipe, so try to get it right. When you put your finger in the water, it should be warm.
Bread flour. I have some bad news. Every company makes their bread flour differently. Some will lead to stickier dough and others less sticky. Some will give a harder crust and some softer. It gets even worse: flour from the same company can be slightly different from bag to bag. That said, the two bread flours I like the most are King Arthur and Gold Medal. King Arthur is available everywhere and produces a reliably solid pizza crust. Gold Medal flour produces a softer pizza crust that I like, but the dough is harder to work with, so I would avoid it as a beginner. I’ve also used Walmart brand bread flour and Pillsbury bread flour with success. I would not use all-purpose flour, which has a lower gluten content and will not provide the needed structure to stretch your dough without creating holes. Only use bread flour.
Making the pizza dough
Before beginning, I pray to Saints Spyridon and Nicodemus, baker saints of the Orthodox Church: “Saints Spyridon and Nicodemus, pray for me that my baking may be blessed!” I have a printed icon of them in my kitchen. You can also buy a wooden icon of them.
In a large bowl, measure out your warm water. Add the yeast and sugar then stir. The yeast has a tendency to clump. It is sufficient to smush the biggest clumps against the side of the bowl with the back of your spoon, but you don’t need to get them all. They will distribute evenly while kneading.
Add half of the flour to the bowl in a way that maximizes aeration. There are two ways to do this: use sifted flour or sprinkle the flour into the bowl from an elevation. As it falls from height to the bowl, it becomes lighter and more airy. Use a spoon to mix the ingredients.
Add the second half of the flour. Soon into mixing, your spoon is not going to cut it anymore. Ditch the spoon and get out your dough scraper.
Use the scraper to scoop some of the dough, lift the scraper up, then turn over your hand so the dough lands on top of the pile. Perform this motion around the bowl until most of the loose flour is gone. The dough does not yet have to be well-mixed.
Add the salt and olive oil to the top of the dough and wait 1 minute.
Then use the same scooping method to partially mix the salt and olive oil into the dough. You will still see streaks of yellow from the oil and uneven ingredient distribution. That is okay. Let the dough sit for 3 minutes.
Dump the dough onto your bare kitchen counter.
Knead for exactly 8 minutes. What do I mean by “knead”? The main purpose of kneading is to work the dough to create gluten bonds, giving the dough structure and an ability to stretch. With one hand, push the dough across the table a palm’s width, then hook the dough with your fingers and fold it back over. Do this a few times, and once the dough becomes a blob you can no longer grab, use your scraper to scoop the entire mass of dough off the counter and turn it over itself. Keep repeating this process for eight minutes.
Tip 1: Drag the dough across with your palm without breaking the dough. If you’re breaking the dough, which is inevitable, you’re traumatizing it. One thing you’ll notice is that as the kneading time goes on, you can stretch it further without causing breakage.
Tip 2: Use your dough scraper to deal with the stickiness. This is a sticky dough! It will stick on the counter and even the hairs on the back of your hand, creating quite a mess, but such a wet dough is required. Don’t add any flour. Embrace the stickiness.
I use a kneading technique as this professional baker:
Put the dough back into the bowl and cover with a towel or plastic wrap. Let sit for 20 minutes. It’s okay if the dough looks like an ugly blob.
Grab a baking pan or high-wall container where you will place the dough balls to rise. Coat the pan with a thin layer of olive oil and set aside.
To successfully create dough balls, we need to use some extra flour to reduce the stickiness. When starting out, don’t be shy to use extra flour to get the job done, but as you progress, you want to use the least amount of flour possible, because by adding too much, you start to disturb the water to flour ratio of the dough (70%). Most of the time, I find it sufficient to only coat my hands in flour.
After the 20 minutes is over, divide the dough into two equal balls that weigh approximately 250 grams (you can use a scale). If you add up the amounts to my recipe, you’ll notice that it is more than 500 grams, because some weight is lost to the bowl, your hands, and so on.
Dust your hands with flour. Take one of the dough portions and put it in your left hand.
Then with your right hand, tuck the outside of the dough underneath itself. Rotate and repeat. It will start to look like a ball. You may be surprised to notice that the dough is not as sticky as when you were kneading. While your flour dustings help, the gluten bonds have set and do not act like little hooks to the moisture on your hands. Pinch the seams on the bottom of the ball.
Your dough balls at this stage do not have to be perfect, so don’t stress. Get them as ball-like as you can.
Space your two dough balls on the pan and cover with plastic wrap or a lid. If the height of your baking pan is short and the plastic wrap touches the dough, dabble some olive oil on top of the dough to prevent sticking. Ideally, you want a pan with tall sides so this doesn’t happen. When the dough rises, it will actually flatten and spread horizontally instead of rising vertically since it’s so wet that the water weighs it down.
Leave the pan out at room temperature for one hour then put it in the refrigerator overnight. If you have a refrigerator that is on the warm side, where liquids don’t really get that cold, skip the one-hour rise at room temperature and stick the pan directly into the refrigerator.
The dough now enters the bulk fermentation stage. The yeast, happy at being near a food source for the first time in ages, will eat the sugar and other bread components, creating carbon dioxide gas in the form of bubbles. The yeast also creates flavor. Think of yeast as a marinade: the longer something ferments (without over-fermenting), the better the flavor is. We use only a little amount of yeast because of the long fermentation time. Most same-day pizza recipes require a lot of yeast to promote a fast rise. While the result looks like a pizza, the taste is flat and the dough is harder due to mostly-intact gluten bonds. In such a case, there is so much yeast in the dough that you end up tasting the yeast instead of the complex and rich flavors that are created from prolonged yeast metabolism.
Day two of the dough
The next day, at a time that is convenient for you, take out the dough pan. Coat your hands with flour. Use your scraper to remove a dough ball from the pan and onto your hands. Form a dough ball in the exact same way as before. You will notice the dough has a moist, rubbery texture, and is not as sticky as the day before.
This time, you should hear faint pops of bubbles bursting as you tighten the ball. You don’t need to go nuts, but you want to remove most of the air. Pinch the dough at the seams, as aggressively as you need to maintain a ball shape. At this stage it’s important for your dough balls to be properly round.
Return the dough balls to the pan, cover, and put back into the refrigerator. This begins the second stage of fermentation called proofing. Reforming the dough balls eliminates air to re-introduce the prosperous yeast to its desired food source. Flavors will continue to develop and the ensuing bubble formation will be distributed more evenly. Perhaps most importantly, proofing creates an environment where the high population of yeast starts to break down some of the gluten, just enough to give an excellent final result of the pizza—not too soft but not too hard.
It’s possible to skip the proofing stage entirely, but I wouldn’t recommend it. Otherwise, the dough becomes like a flat pancake and difficult to stretch. I share this to remind you that while my instructions are the ideal, you can still proceed with wild deviations and achieve an edible pizza.
One question is when to reform the dough balls. It’s better to do it later than earlier. Remember that we will be taking out the dough balls from the refrigerator about 2-3 hours before cooking. You can reform it as late as then, but I believe it’s better for some of the proofing to occur in the refrigerator. I will usually reform the balls about six hours before it’s time to remove them from the refrigerator. Starting off, stick to a plan that fits your schedule.
Before cooking, we want the dough to come up to room temperature because cold dough does not like to be stretched. Instead of stretching, it will tear. There is a window of 30 minutes that is ideal to stretch pizza dough once it’s out of the refrigerator. If you do it too early while it’s still cold, it will not want to stretch, and if you want too long when it is warm to the touch instead of cool, too much gluten will break down and you will have a lot of holes. Starting off, it’s better to stretch it sooner than later, for reasons I will soon explain, so I recommend you remove the pan from the refrigerator either two or two-and-a-half hours before your hands will touch the dough to stretch it. If your house is warm (75 degrees or above), aim for two hours. If your house is cooler, try two-and-a-half hours. If your house is cold, try three hours.
Baking preparations and toppings
One hour before you’re ready to stretch the dough, turn on the oven to its maximum heat setting for baking (usually 550 F) and place your pizza stone on the rack position you think is the hottest area of your oven while still leaving at least six inches above the stone to have enough space to manipulate the pizza.
While the oven is heating, prepare your pizza sauce. My sauce is probably the weakest link in my recipe, but it’s easy, it’s tasty, I have not gotten any complaints, and the ingredients are available year-round.
- 1 15-ounce can diced tomatoes
- 1 6-ounce can tomato paste
- 1 gram dried oregano
- 0.5 grams dried basil
- 4 grams sea salt
- 0.6 grams pepper
- 10 grams sugar
- 1 tablespoon olive oil
Unless you get petite-diced tomatoes, the consistency of the diced tomatoes will be too chunky, so what I do is pour the 15-ounce can into a bowl, put the bowl in the sink, and squeeze the tomatoes for a minute or two with the strength of my hand until they become smaller. For the canned tomatoes, it’s better to get them without added salt, and definitely without any added spices.
The sauce recipe will be enough for 6-8 pizzas, depending on how much sauce you like to put on your pizza (I put just enough for a thin covering). You can use the leftover sauce for pasta, meatball marinara, or pizza the following week. The sauce will have no trouble lasting in the refrigerator for up to two weeks. As long as there is no visible mold growing on it, I’ll use it.
There are two types of cheese I use:
- ~10 grams grated parmesan (shredded is okay)
- 60 grams mozzarella cheese, dry or wet
Most supermarkets sell tubs of grated parmesan. You can also buy the triangle blocks and shred them yourself. Either one is fine.
Things are a bit complicated when it comes to the mozzarella. There are two types, dry and wet. Dry mozzarella is what you’re familiar with, and is what they use for pre-shredded cheese, but do not use pre-shredded mozzarella cheese! It’s junk, the lowest quality you can buy. You instead must buy the blocks, preferably an Italian brand that explicitly states it is made from “whole” milk. Dry cheese that is not shredded will usually come in a pale white color packaged in rectangle blocks. As a beginner, I recommend you use dry cheese. The taste is similar to what you already know and you can make more errors with it and not hurt the final result. To prepare this cheese, shred it or cut it into half-inch cubes. I like to have little gaps of no cheese on my pizza to see some red color so I prefer cubes.
Wet mozzarella cheese usually comes in a round ball and is bright white. The texture is softer and, to my palate, the salt content is lower. This cheese is more expensive and is almost never used on commercial pizzas unless you’re in Italy. I imagine most people reading this have never had a pizza with wet mozzarella. However, there is a problem with using wet mozzarella in a home oven where the crust needs to cook for 6-8 minutes: because the moisture content of wet cheese is so high, it melts fast, and once it melts, it starts to dump its water onto the pizza, making it a soggy mess. The trick I learned is to cut wet cheese into julienne strips that take longer to melt, and if I’m not lazy, I only place the cheese on the pizza halfway through cooking. Do not attempt to shred wet mozzarella—it won’t work.
In general, dry mozzarella gives a classic, saltier flavor while wet mozzarella gives a brighter flavor with softer texture.
The last two ingredients required are basil leaves and extra virgin olive oil. You need 2-4 fresh basil leaves per pizza. A pizza without basil is not authentically Italian. If someone gives me a pizza without the basil aroma I’m used to, I may refuse to eat it. Olive oil is drizzled on the pizza after cooking, especially the crust, which is especially important for us because a home oven is usually so dry.
Here are other ingredients that are safe to add without causing offense to an Italian:
- Mushrooms – I prefer Portobello mushrooms, sliced in chunks.
- Pepperoni – can’t go wrong
- Black olives – sliced
- Grape tomatoes – halve them and place on top of the pizza after cooking or else they leak water
- Prosciutto – add after cooking
- Arugula – add after cooking
Personally, I like my pizzas with mushroom and pepperoni. Italian pizza is often very simple. American pizza is “creative” because they have to compensate for an inferior crust. Remember the crust is the star of the show… adding too many ingredients is like putting makeup on a naturally beautiful woman. There’s a point where she starts to look like a clown.
Let’s say you’re making a simple cheese pizza. The ingredients in front of you should be tomato sauce, parmesan, mozzarella, basil leaves, and olive oil. We’re missing just one thing: a bowl as wide as the dough balls that contains a mixture of flour. This is used in the key step of stretching the dough. You can use a bowl of bread flour alone, but it’s better to use a 50-50 mixture of bread flour and semolina flour (fine or coarse, though I prefer coarse for the texture it creates).
Take a couple spoons of flour, a couple spoons of semolina, and mix it in the bowl. With this mixture ready, you can now make the pizza.
Stretching the pizza and adding toppings
Next step is to stretch the dough ball into a pizza shape. There are countless methods to stretch a pizza. You are probably most familiar with the American method of tossing the dough in the air. We’re not going to do that. As a beginner, I recommend you do a method I’m calling the press and hang. Keep any rolling pins you have as far away from the dough as possible unless you want a Mama Celeste pizza.
Dust some of your flour bowl mixture on the counter (from this point on I will simply refer to the flour-semolina mixture as “flour”). Using your scraper, scoop up your pizza dough ball and plop it down inside the flour bowl. Then turn over the ball with your hands. You should now have a semi-flattened dough ball that is completely covered on both sides. Place it on your counter.
Using the fingertips of both hands, repeatedly press the dough in a direction from the center to the outside. What you want to do is move the air that is in the dough towards the crust, which will enhance the crust’s texture. After the dough has stretched a bit, turn it over and repeat the same process, pressing from the center outward.
Continue pressing, flipping over as many times as you want, until the pizza is roughly 10 inches in diameter and the crust on the outside is half an inch wide.
If the dough starts to stick to the counter, add more flour. At this stage, you don’t need to be stingy with flour. Use as much as you need to prevent sticking.
You will notice a couple of things. First, the dough ball will still be cool to the touch. That’s normal. Second, the dough tends to spring back slightly when you stop pressing, which is also normal. Your tender warm hands will eventually coax the dough to stretch. If the dough is refusing to stretch at all, or springs completely back even though you’ve been working it for a couple of minutes, set the dough aside, cover with a towel or napkin, and wait 15 minutes before trying again.
There are two reasons in the rare case the dough may not want to stretch at all: either the dough is too cold or not enough gluten broke down during the proofing stage. Whatever the case, letting the dough rest when it doesn’t want to stretch will alleviate both problems. In 15 minutes, try to stretch the resistant dough again. You’ll notice that it will stretch more than before, Keep working it until you get it to a 10-inch diameter.
Sometimes the dough acts like a fussy baby. If you’re impatient and decide to force the dough when it doesn’t want to stretch, it will form holes and break. Tomato sauce will go through the holes and create a big mess when you try to transfer the pizza to the oven. If you encounter holes, try to pinch them shut or patch them with a piece of dough removed from the crust.
In other cases, the dough immediately starts to break when you stretch it out, acting as if it has no innate strength. This is likely because you used a low-gluten flour such as all-purpose or proofed for too long at room temperature. A sign you proofed too long is the dough ball looks gassy and has a slight alcohol scent. For a beginner, it’s better to underproof (where the solution is simply to wait 15 minutes in the face of resistance) than overproof (where there is no easy solution to a dough that can’t hold structure).
Once you get close to the final diameter, you will notice uneven spots or difficulty getting the dough to stay put without springing back. The second stretching technique is to grab the dough by the sides, lift it up so that it hangs in the air, and walk your hands around the crust so that gravity stretches it for you. If the dough is particularly tight, I will bounce my hands slightly to encourage it to stretch from its own weight.
Another way to stretch pizza is through the slap technique, which is authentically southern Italian. First, stretch the dough by pressing with your hands until it is about 6 inches in diameter. Then with your right hand, press down (i.e. slap) the dough and with the left hand pull it outward. Do this repeatedly as you rotate through the entire pie. This is the technique I use and took dozens of practice pizzas to become somewhat competent at it, but I still use press and hang techniques alongside it. Here’s a pizzaiola using the slap technique:
The half-inch crust on the outside will seem very small to you, but if you successfully pressed the air outwards towards the crust, it will expand three- or four-fold in the oven. If your crust did not expand much in the oven, you did not successfully transfer the air of the dough ball to the edge.
When you’re done stretching, make sure the pizza slides easily on your counter. If not, throw some more flour underneath. Your pizza will also not be a perfect circle, which is okay because an irregular shape makes it look more authentic.
It’s time to put on the toppings. Dump the desired amount of sauce you want on the center of the pizza with a spoon and then use the back of the spoon to spread the sauce until the crust.
Then sprinkle the parmesan cheese, the mozzarella, and any other toppings that can be cooked in the oven.
Cooking the pizza
Grab your pizza peel and dust flour on it. There are three ways to transfer a pizza onto the peel. In the first method, lay your pizza peel on the counter next to the pizza. Then hook the underside of the pizza edge with both hands on opposite sides of each other and rotate 90 degrees on the counter to verify it is loose. Don’t worry if it stretches into an odd shape (you can fix it once it’s on the peel). Then attempt to slide the pizza from the counter onto the peel.
Once the pizza is on the peel, rearrange the toppings that have moved.
The second technique, which I use, is to lift up the edge of the pizza crust that is facing me with my left hand. Then with my right hand, I slide the dusted peel underneath the pizza in a rapid motion. This sounds risky, but as long as the pizza is not stuck to the counter, and the peel has enough flour on it, it works well.
The third technique is to transfer the pizza dough without toppings onto a heavily-dusted peel then add the toppings while the pizza is on the peel. The reason the peel must be heavily-dusted is that the dough absorbs flour as it remains on the peel. If you take too long to add toppings, the loose flour will be all used up and the pizza will become stuck. This technique is safe for a beginner, but for my taste, it adds too much flour to the bottom of the dough.
Once you get the pizza on the peel, regardless of the technique you use, jiggle the peel back and forth to verify the pizza is not stuck. This is very important. If part of the pizza is stuck on the peel, identify the problem area, lift up the pizza with your fingers, and dust a good amount of flour underneath. Jiggle again to verify the pizza is completely loose. If you don’t take this step, there is a high chance you will taco the pizza on the stone inside the oven. In the best-case scenario, you will make something like a calzone, but in the worst, you will get pizza all over your oven and it will not be edible.
Open your oven door (be careful: a blast of very hot air will hit you) and position the pizza over the pizza stone. Then give a little jerk forward followed by a big jerk backward to transfer the pizza to the peel.
As a beginner, you will mess up, and that’s okay. The most common problem is you don’t land the entire pizza on the stone. Part of the pizza is hanging off and toppings fell onto the oven, creating smoke (and sometimes fire lol), but the oven is way too hot to be grabbing things inside. Let it be (unless a fire started).
Close the door. Once we rotate the pizza halfway through cooking, when the crust is harder, we can position it more properly.
Let the pizza cook for 3-4 minutes. Use a timer to ensure the times are exact. Open the oven door and use your pizza peel to rotate it halfway.
Close the door and wait 3-4 more minutes. In my opinion, the pizza is done when you see coin-sized dark spots on the crust that approach black in color. For the first pizza of the evening that I make, this takes eight minutes, but for subsequent pizzas, only seven, and depending on the mood of my oven, sometimes only six minutes. A one-minute difference may not sound like much, but if you overcook it, you will get an overly crispy and dry pizza. Perhaps that is what you prefer.
When the pizza is done, slide your peel under the pizza and place it on a big plate. The problem with a home oven is that it’s way too dry. In a proper pizza oven, a pizza only cooks for a couple of minutes, so eight minutes is more than enough time to start evaporating desired moisture.
We compensate for a home oven by drizzling olive oil all around the crust after cooking and rubbing it lovingly with our hands. Also drizzle some olive oil in the center of the pizza, but don’t put too much because it will overly acidify your pizza’s taste. Finish the pizza by placing a few basil leaves on top and cutting with a pizza cutter (six slices lend well to this size pizza). Wait a couple of minutes to cool down. Enjoy your Italian pizza!
For the first few times you make pizza, I recommend making extra dough balls. It will take the pressure off you in case of a mistake and allow you to practice more. (You can refrigerate any extra pizzas you cook and bring them back to life by warming in a 350 F oven for 10 minutes. Never microwave cold pizza!) Once you have about twenty pizzas of experience, you will get the hang of it and be better at making pizzas than likely anyone you know. It may become impossible for you to eat soy pizza ever again.
The obvious benefit of making pizza at home is good-tasting food, but a bigger one is Christian fellowship. Since embarking on pizza making, I’ve held numerous dinner parties, including one where I made sixteen pizzas for my guests. The ability to cook allows you to be hospitable to others in a comfortable environment away from surly servers, arbitrary face-mask rules, and mediocre food. My zeal for making pizza has died down in the past few months, but the skill remains in me, ever ready to serve my neighbor. I’m thankful to God for allowing me to learn a useful skill that brings me closer to others. Click here for a printable version of my pizza recipe.
With this tutorial I reviewed the most common problems you’ll encounter, but you’ll surely encounter others. In that case, leave a comment so that I can troubleshoot your problem. Either way, I’d love to see a picture of your pizza. Post it in the comments or email it to me. Buona Fortuna!