Jan 10 2009

At Last! A Perfect Pizza Dough

I’ve been making pizza at home for 30 years or more, and for most of this time I’ve been preparing my own dough. I started out with a basic white-flour dough, but I’ve made changes over the years, aiming for a tastier, more nutritious crust. And now, at long last, I’ve hit on what I think is the perfect dough. It yields a crust that’s tender yet chewy, and crisp on the bottom, with a slightly nutty flavor. And it’s chock full of fiber, into the bargain. Here are the ingredients:

  • 2½ cups warm water
  • 1 tablespoon sugar
  • 1 package instant yeast
  • 1 tablespoon kosher salt
  • 1 heaping tablespoon oat bran
  • 1 heaping tablespoon wheat bran
  • 1 heaping tablespoon wheat germ
  • 1 heaping tablespoon sesame seeds
  • 1 heaping tablespoon flax seed
  • ½ cup rye flour
  • 4-6 cups unbleached bread flour
  • stone ground corn meal
  • canola oil

The resulting dough will suffice for two large round pizzas (about 16 inches in diameter), three medium-sized pizzas about a foot in diameter, or four generously proportioned individual pizzas. You make it like you’d make bread dough. It’s that easy. (Or that hard.) I do all the work by hand—literally—though you could also mix the dough with a sturdy spoon or a dough hook on a heavy-duty mixer, I suppose. In any case, you begin by dissolving the sugar and yeast in the warm water in a large bowl. When the yeast foams, spoon in the salt and the various brans, along with the wheat germ, seeds, and rye flour. Then add four cups of bread flour and work the ingredients into what the cookbooks call a “shaggy mass.” It’s an apt description.

Now add flour to the mass, half a cup at time, while continuing to work the ingredients. In a short while, the dough will be a smooth, if somewhat sticky, blob. From this point on, just knead the mass, dusting it with flour from time to time. I work the dough in the bowl, but you can turn it out onto a lightly floured board if you prefer. After a few minutes of strenuous kneading the dough should be a smooth ball. Treat it gently from here on out. Pounding or smacking the worked dough will drive out the incorporated fermentation gases. The result? A dense, tough crust.

Next, transfer the ball of worked dough a large, very lightly oiled bowl and cover it. You could use a moist towel or cling film, but I find that an overturned pizza pan works just as well. Place the covered bowl in a warm place and allow the dough to rise until it’s doubled in size (see photo below). Depending on the temperature and the vitality of your yeast, this will take from one and one-half to two hours.

You don’t want the risen dough to get an inflated sense of self, do you? Of course not. So take the wind out its sails by gently pressing down on the top of the mass, several times if necessary. Now it’s ready. But ready for what, exactly? Well, you can use it immediately, save it in the fridge (in any airtight bag) for a day or two, or freeze it. I usually cut the mass into three roughly equal pieces with a sharp knife. I use one on the day I make the dough and freeze the other two. It’s best to form any dough destined for the freezer into a ball, flour it lightly, and then seal it in a ziplock bag from which all air has been expelled. Then, on the day you plan to use your frozen dough, remove it from the fridge in the morning and allow it to thaw at room temperature. If the dough continues to rise as it thaws, squeeze the bag to return the ball to its proper size, then lightly flour it before proceeding.

So much for the dough. But I suppose I should add a few words about the transition from dough to pizza, too. Here goes, then. First, for those who …

Use a Pizza Pan…  Preheat your oven to 450-500 degrees Fahrenheit. Spread a very thin film of oil on the pan, then sprinkle with a tablespoon or two of corn meal. Lightly flour the dough before placing it in the prepped pan and pressing it into a round of the desired diameter. (If you prefer, you can hold the dough between your hands and work it into a round the way the pros do it, by throwing it into the air and imparting a circular twist. But that’s an art I haven’t mastered.) Once you’ve shaped the dough to your liking, you can let it rest in the pan for up to half an hour while you assemble the toppings and build the pizza. Then it’s into the oven with pan and pizza.

Alternatively, you can use…

A Stone and a Pizza Peel.  Heat the stone in a very hot oven (450-500 degrees Fahrenheit). Meanwhile, dust the peel (or a large wooden cutting board) with corn meal. Then press or work the dough into the desired shape and thickness before placing it at the lip of the peel. Allow the crust to rest while preparing the toppings—this can be anywhere from a few minutes to half an hour. Finally, when you’ve built your pizza, transfer it to the hot stone with a snappy shove-pull motion on the peel, helping it on its way with a spatula if necessary. Be careful not to burn your hands on the stone. (Do I have to tell you that the stone stays in the oven during this operation? I didn’t think so.)

Whether you’re using a pizza pan or a stone, you won’t have long to wait now. Check after about six minutes, though thicker pizzas will take longer to bake. (Mine usually take about 10 minutes, or a bit more if I’m over-generous with the toppings.) When the pizza is ready, simply remove the pan from the oven and place it on the stove top, or—if you’re baking on a stone—use the peel to transfer the pizza to a cutting board. (Getting the pizza from stone to peel is a bit tricky, requiring a dexterous combination of shoving and prying. As always, practice makes perfect. Mind you hands! Hot cheese and hot ovens can inflict serious burns.)

Come to think of it, I like to slide the pizza onto a cutting board as soon as I remove it from the oven even when using a pan. That seems to help the crust stay crispy without becoming tough. The goal? A crispy outer shell with a tender interior. (Overbaking toughens a crust.) Now allow your pizza to “set” for a few minutes before cutting it into wedges. The result? Delicious! The pizza tastes great. Try making pizza dough from scratch and see for yourself.

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