Ah, the accidental calzone. All pizzamakers eventually make that mess. Something happens upon launching a pizza that requires just folding over the dough and baking it like its hand-pie cousin. But interestingly, it seems to not normally be a newbie mistake. I was making pizza for quite a while before the accidental calzone happened in my kitchen. And after more than 20 years of doing this, I made one again as recently as a year ago.
But that’s not why you’re here. You’re here because you either desire to make pizza, or you’re already making pizza at home and want to make them even more amazing than they already are.
Please remember that I am not a professional chef. I’m just a guy who’s been making pizza at home in his kitchen using crappy consumer appliances since George W. Bush was president. And if I’d been listening to some of the pros who comment about homemade pizza on Quora, I would have learned that making great pizza at home is not possible. I’d have to go to a restaurant. The good news is I’ve been saved by my own ignorance.
So, in my ignorance, allow me to share the Top Three Things that I believe will save your ass when making a homemade pizza.
#3–A Wooden Peel: I know, I know. Someone out there is scoffing at this. Why is a giant wooden spatula going to be so important? The answer is simple: it’s the right tool for the job, and that is valuable both technically and psychologically.
Nothing makes it easier to launch a pizza into an oven. And such simplicity is invaluable. I’ve seen all kinds of recommendations to newbies for using things like baking sheets. It just does not work as well.
If nothing else, the amount of confidence generated by having the right tool for the job is far more valuable than any cost savings generated by substituting something not made for the job and fabricated from an undesirable material.
And I say this as a guy who’s launched raw pizza into a hot oven using a corrugated cardboard box lid. Nothing works as well and feels as good as a wooden peel dusted with semolina. Raw pizza dough slides very nicely on it and will launch into the oven without argument and with a minimum of stress.
#2–Thermal Mass: This is the ability of a material to absorb, store and release heat. In the case of a good pizza steel or stone, thermal mass is what makes great pizza possible. This is also a place where people cheap out, and it’s a huge mistake. That wimpy little beige stone that looks like a giant, coffee-stained communion wafer? Forget it.
Once you have a good dough, thermal mass is the single most vital technical component to making a convincing pizza. Without thermal mass, the magic does not happen.
Thermal mass is good at gobbling up heat and holding onto it. It holds that heat so that when you’re launching that pizza off your wooden peel and onto its face, it has the amassed energy required to make your dough pop. This is the thing that an actual pizza oven does so well, and it’s thermal mass that’s fooling your home oven into thinking it has any business at all making pizza.
Steel is the best material by far. It’s also expensive. If you can justify laying out the cash required for the biggest, thickest baking steel that fits in your oven, go for it. (My preferred size is a 16-inch square 3/8 of an inch thick. I like making 16-inch pizzas for pizza parties, and this size serves me well.)
Ceramic baking “stone” is the most well-known thermal mass. It also costs less than steel. It also doesn’t retain heat as well. But it works. Just ignore those cheap, thin stones that feel like they’re gonna break if you look at them wrong. They will crack inside your oven when they get too hot.
The best stones I know are made from the same material used in professional deck ovens like you’ve seen in pizzerias. They work well. They’re also more expensive than conventional stones. But they still cost less than steel.
The dirty little secret in thermal mass is cast iron. There are round, cast-iron pizza “pans” out there which are not pans at all. You don’t bake a pizza in them. You heat them like a stone or steel, then bake a pizza on top of them. They cost about as much as a mid-grade stone, and work well.
In a pinch, I’ve baked pizza on a cast iron skillet. It’s harder to work with purely because of its small size, and it requires some finesse. But it is functional.
At the end of the day, thermal mass is your friend. It is the place where science is meeting your pizza for the pop that makes it sing.
And the most important requirement for making great pizza at home?
#1–Nerve: Think we’re now sounding like a BS self-help seminar? Don’t believe it. Nerve is priceless. It’s the one thing that makes all of this possible.
We’re talking about not freaking out about stretching a small ball of dough into a big, thin round.
We’re talking about not hesitating when launching a pizza into an oven. (Accidental calzone control!)
We’re talking about not worrying that somehow, you have a special talent for preventing the laws of biological process that make dough viable.
We’re talking about not second-guessing things like the less-is-more topping philosophy. “That’s doesn’t look like enough sauce/cheese/pepperoni, I’m using more!” Doing that is not a solution to anything. It’s just fear that undermines you and your pizza and disappoints everyone who’s eating it—including you.
You can buy thermal mass and pizza peels. You cannot purchase nerve. You have to find it inside you. The steels and peels help. But at the end of the day, the pizza is inside you.
Pizza doesn’t come from an oven. It comes from the heart. Embrace the idea and process of pizza, and you win.
Want to know more about making great pizza at home? Check out www.FreeThePizzaBook.com.
Blaine Parker (AKA The Pizza Geek) is fanatical about the idea that true, professional-quality pizza can be made at home. His home. Your home. Anyone's home. After two decades of honing his craft and making pizza in standard consumer ovens across the nation, he's sharing what he's learned with home cooks who want to pizza. Blaine is also the author of the new, unusual and amusing how-to pizza book, Free The Pizza!
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