Here now, the crazy secret ingredients to killer homemade pizza: Time & Patience! (Plus two more unexpected tips, all from pizza guru Peter Reinhart.)
So I was talking with Peter Reinhart last week. He's the guy whose first pizza book 20 years ago got me making killer homemade pizza. And now, we sometimes talk about pizza because he's an incredibly nice guy and it’s one of his favorite things to do.
I said to Peter, “If you were talking to a newbie pizza maker, somebody who maybe hasn't even touched dough yet, what would you say are the three most important tips you can provide before diving into this?”
When he was done speaking, I told him that I’ve said something similar, though without nearly the same eloquence or authority. That’s why he’s a James Beard Award-winner and a professor at world-famous Johnson & Wales and I’m a semi-professional geek with a blog. So here now, I share Prof. Reinhart's insights with you and embellish them with some of my own geeky nonsense.
Here’s Peter’s first tip: “I would say number one, understand fermentation.”
I’m going to jump right in here and say that this might sound intimidating. It’s not. Yes, fermentation is a metabolic process. Yes, we’re talking about chemical changes in organic substances through the action of enzymes.
And no, you don’t need to know anything at all about organic chemistry at the atomic level. Instead, you just need to know the steps and the effects of fermentation.
At its most basic, in the context of direct-leavened pizza dough (i.e., tossing packaged yeast into flour and water), fermentation is easy. The dough does all the work for you. All you have to do is mix it up and let it ferment.
“Learn everything you can about fermentation and what's going on, and how fermentation is a way of transforming ingredients from one thing into something else.
(SIDEBAR: "Transformation" is a key word here. Pizza is all about transformation--which is fascinating, just by the way.)
“Fermentation is one of the keys. But to simplify it, for somebody who's just following a recipe, know that long, slow fermentation produces a better product than fast fermentation.”
“Back in the day, what pizza makers intuitively knew (without understanding why) was that if they made the dough a day ahead and put it in the refrigerator, they had better pizza.
So fermentation, which seems like an odd concept to the pizza newbie, is a big deal.
I used to be a home brewer, making top-fermented ales, which is pretty easy to do. You boil a bunch of grains and add sugar and yeast. 6 weeks later, you have ale.
But when I first started making pizza (which is made with yeast just like home brew), I never put two and two together.
I didn’t grasp that as with beer, I was creating a living thing out of seemingly benign ingredients and then killing it for personal enjoyment.
That’s right. Both pizza dough and beer are alive, and then they die. And that’s all for the purposes of our own pleasurable eating and drinking experience. If there’s a special place in hell for brewers and pizzaioli, at least we’ll have beer and pizza.
And the reason slow fermentation is better is that it creates a dough that has more character and yields a better crust. Fast, aggressive fermentation blows out all the character and leaves you with an uninteresting pizza.
Peter’s next tip is pretty simple: High Heat.
“The new pizza books talk about baking at high temperatures. But the old books, if you learned how to bake pizza in the Betty Crocker era, it was always about "Make the dough, let it rise, form the dough balls an hour later, make your pizzas, bake 'em at about 350 to 400 degrees." It's not a formula for successful pizza.
“Pizzerias always baked around 550, 600 degrees. And they had dough that was made the day before and they just didn't tell anybody. You just went there to get the pizza. Now everybody wants to know, oh, well, how did they do it?
“How they did it was higher temperatures and fairly high hydration in their dough.”
Just for grins, I cracked open a 1979 edition of The Joy Of Cooking to see if it had a pizza recipe.
I was not disappointed and it made me joyful, indeed:
To make pizza dough, mix as for bread using
the following ingredients, but do not let it rise a
4 cups sifted all-purpose flour
1 cake yeast in 1/3 cups 85° water
2 tablespoons vegetable or olive oil
1 teaspoon salt
For the sake of contrast, my personal basic dough recipe is more flour—about 5 1/2 cups. I also use just one teaspoon of yeast, which is slightly less than half of what's contained inside a packet of dried yeast.
One cake of yeast, as instructed in the recipe above, is equal to three full packets of dry yeast. That’s almost 700% more yeast than I’m using. If you let that dough ferment in the fridge for a couple of days, you’d get drunk just by sniffing it. (OK. Maybe that’s an exaggeration. But I accidentally used too much yeast once. The reek of ethanol coming off that dough was astonishing.)
The rest of the instructions say to “Knead 10 minutes, cover with damp cloth and let rise about 2 hours.”
After spreading the dough in “two oiled 14-inch pizza pans” and sprinkling it with “cornmeal over all,” you’re supposed to bake it at 400 degrees for almost half an hour.
Yes, this is someone’s idea of pizza.
I’m not sure how they decided this was the recipe, but it’s as Peter said: Not a recipe for a successful pizza.
My standard, three-day fermented dough gets baked in a 550-degree oven on a steel that typically reaches 620 degrees, the broiler is switched on, and the pizza typically bakes in 4 to 6 minutes, depending on the topping load.
When I had a 1,200-pound Earthstone wood-fired oven, and I had it cranked up to 900 degrees, it was an altogether different transformation. A pizza would bake to crispy charred goodness in about 45 seconds.
The Joy Of Cooking 1979 pizza recipe seems like more of a plan for a forlorn focaccia that would be very bready and without much character. Not that it’s anyone’s “fault.” Pizza is very much a specialty. And who back then really knew any of the arcane secrets that lead to successful pizza?
Much less yeast and a much longer fermentation, followed by baking in a hot, hot oven, would yield a crust with more flavor, as well as the kind of oven spring (the “pop” that happens to the dough before it becomes crusty) that’s typical of good pizzerias.
And because of Peter Reinhart, author of perhaps the first authoritative guide to making pizza at home, we now know many of the secrets of good pizzerias.
Speaking of authoritative, Peter’s tip #3 is: Choosing the right flour.
Knowing what I know now, I realize that one of my many early pizza-making mistakes (besides not understanding anything about pizza) was using the wrong flour—and probably a flour that was sorely beyond its best-by date.
Peter says, “The flour depends on the style of pizza you're making. A high-protein flour for a New York-style pizza is appropriate, [and use] a lower-protein flour for a Neapolitan-ish style pizza. Bread flour is really good. It's the all-purpose flour of pizza, whereas [actual] all-purpose flour is good for certain kinds of pizzas.
“But bread flour is my go-to because the protein level works for me to give me a little bit of chew, a little snap. But it's not as extensible as all-purpose flour is.
“So all these are parts of the craft.
“You have to find the type of pizza that you really like to make, and then you match it up with the type of flour, and then understand that it doesn't take a lot of leaven to make great pizza, especially if you're using time as one of your ingredients.
That last line is bold because it is such an important part of this and so many 21st-centurians want to just rush it. You can't do that and get great pizza.
For practical purposes, let's say that fermentation is yeast plus time.
In case you don't know, salami is a fermented meat product. An artisan salami takes many, many weeks to ferment.
A mass-produced salami is fermented in about 90 minutes.
Which one tastes better? I think we all know...
Anyway, here is Peter's recap:
“One. The key fact in terms of understanding fermentation: time is an ingredient and an important ingredient in the whole process. So be patient.”
I have a sidebar on this: I have a friend who is a kind of baking overachiever. Her oven works overtime for cookies and such. When I made pizza at her house, she said, “ I could never do this.” I asked why not. She said, “I don’t have the patience.” Know your strengths.
“Two, if you're doing a home pizza, bake at the highest temperature.
“Go and get either a steel or a stone in there for a thermal mass. You crank that home oven up as high as it will let you.
“Just use the higher temperature and create the environment similar to what a great pizzeria or a brick oven pizzeria would have.
“Three, get the appropriate ingredients to work with. Those are the building blocks at the beginning of a great pizza.”
So, maybe the big question should be: What makes the difference between average pizza and great pizza?
And yes, Peter has an answer. It’s one word: “Understanding.”
“I broke through to an understanding of what it is that makes the difference between good pizza and great pizza. It all goes back to that.”
Thanks very much to Peter for his time. We’ll be hearing more from him in the near future. (We had scheduled an hour-long conversation. We finally had to call it at 90 minutes. It was clear that we could have gone on longer. This pizza thing can make one obsessive.)
If you want to make homemade pizza, I believe that Peter’s first book, American Pie: My Search For The Perfect Pizza, is an excellent primer on pizza around the world and across the country. I recommend it highly and you can find it here. (His other books are excellent, too.) My own book is less scholarly, more silly, very basic, and is informed by things I learned from reading Peter Reinhart, doing things on my own, and making stupid mistakes so you don’t have to. It’s called Free The Pizza: A Simple System For making Great Pizza Whenever You Want With The Oven You Already Have.
Blaine Parker is the award-winning author of the bestselling, unusual and amusing how-to pizza book, Free The Pizza. Also known as The Pizza Geek and "Hey, Pizza Man!", Blaine is fanatical about the idea that true, pro-quality pizza can be made at home. His home. Your home. Anyone's home. After 20 years of honing his craft and making pizza in standard consumer ovens across the nation, he's sharing what he's learned with home cooks like you. Are you ready to pizza?
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