Midweek Modernist Pizza Report: In baking pizza, are you denying absolute truths that prevent you from attaining Pizza Nirvana? (Part 1)
The Ongoing Modernist Pizza Review, Volume 2, Chapter 11, "Baking Pizza," Part 1
Written by Nathan Myhrvold and Francisco Migoya
Published by The Cooking Lab; First edition, October 19, 2021
Hardcover: 1708 pages, 32.7 pounds, 13.78 x 10.24 x 15.94 inches
List Price: $425.00
Amazon discount price as of 03/08/23: $294.99
While I’m not one to claim there are absolute truths in pizza, following is an absolute truth. The good news is, I didn’t write it. Nobody cares what I think. Ready?
“You’ll find that understanding the basic science of how baking works makes the practice of baking your pizza easier and more interesting. After all, turning dough into a successful pizza is the result of a series of steps: properly proofing the dough, stretching it to the right thickness and safely transferring it to a hot oven (hopefully one that’s well suited to your specific pizza style) to bake.”
Wow. Somebody might want to explain this to the guys (and it’s always guys) who keep posting their so-called pizzas on social media. They’ll say something like, “I got this new outdoor oven, and it keeps burning the crust! I’ve thrown away like 10 of these things! What am I doing wrong?”
His accompanying photo is a surprisingly round but deeply scorched pizza-like object. In an effort to be diagnostic, some intrepid soul asks, “What dough recipe are you using?” And the guys posts a photo of an empty Boboli wrapper.
Yes, it happens. And that guy is probably not the guy who should be reading Modernist Pizza. At least, not yet. But he does need some kind of book, and he needs to understand some basic science. (And if you’re already a far better pizza maker than that guy, maybe Modernist Pizza is for you.)
Anyway, the big quote above about understanding the basic science is the opening of the final chapter in Modernist Pizza Volume 2, Chapter 10, “Baking.” The chapter also arrives showcasing one of my favorite words associated with pizza. It’s the “T” word: Transformation.
I believe that transformation has a lot to do with the fascination of pizza making. Very quickly in this chapter, Mhyrvold & Migoya tell us, “When you bake a pizza, heat energy moves from the oven into the dough mixture, transforming it.” That latter sentence seems a deceptively simple statement. It's about what I suspect is one reason why pizzaioli become obsessive. The ongoing refrain you can hear from pizza pros is that making pizza never gets old.
Saying that “heat energy moves from the oven into the dough mixture, transforming it” is also deceptively simple. That’s because so much happens inside a pizza. And later on is a concise explanation of the complex transformation that occurs inside dough as it become crust. It makes me wonder if this is not the kind of thing that keeps potters, glass blowers, sculptors and other transformative craftspeople fascinated by the things they do. But enough of my metaphysical hypothesizing. Let’s get to the baking!
Refraining one of the thermodynamic truths about pizza, Mhyrvold & Migoya remind us that thin-crust pizzas are baked primarily with infrared light. This is especially true in the case of wood-burning ovens. In wood-burning ovens, the heat is asymmetric. Typically, it’s very high. Attaining an evenly baked pizza requires an alert and dexterous pizza maker ready to pay a lot of attention. The top of the pizza is baked almost entirely by radiant heat. Air temp in the oven does not factor in as much as in other ovens—including the home oven. (All of the oven characteristics mentioned herein are covered in this chapter, and at greater length in Volume 1.)
Lower temp ovens, like deck ovens, are more reliant on air temp. The heat that bakes the pizza is primarily conductive heat. This is true whether the pizza is directly on the oven floor or in a pan. “The top is baked by radiation (broiled, if you will)—this is true for all types of ovens except combo, home and convection ovens. This means that when you cook in a home oven, you have a problem and you need to improvise.”
This is why your choice of oven is pivotal. It determines what kind of pizza you’ll make and what kind of dough you’ll require. The Modernistas call our home ovens “just plain difficult to work around.” But in a typical moment of Modernista-esque whimsy, they tell us “Not to worry, though. Your pizza isn’t going to jump out of the oven in protest if you don’t have the right kind. A little bit of finessing and hacking will make your results even better than expected.” Having made pizza in ovens of all kinds, I can vouch for the veracity of this statement. Though there have been a couple of times where I wish the pizza had fought back at me. At least a little.
This chapter also offers callbacks to the earlier, Volume 1 chapter on pizza ovens. That chapter is where a lot of the various oven technologies are explained, and are detailed with infrared photography. In this chapter, they’re going to explain techniques for making pizza in those various kinds of ovens.
And most significant for us lowly pizza hobbyists, they throw us this bone: “We’ll show you ways to make the most out of the oven you have. We strongly believe that a good pizzaiolo can make delicious pizza in any oven.” (Pizza-oven chauvinists, take note! They are NOT telling anybody they should be using an Ooni. So there.)
On yet another personal note, I have to admit that after reading this chapter, I am less virtuous than the Modernistas might be when it comes to Pizza Social. I don’t have a lot of patience for the hubris, arrogance and strutting of some of my fellow amateurs. For example, take pizza-peel machismo. You can’t believe the amount of sweeping absolutism and general derision the Animals of Pizza Social exercise over the choice of a baker’s peel.
One example is the notion that if you’re not using a perforated metal peel exclusively, you’re doing it wrong. Or that Neapolitan is the only worthy pizza. Or that wood fire provides the only BTU of value. I’d love for those absolutist generalizers to take a dive into Modernist Pizza. They’d get to see just how much of what they deem “the one and only way” to do something is not merely one way to do it—it is possibly the inferior way to do it. And this evidence is coming from talented pros who’ve studied, tested, tasted and have no ego in the game. (To once again quote Mr. American Pie, Peter Reinhart, the only flavor rule is flavor rules.)
The contents of this chapter are primarily methods and tips for baking pizza in various kinds of ovens, as well as on grills and in a deep fryer. First up is a section of especial interest to the newbie: “Transferring Your Dough.” While it’s a piece of cake to deal with pan pizza (which is proofed in the same pan that it’ll be baked in and requires no peel), getting a round pizza into the oven is a special kind of challenge.
And once again, Mhyrvold & Migoya being who they are, they are free from judgment. The first pizza transfer device they mention is the much maligned pizza screen. “Depending on your perspective, using a screen is either a godsend or it’s cheating.” I personally feel like screens (and parchment paper, which are mentioned later in the chapter) are the training wheels of pizza making.
In my own jaundiced view, the more you use pizza training wheels, the less likely you'll ever feel the exhilaration of riding the motorcycle of slinging pies like a grown-up pizzaiolo. I encourage avoidance of screens and parchment at all costs unless there’s a good technical reason to use them. But the Modernistas don’t. They have no such emotional investment in all this. Use the screen if it feels good. And if you want the bottom of your pizza to look like it came from Domino’s (your faithful critic’s snarky comment, not theirs).
Next up in this section: Peels! Yay, peels! In my humble estimation, the peel is one of the few kitchen implements we can buy that makes us feel like something big is about to happen. That said, it’s worth heeding the Modernist Pizza insight on using a peel: “This simple operation will take some finesse.” Boy howdy!
Anyway, they frown upon my preferred launching peel (wood). They believe that for people like me, tradition is more important than efficiency. I’m still scratching my head over that one. It’s just easier to get the pizza off a wooden peel. And just about every commercial pizzeria I’ve been in, they’re launching from wood and retrieving with metal. (I don’t believe for a second that the Sbarro franchise at Salt Lake City International Airport sees their wood/metal preferences as in any way related to tradition.)
But, like so many of the militant chauvinists out there in Pizza Social, the sensible and scientific Mhyrvold & Migoya prefer the perforated metal peel above all others—despite the fact that you can’t really dress the raw pizza onboard. You must first assemble the raw pizza, then either pull it onto the peel, or else slide the peel beneath it. How is that more efficient than a pizza dressed on a wooden peel? Moreover, in the lore of food-safety practices, using the same peel on both raw and cooked pies increases chances of cross-contamination. So, within this epic and fantastic encyclopizzia, (yes, I really just invented that word), this wood vs. perforated metal is one of the few head scratchers for me. So it goes.
My favorite dinky little part here is the brief discussion of “improvised peels.” They say, “Most flat, thin surfaces can work as an improvised peel, so long as they’re large enough to fit the whole pizza.” They mention the ever-popular upside-down sheet pan. (I’ve never liked this method personally—though a cookie sheet with no lip might bring me around.) But my favorite of their improvs is the “piece of sturdy cardboard.” Ironically, I once improvised a peel using the lid from an old pizza box. Following the discussion of peels are pictorial demonstrations of the five methods for loading a pizza.
Thus we conclude part one of the baking chapter review. We finish the chapter next time by reviewing their discussions around the dreaded gel layers, specific oven methods, common cooking problems, the long awaited tips for “Improving The Performance Of A Non-Pizza Oven,” and further examination of the vaunted Transformation!
If the idea of owning a copy of Modernist Pizza attracts you like a moth to the candle flame, you can find it here. If you want a skinnier, simpler, sillier book that teaches only one kind of pizza, you can find Free The Pizza! here.
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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