Midweek Modernist Pizza Report: In baking pizza, are you denying absolute truths that prevent you from attaining Pizza Nirvana? (Part 2)
The Ongoing Modernist Pizza Review, Volume 2, Chapter 11, "Baking Pizza," Part 2
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
And now, “Transforming Dough Into Pizza.” As mentioned previously, I’m a big fan of the “T” word. I believe that the transformation of simple ingredients into the joy that is pizza is part of the reason for the ongoing fascination with pizza.
Every time you make pizza, it’s like a little bit of magic happens. And the Modernista description here of what goes on inside a pizza during the bake is a kind of marvel of thermodynamics meeting biochemistry all for our delight and dining pleasure.
That said, I’m faced with a head-scratcher in this section. The description of why a Neapolitan pizza doesn’t get crispy belies my own experience with a wood oven. They tell me that a Neapolitan pizza doesn’t get crispy because the 60- to 90-second bake time is so short.
For over a decade, I was making neo-Neapolitan pizza at the same temps as Neapolitan pizza, and the crust was always crispy. In fact, when I could get the oven to 900 degrees (this was a big, wood-fired dome), the pizza was transformed even more, and was crispier. So, unless sugar and oil in the dough changes the transformation at higher temps, I’m puzzled by this explanation. Oh, well. Another minor gripe in the grand scheme that is Modernist Pizza.
It’s hard to not like their section on “Gel Layer Formation." It portrays the sauce and cheese as unwitting co-conspirators. It’s nice to know that men of science aren’t beyond a little anthropomorphic prose.
“Pizza Baking Methods” tees up a lengthy and comprehensive section about getting optimal performance out of everything from a wood oven to a home oven to an impinger oven. An impinger oven is one of those conveyor belt devices you see in places like Domino’s. A belt carries a pizza on a screen through an oven that blows hot air top and bottom. (There are some true oven geeks who are hacking impinger ovens to crank out artisan pizza, proving once again that it’s not about the oven, it’s about what you do with it that counts.)
Mhyrvold & Migoya ask, “Does any one factor matter when baking pizza?” They go into standard deviation equations under controlled conditions. It’s enough that you might stop reading the full description and finally cut to the chase: Variation happens and you can mitigate it with experience. And they conclude by saying, “We think this is probably why there are some amazingly complicated dough recipes, but it’s very hard to believe these things actually matter.”
“Done Versus Overdone” acknowledges the subjectivity of what is a “done” pizza based on the pizza maker involved. That said, they express their preference for a crispy crust that should not be burnt (à la New Haven pizza). And there’s a two-page spread of gradient photo done-ness diagrams. They show pizzas from each of Modernist Pizza’s nine master dough recipes. Each photo shows a single pizza sectioned as underdone, properly baked, and overbaked.
“Common Pizza Baking Problems” offers a helpful problem/solution table for various issues—illustrative photography included. The problems range from a soupy center and a gummy crumb to burnt, caked flour and undermelted cheese.
The steps for baking in various oven types is enlightening. Reading the section on how to prepare a wood-fired pizza oven, it’s nice to know that I was doing it right when I owned such an oven. Same with the how-to-bake part.
Best section title in this chapter: “Peel Gymnastics.” This is where they demonstrate how to work a peel in a wood oven, especially with regard to turning the pizza. Remember, we’re talking about a pizza that bakes in about a minute, and requires constant attention to ensure it bakes evenly.
In the “benefits of a gas-fired pizza oven” section, they make a convincing case for a gas oven over wood. (I can speak to the PIA factor of the wood oven, though wood is indeed much sexier.) And now, let’s skim the impinger oven section to (ta-dah!) the home oven.
The section on “Improving The Performance Of A Non-Pizza Oven” is comprehensive. But it all boils down to one simple problem: Home ovens are not designed for this. You require thermal mass, which these ovens lack. Nobody who’s already making pizza with any degree of success will be surprised by this, but you might be surprised by some of the tweaks.
There are also instructions for cooking a pizza on the stovetop. I started doing something like this about a decade ago, though I think my method is better: After the stove top, I slide the skillet beneath the broiler. However, the Modernist Pizza method is far superior if you don’t have a broiler handy. Either way, speaking from experience, this method can yield a surprisingly good pizza.
What's surprising is the inclusion of instructions for a Breville Pizzaiolo Pizza Oven. But since this oven is a fan favorite amongst pizzaioli for making test pizzas at home, and Breville has had trouble keeping them in stock (it's a popular item), addressing it probably makes sense. Personally, I’m challenged by the idea of a $900 countertop oven that makes one 12-inch pizza at a time and takes up precious counter space. But hey, it’s a reference standard, so the Modernistas are making pizza in it.
There are instructions for pizza making on charcoal grills and gas grills. There’s a section of instructions for what I call the tiny, cruel outdoor ovens. And there’s fried pizza in a standard deep fryer. I admit to being fried-pizza curious, but not enough to make it myself. I’ll just have to wait until it’s on a menu somewhere. I’m more likely to fry in a “shallow fryer,” for which there’s also a section. There’s intel on pre-baking and par-baking pizzas. And strategies for how to make pizza for a crowd. (They recommend making pizzas that are square and reheat well.)
Next week, on to volume 3, recipes, and chapter 12, iconic recipes. This next volume, which you might expect to be just another recipe book, is going to defy those expectations and maybe your sensibilities as well...
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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