March 22, 2009

The Perfect Pizza

I love homemade pizzas. Maybe it's the creative combinations of fresh toppings or that the process typically draws family and friends to the kitchen, but one thing is for sure: what arrives in a delivery box doesn't compare to what comes out of your oven. In my opinion, the perfect pizza is a marriage between a crispy, chewy crust; a smear of sweet tomato sauce; and fresh, traditional toppings.

The exact origin of pizza is unclear, as people have been adding flavorful ingredients to flatbreads throughout history. It is believed that the idea of using bread as a "plate" came from the Greeks who ate flat bread baked with toppings like herbs, onion and garlic.

It was not until the tomato was introduced from the New World in the sixteenth century that the people of Naples began to create the first simple pizzas with tomatoes. It was sold from open-air stands, wrapped in paper, with typical topping combinations of:

Pork fat, cheese and basil
Garlic, oil and tomatoes
Mozzarella, basil and tomatoes (which evokes the colors of the Italian flag)

In the nineteenth century, Queen Margherita di Savoia was such a fan of the latter combination, that the original creator decided to call it "Pizza Margherita."

Pizza was introduced to America in the mid-nineteenth century. In 1905, the first official pizzeria is believed to have been established in Manhattan's Little Italy, priced at five cents a pizza, or the corresponding price for a fraction of the pie. During WWII, American soldiers stationed in Italy gained an appreciation for pizza and in the 1950's, celebrities like Frank Sinatra and Joe DiMaggio popularized the dish. The famous song by Dean Martin set America singing and devouring pizzas...

"When the moon hits your eye like a big pizza pie, that's amore..."

The modern American pizza industry began in the Midwest with the Chicago-style deep dish pizza and home delivery service became a hit. In my opinion, this is when many Americans lost touch with the delicious art of Neapolitan pizzas.

Homemade Traditional Pizzas

You cannot make a good pizza without mastering a good dough, which I have learned is always made by long slow fermentation. Pizza dough is essentially a classic bread dough enriched with olive oil and if done right, will yield a light, sturdy and flavorful crust. Although I can make a mean pizza using commercial fresh dough, many of my attempts to make my own pizza dough have been disappointing. That is, until I discovered the delayed-fermentation method, which is quite simple but requires some planning ahead.

Peter Reinhardt is accredited to have mastered the delayed-fermentation process and introducing it to many home bakers in his book The Bread Baker's Apprentice and his new follow-up, Whole Grain Breads. The popularity of his books made me think that maybe I really can create artisan-quality bread. I attempted to tackle his 50-50 pizza dough recipe and the result?...divine.

For now, I will leave you with the pizza dough recipe. I make pizzas regularly so expect postings for specific pizza recipes in the future. My favorite toppings include fresh mozzarella, roasted garlic, basil, prosciutto, and fresh vegetables depending on what's in season (braised chard, roasted fennel, asparagus, mushrooms, etc).

50-50 Pizza Dough

Adapted from Peter Reinhardt's Whole Grain Breads. In order to fully master Reinhardt's bread-making technique you really need to read his books, but to summarize, his recipe is a two-day process. On Day 1, the pre-doughs are made (soaker and biga) and on Day 2, they are combined with additional yeast, flour and olive oil. Because the pre-doughs have had time to develop flavor, fermentation and proofing times on Day 2 are much shorter than conventional methods.

Makes 2 large pizza crusts.


Soaker (hydrated grain with salt but no yeast)
1 3/4 cups fine grind whole wheat flour (I used King Arthur's White Wholewheat Flour)
1/2 teaspoon salt
3/4 cup + 2 tablespoons water

(pre-fermented dough with commercial yeast)
1 3/4 cups all-purpose unbleached flour
1/4 teaspoon instant yeast
3/4 cup + 2 tablespoons water at room temperature

Final Dough
1 recipe prepared soaker
1 recipe prepared biga
7 tablespoons whole wheat flour
1/2 teaspoon salt
1 1/2 teaspoons instant yeast
1 tablespoon honey or sugar
2 tablespoons olive oil

Day 1
1. Mix all of the soaker ingredients together to form a ball of dough. Cover loosely with plastic wrap and leave at room temperature for 12-24 hours.
2. Mix all of the biga ingredients together to form a ball of dough. Knead the dough for 2 minutes and make sure the ingredients are evenly distributed. Let the dough rest for 5 minutes and then knead again for 1 minute until the dough is smooth and tacky. Cover tightly with plastic wrap and refrigerate 8-24 hours.

Day 2
1. About 3 hours before you want to make the pizzas, remove the biga from the refrigerator to take off the chill. Let sit for 2 hours.
2. Chop the soaker and the biga into 12 smaller pieces each and sprinkle them with flour to keep the pieces from sticking to each other.
3. Combine the pieces in a bowl with the remaining final dough ingredients. Knead for 2 minutes in the bowl until the ingredients are evenly integrated.
4. Dust a work surface with flour and knead the dough for 4 minutes until the dough is soft and very tacky. Let rest for 5 minutes and resume kneading for 1 minute; the dough should feel soft, supple and almost sticky. If not, continue kneading for 1-2 minutes.
5. Line a sheet pan with parchment paper and oil it with olive oil. Divide the dough until 2 equal portions and form into balls. Place the balls on the prepared pan and roll to coat in oil. Cover loosely with wrap. The dough should be ready to shape and bake in 1 hour.
6. Preheat the oven to 475 with a baking stone (which I highly recommend). Use floured hands and knuckles to stretch the dough into a wide disk, approximately the size of your pizza stone.
7. Sprinkle cornmeal on the hot stone and lay the dough on the surface. (I like to pre-bake my dough for about 5 minutes before adding my toppings. Some prefer to go straight for it.) Once toppings are added, bake for 10-12 minutes until bubbly.


  1. The pictures look great. Making a good crust has been holding me back from trying homemade pizza. Can't wait to try your receipe.
    KS in Tubac

  2. going to try it this weekend!