Everything I know about pizza - part 1
Note: this is a long post, so it will be split in parts.
Here is everything that I have learned in more than 20 years trying to make the best possible pizza at home.
TL, DR: the following things will dramatically improve your pizzas if you are not doing them already:
- a pizza stone
- using very little yeast and long proofing times, preferrably in the fridge
- the stretch-and-fold method
- high hydration dough (at least 68%)
- high-protein flour
Everything else has a diminishing rate of return. If you came here looking for a recipe, you can find mine at this link.
The long version
When I moved from Italy to Finland more than 20 years ago it was impossible to find a decent pizza. Things are better now, but back then Dr Oatker's Casa di Mama frozen pizza was better than what you could find in most restaurants. I tried to make pizza myself based on what I had learned from my mother at home, but although the results were not bad, they were far from what you could get in an italian pizzeria.
It wasn't until I found Jeff Varasano's NY pizza recipe that I developed a proper obsession for pizza making. Jeff's mixture of passion and chemist's precision set me along a quest that I am still on today. From Jeff I learned about baker's percentages, hydration, cold rise, pizza stone, sourdough, pretty much every technique I am using today and then some. I list some other references at the end, but if there is only one thing you are going to read about pizza, it has to be Jeff's recipe.
Begin with the end in mind
There are many styles of pizza, but for me the quintessential one is the neapolitan pizza: leopard-spotted charring, airy crust, thick border, thin center. It's not easy to find even in Italy, and in fact the first authentic neapolitan pizzeria appeared in my hometwon after I had moved to Finland. This is what I have tried to replicate, or at least approximate at home, but the goal will always be out of reach without a fire oven.
The first thing I realized after reading Jeff's recipe was that I was using far too much yeast. Most recipes, including my mother's, called for 25 grams of yeast, which is great if you want to make your pizza within 2 hours of mixing it, but makes the dough much harder to digest and most importantly with less flavor (see proofing later). As for the type of yeast, I use the "fresh" yeast found in any grocery shop which is very potent and fail-proof. I've had mixed results with dry yeast, which sometimes doesn't activate for me, and I have tried sourdough but found it too hard to maintain, although it did give pizza a more complex flavor. When I use sourdough, I still add a bit of baker's yeast because sourdough doesn't have enough rising power for pizza.
The most important thing about the flour it is that it needs to have a high content of protein (12g or more per 100g of flour), apparently directly proportional to the strength of the gluten. Some flours report the "strenght" in W, but I never paid attention to it. All-purpose flour with high protein content has always worked well for me, but there are varieties of flour explicitly made for pizza, Caputo being the most famous. I use them when I find them, but they are a nice to have. Many recipes urge you to use italian 00 flour, but be aware that 00 is the type of grind (very fine) but doesn't tell anything about the gluten content. There are 00 flours made for pasta that have little gluten, and others made for pizza.
The proportion between water and flour, called hydration in bakers' terms, is another thing that home recipes sacrifice in favour of practicality. Pizza dough needs to be very wet, so that the inside stays soft while the outside becomes crispy at the over's high temperature. The higher the temperature the higher the hydration, but also the stickier the dough, which becomes progressively harder to handle. I found 68% (that is, 68g of water per 100g of flour) to be the best hydration for home baking, but I read that pizzerias use more than 70% because of the high temperature of fire ovens.
The final ingredient is salt, and there isn't too much to say about it. Some recipes recommend to add it at the end as it may be disturb the yeast, but I never had this problem with baker's yeast.
There are no other ingredients in traditional pizza dough, as testified by the regulations of the "Associazione Vera Pizza Napoletana". Many recipes recommend oil, but that makes the pizza too crunchy and focaccia-like. I once ran an "A/B test" by making two batches of pizzas with and without oil without telling whcih was which, and the batch without oil was the clear winner. Other recipes include milk, honey, sugar... none of that is needed.
One book recommended diastatic malt, a hard-to-find ingredient, that has no other purpose than giving more of a burnt color to the pizza while it cooked. I tried it but never saw any real advantage.