There are couple of barriers to achieving a wood-fired pizza at home. The two big ones are getting a suitable facsimile of a pizza oven, and getting a decent dough in the right shape at the right place at the right time. I’m happy to say that I’ve worked out a few methods that I can stand behind and recommend. Be careful, though. Once you know this information you can not unknow it. And if you end up making nightly pizzas… well, don’t say I didn’t warn you.
The dough recipe
First things first: the crust. We all know that a good crust makes a good pizza. It has to be chewy, slightly charred and have the right balance of crispy outside to pliant interior. You don’t have to use my dough recipe. Not that my recipe isn’t good (it is!), but I wouldn’t want you to think that there is something secret in my recipe that will make your dough come out differently than every other dough. In fact, the best doughs undoubtedly come from lengthy fermentation using sponges and starters, but let’s stick with a “quick” recipe for the moment. Whatever the source of your recipe, there are a few very important things it has to have to yield a quality crust. 1. Bread flour. Bread flour has a higher gluten content than all purpose flour– that gluten is the key to getting a chewy, stretchy dough. 2. Long, slow kneading. Once again, it’s all about the gluten. It takes time and agitation for the gluten proteins to connect and form a web that will give your dough it’s structure. I use a dough hook in a stand mixer and let the whole thing mix on the lowest speed for at least ten minutes. (Though some purists insist on hand kneading.) At this point the dough should look smooth and stretch into a long melted-mozzarella-like string when you lift the dough hook out. Waiting to add the salt and oil until after the initial mixing will also ensure that you get the best gluten development. 3. Proper hydration. In bread baking, the general rule is that the wetter your dough is, the bigger holes in your finished bread. In pizza, you want a dough with large well developed holes.(You know, the kind that will swell up and char to perfection.) So you need to have a very wet dough. Wet doughs can be a bit tricky to work with (which is why you’ll find lots of recipes for stiff pizza dough out there. I’d say at you want at least 1/3 the volume of water to the volume of flour. (Some recipes, including mine, may be as much as is ½ the volume of water to flour.) If you’ve developed your gluten sufficiently, even a wet dough will be workable.
Shaping the dough
It isn’t actually that tricky to shape a pizza dough by hand. (As long as you don’t have your heart set on launching the dough gracefully into the air and catching it with dancerly elegance.) But don’t even think of using a rolling pin– the hand stretching is crucial to achieving the correct dough consistency. 1. Weigh your dough. For my recipe each 10″ pizza will use about 170 grams of dough. If you don’t have a scale, sure, you can just eyeball equal portions. But if you want to practice getting that perfect, just-the-right-thickness crust, it helps to know exactly how much dough you are starting with. 2. Let it rest. Gluten is elastic– this means it tends to spring back to the shape that it was in before. After you’ve tucked your dough into a ball, let it rest at least five minutes. It will be much more cooperative when you try to stretch it. 3. Cut parchment rounds. There’s nothing traditional about this one, I’m afraid. But I find cutting rounds of parchment to be incredibly helpful. Cut them to the exact size of the surface you’ll be cooking your pizza on, and you’ll know exactly how large a circle you should be stretching your dough to. And it also makes transferring your pizza into the oven a snap. Yes, it is possible to transfer a pizza using just cornmeal or semolina. But, sadly, I am not a professional pizziaola. And I cannot accept the possibility (inevitability?) of the occasional torn, dropped, burned and ruined pizza while I work out the kinks in my technique. So I’ll stick to my parchment rounds, thank you. 4. Stretch & press. Now that your dough is ready to be shaped, pick it up over two fists (no pointy fingers that might poke holes through the dough). Rock the dough back and forth between your two fists, letting gravity stretch the dough out. Try to focus your stretching at the outside rim of the pizza, you don’t want to stretch the inside to a paper-thin sheet. Gently set your dough down onto your parchment round. Reach your fingers underneath the thicker edges and stretch the dough out to the edge of the parchment sheet. Use your fingertips to dimple the surface of the dough all over. This will ensure that you don’t get any huge dough bubbles that might create a pizza-topped balloon in the oven. You can now top the pizza with whatever you like… but use a light hand with toppings for this style of pizza. This style of pizza will not do well buried in molten cheese and laden with mounds of toppings.
Pizza ovens heat up much hotter than your oven can (anywhere from 800- 1000 F). And since my little oven tops out at 500, there’s simply no way that I could get a crust similar to one baked in a real pizza oven, right? Well, sort of. I have heard intriguing rumors of a technique to hack a home pizza oven and decided it was time to investigate. The scheme is to heat a cast iron skillet on your stovetop, then bake the pizza on that just a few inches underneath a broiler and you’ve got a cooking environment that looks promisingly like a pizza oven. After half a dozen trials (including one that stripped the precious seasoning right off my iron skillet) I’ve come up with my own version of the home pizza oven trick. And I’m happy to say that it will turn out an excellent pizza in just a few minutes. And as an extra bonus, you don’t have to spend an hour preheating your pizza stone– just a quick stovetop heating, and you’re in business.
1. Prepare your oven. First, gather up all of your equipment. Once everything is hot, the whole process goes very quickly, so you’ll want to make sure that everything fits and works together first. You’ll need an enameled* cast iron skillet or dutch oven with a 10” diameter, flat base. You’ll be baking with the pan upside down, adjust the oven rack so that the surface of your upside-down pot is about three inches away from your broiler. (If you are using a skillet, you’ll need something metal to prop it up– a round cake pan works nicely.) Place an empty baking sheet on the lower rack to catch any drips that get away from your pizza.
2. The bottom heat. The whole reason this technique works is that you can heat cast iron on your stovetop much hotter than a pizza stone in your oven. When you’re ready to cook your pizza, preheat your cast iron skillet or dutch oven over high heat for 7-12 minutes. On my electric stovetop my dutch oven takes 10 minutes to preheat. But that is my stovetop, and my pot– you’ll have to play around and test to figure out the exact timing for your kitchen. Pour a teaspoon of water into the pot and it should dissipate into steam almost immediately. The last drop should be gone within two seconds. Quickly (and carefully) invert your pan, slide your pizza on and bake immediately.
3. The top heat. In my oven, setting the broiler to low will cook a pizza in a little less than 5 minutes. The broiler doesn’t take that long to preheat– but you’ll still want to have some ambient heat in the oven. Seven or eight minutes preheating will likely do the trick. Once again, you’ll have to experiment to figure out what works best in your oven.
4. The optional wood smoke. This part is really, truly optional. It all depends on whether the thought of wisps of wood smoke curling around your baking pizza fills your heart with joy or sends you and your smoke detector into a panic. If you are a wood-smoke fiend like me, then read on. If not, don’t worry, I’m sure your pizza will still be magnificent. Soak a few smoking chips in water an hour or two before you’ll be baking. Wrap the chips loosely in a tin foil packet and poke a half dozen holes in the top of the packet.. In the last two or three minutes of preheating your cast iron, toss your packet of smoking chips into the pot and cover. (This heat will get the smoke started.) Use tongs to transfer the packet of smoking chips to your oven rack when you’re ready to start cooking.
5. Troubleshooting. Balancing this stuff out is mostly common sense– if your pizza is browning too quickly on either the top or the bottom, then you’ll want to reduce the heat from that side (and vice versa if it’s not cooking quickly enough.) While you’re experimenting be sure to take notes– once you figure out how long to preheat and what broiler setting to use, you can whip out a perfect pizza in just a few minutes.
*The whole process will ruin the seasoning on your unfinished cast iron ware. And, yes, enameled cast iron is quite expensive. But if you look around you might be able to find a chipped or damaged pot or skillet for pretty cheap. Chips on the surface of the enamel aren’t great for cooking, but won’t cause any problems for this pizza stone technique.