One of my first posts on this blog detailed how to make pizza at home, which to many people is only a little less alien than homebrewing. That post was written based on about four months of experience making pizzas from the ubiquitous 1-hour rise recipes (with measurements by volume) found online and in many cookbooks. While I’d enjoyed plenty of those pizzas, even by my next pizza-focused post my methods had radically changed. In the last six months, my understanding of pizza and pizza making has continued to evolved, and at this point I feel ready to offer a new (though certainly not ultimate) guide for my pizza making process. And this time, it comes with video.
The recipe is simple: 100% flour, about 62% water, 2% salt, 2% olive oil, 2% sugar, and about 0.25-0.5% yeast. These percentages are referred to as baker’s percentages, which simply presents the weight of each ingredient as a percentage of the weight of the flour (hence why flour is 100%). In the video, I use 13.5 ounces (or 383 grams) of flour for three pizzas that are approximately 9 or 10 inches across. I find that one person will eat about one of these pizzas. A terrific tool for calculating weights of ingredients for an NY style pizza is the Lehmann Dough Calculator. I don’t use their “bowl residue” compensation field, but I do usually overshoot their recommended amount of flour by about half an ounce.
This recipe makes a pizza somewhere between a puffy, tender Neapolitan pizza and a leaner, somewhat crispy NY style crust. Neapolitan pizzas only use flour, salt, and yeast in their dough, relying on the blazing heat of a wood fired oven to provide a flavorfully charred and finished crust while the crumb is still tender. Since I’m baking in an oven that can’t compete with those temperatures, I have to compromise somewhat in the degree to which I can approach Neapolitan pizza, both in recipe and finished product.
(Disclaimer: The following is just what I’ve read from knowledgeable sources at pizzamaking.com and Slice. I have not yet conducted experiments with significant variations in oil or sugar content.)
The oil in this recipe serves to help make the dough easier to work with as well as aid in creating a more tender crumb and crisper exterior during the bake. The sugar mostly helps with browning, as well as obviously altering the flavor of the crust. Both of these traits are more typical of American styles, and so both ingredients are common in the amount they appear in my recipe or even greater amounts. Almost all American styles are baked at lower temperatures than Neapolitan pizza, and it’s precisely these two ingredients that help the pizza cook more easily. Adding sugar and oil to be used when pursuing a Neapolitan-style pie is a sort of balancing act of getting a quick enough bake time to keep the crumb tender while also not departing too far from Neapolitan characteristics (e.g. making the exterior too crispy or getting uniform browning).
For all this discussion of oil and sugar, the most important ingredient is the flour. Proteins in the flour are responsible for building a network called gluten, which determines how the dough feels while working it, how well the dough traps air bubbles, and the texture of the finished crust. Different flours also feel differently when hydrated, quantified by a “nominal hydration level”, a suggested amount of hydration for making a workable bread dough. A higher level of hydration means more moisture in the pizza while being baked, which helps prevent the pizza from becoming dry and tough while it cooks.
I use King Arthur Bread Flour, which is a popular choice for pizza due to its wide availability and moderately high gluten content and nominal hydration level. Higher gluten flours exist, but can be more challenging to get your hands on, especially if you don’t have a restaurant supplier or pizzeria nearby that is willing to sell it to you (and often these places deal in 55 lb bags of flour). Brominated flours can generally handle more hydration and are easier to work with, but the health effects of using brominated flour in pizza is a matter of some debate. The flour most often associated with Neapolitan pizza is Antimo Caputo Tipo 00 Flour, which is actually comparable to King Arthur Bread Flour in gluten content and has a slightly lower nominal hydration level. I’ve dabbled with Caputo flour, but haven’t found it to significantly improve or detract from my pizza with my current abilities and equipment, though many home pizza enthusiasts warn that it is difficult to get a pizza made with Caputo to take on color before it dries out in the relatively low heat of a home oven.
The best option is probably to work with different flours and see for yourself what hydration level and gluten potential you feel comfortable working with and produces a pizza you enjoy. Keep in mind that your first pizzas may not turn out to your taste or be easy to work with due to your dough handling abilities rather than the ingredients. Gluten is developed in the dough by kneading; working a dough too much can overdevelop the gluten, leading to stiffening and tearing, while underworking a dough can lead to a formless sloppy mess when it comes time to bake the pie. The latter possibility is largely protected against by the yeast. Your microscopic friends expel carbon dioxide into the dough, developing the gluten as gas is forced through the matrix of proteins. It is still useful to knead the dough somewhat so that you can ball it up before fermentation has begun.
Of course, experience with working your dough made with your ingredients of choice is the most important factor in ensuring you can prepare a good pizza skin. There will be many missteps along the way. Fortunately many times dough can be salvaged from errors. If you overwork your dough, let it rest and relax a bit extra. If your dough is too wet, work in more flour or just keep kneading and folding until the gluten is developed enough that the dough gains workable structure. It’s always worth searching for a fix if you’ve made a mistake.