In my last post, I detailed my current practice for preparing pizza dough through balling it up for a slow, refrigerated fermentation. After two to four days in the refrigerator, the dough is ready for you to make it into pizza. Again I’ve put together a video to help you understand my process, but there is of course only so much you can discuss about pizza in a five minute video.
A important distinction between this video and the previous video, is that the previous video was a general method for producing pizza dough (excepting for the fact that the recipe is designed for a certain number and size of pies). This video shows me baking pizza using a rather peculiar, though very accessible, method. In the video I bake the pizza by laying out the skin in a preheated cast iron skillet, topping it, and then sliding it under the broiler. If you are baking on stones or a different surface (like steel) then you will need to keep in mind a couple of significant differences between what’s shown in the video and what you will have to do.
A baking surface’s job is to store heat to be rapidly transferred to the topped pizza. Therefore your baking surface is useless unless it is adequately preheated. For some stones, this can take up to an hour, and can only truly be verified by an infrared thermometer. When using my quarry tiles, I usually preheated them for 45 minutes to an hour, while I gave my steel only 30 minutes preheat time. Since I don’t own an IR thermometer, I can’t be sure those times are adequate, but that was my practice. Of course, always be sure that you are running your oven at its maximum temperature when baking pizza.
Getting the topped pizza to the baking surface is a skill that can take a bit of practice to master. I’ve ruined quite a few pizzas through various mishaps handling the peel. If possible, top your pizza before sliding it onto the peel. Wooden peels are recommended for launching pizzas into the oven, while thinner metal peels are recommended for recovering the finished pies. If you only have a metal peel, consider modding it with perforations, or trying extra tricks like using semolina, corn meal, or even trapping an air bubble below the pizza. I’ve also used parchment paper and tin foil between the pie and the peel with no noticeable negative consequences, removing the paper or foil a minute or two after the pizza is baking. No matter what your solution is, top your pizza as swiftly as possible so that moisture from the sauce and toppings does not have time to penetrate the dough.
This discussion is all cart before the horse, because your first job is to stretch the dough from a ball into a pizza skin. Your main objectives during stretching are to 1) define and preserve the cornicione and 2) bring the rest of the skin to the right degree of thinness for the style. The cornicione is the poofy, airy portion of crust around the rim of the pizza, which ought to be a highlight of any pizza despite the fact that many children across America discard the unfortunate tough, dried out specimens that they encounter. If you make a good dough, don’t crush your cornicione prior to baking, and don’t overcook the pizza then you will avoid the fate of so many sad pizzas.
Remove your containers of dough from the fridge two hours before you are ready to bake. This ensures your dough is easily stretched and full of bubbles that will expand during baking to create a tender, open crumb. To begin stretching, I thoroughly coat the doughball in flour on a plate, where I also press my fingers into the dough about half an inch from the edge all the way around the ball. This groove defines a border between the cornicione, which you are hereby forbidden to touch, and the center of the skin, which we will be stretching. I then usually pick up the dough and pass it back and forth between my hands to brush or slap off excess flour, making sure to never touch to the cornicione (I really mean it!). One a work surface, you can start using your fingers in the groove to perform a first round of stretching by rotating the pizza with one hand while providing counterpressure with the other hand.
Once the preliminary stretches are done, I place my knuckles in the same groove to support the skin while it hangs, stretching itself with its own weight. I simply pass the dough from one hand to the other to rotate it while gravity does all the work. When I’m on my game, I make a special effort to concentrate my contact to just the edge of the stretchable region. Tension at a point on the edge will stretch the dough between roughly that point and the center of the pizza. That means the center will get stretched no matter where your hands are placed, so it’s important to position your hands to maximally stretch the edges out lest you end up with the middle of the pie being too thin and the edges too thick.
Once the stretching is done, the rest of the process is relatively straightforward. Top the pizza according to your preference, so long as your preference isn’t doing it slowly. Make sure you keep a close eye on the pizza, since depending on your oven and baking surface, a pie can be done in as few as four minutes. Feel free to fiddle with the pizza while it’s in the oven, checking the undercarraige or repositioning. Keep in mind that the more the oven door is open, the greater opportunity heat has to escape into your kitchen rather than baking your pizza. Rapid transfer of large quantities of heat to the pizza is what causes the gass bubbles to expand in the dough, creating a light crust (as opposed to dense and chewy). Meanwhile the high heat also helps the gluten set into a structurally sound, but tender, crust before the moisture has a chance to be driven off leaving you with a tough, leathery crust.
Look for the development of dark spots and browning on the crust, as well as the melting of the cheese. Fresh mozzerella should be melted but should not be taking on much, if any, color. Fortunately experience in identifying a finished pizza is one area where the requisite practice is eating your own, delicious, home-made pizza.