I built a wood burning pizza oven and have been doing experiments for 5+ years, and what I've discovered is only certain things make a taste-able difference.
1. Oven. 900 degrees baby. Pizza cooks fast, and tastes delicious. You can get the "leoparding" on the edges. 100% worth it if you have time and space.
2. Yeast. Get the Ischia: https://www.amazon.com/Italian-Ischia-Camaldoli-Sourdough-Cu... it's a very light sourdough that imparts a delicious almost floral taste. I put a little bit of IDY in the mix to help sometimes, but this yeast is delicious.
3. Autolyse. Let everything but the salt sit for 30-45 minutes to generate gluten.
Here's my dough spreadsheet that auto calculates ratios and hydration %:
I'm happy to answer more questions if people are interested.
I'll also put in a little plug for my dough calculator here: http://maybepizza.com/calc/ , which is a bit more accessible on hand held devices.
I like that you're keeping a historical record on your spreadsheet- that's a neat idea.
Let people post their results, correlated with their location and time to pull humidity from the local weather and give them a place to store results and we can crowd source our way to some serious pizza! :P
E.g. my typical sourdough recipe is something like: feed starter generously, let sit overnight. Build dough with bubbly starter, bread flour, additional water, some rye or whole wheat. Bulk ferment for most of the day, with about 4 folds in the first 4 hours. Shape, proof overnight in the fridge. Bake from the fridge.
It's my understanding that salt slows the "automatic" formation of gluten in a high hydration dough at rest. Okay, sure. But if the dough is already resting 24 hours between mixing and baking, does that much matter?
I am not an expert, but I make bread a few times a month, and mix by hand. Here's my mental model: (it's roughly as scientific as a lumberjack who has fairies who tell him which way the tree wants to fall, so YMMV)
The gluten wants to form straight chains. That's it's lowest energy state. If you make a wet poulish and just let it sit, the molecules can rotate slightly to find that low energy state, and you get some nice long chains that form with no work.
If you make a dry dough and mix it right away, you are constantly breaking and reorienting those glutens, and the molecules can't "feel" the fields where they are at the lowest energy. Essentially, the kinetic energy you are adding is so much greater than the subtle push and pull of the other molecules that you end up connecting the glutens together in a much more random way. You get kinky chains instead of straight ones.
It's a little like a crystal forming in a solution... if you let it sit, the molecules will find their nice crystalline structure. If you put it in the blender, you'll just get a crystal puree.
One thing that has changed about my breadmaking over the years, is that I used to think the earliest steps didn't matter as much, because it all gets kneaded, then punched down, kneaded some more, formed, etc. I thought the structure all happens during the final formation and rise. But now I think about the structure of the dough from the very first moment the water meets the flour. I think of every single time I touch the dough, every single stretch and fold as part of the final structure of the loaf.
the answer, as usual with baking, is it depends. Salt definitely changes the chemistry. Salt mostly stabilizes the gluten structure and makes it stronger, but it can also inhibit development of new gluten bonds somewhat, particularly when the flour is initially hydrating.
You need to experiment, try a 2 hour autolyze before adding salt for a 24 hour cold rise.
Unless I misunderstand, gluten is a protein in the wheat. How is gluten generated? If anything the yeast will break down the carbs and fats in the flower into simple sugars and alcohols. Or was this a misnomer?
Does it _have_ to be a wood-burning oven though? Does only the heat matter?
I used to have a WFO, but after I moved houses I've switched to all electric. It's different and more convenient, but I do miss my old WFO at times. Still makes great pizza though, and most folks won't be able to tell the difference.
jeff varasano's website is a great resource for pizza hackers and lays a lot of myths to rest (like proofing). my own process (which I cook in a blackstone pizza oven at ~800°) has a bit more in common with tony gemignani's basic neopolitan (described in his pizza bible), with the addition of the earlier and longer autolysing period used by jeff. the difference is night and day and I wish I'd learned about it a lot sooner!
if you're in the bay area and this kind of pizza is your thing, be sure to check out the following places --
SF: pizzetta 211, una pizza napoletana, tony's, firetrail, a16
oakland: boot & shoe, pizzaiolo, also a16
berkeley: lucia's, emilia's
on that list, emilia's is far and away my favorite. it's a one man operation, dirt cheap ($21 tax included for an 18" pie), and just impossibly good. he gave me some of his sourdough starter once, and killing it rather quickly is one of my greatest regrets.
About the OP: I effing _love_ pizza but struggle to make it at home. The quality and quantity of knowledge in this post is fantastic!
I'm not the biggest fan of Tony's margherita, but it seems the dude can make a perfect pizza in practically any style. Capo's is the best deep dish pizza I've ever had, including Chicago!
I start dialing at 4pm and get a 7:30pm pie....
Awesome place though - totally worth it. Between Emilia's the Cheeseboard and Zachary's Berkeley has a pretty awesome choice of Pizza. Boot and Shoe is also opening a location on Shattuck ....
berkeley does indeed have good pizza. outside the neopolitan pizzerias, gioia is excellent, arinell is one of my favorites for a NY slice (same as the one on 16th & valencia), and artichoke basille's isn't great but for a gigantic margherita slice at 3am, I'll take it! make sure to check out benchmark in kensingson (basically berkeley) too.
I always find Una Pizza Napoletana extremely soft and doughy, and personally I think it's really overrated. Maybe I've just gotten bad pies on the two occasions I've tried it.
This is just hilarious. Compared to NY pizza, "soft and doughy" is what most pizzas in Naples and Rome are. That's precisely the original concept.
When pizza crust resembles naan (overly soft, pliable after baking) things have gone too far.
new/haven't tried/coming soon:
The next big leap forward was reading Jeff Varasano and learning the basics of hydration. Turns out I was in the 45-50% range. I just needed to get that into the 62% or 65% range or whatever he says. It's counterintuitive because it's so hard to knead at that hydration, but it cooks beautifully.
I've started doing a long, cold rise like he recommends. I don't know how much difference it makes. I can't really taste a difference. But I do appreciate the goal of avoiding big bubbles.
I'd love to play with different yeasts next, but I keep killing my starters. Jeff has some good thoughts on starters. I like his recommendation to buy a known starter rather than relying on whatever is in your environment. I like the focus on predictability and reproducibility. But I think most people do wild yeast with good results. I think the Tartine book is also a good resource for the starter (and for a lot of things).
Which one do you use?
also reminds me of the microsoft solitaire guy who eventually left software and started an apple farm and a cider brewery.
i am personally quite into bread baking, which is apparently quite a curiousity among my friends. "oh, computer guys don't bake do they?" but i think i'm personally attracted to music or cooking or baking or programming in the same way because they all involve creating something new. The process of getting from nothing to something is miraculous. creating both bread and software gives me the same sense of satisfaction. maybe bread moreso because of how tactile the process is.
Outside of my family, I have four passions in my life: cooking (bread baking in particular), music (guitar and piano), and programming (I'm a hack, but always working at it). For years, I've said to others, "It's the creation of something new that is so fascinating and satisfying."
baker's percentages are the easy part. I also log temperatures and fermentation times. analysing the effect of those two inputs on bread quality is much harder.
I think part of the fun is that you don't necessarily have full control over the fermentation process. as you come close to the end of the fermentation you observe the size of the dough, the quality of the rise, and you adjust your baking schedule depending on how hot or cold the room has been. the dough is the master of you, and you can only try to tame it.
it's the same for the levain - the feedings can be exact, but the nature of the culture, the smell, the taste, the vigor... everybody has a different culture even if they follow the same recipe.
always on the lookout for a good pizza. far too many chains that are boring but consistent and too many local pop up stores seem to all serve the same doughy mess (always thick crust)
There are some things that it's better to have specialists do with specialist equipment, and I'm fine with paying them to do that.
If you go down to your local metal supply store you can have them cut one of these plates for you that is thicker (thicker is better) and cheaper than you can buy at any cooking store.
If you want a SERIOUSLY thin crust NY style pizza from a hole in the wall shop in the Bay Area, I highly recommend Arinell in the Mission. Nice big 3 dollar cheese slices, served on a piece of parchment paper. No bells and whistles...just delicious
I have to say in all the years of hacker news, this article was very welcome and makes this place feel all the more special and cozy!
In Rome and Naples, they think of pizza in a very different way. The dough is more pliable, soft and slightly thicker. They also do care a lot more about quality, origin and freshness of toppings than the obsessive and meticulous dough preparation and baking. Charred bottoms in pizza is not a common thing in Italy.
In São Paulo, Brazil (another Italian emigrants outpost) the dough is like in Italy but the emphasis is in diversity and amount of toppings.
I wonder what pizza is like in other parts of the world.
What can those us with regular ovens do? You know, the sort of oven you find in most kitchens that top out at 250C (500F)?
2. Make your own sauce. The ingredients are cheap, and a little experimentation will get it to the taste that you want.
3. Don't overtop it. The natural tendency is to want more - more sauce, more cheese, more whatever else. Start off very simply. Scatter little bits.
4. Transfer as much heat as possible to the bottom of your crust. You can use a baking steel, a pizza stone, or unglazed fire tiles available for less than $10 at your local hardware store. Put them in the oven exactly where you want your pizza to go, then fire it all the way up.
5. Experiment. The first few pizzas you make will vary wildly from "almost what I want" to "maybe I shouldn't make pizza". Keep going. Take notes.
And if you don't have an oven at all, consider getting a cast iron frying pan and try for a completely different kind of pizza: http://www.seriouseats.com/2016/08/cast-iron-pizza-tortilla-...
I improvised a pan "pizza" that the whole family likes that's non-traditional but delicious... Dice 1/2lb of thick bacon or pancetta. Dice a few yellow potatoes. While the meat bits brown in a pan, parboil the potatoes. Chop a bunch of rinsed kale. Drain the potatoes. Set aside the meat, reserving the fat in two portions. Cook chopped garlic with a dash of salt in one portion of fat, about a minute, then cook down the kale until it softens and reduces in size, a few minutes. Get a second pan very hot, add the second portion of fat, and fry the potatoes until golden. Before removing the potatoes from the heat, toss with garlic, rosemary, oregano, and a little salt, cooking a minute. Now use these to top a dough and sprinkle with just a couple of ounces of shredded mozzarella and fresh grated romano.
It's mind-boggling how deep these new online communities around barbeque, cheesemaking, or sour beer brewing (shoutout to milk the funk) can get, where at a certain point, there's a scientific breakdown of the variables involved. This sort of food science blends anthropology, biology, marketing, and engineering. It's so much fun.
I think this is important: Sauce and toppings all compete with the crust for heat.
 Not sure why I've never tried before. I guess because the pizza's been so good.
I tried for a while but then gave up. Just not hot enough. I actually found Jeff's recipe waaay back before he opened his restaurant, I remember him announcing it, and I was really upset when I got to the oven temperatures.
Preheat the oven with the cookie sheet inside, prepare your pizza on a lightweight cutting board. The trick is to slide the uncooked pizza onto the hot sheet. A dusting of cornmeal on the cutting board will make the pizza positively glide off, but purists will bicker…
Every time I've made pizza the stuff I've put in the oven has been pretty good when I take it out. The pizza usually comes with a very short time window for availability: then it's gone. It probably requires great talent to majorly fail a pizza. If you only fail your pizza slightly, it's still damn good.
Now, I'm quite sure that you can even objectively establish that there are better pizzas than what I make. The point is then: why would I care if I'm happy with whatever I currently make?
If I fell in love with a truly, absolutely and universally the greatest pizza then I'd just be disappointed with my own pizzas afterwards and I'd have to learn how to make those great pizzas. Instead of an upgrade that actually sounds more like a net loss to me because now I have to work to get back to where I was, i.e. happy with my pizza.
If you're happy with your pizzas, change nothing and continue.
With such "cold" oven the best is to cook "nonna" pizza (grand ma').
I think this one is great: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=D2ws4sTKrdI
For the dough, you can use this ones as inspiration:
Best tip to avoid uncooked dough under the tomato sauce: remove all the possible water from the tomato sauce.
From memory, it was basically to heat up a cast iron pan to get it very hot and then to sit the pizza on top of that, with the other side of it close to the grill element. He also mentioned how you can use the 'cleaning mode' of some ovens to get up to the required temperature.
A description here http://www.insearchofheston.com/2013/05/how-to-make-hestons-... - see "Step 7: Cooking the Pizza"
He broke the safety latch off his oven and put a piece of foil over the sensor, and runs his oven on Clean mode.
Preheat for an hour and drop the pizza on it. Also turn the infrared broiler. Or blowtorch. Thin crust also helps.
Edit: If you can think of way to make the topping stay in place(impossible) , the perfect way to bake a pizza is tandoor. Good pizza is rich flatbread and not casserole on a dough. Which from my observations is the biggest error people make.
Pizza stones or ceramic tiles don't work well in the ovens, even though they are often marketed for oven use. They are great on BBQ grills though.
OTOH, the Fool Proof pan pizza is excellent and works every time -
PS. There are also small-ish wood-fired ovens for those with a bit of backyard. I can't seem to find it now, but these are made by a specialist company that also sells an unbranded version -
So it is thermal capacity plus conductivity together.
He also takes it on holidays and trips.
I've been reading this book and it has a good mix of history/context, technique and recipes. It is aimed at folks with a regular oven. Its process for Margherita is multi-step and uses the broiler aggressively; more than I would normally be comfortable with. The output from my regular oven (max 550 C) matches the cover image from the book.
The dough is key, though. I like high salt, low yeast, long fermentation styles. I'm still doing trials with different flour (e.g. caputo 00, blue bag (a standard pizza flour) vs. generic all-purpose flour) to suss out the difference flour makes but the book goes into this in depth, including a basic overview of what the different ingredients are for, chemically, to give you a sense of why some recipes are different (long vs. short fermentation influences amount of yeast/salt.)
If you're going to go heavy on the toppings, bake the the dough for a while, then add toppings.
You want a peel. Coarse ground cornmeal, coarse Durham wheat flour, and other course-ground wheat products all work well to keep your dough mobile. Make sure you can shake it on the peel before trying to transfer. Build the pizza on the peel or you'll make a mess of it.
You can probably get away with a lower oven temp with pan pizza. Oil cast iron pan, preheat oven. Build pizza in pan (dough running up the sides). Cook on stovetop until it starts to sizzle (I also hit the top with a heat gun at this point, but you don't have to). Move to oven, turn broiler on, cook until the top looks done. May take some experimentation, but it takes less equipment than using a stone and peel. Note: I haven't done this one in a while and I think maybe I cooked it for a few minutes before kicking in the broiler, but I'm not sure. Experiment.
You can make pretty good pizza with dough made in a bread machine. If you have one, consider starting with that. Much easier.
[EDIT] more lifehack protips now that I have a keyboard:
1) If you like pepperoni pizza, try the sandwich-slice stuff at the deli counter. Even the cheaper varieties of this are better than the small ones you find in packages. If you're going to a real deli or whatever keep doing what you're doing, but this will help with ordinary grocery store shopping.
2) You don't have to have fresh mozz for every pie (though man is it good) but do spend up slightly on the cheese if you can, and favor block over pre-shredded (no anti-caking agents in the block cheese). HOWEVER, as long as you don't get the absolute worst cheese you can find, cheaping out a bit here will not ruin your pizza, it just won't be as good. You can still beat all the major chains with Kraft. Also: consider mixing in other stuff with your mozz for some depth, especially if you're not paying for high-end cheese. Provolone's a common option.
3) Don't spend a ton on San Marzano (or "San Marzano Style") canned tomatoes, unless it's a really special pizza. If you garden, consider growing your own San Marzanos and canning (you'll have too many to use in a Summer even with just 3-4 plants)—it's the very best option, flavor wise. Having-a-religious-moment good. For your everyday pizza just get decent canned tomatoes. Do not use fresh tomatoes unless you know the person who grew them (this goes for practically any dish that calls for tomatoes). Again, you're gonna have to buy the worst canned tomatoes you can possibly find to maybe make your pizza worse than the major chains—not that they necessarily use tomatoes that bad, but home-made pizza tends to be so good that you have to really screw up ingredient selection to ruin it, though obviously good ingredients are necessary if you want to achieve Pizza Nirvana.
4) Beware under-salting your dough and sauce. No, that recipe you found isn't wrong, and yes you should put that much black pepper in pizza sauce. In fact maybe give it another couple turns.
I've been making homemade pan pizzas for years using aluminum half sheet pans (like this https://www.webstaurantstore.com/bakers-mark-18-x-13-half-si...) and a convection oven set to 550 or whatever it'll heat to. My observations:
* dough should be cool but close to room temp
* let the oven stand at the set temperature for at least ten minutes before using it.
* lightly bake the dough without toppings first on the lowest rack setting or directly on the bottom of the oven so the pan heats and the bottom of the pizza crisps.
* if using a tomato sauce, apply sparingly and bake again for a few minutes to drive off some moisture.
* use less toppings than you think
As an aside, I once set the oven on self-clean, forgetting a pizza stone was still in there, and that was a mixed experience. On the one hand, I had to open the windows and pull the smoke detectors as smoke poured out of the oven for a while. On the other hand, when done, the pizza stone looked like it was fresh out of the box, not a stain on it.
I have no idea if that's a plus, a minus, or meant nothing for that particular stone... but it eventually cracked like the others.
OTOH, you can get something like this for ~100€,
Thank you all, folks, this has been an education.
Right away, I immediately thought about my one favorite pizza place in NYC, and guess what:
> This pizza is modeled after Patsy's on 117th street in NYC
Yep. I used to go there (all the way out to 1st Ave! oy vey!) and get takeout slices fresh out of the oven back when I lived uptown. That description gets it just right. Never knew it was considered the best in the US, but it makes sense: that neighborhood was the original "Little Italy" back when the neighborhood was Italian (and Jewish) Harlem rather than Spanish Harlem. I certainly haven't had better in NYC, and I've tried (even the Patsy's on 60th St doesn't get it just right).
Another interesting thing, though it doesn't relate to pizza, it's about a sort-of "restaurant model hacker": around the corner from Patsy's is a very secretive restaurant named Rao's. It does away with the "first come first serve" model of seating at restaurants, and instead you get yourself a sort of "standing reservation" for a table once a week/month/year. It's incredibly challenging to get one of these reservations, although there are stories of well-dressed and charming patrons spending some time at the bar and getting a spot for that evening, if there's space left. Many very famous people (and some important but not-famous people...) hold reservations there; it's known as the most exclusive spot in the city. It's also rumored to be mob-related: eating there back in the 70s, you could leave your furs in your convertible with the top down despite the danger of the neighborhood.
I was on a neighborhood tour of the Lower West Side a few weeks back and this came up when we sampled slices from what I think was the 2nd oldest pizzeria in NY. The guides attributed it to two things. One, the water used, the NY water supply comes from springs in the Catskills Mountains which have some sort of environmental protections. The other is the quality of the ingredients, the guide pointed out that the simple slice of cheese pizza didn't have any oil pooling on top of the cheese, cheap cheese will result in the oil separating during the cooking processed (that seems legit based on the pizza I get in TX).
I've been to small towns with a "House of Pizza" that made an awful flavorless and bready crust, and the locals loved it because they had no reference for anything better.
Recently I started making my own with a recipe similar to what was posted here (but mostly from Ken Forkish's book The Elements of Pizza), and I'm pretty happy with the results so far. It's at least something to hold me over until trips home.
...but really, we're going nuts with the toppings. It all started when we got a white pizza with grape halves (and other stuff) from the Cheeseboard Pizza Collective.
If I remember it correctly, this year's best pizza was a white pizza with figs, bruschetta (sp?), goat cheese and truffle oil. Barely any topics, but the most amazing thing to put in your mouth.
Another story: Back in college (upstate NY), the local late night food was (of course) many, many local pizza places, all of which were basically the same and thoroughly standard. I once asked them what kind of dough they used, and they said "Pizza dough..?". I took their confusion about the question as an explanation as to why I never really liked their pizza: if they don't care enough about pizza to learn about dough, it's reasonable to expect they don't care enough to make a great pie.
PS - Shoutout to Zachary's deep dish in the Bay, and Masa's in LA.
He told me he was working on an AI framework in C++! I gave him the URL for Hacker News, hopefully he'll find some time to participate.
Hilarious, I told him my pizza was excellent, and he was eating a Big Mac. He told me his was great too, but I couldn't have any. No trade!
with King Arthur's bread flour and over night rising works really well for me.
my oven gets up to 550 and I use a pizza stone.
Super happy to find out good NYC-style pizza can be produced there. I always assumed the high humidity will mess things up.
Now if someone can figure out how to make decent bagels down there...
pizza = flat thing with cheese on top, pizza base at bottom
pie = closed thing with significant vertical component, pastry on top and bottom
Otherwise, every flatbread or similar thing on earth is a pie. Observe: "Oh, I really dig these Indian roti-pies". "Pass me another naan-pie". "Papadam pie party!". "The omlette is my favourite pie!". "Cheese toasties are a way better pies than pizza!". "A breakfast of pancake: how I love a pie in the morning!" It's insane.
Second, a pie needn't have pastry on both top and bottom. There are numerous pies with no crust on top, such as pumpkin pie, key lime pie, banana cream pie, lemon meringue pie, chess pie, pecan pie, or chocolate icebox pie. These are so similar to pies with crust on top that it is hard to see how a reasonable definition could include one but not the other.
Toasted sandwiches are baked and by your definition could still then be pie. If you would argue otherwise, where do you draw the line between baking and toasting?
I wouldn't consider a toasted sandwich to have a crust because to me a crust is more of a hard pastry layer, not a fluffy piece of bread which has been browned.
Though that is a bit of a gray area. If you were to take some fluffy white bread, get it wet, and mash it down into a layer that lines a pie pan, and then put some filling (fruit for example) in it and bake it, and if the bread all hardened together into a cohesive outer shell, then I suppose I'd call that a very unconventional pie.
Just to make everything more complicated, there are deep-dish pizzas that have a very pie-like form. There's crust on top and the bottom, and they are cooked in a pan that resembles a pie pan. For example, this: http://winespiritsbeer.blogspot.com/2013/09/beer-crust-deep-... . Compared to a flat pizza, I think those are more deserving of the word "pie" not only because there is a crust but because the ingredients are more of a filling and less of a topping.
Another question is whether a (baked) calzone or empanada is a pie. They certainly meet most of my criteria, so maybe I'd have to say they are.
We don't use pie for any of those other things you list. It's either a pie (pumpkin, apple, pecan, etc), or a pizza.
Your inner child needs to accept that some people speak different languages than you.
This isn't quite the same as a calzone (which is usually a single serving affair - think of it as a large pizza-filled pasty).
Honestly, though - aside from getting it to cook properly - I'm not sure that a pie crust with pizza filling would be that bad; blind-bake the crust, add the fillings, cook at as hot as you can get your oven, maybe broil the cheese on top (or take a torch to it).
To me, that sounds pretty good...