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How an Engineer Does Pizza (varasanos.com)
201 points by eavc on Dec 20, 2010 | hide | past | web | favorite | 88 comments



Awesome. Apparently my dough has been too dry my whole life. I love this point he makes:

Specialty flour is not a huge factor in this process. It's like when you see people arguing about the relative merits of 2 different tensions pulls on $1,000 tennis rackets, meanwhile they go out and miss the ball by 8 feet. Forget it. Maybe if you are making pies at the 99.8th percentile and you want to move to the 99.9th, then you should be worrying about this. Otherwise, let it go. Work on the BIG 3 factors: high heat, a good sourdough starter and technique (mixing and fermenting). This is where you will move from the 50th percentile to the 99th.

I'm constantly baffled by people who have $1500 bicycles but are... well, slow. I think in some cases, having expensive tools actually will make you WORSE. Are you going to train harder if you slip through 5 seconds ahead of your peer, or 5 seconds behind?

Don't buy cheap crap. Know how your tools work. But buying super-pro tools when you're intermediate is stupid.


It's funny. A lot of my friends say that I'm good at photography, but I use a mid-range point and shoot (and even do some stuff with my iphone 4). When they ask me what SLR they should buy I tell them I don't have one and would rather blow the cash on a cheap camera and a good meal than an expensive camera with features I won't use. I will eventually get one, but I'll want to use it for specific things rather than just for general use (and I haven't decided what those things are yet).

Incidentally if you use a point and shoot, about half an hour of reading here (http://www.geofflawrence.com/photography_tutorials.htm) will do much more for your shots than an SLR would.


But if you're actually going to invest time in learning the craft of photography, an SLR makes a world of difference. It doesn't have to be a high-end SLR by any means, but it does enable you to capture many things that a point and shoot would not.


I absolutely agree, but there's no point buying the SLR until you're comfortable with concepts like composition, exposure, lighting and colour theory. If you take poor pictures with a point and shoot, all that will happen with an SLR is that you'll continue to take poor pictures in more detail.

One day I will buy an SLR, but I'm not good enough (IMHO) nor do I have a particular preference for certain types of shot that justify it.


I also think that being able to carry around a P+S in your pocket (like my credit-card-sized Panasonic DMC-FX35 -- with it's fantastic 25mm-equivalent Leica Lens) gives you more opportunities to take shots you would have not been able to take otherwise. Most of the time, a $200-$300 pocket-sized P+S is going to focus and expose your photos way better than you'd ever be able to do manually.

http://farm4.static.flickr.com/3602/3620370987_e9a89ca652_b.... http://farm4.static.flickr.com/3113/2761953972_e1844d6c60_b....


Actually I use a Panasonic P&S with a Leica lens too. Fantastic piece of kit and not too pricey.

I've been using Digital cameras since I first used an old Nikon that took floppy disks (the first camera I bought was a Kodak DC215 that could play MAME roms) and the Panasonic is the best I've had.


One problem with p+s vs slr I always had a problem with was "when to press the damn button". With p+s you have to press the button an absurdly long time before you want the picture taken, while with SLR it is closer to instant. This is a key step when dealing with situations where the right picture is bracketed (in time) by the wrong picture. This more than anything else is why I recommend moving to SLR fairly quickly for people.


This. A million times this. Shutter lag makes me want to rip my hair out.


Never thought I would be receiving photography advice on a thread about pizzas. Bravo for the pleasant surprise.


I've been following Jeff's pizza advice for about 1.5 years. It's great! A few notes:

0) crank your oven up as much as possible, and let it preheat for at least 20 minutes.

1) dough is super important - a slow rise in the fridge > 1 1/2 hour rise > 1 hour rise > store-bought dough.

2) Tomatoes in a can are always better than fresh tomatoes because they have already been cooked (trust me).

3) use the best mozzarella you can find, preferably mozzarella di bufala (made from water buffalo milk)

4) for the dough, use King Arthur Flour and bottled water - it makes a noticeable difference.


"Tomatoes in a can are always better than fresh tomatoes because they have already been cooked (trust me)."

Completely true, but not just because they've been cooked: tomatoes in a can were usually picked ripe, so they actually taste like, you know, tomatoes. Fresh tomatoes from a grocery, even "vine ripened" ones, aren't truly ripe and will almost always be lacking in flavor.

I make my own salsa, and I typically use a mix of fresh and canned (diced) tomatoes: the fresh ones for the proper texture, the canned ones for flavor. It's not ideal, but it's better than either alone. The ideal solution would be to grow my own, but I inherited my mother's black thumb.


Completely true, unless you can guarantee that the tomatoes were picked fresh. My parents live near a little organic farm that we've been buying from for about a decade. We can drive to the farm stand and buy a bag of ripe, delicious tomatoes that was literally picked an hour before. Those made some of the best tomato sauce and salsa I've ever had.


According to The Food Lab[1], the water type doesn't make a difference.

    Lesson learned? As far as pizza goes, use whatever water you want. (...)
    Clearly, the small differences that arise naturally in the course of
    making a good pizza by hand far outweigh the minor differences that
    water could make.
[1]: http://slice.seriouseats.com/archives/2010/01/does-nyc-water...


Where I live, the tab water tastes as good as bottled water, but I've been to other places where the water contains notable doses of chlorine. I think it's those cases where bottled water is the better alternative.


Same rule applies to water as to wine. If you'd drink it you can cook with it. If you wouldn't, don't.


Slow rising is a great tip and it works wonders for bread as well. A great first bread recipe is the no knead one from the nytimes: http://www.nytimes.com/2006/11/08/dining/081mrex.html

Letting dough sit overnight works wonderfully and people have been doing it with pizza dough as well: http://www.nytimes.com/2010/05/19/dining/19pizza.html


Funny you mentioned. I've been doing the no knead bread for 4 years, between once and 6 times a month.

I tried it for pizza. It worked mostly fine, with one issue worth mentioning: the crust becomes too hard for pizza. I fixed that by reducing the baking time and the amount of water. Later on I bought Jim Lahey's book (the guy that created the no knead method) and hiss pizza dough recipe deviates from the no knead method in the same direction.


I've been following his advice as well and getting great results. As my over can't get that hot (max 550f) I have found I get the best results if I do a 1 hour rise after preparation and then put them in the fridge for 2 days. Then I make sure to let the dough get back to room temp prior to baking.


Slightly confused by #4, he seems to mention repeatedly that the flour doesn't matter near as much as the technique.


Why bottled water? What does not having fluoride do?


I think the problem is not fluride but chlorine. Where I live (Philadelphia) the tap water tastes strongly of chlorine, I can imagine it imparting a flavour on food.

(http://www.phila.gov/water/Fact_Sheets.html#fact17)


Perhaps, but remember that chlorine is meant to kill germs, so it must also have a negative impact on the fermentation process; yeast are just good germs, after all.


You can fill a pitcher with water, and let it sit out overnight in the refrigerator. All the dissolved chlorine will evaporate out.


Yes, that is true about Philly water-- until recently I worked there, and I'm about 20 min. S of you over the DE State line.


My pizza engineer taught me that the volume of a pizza with radius 'z' and height 'a' is, in fact, pizza.


pi * z * z * a

edit: oh wow I just got it, lol... I typed it in the right order and not using z^2 notation by coincidence.


come to think of it, it could be neat to call your pizza joint "piz^2a"

(I am mildly disappointed that I cannot use <sup>2</sup> or something of the like. Are HN comments pto?)


piz²a. Use Unicode.


Calling your pizza joint "piz^2a" could either get extra geek points, or be one geekiness too far.


πz²a ?


Alton Brown (not mentioned so far in 64 comments, odd) has a couple of thin-crust pizza techniques for the home chef.

Technique 1 involves using barbecue grill turned up high, oiling the grill rack, and grilling the pizza. Technique 2 involves using a wire cooling rack, a pair of pliers to hold it, and a gas stovetop, to toast or char the bottom of the dough.

http://www.foodnetwork.com/recipes/alton-brown/grilled-pizza...

My personal technique is to put a pizza stone in the bottom of the oven, turn it all the way up, and cook like that. 550F on a hot stone is not as hot as some people manage, but it will still cook a pizza in 4 minutes and produce a very nice char on the bottom, plus it's unlikely to set the house on fire. It's a dangerous enterprise, however, as any pizza mismanagement will set off your smoke alarms. My pizzas come out looking very much like Mr. Varasano's examples. Varasano's talk about mixing, resting, and kneading is very accurate and correct - it's technique, not ingredients, which produces good pizza dough. For home ovens at 550F, you want something less wet than Varasano's pictures, but still "wet" and slack compared to many doughs that you would normally work with.


What, no mention of Pizza Hacker? http://www.thepizzahacker.com/

:-)

I've tried Pizza Hacker's pizzas a couple of times. They're quite good; but just the fact that there you are, on a sidewalk, getting freshly-made pizza out of a Weber-grill-oven, makes it all worthwhile.

Plus he has "hacker" in his name, which must count for something. ;-)


Pizza Hacker suggested to my gf to try out cooking a pizza on the oven's Self-Clean cycle, as it'll get hotter than maxing out the dial.


If your oven has the same 'lock the door and refuse to let it open until the oven has cooled down' feature as mine, that will get you a rather overcooked pizza.


You should be able to fix that with a hacksaw, Dremel tool, or drill.


That seems like perfect example of misfeature. As you almost always want to put things to bake into already hot oven and take them out before it all cools down :)

Also, I never understood why most home ovens today have some complex timers, that not only can turn the oven off or ring some bell (which both might be useful), but also turn the oven on at predetermined time (what is that good for?).


I'm not sure if you're kidding...

If you expect that the oven will have a lot of smoke from crud being burned off at high temp, keeping the oven locked during that period probably seems like a safety feature.

As for turning the oven on at a specified time: if you want to cook something on low heat for 6 hours, there's no way to make that dish on a workday for most people without such an oven. But with that feature, you can just time it to be done an hour after you expect to be home, and all is well.


IIRC Varasano describes how to remedy that. ;)


Finally I see Jeff's site on Hacker news. His pizzas are great, I've been to several of his pizza parties in Atlanta before he opened his restaurant.

Too bad he's only known for his pizza (and his rubix cube). He is also a very good hacker and developed a pretty snazzy C++ application framework.


He's proving to be a good restaurateur as well, don't forget.


He is improving in that area. But I think he still has some of the negative stigma left over from his Web site when he said all Atlanta pizza places suck (those comments were written before he even thought about opening a restaurant). That made some people come to his restaurant with a super-critical eye. And you can see there are some bias with some of the reviewers.


This article reminds me to ask: why do Americans call pizza "pies"? Numerous times, the article refers to pizzas as if they are a variant of pies, and I have heard it elsewhere, too.

To me, an Australian, a pizza and a pie are completely different things. The idea of calling a pizza a pie is ludicrous, and vice versa. Anyone care to explain?


pizza-pie - 1935, from Italian pizza, originally "cake, tart, pie" http://dictionary.reference.com/etymology/pizza-pie

For the story of how pizza was introduced in the US: http://www.americanheritage.com/articles/magazine/ah/2006/2/...


As a Hoosier (a person from Indiana) I've always thought the same thing. We never called a pizza a pie. When I was young, though, I saw the term "pie" used in a Nancy Drew novel, and I've seen the phrase "pizza pie" as well. Obviously they're related, and equally obviously there's some regional variation, but ... whatever the region is, Indiana is outside it.


When the moon hits your eye like a big pizza pie? That's amoré.


When you're swimming in the sea and an eel bites your knee, that's a Moray.


When a guy's riding by on a bike in a tie, that's a Morman.


They're both round and relatively flat (in proportion to their diameter).

For "deep dish" pizzas especially they are even baked in a similar pan.

C'mon, it's not THAT much of a stretch.


Because when Marco Polo returned from China, he brought with him fantastic stories of meat pies, mythical pastries with the meat INSIDE of the bread.

How did it get in there? Nobody knows. Many tried, but none could discover the secret. Defeated, the Italians put the filling on top of the bread, and so invented pizza.

According to my dad, at least.


If you say "pie", you mean a pie. If you say "I'd like a 10-inch pie" in a pizza place, you mean a pizza pie. It's context.


I suppose this would be a valid time to link to this awesome site: http://www.cookingforengineers.com/

My dad's an electrical engineer; my mom busted a gut when I showed this to her :) Still one of my favorite recipe sites. And I love those recipe grids.


It is a huge shame that the recipes are not "free" with a GNU FDL or Creative Commons license.


Actually the recipe isn't protected by copyright, but the text describing the procedure. In other words, if you can describe to someone how to make the food in your own words, without copying the text of the description, you're OK. http://www.copyright.gov/help/faq/faq-protect.html#recipe


Thanks for the clarification. I did mean the text though, more specifically the whole "database of textually described recipes".


Get a oven thermometer every oven is different, and you want temp of atleast 220 C, wood ovens have temps of 500 C, so the higher the better. I would even put the grill on. And put the tray into the oven while it preheats.

For the dough... Instead of room temp water use cold water (even ice cold water). For the second rise, leave it in the fridge overnight, the idea is to let it rise slowly for a long period of time.

After 2 minutes of pizza being in the oven. Spray with water, I just use the garden water spray. You want mist rather than a pool of water. This will reduce the temp a little, but will give the crust, without having to burn the pizza.


Unfortunately the cooking temperatures are well above what most standard kitchens can achieve, at a sizzling 850F.

Speaking from personal experience however, it is possible to make a good pizza with a standard oven with some experimentation.


Actually...

Do a ctrl-f for, "I've got my oven cranked up to over 800 F," and read from there.

He was using a standard oven that he'd modified to cook using the cleaning cycle.


Yeah, I read that bit. Warranty voiding oven hacks kind of scare the crap out of me, I think it's pretty safe to say that with your average oven/oven-owner combination, you're generally not going to get above 500F.

Seriously though, if you burn your house down pulling that kind of stunt I really doubt your insurance company will be amused. Over-clocking PCs is one thing, but ovens?


It's not really overclocking though - the oven already can handle those temperatures.

The difference is he modifies it so he can open the door when it's doing that. It's not a fire hazard, it's a burn hazard (well obviously there is a fire hazard, but stuff burns at 500 too).


IIRC it has been mentioned that sauce splattering onto the glass at those temps can shatter it.


I think that's his worry, not that it actually can happen.

Because if it would happen it would happen at 500 degree too.


It can and does happen at both temperatures.


It's really nothing to worry about as long as you don't leave the oven unattended, have a small fire extinguisher handy (as any decent kitchen should), and keep small children out of the kitchen.


I assume the oven thermometer works by supplying a temperature-dependent current or voltage to whatever controls the heating elements. It should be possible to mod it so that the temperature reported is half of what it actually is. That way, you can set your oven dial to 400 F and actually get 800 F. Bonus points for installing a 1x / 2x switch so you can toggle between normal and high-heat modes. Sure beats hacking off the cleaning lock with garden shears.


Hmm. I don't think I'd call an oven with a high-temperature cleaning cycle 'standard'. It would have to be pretty new, and would set you back well over a grand (I spent £800 on an oven and everyone told me I was crazy...).

Edit: I think it might be more common in electric ovens at a lower price point(?)


Quick note, so nobody else has to convert:

  850° F = 454° C
  800° F = 426° C
  500° F = 260° C


alternatively, your friendly neighbourhood google does this for you:

"850F in celsius" "850 degrees Fahrenheit = 454.444444 degrees Celsius"


Slice posted a technique for a skillet/broiler method of getting the proper char on a Neapolitan pizza:

http://slice.seriouseats.com/archives/2010/09/how-to-make-gr...

This works well, and doesn't require oven hacking.


I have an all new respect for pizza. I knew making a great pizza was hard but the amount of careful experimentation and analysis that went into this is incredible.

It is a bit intimidating though. I think I will leave this for the pros.


By any means NO! Do it, man; it is worth trying!

I am a amateur cooker & baker. And you just can't imagine how many times I failed in so many disastrous ways.

But getting a perfect bread or pizza right, once in a while, and having your wife saying "tonight, you really deserve good sex!" is just priceless.


Ah Pizza.... food of the gods... this is some serious effort just to get it "just so" :)

FWIW "Tom's subjective best pizza place in the world" is a little restaurant in a back street in Urbino, Italy. Quite similar to this pizza, but with less sauce (mostly consisting of sundried tomato), a little garlic, mozzarella, pancetta and rocket. Cooked extremely fast in a brick oven and served drizzled with chilli flavoured olive oil.

It's a much less "wet" pizza than I've seen eaten in the US (and even the rest of Italy); the dough is quite moist to make up for it :)

Yum.


This was one of the pages that helped me formulate my current recipe. High moisture content and not overworking the dough are key for me. It can be a sticky situation while kneading with all that water, but the result is worth the messy hands. One of the better ones I've made: http://www.flickr.com/photos/midnightzulu/3517525006/

FWIW, best pizza I've ever had was at Apizza Scholl's in Portland, OR. Second best was my own.


The attitude taken reminds me of the scientific like precision Heston Blumenthal goes through to create his food...

I can't find many videos online, only the results of the various experiments. For example chips (as in Fish & Chips): http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=MCB9jIpNGzY


Check out "The Art of Pizza Making: Trade Secrets and Recipes" by Dominick DeAngelis. He's holds a PhD in engineering, and has done a lot of research to compile a simple pizza book. His recipes are a bit sweet for my taste, but his book helped me diagnose the main problems in my pizza-making approach.


If you like this stuff, you will love Jeff Potter's "Cooking for Geeks"

http://www.amazon.com/Cooking-Geeks-Science-Great-Hacks/dp/0...


I actually went there for dinner last night, and it is fantastic pizza.

:)


Now I'm hungry.


I gotta admit, I love this write up on his Pizza! Anyone know of a good write up on Ramen?



Correction, this is how an engineer does pizza:

http://www.robotfoodtech.com/content/pizza/en


Nice burnt crust, I don't see why anyone would find these images appealing. Cancer anyone?


I don't see why you were downvoted so low. It's not like you were rude or something. This kind pizza does not look that appealing to me either, but it's always nice to read from people who are passionate about making something.


"To each his own", i suppose. That looks delicious to me.


so the secret to cooking pizza like an engineer is to find a recipe you like and spend 6 years trying to reverse-engineer it? you must work for [your employer here] hrrhrr.. a hacker would have slipped one of the chefs, preps, or servers an andrew jackson and walked out with the recipe the same day.

also, what's up with people calling a flat piece of bread with half a diced tomato, 5 slices of cheese, and a sprig of basil to make it look "pretty", pizza? that's not "pizza", that's a dressed up keema naan at best.

where's the meat? whole wheat crust? olives? bacon? onions? ham? sausage? shrimp? artichoke hearts? red/black beans? bell peppers?


> pizza? that's not "pizza", that's a dressed up keema naan at best.

May I ask where you live? In some US states it is tough to find pizza good enough to make you see why this type of pizza can be so amazing. If my first hamburger had been ordered in England, I'm pretty sure I'd think hamburgers were terrible and pointless.


sf bay area.. though i dont think i've eaten any of the pizza out here.. i usually just make it myself.. throw in a bottle of wine and a dvd and you've got the makings of a decent date. subtract the human counterpart, add an "Innie" model [ http://news.ycombinator.com/item?id=1986883 ] and you'll have twice as much pizza left for the next day!


A keema naan, by definition, contains meat.


right, but pointing out that what he's made is nothing more than a glorified tortilla is to point out that a 95 page instruction manual on how to assemble a tortilla has unironically made it to the top of hackernews. but maybe that needs to be done.




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