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Make Your Own Perfect Pizza

A chef reveals the three secrets: a good dough, a hot oven and a pizza stone

By Kathy Kingsley | January 15, 2013

When it comes to pizza, there's never a shortage of types, toppings — or opinions. Debates over what’s best range from deep-dish vs. thin crust to wood-fired vs. traditional to whether a ham-and-pineapple pie is really pizza.
 
But there’s one thing everyone seems to agree on: Pizza might just be the perfect food. In America, we consume some 350 slices per second, and vendors sell approximately 3 billion pizzas every year. No matter where you live — the heart of a big city or Smalltown, USA — you can satisfy your craving for a steamy hot pie simply by picking up the phone.

But you don’t need to depend on delivery or takeout (especially if your only options are the big chains). You can customize every aspect of the pies to suit your preferences, including whether to make them large or personal-size. A bonus of the smaller ones: You avoid the inevitable problem of soggy leftovers.

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Making Pizza Easy
 
The secret to an incredible pie — whether from the pizzeria or your own kitchen — is a superb crust: crisp yet chewy and just slightly charred around the edges. For the home baker, the three most important elements are a good dough, a hot oven and a pizza stone. Because of the way the stone absorbs the oven’s heat and extracts the moisture from the dough, you wind up with a slightly crunchy crust and a tender interior. If pizza-making is likely to become a habit, a pizza peel is a good investment: It’s the best way to get the pie on and off the hot stone.

If you don't have a pizza stone, an inverted heavy-duty baking sheet will work in a pinch. Preheat the baking sheet in the oven as you would the stone. Pizza pans are acceptable to use, but they just don't deliver the same crispy results.
 
There are no special ingredients required to make fabulous pizza dough. Basic unbleached all-purpose flour does the job nicely. If you want to boost the nutritional profile, you could replace up to half of it with whole-wheat flour. The crust won’t come out as crisp, but it will taste just as good.
 
The real trick is in the kneading. Underknead and the glutens won’t hold together and the crust won’t have enough texture. Overknead and you’ll wind up with something resembling a hockey puck that won’t stretch.
 
How to know what’s “just right” isn’t a matter of precise timing. Appropriate kneading is more of a visual and tactile thing. You’ll know the dough is ready when it feels smooth and gently springs back into shape when you poke it with your finger.
 
The debate over the best pizza will rage on. But no matter what your taste preference dictates, when it comes to a great pie, it’s all about the crust.

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Quick Pizza Dough

Prepare this dough and freeze it in single-serving portions so you'll have homemade personal-size pizza dough ready on demand. Before using, thaw in the refrigerator overnight. Cornmeal is preferable to flour for dusting because its grains prevent the dough from sticking.
Makes 8 6-inch pizzas

4 to 5 cups unbleached all-purpose flour (not sifted)
2 packages rapid-rise yeast
2 teaspoons salt (or less)
1 teaspoon sugar
1¾ cups water, preferably filtered
2 tablespoons olive oil
Cornmeal for dusting 

  1. In a large bowl, combine 3 cups of flour, yeast, salt and sugar, and using an electric mixer, beat on low speed briefly to blend.
  2. In a small saucepan, combine the water and olive oil, and heat until it's hot to the touch (about 115° F). Remove from heat and slowly beat the hot water mixture into the flour mixture until blended.
  3. Gradually beat in enough of the remaining flour to make a firm but soft dough.
  4. Turn the dough out onto a lightly floured surface and knead it for 5 to 8 minutes, or until smooth and elastic. Cover the dough on the work surface with a clean, kitchen towel and let rest for 10 minutes.
  5. Divide the dough into 8 pieces. Keep out the number of dough pieces you'll be using. (Wrap the remaining dough pieces in plastic wrap, place in a resealable freezer bag and freeze for 2 to 3 months.)
  6. Make fists, and with your knuckles stretch one piece of dough into a 6-inch round, or using a lightly floured rolling pin, roll out into a 6-inch round. Keep any pieces of the dough you are not working with covered with the towel.
  7. Place the dough on a cornmeal-dusted pizza peel or an inverted baking sheet, using just enough cornmeal so the dough slides easily. Stretch a second piece of dough and place it beside the first.
  8. Top the dough with the sauce and toppings of your choice (see recipes below), and bake as directed. Repeat, stretching the remaining dough as directed.
Eggplant and Olive Pizza

For an extra flavor boost, you can use smoked mozzarella in place of the regular.
Makes 4 6-inch pizzas
 
1 large eggplant (about 1 pound), rinsed, trimmed and cut into 1/8-inch-thick slices
1 teaspoon coarse salt
1/2 recipe Quick Pizza Dough
Cornmeal for dusting
3/4 cup pizza or tomato sauce
1 cup shredded mozzarella cheese, whole or part-skim
1/2 cup pitted, chopped kalamata olives
2 tablespoons chopped fresh basil or 2 teaspoons dried
Salt and black pepper to taste
  1. Season the eggplant slices with the salt and let sit in a colander for 30 minutes to drain. Rinse the eggplant and pat dry.
  2. Preheat the oven to 400° F.
  3. Arrange the eggplant slices on a greased baking sheet and bake for 5 to 8 minutes on each side or until tender and lightly browned. Remove from the oven and let cool.
  4. Place a pizza stone on the lowest rack in the oven and increase temperature to 500°F.
  5. Spread 3 tablespoons of tomato sauce over each round of dough and top with 4 tablespoons of mozzarella. Arrange several slices of eggplant over the cheese, then sprinkle with 2 tablespoons of olives and 1/2 teaspoon of fresh basil or 1/4 teaspoon of the dried. Add salt and pepper to taste.
  6. Carefully slide the pizzas onto the preheated pizza stone and bake for 10 to 13 minutes or until the bottoms are crisp and golden.
  7. Remove pizzas from oven and serve right away. Repeat with the remaining dough and topping ingredients.
Caramelized Onion, Fig and Arugula Pizza

The tender 2- to 3-inch leaves of baby arugula are the best choice for this pizza. Their slightly bitter taste balances nicely with sweetness of the caramelized onions and figs.
Makes 4 6-inch pizzas
 
1/3 pound pancetta or bacon, chopped
1 large Vidalia or yellow onion, thinly sliced
1 teaspoon sugar
Coarse salt and ground black pepper
1/2 recipe Quick Pizza Dough
Cornmeal for dusting
4 to 6 ripe figs, sliced lengthwise ¼-inch thick
3/4 cup fresh ricotta cheese
4 packed cups baby arugula
2 ounces shaved Parmesan cheese
Olive oil and wine vinegar for drizzling
  1. Place a pizza stone on the lowest rack in the oven and preheat to 500° F.
  2. Cook the pancetta in a medium skillet over medium-high heat until golden brown and crisp and most of the fat is rendered, 10 to 15 minutes. Transfer the pancetta to a plate lined with paper towels to drain. Pour off all but 2 tablespoons of the fat in the skillet.
  3. Return the skillet to medium-high heat. Add the onions, sprinkle with sugar, and season with salt and pepper. Cook the onions, stirring occasionally, until golden brown and slightly caramelized, 15 to 20 minutes. Remove from the heat, and set aside.
  4. Spoon about one-quarter of the onions over the dough rounds, leaving a 1/2-inch border around the edge. Arrange one-quarter of the sliced figs over the onions, and dot the pizzas with one-quarter of the ricotta cheese.
  5. Carefully slide the pizzas on to the preheated pizza stone and bake for 10 to 13 minutes or until the bottoms are crisp and golden.
  6. Meanwhile, in a medium bowl, toss the arugula with the Parmesan cheese. Remove the pizzas from oven and top with the arugula mixture, dividing evenly among them. Drizzle with some olive oil and vinegar, if desired, and serve right away. Repeat with the remaining dough and topping ingredients.
Sausage and Spinach Pizza

This pizza calls for sweet Italian sausage, but you can use a flavored sausage here as well, like garlic or roasted red pepper. Drain the cooked sausage before adding to the pizza.
Makes 4 6-inch pizzas
 
1 (14.5-ounce) can diced tomatoes with Italian seasoning
1/2 recipe Quick Pizza Dough
6 ounces cooked, crumbled sweet Italian sausage
2 cups packed fresh baby spinach leaves, thinly sliced or torn into small pieces
3 ounces shredded part-skim mozzarella
Coarse salt and ground black pepper
  1. Place a pizza stone on the lowest rack in the oven and preheat to 500° F.
  2. Pour the tomatoes into a fine mesh strainer to drain until they are quite dry. Press on them with a spoon.
  3. Scatter the tomatoes over the dough, leaving a 1/2-inch border around the edge. Top each with some of the sausage, spinach and mozzarella cheese. Salt and pepper to taste.
  4. Carefully slide the pizzas onto the preheated pizza stone and bake for 10 to 13 minutes or until the bottoms are crisp and golden.
  5. Remove the pizzas from the oven and serve right away. Repeat with the remaining dough and topping ingredients.
Wine Pairing Suggestions
 

A good dry Chianti goes well with the Eggplant and Olive Pizza, as will a lively California Zinfandel. Try a crisp fume blanc with the Caramelized Onion, Fig and Arugula Pizza, and a hearty pinot noir for the Sausage and Spinach Pizza.
 
Professional Pizza Pointers 
  • Always fully preheat your oven (and pizza stone, if using) before baking the pizza.
  • Go lighter rather than heavier with the topping ingredients. Too much will prevent the crust from browning and getting crisp to its fullest.
  • Recommended tools include a metal pizza peel, which releases the uncooked dough more easily than wood, and a pizza stone, which absorbs heat in the oven.
  • Set the hot pizza (or pan) on a flat wooden cutting board for cutting, and use a pizza cutter for the best results.
  • To tell if your pizza is finished cooking, the cheese should be melted and beginning to become golden brown. The edge of the crust should be medium golden brown, and when you lift the bottom edge of the crust the dough should look evenly browned.
  • And for an extra-crisp crust, prebake the crust about halfway, with just a bit of olive oil on top, then add everything else and return to oven.

Kathy Kingsley is a food writer and cookbook author in Newtown, Conn.