4 Ways to Make a Better Homemade Pizza

Pictured: Pizza bliss.
Pictured: Pizza bliss.

Most people in this country love pizza. On any given day, 13 percent of the country's population eats the tasty Italian culinary treat in one form or another. Despite its European origin, it's difficult to imagine a time when pizza wasn't a major part of the American food scene.

Unsurprisingly, pizza entered this country with the enormous population of Italian immigrants who settled here in the early 1900s. Since the majority of those early immigrants were poor people from the southern part of Italy, pizza was originally a cheaply made peasant food created in their homes. Pizza's rise to dominance as an all-American comfort food was a slow one initially. When it moved from the kitchens of those Italian immigrants into eateries open to the public, pizza was still mostly available only in cities like New York and Chicago, where large numbers of those immigrants had settled. Even then, pizza was still almost exclusively viewed as a strange ethnic food, only eaten by poor people of Italian descent.

Many things changed in America after the end of World War II, and pizza was no exception. Returning soldiers who had been introduced to the joy of eating pizza while overseas in Europe wanted to enjoy the delicious treat stateside, and pizza places began springing up all over the country. By the late '50s and early '60s, giant chain restaurants like Pizza Hut and Domino's began to appear. While they spread far and wide, increasing exposure to pizza and creating total mainstream acceptance, they also steered their pizzas away from the traditional recipes into the fast food style pizzas that those chain places specialize in.

And don't get me wrong, I ate many a thin crust Pizza Hut supreme with a sixer of cheap beer when I was a struggling musician not too many years back, and I still enjoy the greasy, salty cheap culinary thrills that some of those fast food pies can provide from time to time. I'm no snob, I'll eat pizza in Rome and I'll eat it at Pink's in the Heights just as happily. And yes, every once in a while I'll eat a Pizza from Mr. Gatti's or another national chain, and I can like those, too. 

Any great pizza begins with quality dough
Any great pizza begins with quality dough

Like many pizza lovers, I've also tried on many occasions to make pizza at home. Those kitchen experiments have usually ended up with me creating something approximating a pizza, but a lot of the time, something seemed to be missing. A lot of the time, the crust was weird in some way, or the sauce, or something. Those homemade pies always seemed to have some element about them that was different than the pizzas I'd had from restaurants. So with those "not quite right" homemade pizzas in mind, I thought I'd share a few strategies that can make a difference when you decide to build your pizza at home.

4. It's all about the crust.

OK, maybe that's not entirely true, but a large part of what gives any particular pizza its foundational tastiness is how good the crust is. Yes, you can go buy one of those Boboli ready made pizza crusts, and just load it up with goodies. I've gone that route and enjoyed the result, but while easy, those ready made crusts aren't authentically pizza-like to me. They have their own thing going on. They're yummy enough but they don't really do the trick.

To really get into homemade pizza bliss territory, the average home cook has two real choices:

Either make the dough from scratch (or at least a mix), or buy some already prepared raw pizza dough.

Chances are, if you're making pizza dough from scratch, then you're already a full blown pizza making expert. Heck, you probably own your own pizza place. If not, but the idea appeals to you, I suggest looking at the many available how-to guides and pizza dough recipes available online, and experiment. This recipe is a very good place to start for those who want to really start from scratch.

My preferred method is the easy one. Buy a ball of pizza dough from the grocery store, or convince your local pizzeria to sell you some. Many stores do sell pizza dough these days, and some pizza joints will sell you their dough too. For a guy like me, whose experiments with making bread have almost all ended in bitter tears and flour filled disaster, buying a nice glob of pizza dough removes one chink of uncertainty. I have friends who laugh at my dough making ineptitude and claim it's pretty easy to do right, so bear that in mind when choosing how you make yours.

A few other crusty tips:

The more moisture in your dough, the crispier the resulting crust will be.

If you make your own dough, I'm told that refrigerating it for as much as three days, and at least overnight will give it a better texture and flavor. It's a form of fermentation, and improves the final baking characteristics.

When it comes to taking that dough and forming the pizza crust, it's best to shape it by hand rather than using a rolling pin. The rolling pin route is certainly tempting and will taste good, but it can result in a tougher crust.

The sauce is of utmost importance too.
The sauce is of utmost importance too.

3. Maybe it's the sauce that really matters. People like different types of pizza sauce. Some prefer sauces that are a little sweet, others like a thick or thin marinara sauce, and I have found that using a store bought sauce will work fine (as long as you find one you dig), but making your own sauce is simple and results in a customizable foundation for your pizza.

A basic sauce can be made by warming a skillet over a medium heat, and then adding a few tablespoons of olive oil. Then toss in some chopped onions and garlic, and sauté them until they begin to brown. Next add diced fresh tomatoes, and then allow things to cook down for a few minutes, stirring as necessary. Season this with fresh herbs such as oregano and simmer until the sauce begins to slightly thicken. Add salt and pepper as desired, and you have a basic marinara pizza sauce.

One great tip I picked up is to add the rinds of Parmesan cheese wedges to the sauce as it simmers. This adds a savory edge that's hard to beat. Fans of New York style pizzas will also enjoy this recipe a lot. 

Sadly, most of us don't have one of these at home.
Sadly, most of us don't have one of these at home.

2. Use high heat to cook your pizza

One thing that sets OK pizza apart from great pizza is oven temperature and heat conductivity. To get an authentically crispy crust, the dough has to be good and the heat has to be applied correctly. Pizzas were originally cooked in brick ovens and those got very hot. Unless you happen to have a brick oven built in your backyard, then you can still get a great pizza using a baking stone or a baking steel, providing your oven can handle temperatures of around 550 degrees. I've never used a steel myself, but always use a baking stone, and it really does the trick. I have heard that the steel is even better. So crank your oven temp as high as it will go, leaving the stone or steel in there to gradually get hotter (a room temperature stone can break if abruptly thrown in a hot oven) and cook your pizza at that high temperature. Also, traditionally pizzas get pretty dark before they're considered done. Patches of black on the bottom are normal, and allowing the edges to get darker really brings out a pizza's flavor.

Some of the best pizzas only have a few well chosen toppings.
Some of the best pizzas only have a few well chosen toppings.

1. Limit the toppings and use quality ingredients. Traditionally, pizzas didn't have tons of different toppings, and if you're interested in that kind of authenticity, then limiting your ingredient list to three or four well chosen items is the way to go. Classic styles like Neopolitan and Margherita variations are basically tomato sauce and mozzarella (really authentic recipes call for mozzarella made from the milk of water buffaloes) and basil. The supreme and "meat lover" style pizzas that are caked in toppings are an American invention, and if you dig that, I won't criticize. I love those too. But keeping the ingredient list minimal and choosing high quality items allows the individual favors to really bloom and come together. When I have made a home version of a "loaded" pizza or skimped on buying better ingredients, the resulting pizzas tended to be greasy and salty.

These are but a few guidelines I've discovered making homemade pizzas over the last few years, and there are many others out there. This is not a complete guide, but I hope some will find the information helpful.

Also, pizza is a beautiful food in that it continues to evolve and people can do almost anything they want and come out with something good. I focused on traditional thin crust pizzas because that's the style I enjoy most, but I encourage everyone to make the types of pizza they like. If heaven to you is a deep dish meat lovers style pie, more power to you.

Once a cook has experimented with a few simple techniques, it's hard to go wrong with pizza, a food that is as diverse as America itself.

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