The first time I heard pizza described as a bread, my mind melted like mozzarella in a wood-fired oven – yet underneath the toppings it is, of course, part of the same global family of yeast-raised loaves as naan, pitta, and our own white bloomers. None of these relatives, however, arouse such strong feelings as pizza, something nearer to a religion than a mere bread, with cults devoted to the worship and defence of its various incarnations – woe betide the person who wanders into a temple of the Neapolitan pie and asks for a ham and pineapple, or indeed the fool who demands a thin and crispy base in old-school Chicago.
The one thing most fanatics can agree on, however, is that it’s impossible to make a “proper pizza” at home – you can’t get a home oven up to the searing temperatures of a commercial appliance, whether wood-fired or not. Less obsessive disciples can, however, knock-up a pretty decent facsimile, either by heating their oven for hours and faffing around with baking stones, or by sticking a frying pan on the hob. The choice is yours.
The fact that this is a bread should give you a clue as to the best type of flour to use. You can make pizza with plain flour, as J Kenji López-Alt’s recipe on the Serious Eats website recommends. (Though he himself prefers “fancy” Italian flour, he says the differences are marginal enough for it not to be a necessity.) But, because a good base is chewy and bubbly, rather than flat and crunchy, a higher protein flour is a better bet. This is because the higher the protein content, the more gluten will develop in the dough. This much-maligned matrix is the thing that gives dough its elasticity, allowing it to stretch into beautiful big, blistered bubbles in the oven, rather than staying resolutely solid, like one of those boxed supermarket pizza bases that passed for authentic in the 1980s, but now resemble nothing more than a Bath Oliver biscuit.
Which is all to say that higher protein flours, like the strong bread flour used by Olivia Potts in her book A Half-Baked Idea, or the 00 flour often sold as pasta flour in British supermarkets are a better choice. The latter is particularly good because it’s so finely milled (00 refers to the grade), which makes for a particularly delicate, crisp crust.
Note that if you use bread flour, or indeed plain flour, you may want to add a little more water: the very fine texture means that you need less – Lopez-Alt’s recipe comes in at 75% hydration (the weight of water being 75% that of the weight of flour) and Potts’ 70%, while the two I try using 00 flour, from Franco Manca founder Giuseppe Mascoli and that of the Pizza Pilgrims, call for 59% and 60% hydration respectively. (More water makes the dough harder to work with, but also makes the finished product lighter and bubblier; I think we’ve already established we’re all about the bubbles here).
The raising agents
Let’s be honest: we all dream of homemade pizza that’s quicker than a takeaway, so I decide to try a recipe from Sainsbury’s magazine using baking powder, rather than the traditional yeast, leaving it to rest for a mere 30 minutes before baking. The results, though not unpleasant, are more like a pitta than a pizza – great if you have a lot of hungry and fairly indiscriminate mouths to feed in a hurry, but not one for the pizza aficionado.
Leaving aside sourdough pizzas, which are a whole different kettle of anchovies, there’s no substitute for yeast, and yeast takes time to work its magic; how much is an interesting matter. The recipes I try range from a 10-hour rise and proof as the minimum for López-Alt’s recipe, to a five-day rise for Potts’ pizza, with the Pizza Pilgrims describing 24 hours as “optimal”. The difference is largely due to the fact that Potts’ and Mascoli’s doughs both rise in the fridge, in a process known as cold fermentation. This slows the action of the yeast, but gives the finished product a better flavour and texture (apparently cold fermentation results in stronger gluten networks). You’ll need to bring it back to room temperature before shaping and cooking, but in this instance, patience is very much a virtue: if you want a truly complex flavour, you need to plan ahead.
Not too far ahead though; López-Alt has done some interesting research on this very subject, and concludes that a rise time of between three and five days is optimal: “Eventually, even at cold temperatures, the yeast will start to produce a large amount of those sour milk aromas, throwing off the flavour of your bread. And there’s an even bigger problem: as the alcohol content and acidity of the dough rises, eventually it gets so high that the yeast simply ceases to operate.”
I reckon three days is plenty, but that may be because I find it very hard to wait any longer for my pizza.
Salt is a must in pizza dough and, though it’s frowned upon by purists, I’m not too snooty to add a little sugar to help the yeast along and give a more complex flavour, though you can leave it out if you prefer. While olive oil gives a pleasing flavour, it also softens the texture, so I’m not going to use it – and I’d prefer to save herbs for the top, rather than adding them to the dough, as Sainsbury’s suggest.
The most important thing I learn, very belatedly, is that a cast-iron pan is the best tool for cooking pizza on the hob: nonstick pans are out for safety reasons, and my stainless -steel pan turned out some great pizza, but at the expense of its shiny silver base. The cast-iron skillet recommended by Potts, however, produces perfect results: if you have one, use it.
You don’t need to grease it, unless you’re actually deep-frying the pizzas, as in Mascoli’s recipe – and I’m sorry to report these are excessively good). Just get it good and hot, though not so hot it burns the base before it cooks through – you might need to experiment a bit with the first batch to find out what works for your pan.
López-Alt, in a quest to eliminate the need for an oven entirely, recommends cooking the dough on both sides with a lid on, and then browning the crust by turning it in a gas flame, or with a blowtorch. This works well if you don’t happen to have a grill, but it’s much easier, and I think better texture-wise, to char the bottom on the hob and then transfer it to a hot grill to brown the top, and to melt any cheese. (Make sure your toppings are at room temperature as Lopez-Alt cautions, or they will take too long to warm up).
On which point, I’m happy for you to top your pizza with whatever you like, even chicken (the horror), but all the recipes I try call for a classic mozzarella and tomato combo, often with a few leaves of basil, or “if you’re feeling truly nostalgic”, as Potts puts it, a sprinkling of dried oregano. She also makes a buttery, garlicky, oniony sauce, a “bastardisation” of a Marcella Hazan recipe so delicious, I eat it with a spoon, but it feels like gilding the lily here: Mascoli’s simple simmered tomatoes, with a pinch of salt and sugar, give a purer tomato hit. He explains his topping is oil-free because the pizzette will be deep-fried, but in fact I prefer it even for dry-fried pizzas; you can always drizzle some oil on top before serving.
Cheese-wise, you can’t beat buffalo mozzarella (note: if you want to use firmer pizza mozzarella, you may need to deploy a blowtorch to help it melt, because it will take longer than the wetter stuff). Sainsbury’s also add parmesan, roasted peppers and cherry tomatoes, but, a few herbs aside, I don’t think it needs anything else for perfection. Eat immediately, and certainly fast enough to burn your tongue: it’s worth it.
Perfect frying-pan pizza
Rise 3-5 days
Prep 5 min
Cook 35 min
500g Italian 00 flour, plus extra to dust
1½ tsp dried active yeast
1 tsp fine salt
1 tsp sugar (optional)
1 400g tin chopped plum tomatoes
1 ball buffalo mozzarella
1 bunch basil, or a sprinkle of dried oregano
Extra-virgin olive oil, to drizzle
Mix the flour, yeast, salt and sugar then stir in 325ml water to a smooth dough. Cover and put in the fridge for three to five days.
Tip on to a lightly floured surface. Divide into four roughly equal portions, shape into balls, cover and leave for two hours. Get the cheese out of the fridge.
Put the tomatoes in a saucepan over a medium heat and simmer for about 30 minutes, until you have a thick sauce. Season to taste with salt and a pinch of sugar, if necessary.
Heat a frying pan or skillet (preferably cast-iron) over a medium-high flame until an experimental drop of water dances across the surface. Heat the grill to medium-high.
Stretch the dough with lightly floured hands into a rough round, keeping the edges thicker. Cook on the skillet until the base has begun to char, adding a spoonful of tomato sauce and some torn mozzarella once the top starts to dry out.
Once the bottom looks done, grill until the cheese is bubbling and the edges are brown. Finish with a few leaves of basil or a sprinkle of dried oregano, and a drizzle of extra-virgin olive oil.
- Pizza: is it ever possible to make a decent one at home, and if so, what’s your preferred method? Do you prefer them deep-pan or thin and crisp, and do you go for the classic margherita topping or a heretical ham and pineapple (or even chips, as I saw once in Bergamo)… or does all pizza leave you cold?