Cooking the perfect homemade pizza is a long, trying journey. Years of sitting at the restaurant, and getting a piping hot, perfect pizza within ten minutes of ordering it may trick you into thinking that pizza making is an easy job, but the truth is a hard one to swallow. It takes extensive research, frustrating trials and errors, and the odd meltdown to reach the “eureka!” moment you were awaiting right from the start; even then, your homemade pizza will taste nothing like your favourite pizzeria’s signature dish. Unless you can fit a real wood-fired oven in your kitchen, that is (now wouldn’t we all love that?).
Rather than working to achieve restaurant-like results, focusing on making the best dough you can get with your home equipment is the way forward. Try different recipes until you find a reliable go-to procedure, and once you’ve got it, feel free to tweak it to your heart’s content: leave the dough to rise for longer, spread it thicker or thinner, increase or decrease the cooking time by one minute or two. With enough practice, your pizza will be exactly the right texture, with the perfect balance between sauce, toppings and salt. It’s moments like this that make all the blood, sweat and tears worthwhile, and the recipe you’ll have mastered will be truly your own.
My own red letter day happened a couple of weeks ago: two years, three recipes and countless failures after my first attempt. I felt the glorious sense of accomplishment of the food lover who finally gets to master her challenging favourite dish, and now I want to help you get there, too. If you love pizza, and want to learn how to cook your own, read on: I have a few tips that will make your journey much easier and smoother than mine was.
1. Source the right equipment
Before you get cooking, make sure you have three simple tools on hand:
- A large bowl. The bigger your bowl, and the lower its edges, the easier it’ll be to knead the dough (especially if you’re using your hands).
- A hand mixer, to save you from the hassle and mess involved in kneading by hand (you’ll still need to do it towards the end, when you’re shaping the dough into a solid ball).
- A round oven tray. Perforated pizza pans ensure that the dough bakes evenly on all sides; they’re very easy to find, and offer great value for the little money they cost.
Once you have these, you’re sorted. No strained arms or sticky hands, no awkward dough messes on your worktop, no need to shape your pizza in a funny way to fit the first random tray you can find in your cupboard. Unbelievably easy – and all the more enjoyable for that.
2. Keep your toppings simple
However respectful I am of other people’s eating habits, I tend to become quite judgemental when it comes to pizza toppings. You order a chicken tikka pizza? I will scold you. You serve pizza with dips and sauces? I will make you feel awful about it. Sure, you’re a grown-ass adult, you’re free to put whatever you want on your pizza – now get that garlic sauce the hell out of my face (*).
Mind you, I’m as guilty as you are: as a kid, I was crazy about pizza with french fries. You’ve read that right, and yes, that was totally a thing in the late ’90s (even in Italy, the land of pizza purists). That was before I learnt another thing worth knowing about pizza: that little and simple topping goes a long way.
The average Italian pizzeria’s menu looks a lot like this list (only much longer, as each restaurant has its unique signature combinations). It takes as little as a few slices of cured meat to make a carnivore’s joy. Grilled vegetables and fresh chopped tomatoes are the simple pleasures of vegetarians. It’s all about bringing out flavours, orchestrating the perfect marriage between all your ingredients; topping overload won’t get you anywhere but straight to bed, nursing a rather unpleasant food coma.
I wish I could take you to Italy, to show you exactly what I’m talking about; I’ll be there next week, and there’s no end to the amount of pizza I’ll stuff my face with (that’s what holidays are for, right?). While I’m away, give my recipe a try, and let me know how you like it.
3. Make your perfect Italian pizza
Ingredients (for 2 big pizzas or 4 – 5 small pizzas)
- 350 – 370ml warm water
- a pinch of sugar
- 5 – 7g fast acting dry yeast
- 5 – 10g salt
- 500g strong bread flour
- 2 tablespoons olive oil
- 1/2 pack tomato passata
- 175 – 200g mozzarella, diced
- Fresh basil and/or oregano, to your taste
- Your favourite toppings (no french fries or chicken tikka, please!)
- Fill a glass with 120ml warm water (40 -45° C). Add the sugar and yeast, and set aside to froth up for 10 minutes.
- Dissolve the salt in 50ml cold or lukewarm water.
- Knead the flour with the yeast mixture and salted water, until combined. If you’re using a hand mixer, keep it at minimum speed.
- Add the olive oil, and continue mixing.
- Gradually add the remaining water. Knead until you’re able to form a big dough ball, smooth to the touch and not sticky.
- Place the dough ball in a greased bowl, cover it with a damp tea towel, and leave it to rise at room temperature until at least doubled in size. Leave aside for 12 or more hours if you can; if you’re in a hurry, 6 – 8 hours will be just fine.
- Once the dough has risen, divide it up in smaller balls (one ball makes one pizza).
- Knead the first ball on a floured worktop or baking sheet, flattening it and pulling it with your hands to give it a round shape (around 20 – 25cm in diameter). Turn it over a few times while kneading, then grab it with both hands and transfer it to a floured oven dish.
Cook’s tip: Avoid using a rolling pin: it will disperse the rising gas, preventing your pizza from growing while in the oven. Also, always flatten the dough before transferring it to the oven tray, otherwise it will stick to the bottom and you’ll have a hard time cutting it up.
- Pre-heat the oven to 220°. While you wait, spread a layer of tomato passata on your pizza; leave 1cm for the crust, and sprinkle with salt. At this stage, you can also add any toppings that require cooking, such as raw vegetables.
- Bake your pizza for 10 – 12 minutes; while in the oven, it will start growing, and become golden in colour.
- Remove the pizza from the oven, and garnish with the remaining toppings: mozzarella (and any other cheeses), herbs, and anything that doesn’t require cooking for long.
- Put the pizza back in the oven, and cook for around 3 – 5 minutes, until the mozzarella begins to melt.
- Repeat the procedure with the other dough balls. You can cook as many pizzas as you want at a time, depending on the size of your oven and the number of trays you have at home. My partner and I usually make one, divide it in two halves, and eat it while another one’s in the oven. Can’t beat sharing a pizza dinner with a loved one.
(*) That’s my Italian blood speaking right there. Believe it or not, I’m usually a rather pleasant dining companion!