Make some dough: the secrets of perfect homemade pizza
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Mmmm, pizza. As Homer Simpson might say. Boy, do I love it. I love it by the slice at a hole-in-the-wall pizzeria in New York. I love it delivered in a box on a Friday night when nothing else will do. I love it at a house party or even a wedding when it turns up in the early hours to fuel a second wind. And now I love it because I can make my own professional-grade pizzas at home, thanks to a nifty piece of equipment called the Gozney Roccbox.
There are myriad excellent pizza ovens on the market these days. Mark Wogan of London pizzerias Homeslice recommends Italian brand Valoriani for the quality and efficiency of its large-scale wood-fired ovens. But experts are just as enthusiastic about portable versions such as Breville’s Pizzaiolo (meant for use indoors) and the Roccbox, which converts from gas- to wood-fired and is a thing of beauty – imagine an American mailbox with a billowing flame at the back that looks like an effect you might see in the opening credits of a Bond film. These little devices trump a kitchen oven because they can reach the temperatures (450C–500C) required to make Neapolitan-style pizzas, which bake for one to two minutes, are soft and pillowy, and often have dark char spots on the crust known as leopard-spotting. You haven’t lived till you’ve watched your own Neapolitan dough puff up and brown in real time.
Of course, you may prefer New York-style pizza, which is also thin-crust but spends longer in the oven at a lower temperature. Or a Sicilian, which is thick like focaccia and topped with tomato, breadcrumbs, anchovies, caramelised onions and cheese. Or a Chicago, which comes baked with a pie-like crust. Or any of the countless other variations. In matters of pizza, there is never just one option.
That is certainly true of the flour you use in your dough. Naples-milled Caputo is the favourite for Neapolitan-style pizzas. But you could take your lead from Pam Yung of ASAP Pizza, the newest venture from Lyle’s and Flor in London. Yung started out at legendary New York pizzeria Roberta’s and also worked at Bonci’s Pizzarium in Rome. She champions flour from heritage wheat and organic grain (such as Stoates, Hodmedods, Duchess Farm, Lammas Fayre and Mulino Marino), and not just because the bread tastes better. Food intolerances, she says, are often triggered by poor quality wheat and dough that isn’t fermented long enough for the proteins to break down. She ferments hers for at least 24 hours.
Opinion also varies on which tinned tomatoes to use for your red sauce. San Marzano tomatoes are traditional. But New York-based pizza consultant Anthony Falco says not to fixate on variety or price. Be led by taste. “What I’m looking for is a naturally sweet tomato with a bright acidity and very little bitterness,” he says. He recommends US brand Bianco diNapoli.
Then we come to toppings. “For the Italians,” says Thom Elliot of London’s Pizza Pilgrims, “toppings are like a dressing for the dough. On a Neapolitan, less is more. But Americans look at it a different way. The dough is basically there as a vehicle for the toppings.” On this I’m with the Americans. Toppings are your chance to play. And yes, I include pineapple as a viable option now that Italy’s preeminent pizzaiolo Franco Pepe has used some in a calzone. For his AnaNascosta, he wraps a fresh chunk in San Daniele prosciutto, places it in a deep-fried cone of dough “whitened” on the inside with Grana Padano fondue, then adds a final dusting of liquorice. For the record, I also rate anchovies (lots of them), crushed pistachios (with mozzarella and Grana Padano) and courgette flowers (which add crunch and make the pizza look insanely pretty and summery). But I’m definitely not on board with chicken.
The trick with next-level toppings is to balance the flavours. “I do a pizza that combines sweet, sour, salty and savoury,” says Michael Tusk of Cotogna in San Francisco of his L’oca pizza, which comes dressed in cape gooseberries, stracchino cheese, prosciutto, puntarelle and Tropea onion.
“If the flavour combination works on a spoon, it will probably work on a pizza” is Wogan’s rule of thumb. He believes in turning yesterday’s takeaway into today’s toppings. “Take a crispy-duck pancake. The hoisin is your sauce – no tomatoes required. Shred the duck over the pizza, bake it off – with cheddar, perhaps, though it works without cheese – and then sprinkle spring onion and cucumber over the top.” That’s a nice pizza.
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Don’t be afraid to steal ideas. One of the yummiest offerings at ASAP Pizza is based on the Potato Pizza at Bonci’s Pizzarium. “Carb on carb is always a winner,” says Yung. Her version, the Tater, combines crushed Cornish potatoes, Neal’s Yard Ogleshield cheese, pickled red onions, capers and parsley. Another crowd-pleaser from Pizza Pilgrims is based on the Georgian dish khachapuri. La Fonduta mixes Cornish gouda, Cotswold hard cheese, Italian mozzarella and ricotta to create what is basically a fondue in a bread bowl. Gooey, stringy heaven.
You should also think about pre-cooking or marinating ingredients to concentrate their flavour – mushrooms and aubergine especially. And keep some toppings back for when the pizza comes out of the oven. Wogan points to the air-dried Wagyu beef pizza at Homeslice, where shavings of beef are dropped on at the end and gently melt into the pizza. You can do the same with San Daniele ham, prosciutto or Parma ham, which added any earlier would turn brittle.
My last tip is my favourite, and comes courtesy of Paulie Gee of the namesake institution in Brooklyn. “Have some limoncello before,” he urges. “It makes every pizza taste better.” Now who could argue with that?