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How to make perfect pizza at home

How to make perfect pizza at home

by Nancy Anne Harbord Wednesday, January 6, 2016

Making perfect pizza in a home oven takes patience and care, but your reward is truly remarkable pizza – the best you’ve ever tasted. Bubbly and browned, crispy and crunchy, it is packed with nutty flavour. Nancy Anne Harbord shares her years of experience.

Specialising in vegetarian food, Nancy has cooked her way around Europe and now writes full time for publications and her blog, Delicious from Scratch.

I have dedicated much of my life to the pursuit of amazing pizza. For something so simple, made of such few ingredients, the variety – and difference in quality – is staggering. I have eaten pizza all over the world, trained with master Roman pizza maker Gabriele Bonci and even run my own pizzeria. I have made pizza in every home oven I have ever had (and with my travel-happy life, that’s a lot of ovens), each with its own quirks, for good and for bad. This recipe is the result of that labour.

Amazing pizza is all about the dough, no question. Toppings are just the icing on the cake, though high quality ingredients will always taste better. The dough is where the knowledge, experience and passion of the pizza-maker really comes through. It is what divides a transcendental experience from a pedestrian one. So the dough is the primary focus of this tutorial. I have included a few topping suggestions and my go-to recipe for tomato sauce, but you can’t go that far wrong with toppings. As long as your dough is fantastic.

You can do without almost every piece of kit except a pizza stone – this is essential for achieving the massive heat that pizza dough needs to become crisp and deeply browned. Another trick is to cook the pizza as close to the top of the oven as possible, capturing the rising heat between the stone and the roof.

Touch base

Pizza texture is all about gluten – in the flour and in the mixing. This recipe uses fifty percent whole wheat flour – an addition that would normally mean a dense, gummy texture, as pieces of bran in whole wheat flour slice through gluten strands, causing the air pockets to collapse. But by adding a little dried, powdered vital wheat gluten, the overall gluten content is boosted and the texture is radically improved. The best place to get vital wheat gluten is online, and it can be used in all wholegrain breads. You can make this recipe with white flour only – it will still be a taste sensation, just a little less nutty (and a little less healthier); in this case, omit the extra gluten.

Either way, you want to stretch the dough as thin as you possibly can, without letting it break. This way it will bake quicker in the relative coolness of your home oven and emerge crisp and crunchy, rather than dry and tough. Be patient with your dough – if you’re gentle and try to really feel the limits of its stretch, you will have a beautifully thin pizza with a bubbled, caramelised crust. If despite your best efforts your pizza runs thicker, make sure you leave it in the oven until it is very well browned and really cooked through. Otherwise it will be gummy and soft and you will be left wondering what all the fuss was about.

Unfortunately, you can only cook one pizza at a time in a home oven, because you’re trying to keep the temperature as high as possible and multiple pizza bases will cause the temperature to drop. The hoards will not be satisfied with the first, lone pizza, but by the third or fourth, looks of heady joy will be etched on their faces and your position as master pizza maker will be secure.

 
Pizza dough
Let gravity lend you a hand when it comes to stretching the dough
Pizza toppings
Don't overload your pizza with toppings to keep the base crisp

Toppings

 
 
After cooking, I think the differences between cow and buffalo mozzarella are negligible – if you want to use solely buffalo mozzarella, I recommend you tear the cheese over after baking, so the delicate nuances can really be appreciated.

Nancy Anne Harbord

Some of Nancy's favourite toppings

Garlicky tomato sauce

Sautéed garlic mushrooms

Slices of griddled, marinated courgettes

Blanched radicchio

Finely sliced onions tossed in olive oil

Thin rounds of spring onion

Boiled, sliced potato with olive oil

All kinds of cheese

Dollops of mascarpone

A drizzle of cream

All kinds of fresh herbs

Dried oregano

Olives

Capers

Three or four toppings is usually plenty, and remember, not all pizzas are improved with tomato sauce. Think about what else you’re putting on the pizza – is tomato really the best flavour match? Other options include a drizzle of cream, a thin layer of cooked potato or a generous covering of sliced onions in olive oil – almost anything can form a base topping.

All that being said, it’s important that you don’t overload the pizza. Making sure the base cooks through properly is paramount and watery toppings will make it soggy. If you want to use liquid-heavy vegetables such as mushrooms, either use them sparingly or sauté them first to reduce. The latter is the superior option, although it involves more prep work. When each vegetable is cooked individually before topping, you can season and flavour them better and use them more abundantly.

I almost always use mozzarella as one of the cheeses, to balance out stronger flavours. After cooking, I think the differences between cow and buffalo mozzarella are negligible – if you want to use solely buffalo mozzarella, I recommend you tear the cheese over after baking, so the delicate nuances can really be appreciated.

As far as other cheeses go, I don’t think you need to stick to the Italian varieties, lovely as they are. A strong cheddar can be good, or a few slices of Brie. It’s hard to imagine a cheese on earth that wouldn’t taste great on a pizza, as long as it complements the other toppings.

But I encourage you to follow your own palate, flavour is more important than authenticity and it’s better to use an ingredient made with care than be slavish to a theme or nationality.

But as acclaimed baking authority Peter Reinhart concluded after his international search for the perfect pizza, the trick to making truly exceptional pizza is to make it with love, with respect for the form and dedication to the art. It is a simple pleasure that takes a lifetime to truly master.

Click the recipe below to see my recipe for the perfect pizza.

 

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