How To Make Pizza At Home That Won’t Be Horrible

You’ve got all your favorite toppings assembled, the cheese is waiting to be melted and the dough is ready to go. But no matter what you do, making pizza at home can be disappointing when compared to the pies served up at restaurants. It seems so simple — so why do homemade efforts often fall so short of expectations?

Because pizza is a delicious concoction of unrivaled tastiness that sprung fully-formed from the forehead of Zeus, we wanted to get to the bottom of the difficulties facing home chefs trying to recreate restaurant pizza at home.

To do so, we went straight to the pizza pros, who say it all comes down to three basic elements of the process: Equipment, which gives restaurants a distinct advantage; the dough and ingredients both for the dough and the pizza’s toppings, which are things that everyday folks can do just as well as the pros.

THE EQUIPMENT
Ovens
Restaurants that make pizza have a big leg upon your everyday person in that they have big, expensive ovens that can get really, really hot. We’re talking temperatures reaching 500, 700 or even 1,000 degrees Fahrenheit.

Chef Guido Magnaguagno teaches the Italian Culinary Experience program for the International Culinary Center, wherein students spend 10 weeks in New York or California and then another nine weeks in Italy..

“The higher the temperature, the better,” Magnaguagno explains to Consumerist.

The Pizza Czar (actual title) of the famed Roberta’s in Brooklyn, N.Y., Anthony Falco agrees — and he should know, as he not only makes pizza for a living, but teaches others to do it at home in classes he holds at the Brooklyn Kitchen.

At his restaurant, a 1,000-degree wood-burning oven can cook a pizza in 60 seconds. So your home pizza oven at 550 degrees, “that’s the bottom end of what’s acceptable.”

“High heat, as high as it’ll go. There’s no such thing as your home oven being too hot,” he explains.

Pizza stones and baking steels
But because we don’t all have pizza ovens at home, there are tools that can come in handy to the home cook: Pizza stones and baking steels are useful to own if you’re going to get into the habit of making pizza — not only because your average oven can’t get as hot as those in restaurants, but because they don’t maintain high temperatures like professional pizza ovens do.

Pizza stones/steels can get really hot and then hold onto that heat, resulting in a better pizza. Even better, pizza steels can be used for other things in the kitchen as well, Falco says.

“Those are great because what they’re going to do is cook the pizza from the bottom and the heat of your oven is going to cook it from the top,” Falco says, calling pizza stones basically a “thermal battery” in that way.

Without those tools, even the best pizza recipe will result in “a cooked bread, more like a focaccia type of thing and not really a pizza,” Magnaguagno explains.

Foccaccia, did you say? That doesn’t always have to be the worst thing — if you do it right, explains Falco, who said he started teaching people in his classes at the Brooklyn Kitchen to make pan pizza so they wouldn’t waste the dough they’d just learned how to make in class.

It’s simple, he says: Slap that dough into any kind of oiled up skillet that can go in the oven — cast iron or all steel — put your toppingso n and stick it in the oven. It’ll take longer, he notes, more like 15 to 20 minutes instead of three to four, but you’ll end up with something delicious.

THE DOUGH
“The first tip I have for people is if you know yourself and you know you’re never going to spend the time to actually get good at making dough from scratch at home, buy pizza dough from a pizzeria,” says Falco. “You can take it home and make pizza with that and it’ll get you started.”

But, he says he highly recommends getting serious about making dough from scratch. To that end, he helped write Roberta’s cookbook that’s specifically aimed at helping the at-home chef.

“It’s really pretty simple if you can take the mystery out of it,” he explains.

One of his best tips? Precision in measuring out the ingredients for your dough. He suggests using a scale to measure ingredients out by weight. Basically, pizza dough is a living thing — there’s the yeast cultures to consider, coaxing the growth of lactobacilli to make the dough more flavorful — and factors like air pressure, humidity and altitude can all change the outcome of the dough.

“To mitigate all those things that are going to be so different every time you do it, you’re going to be as precise as possible with your measuring out of your ingredients,” he explains.

Magnaguagno also recommends that you not just using your everyday baking flour to make pizza, explaining that a great flour for sale in the United States is what’s known as a “00” flour by Caputo. It’s a lower gluten flour, which makes it great for pizza dough.

It’s important to be patient when making pizza dough at home, both Magnaguagno and Falco agree. When combining your dough ingredients, it’s best to mix first the dry ingredients, and then the wet ones, before putting them all together, which is pretty common in baking. Being patient enough to let the dough rest in between each time you handle it will also result in a tastier crust.

“I’ve heard it described before as gluten being like a muscle,” Falco explains. “If you overwork it, it’s going tighten up and seize up on you. So you have to rest it in between the times that you work it.”

And while you can whip up a batch of dough and bake a pizza with it right away, the chefs stress the importance of allowing your finished dough to proof at least overnight in the refrigerator, if not for a two days. This allows for a more flavorful dough, Magnaguagno notes.

“You can do it in an hour — you can make a pizza dough in an hour, if you have a warm place, and it works, it makes a nice pizza,” he says. “But it doesn’t have the same flavor than if you let it proof for a whole night in the refrigerator.

That slow, cold fermentation serves another purpose than imparting delicious, doughy flavor, Falco explains — it actually makes the gluten more digestible, the longer it’s allowed to sit and break down in the dough.

“By allowing the microbes to do their work on the dough, it’s actually much more nutritious for you than just letting your dough blow up and baking it off right away,” he says. “Then you get the benefit of it being much more flavorful.”

So while sure, that might take a lot of planning and time, but once you’ve got the dough making out of the way, you can relax and order delivery for dinner that night.

“Then the next day, you can make pizza, or not,” Falco says. “Then the next day, you can make pizza or not. And then the third day, eh you should probably make pizza.”

Once it comes time to actually get your dough ready to bear delicious toppings, you might be worried that you just don’t have the skills to toss it around like they do in the movies. Don’t be — the chefs we spoke with say that it’s more important to stretch the dough — making sure there aren’t any holes — than to try any acrobatics.

“You want to avoid thin spots, you don’t want to make the middle too thin, and then you want to make sure you have a good crust,” Falco says. “Because the crust is not only going to rise up and give you something to hang onto when you eat, but it’s going to stop the sauce and the mozzarella from pouring over the edge.”

(For more on how Falco makes pizza at Roberta’s, check out this video the New York Times produced with the restaurant’s chefs on how to make great pizza dough.)

Magnaguagno says it’s even okay to use a rolling pin at first just to help get the dough from its ball form to a flatter shape, and then shape it on a floured surface.

“At that point, you’re gonna need to start pulling it, if you can’t throw it in the air and all that, you really need to pull it,” he explains.

Worried your dough doesn’t look like it does on TV? Don’t be.

“The key is don’t be afraid of funny looking shapes,” Falco says. “Create your crust, and then pass it back and forth from one hand to the other and let gravity do most of the work.”

If you need a timeout, go ahead and set the dough down and take a break, he adds.

THE TOPPINGS
By the time you’ve waited for your dough to proof and gotten it to the shape you want, it’s time to put the toppings on. Shopping for the best, most freshest ingredients — whether it’s mozzarella, fresh basil or whole, peeled tomatoes — is ideal.

But beyond just the various ingredients you decide you want to eat, when it comes to toppings it’s all about the layering, both Magnaguagno and Falco agree.

1. Build a delicious base: First, sprinkle a little salt on the dough with a drizzle of olive oil. Then come the tomatoes — and using store-bought sauce is not the way to go, say our pros.

“In America, most of the pizzas are done with a sauce base,” Magnaguagno says, which isn’t really authentic, “whereas in Italy, most of the pizza is done with a tomato base.”

To achieve a simple sauce, Falco recommends getting whole peeled tomatoes from California or Italy, draining them, pureeing with a bit of salt and olive oil to taste, and “that’s gonna be the best sauce you can ever get.”

To prevent things from burning that you don’t want to burn, include those ingredients before providing a cheese blanket to protect them from the oven: Things like garlic, basil oregano and other herbs should be added to the base of the pizza.

2. The cheese: Along with buying the freshest mozzarella you can find, using real parmagianno reggiano or grana padana versus a commercial parmesan is going to make a big difference, Falco notes.

“Really just use the best ingredients you can in moderation. It’s going to really go a long way.”

3. Put things on top that will benefit from heat: Things that you think will be good if they burn, like the edges of your pepperoni or maybe some onions, those go on last. And if you’re using fresh mushrooms, it’s best to roast them at high heat first, to avoid moisture leaking out all over your pizza and making a gross mess.

THE TAKEAWAY
So what have we learned from all this? Patience is a virtue, and no more so than when in making pizza. Yes, we all want to get to the eating part as quickly as possible, but taking a little bit of time to let that dough rest and do its thing will go a long way, and hopefully, result in a crust you can be proud of. Before you eat in about a minute flat, that is.