I can say, with a fair amount of confidence, that most every culture in the world, and throughout history, has had some kind of bread. Feel free to correct me. And every society that has bread, has a version of it that’s topped and baked. Even if you don’t call it pizza, the basic concept is the same. In Japan, they have have a “pizza” that’s really a stuffed pancake, for which you choose your own toppings.
Pizza in America used to be a very specific thing, although there were different types. See “deep dish,” “Sicilian,” “New York style,” “thin crust, ” or any other style. Lately, perhaps from 15 years or so ago, someone decided to give it a posh name. Flatbread. Even better, artisanal flatbread. That singular term can cost you anywhere from five to twenty dollars on top of the pizza’s price, and if Wolfgang Puck’s name is involved, you can get a pizza that costs more than your best pair of shoes.
I guess I would categorize pizza as a leavened flatbread, usually topped with a sauce, cheese, and two or three toppings. But there are now so many “pizzas” these days that don’t fit into that definition. Apparently, pizzas no longer need sauce. Or cheese. Or pepperoni, or any other ingredient that we commonly associate with pizza. The modern pizza crust can be thick or thin, a perfect circle or a ragged, rustic crust, and toppings that make you go hmmmmmm… And purchasing options! Frozen pizza? Thick or thin, self-rising, gluten free, “French bread” pizza; there’s an entire aisle in the supermarket dedicated solely to frozen pizza. I personally don’t like frozen pizza, in spite of its convenience. The edges always seem to get too brown before the middle is cooked.
Then there’s the “take and bake” pizza. Most supermarkets have them, and I know of at least one national chain that does nothing but. They’re prepared on-site but not baked; you do that yourself. Better than frozen, but still a stop-gap, and you have no control over the ingredients or the freshness.
Then there’s delivery. With all of its inherent problems. Will it arrive hot? Will it reach your dining room with the melted cheese and toppings slid to one side, or worse yet, on the pizza box lid? Is your delivery person Charles Manson? And there’s the BIG THREE. You know who I’m talking about. Convenient, cheap, usually prompt, and generally their pizzas taste like cardboard slathered in ketchup and topped with “cheese food” and frozen veggies. I’m lucky, I live in a very large city that has local pizzerias on nearly every corner. They are much higher in quality, but the delivery’s inherent problems persist with mom-and-pop pizza joints, and their pies can be expensive, relatively speaking.
So, what’s left? You could go out for pizza. The pizza’s piping hot, and you can usually get a cold beer or a glass of (cheap) wine, some salad, and you can watch the game while you’re eating. Or even indulge your techie self; a lot of these joints have video arcades. And there’s no clean-up. But ugh! Getting dressed up (or just getting dressed), parking, tipping, and high prices can dull your enthusiasm for a piece of hot bread with some sauce and meat on it.
The best convenient option is to get pre-cooked crust from the supermarket. Pop in your cart as you’re shopping for the ingredients, top the dough and bake. You don’t have to use pizza, either. My favorite is naan, which has become widely available, tortillas for a “thin crust” pizza, or even pita. All convenient, fast, tasty enough for a quick bite, and relatively inexpensive. It’s nothing, nothing like homemade!
But pizza isn’t hard to make at home. It’s time consuming, yes, but most of that time is passive. And there are so many choices available! The world is your oyster (yeah, you can even top your pie with oysters)! And pizza dough freezes really well, so you can make a ton of dough that will be ready for you whenever you want it. Thaw, top, and bake, and you’ve got a snack for one, or a feast for ten. You control the ingredients, the heat, and who gets the first slice. (Spoiler alert: the pizza chef gets it, often before the pizza makes it to the table. After all, ya gotta taste before you serve!)
There was an Italian restaurant in, of all places, Osaka. Japan. They had the best pizza. It was an airy crust, and topped simply with olives, garlic, and anchovy (not everyone hates ’em. Otherwise, why does every pizzeria offer them as a topping?). I’ve spent many hours trying to find a similar ‘za here, but nothing came close. So, into the kitchen, armed with cookbooks, and pantry and fridge stocked with all the right stuff, I decided I’d try it. I only failed miserably a few times. Most every other pie I created was edible, even tasty, but nothing came close to my Japanese pizza.
It turns out that using a preferment is key to a delicious pizza. So I offer you the following. You’ve gotta plan ahead, though. A pizza made with a preferment can take up to a whole 24 hours. Some pro bakers even suggest forty eight to to seventy two hours to rise! Of course, you could just throw the basic ingredients into a bread mixer, shape the pie and top it. But that will take you at least three hours, anyway, and the crust will be “good’ at best. And using a preferment cuts down on the amount of yeast you’ll use, so the crust, not the yeast, will be the star taste.
This is a basic pizza dough recipe. All it has are five ingredients: Flour, water, yeast, salt, and olive oil. You can add a tablespoon of sugar if you’d like, but it’s not necessary. You can sub flat beer for some of the water (not all of it). You can add cheese to the dough, or your favorite blend of spices (easy on the garlic, though. It can impede the yeast). You can even experiment with different flours and flour mixtures. The possibilities are, as they say, infinite. Here is the formula, and the recipe that followed:
BASIC PIZZA DOUGH WITH BIGA
This chart shows the formula that recipe comes from. You can bake directly from the formula, and making adjustments to amounts or ingredients is easy!
- Bread machine or stand mixer
- Baking stone
- Parchment paper
- Pizza peel
- All purpose flour 250g (8.8oz) plus more to adjust the dough, and for dusting your work surface.
- “00” or bread flour 100g (3.5oz)
- Water 245g (8.6oz) plus a bit more for adjusting the dough’s consistency, if necessary.
- Bread machine or instant yeast 7g (.2oz). A pinch of this amount will be used in the biga, about 1g.
- Salt 10g (.35oz)
- Olive oil 28g (1oz)
Making the biga
Here’s my biga just before I use it in the dough. The mottled and bubbly surface means that the yeast has been diligently working all night!
- Combine the two flours well with a whisk or fork.
- Measure 105g (3.7oz) of the four mixture into a medium glass or clear plastic bowl. Reserve the rest of the flour mix in a sealed container or ziplock bag. Add a pinch of yeast, and whisk again lightly to combine.
- Measure 95g (3.4oz) of water and microwave it for just about ten seconds. The water should be warmer than room temperature, but not hot, between 90° and 100°F.
- Pour the warm water into the flour and yeast mixture and stir well to combined. Cover the bowl with plastic wrap and place in a warm place. The oven, if you’re not using it for other things, is perfect. Just don’t forget that it’s in there!
- Pour a glass of wine and binge watch your favorite series, or go to bed. This puppy’s gonna be fermenting for 6 to 8 hours, up to 12!
Prepping the Dough
I use a bread machine to knead and raise the dough. The order in which they are added to the machine is recommended by the manufacturer. If you use a stand mixer or your hands, adjust the order of the ingredients as necessary. My bread machine dough cycle includes a 12 minute initial mix, followed by a 5 minute rest, an 8 minute knead, a twenty five minute rise, a brief stir down and a final rise of 40 minutes.
- The biga should have risen to about double the size and have a bubbly surface. Scrape the biga gently into the bread pan. Don’t forget to secure the paddle in the bread pan before you add the biga. Learning from other people’s mistakes (mine, in this case) is the best lesson!
- Heat the remaining water (150g, 5.3oz) to about 90°F and add it to the bread pan. Add the remaining flour mix, and make two little valleys. Add the salt to one and the yeast to other. Keeping the yeast and salt separate ensures that the salt doesn’t impede the yeast’s action. Set the machine to the “dough” cycle and engage the cycle. Check the dough towards the end of the first mix. If the dough is dry and not coming together, add water, a few drops at a time. If the dough seems too wet, add a few pinches of flour at a time until it firms. The dough will be wet and sticky. Only add flour if the dough is sticking too much to the sides of the pan.
- At the start of the second knead, very slowly add the olive oil, waiting before each addition to let the oil incorporate fully into the dough. It will look like a greasy mess. That’s okay. Resist the urge to add more flour, unless the dough is absolutely soupy. The wetter the dough, the crisper the crust! Well, usually. I highly recommend prepping your toppings well ahead of proofing the dough. You want them to be ready when the dough is. Mise en place, people!
Proofing and Baking
- Place a baking stone on the second lowest rack in the oven. Most recipes I researched recommend the bottom rack, but at some point, you’re gonna need to pull the rack out, and my oven doesn’t leave enough room to get ahold of the rack without getting third degree burns! With the stone in place, pre-heat the oven to 500°F, or as hot as it will go. Professional pizza ovens can reach temperatures of up to a whopping 1,000°F. I’m betting that yours doesn’t, right? Ideally the oven should be heated for at least an hour before baking, to ensure that stone is evenly heated and screaming hot.
- Lightly oil a large glass bowl, and dust your surface lightly with flour.
- Turn the proofed dough onto your work surface. Give a few good kneads to degas it, then form it into a ball, tucking the dough under and pinching it into seam. At this point you can wrap the dough, or any portion of it, tightly with plastic wrap and refrigerate or freeze it. Refrigerated, it’ll keep for up to three days, and frozen dough will keep for up to 3 months. Bring the dough to room temp and proof it before baking.
- Place the ball in the oiled bowl, turn it once to coat the dough with oil, cover with plastic wrap, and set aside to proof. This final proofing can last anywhere from 15 minutes to an hour, depending upon a variety of factors, so rely on your senses, not a kitchen timer, to determine when it’s ready. It should be doubled in bulk and shiny. When you poke it, the dent should remain for a few moments before slowly rebounding, and the dough should feel moist and a bit sticky.
The rest is kind of up to you, dear readers! You can make a traditional pizza, or form the dough into buns, or make calzones, or pizza bites stuffed with cheese, or… As you can see, the possibilities go far beyond a ‘za with double cheese and pepperoni! I won’t even offer any suggestions. A few tips, however.
Use extreme caution when placing the dough in the oven, and when removing it. I like to brush my pie’s outer crust with olive about halfway through baking, and it’s a bit scary! And I’m not even a thrill seeker.
The high heat of the oven demands a short baking time, ten to fifteen minutes. Watch carefully (without opening the oven too much), because the crust can go from golden brown to scorched in very little time.
If you find that cheese is bubbling before the crust is even brown, next time, try freezing the cheese for thirty minutes. Cold cheese will allow the dough to catch up.
If you’re using meat or poultry as a topping, it’s important to pre-cook it, as the high heat of the oven won’t give either a chance to cook properly. Shrimp, clams, crab, and white flesh fish will benefit by par-cooking them, but the high heat will cook them, so it’s not necessary. And yes, friends, seafood pizza is common all over, except here. I love shrimp pizza!
I highly recommend building your pizza on a piece of parchment paper dusted with flour or cornmeal, and then transferring it to the oven, parchment and all, using a pizza peel. It’s takes a bit of risk out of the whole drama!
Give the pizza a couple of minutes to cool before slicing and serving. It allows the cheese to set, and also prevents you from getting the roof of your mouth scorched!
If you don’t have a baking stone, a.k.a. pizza stone, you can use a large cast iron griddle or a baking tray turned upside down to allow the pizza to slide off easily. Just make sure your baking tray can withstand high heat.
I didn’t have any sauce on hand for this puppy, so I used sliced tomatoes seasoned with oregano, thyme, basil, and salt. I added a thin layer of cheese under the tomatoes to protect the pie from getting soggy
If I had to choose only one food to eat for the rest of my life, it would probably be the magnificent pizza. It’s a meal in itself, and I could fudge the “only one thing” by topping each pizza differently. No matter what you put on it, it’s still pizza, right?
Leave a comment if you try this recipe! Let me know how you tweaked it, how it tasted, or if I’ve made any egregious mistakes in my recipe. Enjoy your ‘za, dudes, and in the meantime; dance like no one’s watching, sing like no one’s listening, but cook like EVERYONE’S eating!
Bon appetít! And thanks for reading!