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A not-close-to-perfect pizza recipe

Lots of expert advice still leaves you with plenty to learn

I don't consider this a perfect pizza recipe. There isn't one perfect pizza, and there isn't one perfect pizza recipe.

It's not simply a matter of differing tastes. Decent pizza, sure, you could teach a robot to make it. But if great pizza is an art form, it requires an artist who senses every nuance, every potential pitfall.

“People just really have to find their own thing and burn their fingers with all the elements and the variables that make that day different from the next,” says Chris Bianco of Pizzeria Bianco in Phoenix, Ariz. “There's definitely a science to it but it's almost like a farmboy science. I put it in, I don't know what the hell it does, but it works.”

So let's consider this more a set of guidelines, with help from people who know a lot more about pizza than me. It's also a progress report of my personal pizza quest.

Even if it takes you a while to find your pizza groove, keep in mind the words of pizza expert Peter Reinhart: “Pizza dough is a very inexpensive hobby to have.”

It's just the toppings that cost you.

The dough

Makes three pizzas, approximately 12 in. in diameter. Note: This dough requires at least two hours advance preparation.

As with all baking, the real trick with pizza is to break out a scale and determine the proper hydration rate (water to flour, by weight) for dough. Most pizza is made with a hydration rate around 65 percent (6.5 lbs. water to 10 lbs. flour) though Brian Spangler of Apizza Scholls goes up to 74 percent. I use about 70 percent here. 

Flour: Some bakers demand Italian “00” flour, finely milled with a lower extraction rate (less wheat germ) and a low protein content. But Bianco, who brings in flour from San Francisco, believes freshness and proper storage are most crucial. Spangler prefers flours used in artisanal baking: unbleached and unbromated (lacking maturing agents that ease kneading), with a lower protein content (about 11.5 percent) than many all-purpose flours. Leonardi uses bleached Mondako flour, from Pendleton, Ore., with 12 percent protein.

My best results came from King Arthur unbleached all-purpose flour, with a protein content of 11.7 percent.

Less protein can make dough more delicate, so don't overknead it. While some dough recipes allow you to use an electric mixer, and some pizzaioli tolerate them, I found hand-mixed dough more pliable.

Yeast: Note that I call for less than a standard packet. Many home pizza recipes use too much yeast, perhaps because more yeast helps dough proof (rise) more quickly. But Bianco notes some pizzerias in Naples take four days to proof dough. A long rise helps develop acids and flavor in the dough, says Spangler, who proofs for 20 hours. Reinhart suggests proofing dough overnight in the refrigerator.

Ingredients12 oz. unbleached, unbromated flour* (about 2 1/2 cups, by volume), plus at least 1 cup more
4.2 oz. lukewarm water* (almost exactly 1/2 cup, by volume)
4.2 oz. cold water* (almost exactly 1/2 cup, by volume)

1 tsp. active dry yeast
1/4 tsp. sugar or 3-4 drops molasses
1 tsp. kosher salt
At least 3 tsp. olive oil

*Please note: The flour and water amounts are listed by .

1) Make sure the lukewarm water is at the right temperature (ideally 110 degrees F). Measure it into a cup. Stir in the sugar or molasses, as you prefer.

2) Sprinkle yeast over the top of the lukewarm water and stir thoroughly.  Within 5-10 minutes, a foamy layer should form on top of the water as the yeast is activated.

3) Meantime, get out two mixing bowls. Pour the flour into one bowl, mix in the salt, then divide the mixture evenly between the two bowls.

4) Pour the water-yeast mixture into one of the bowls as you stir with a wooden spoon. Pour in about one teaspoon of olive oil (more if you prefer) and continue to stir. Once a dough begins to form, gradually add the flour from the other bowl and the cold water, as you continue to stir. The dough should be sticky and slightly rough. You may need to scrape flour off the side of the bowl until it all forms one lumpy, uniform mass.

5) Heavily flour a flat surface with the remaining flour. Pour the dough from the bowl onto the surface and knead for about 2 minutes with the palm of your hand, turning and folding it repeatedly, adding more flour to the surface if necessary. If the dough sticks, peel it carefully or use a pastry scraper to loosen it.

6) As soon as the dough is pliant and smooth, form it into a round, slightly flat ball — or, if you're following Reinhart's approach, form it into a long cylinder and cut it into three equal pieces. Then form those into balls.

7) Take about 1 tsp. of olive oil and coat a bowl. (Three small bowls, if you've cut the dough already.) Place the dough into the bowl(s) and cover with plastic wrap. Alternately, you can borrow an ingenious method from food writer Jeffrey Steingarten and place one piece of dough in a measuring cup, with the rest in a bowl. Cover both.

8) Place the dough in a stable, room-temperature spot in your kitchen. It will need to rise until it at least doubles in volume, at least 90 minutes. (If you're following Reinhart, place the bowls in the refrigerator overnight.) Steingarten's measuring-cup method will help you gauge when it has doubled. If you aren't planning to make your pizzas immediately after the dough proofs, you may want to refrigerate it.

Making the pizzasToolsGas grill
1/2-inch thick pizza stone
Wooden pizza peel
Heavy wooden rolling pin, preferably a one-piece unit

What you put on your pizza is up to you. I'm partial to the traditional margherita, but you can use aged mozzarella, grated cheeses like fresh Parmesan and good quality cooked or cured sausages.

Jon Bonne

The key is good quality ingredients, as fresh as possible, and enough heat to cook both the dough and the ingredients so they finish at the same time.

Some folks claim success in a typical household oven, but those usually max out at 550 degrees F, not quite hot enough to cook pizza in about five minutes.  Instead I rely on my gas grill (a Weber Genesis), which can create an internal temperature well over 600 degrees, and a pizza stone, available at restaurant-supply stores for about $40.

Before you go further with this:Some grills may not be up to the task; heating them this hot probably isn't a warranty-covered method. If you're not sure about your own grill, stop now and go buy a slice at the local pizzeria.

1) Make sure the grill is on a perfectly flat surface. Heat it about 30 minutes before you're ready to cook, and place the stone on about halfway through, This allows allowing the inside of the grill to heat up before the stone.

2) The goal is to put the maximum amount of heat into the inside dome of the grill, while not overheating the stone. Your grill settings may vary, but I've found the best results setting my front and rear burners at about 75 percent, and my center burner on low. You don't need to go as far as Steingarten in using a thermometer ray gun to pinpoint temperature, but you'll want a grill thermometer, which should read at least 575-600 degrees F (off the scale of many grill thermometers).

It's time to make pizza.

Ingredients: Pizza margheritaPizza dough (from above)
Tomato sauce (see below)
1 ball fior di latte (fresh mozzarella), well drained and sliced thin
3 sprigs fresh basil
Plenty of all-purpose flour

1) If you've refrigerated your dough, take it out at least two hours before cooking. If you haven't cut it yet, divide into three equal sections.

2) Spread a generous amount of flour on a flat working surface.  Also place the peel nearby and lightly flour it. Place one round piece of dough in the center, sprinkle a bit more flour on top, and begin pressing your fingers around the sides of the dough until you form a dome in the middle and thinner sides, like a flying saucer.

3) Some people look down on rolling pins; I find them completely acceptable, since you haven't stressed the dough with an electric mixer. Flour the pin well and roll the dough flat, then turn it 90 degrees and repeat. If you plan to toss the pizza (step 5), continue until you have a round disc about eight inches wide.  Otherwise keep rolling until you have a disc about 11-12 inches, the width of the pizza peel.

4) Taking the far edge of the dough with your hands, grab and softly pinch around the entire edge of the pizza, pulling the dough to form a circle and moving the dough (not your hands) as you pinch it. This helps form the cornicione, or lip, of the pizza. Take out the pizza peel and dust lightly with flour — just enough to help the dough move smoothly across it.

5) If you're feeling brave, toss the dough a couple times. Done properly, this can help evenly stretch the dough. Ball your fists as you grab the pizza dough from underneath and lay it across your knuckles. With a single wrist snap, spin the dough as you push it forcefully into the air. It should land back on your fists. Repeat until it's about 11-12 inches wide.

6) Place the dough on the center of the peel. With a spoon, spread a thin layer of sauce, then add the cheese or other toppings. You can also wait to add cheese until after the pizza has cooked.

7) Take the peel to the grill. Place it directly on the stone at a 45-degree offset. With a quick jerk and flick of the wrist, shuffle the pizza onto the stone. (A complicated motion, but as with all things pizza, it gets far easier after a few tries.) Whatever you do, do not let the toppings spill onto the stone.

8) Close the grill and set a timer for between 90 seconds and 2 minutes, depending on how much heat your grill puts out.  After that time, use the peel to peek under the bottom of the pizza, and turn the pie about 90 degrees. Set the timer again and repeat. You may need to repeat several times, though the grill should be hot enough to cook your pizza within 4-6 minutes, depending on toppings (more toppings, more time).  When the bottom has numerous char spots, and the toppings appear fully cooked, use the peel to carefully remove the pizza from the grill.

9) Serve the pizza on a metal tray or wax paper. Cut with a pizza wheel or scissors.

Tomato sauce

Unlike pasta sauces, pizza sauce shouldn't be cooked — the oven will cook it for you. Neapolitan purists often go on about San Marzano tomatoes, and they are quite good, but most quality canned tomatoes should do.  I'm partial to Muir Glen organic tomatoes from California.

1 can peeled tomatoes, either whole peeled or diced
1 tsp. dried oregano (or 1 dried branch)
Salt and pepper to taste

If you use whole tomatoes, drain them and remove the cores before you use them.

Place ingredients in a food processor.  Process until tomatoes are pureed but sauce is still slightly lumpy. Set aside.