Secrets to Baking Perfect Pizzas

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I have been on a quest to discover the secrets to baking perfect pizzas. Spending a month in Italy painting landscapes and eating classic Roman food pretty much ruined American pizza for Pioneer Dad.

While in Rome, we dined at a small neighborhood trattoria recommended by our hotel concierge. It was so exceptional we kept going back and eating there nearly every evening. The pizza was fabulous; a thin crust, with rich smoky flavors to the sauce and the best cheese and tomatoes I’ve ever tasted. In short, that week was a life-changing event.

American pizza; where do I start? I’m usually disappointed with the quality of the crust and the American idea of hiding everything behind a thick veil of cheese. Then there’s the sauce, just about everything fails to impress.

I will offer a measure of forgiveness in that it takes some searching and resourcefulness to find quality ingredients. But, those ingredients are available as well as several published instructional recipes by chefs that understand the Italian pizza tradition.

It’s the crust, not the toppings that make a pizza memorable. The following recipe is a delayed fermentation method of making pizza dough, championed by Chef Peter Reinhart in his book The Bread Baker’s Apprentice. The small amount of yeast used is just enough to leaven the dough without eating up all the sugar during fermentation. The result is a naturally sweet, thin, golden crust that crisps on the bottom and edges but retains enough moisture to taste creamy in the mouth.

Here’s how to get started.

1. Necessary pizza tools

Pizza stone ½-inch thick min.
Pizza screen 16-inch
Pizza peel
Pizza cutter
Heavy-duty mixer

2. It’s all about the flour

Italian or Neapolitan thin crust pizza is made from a simple dough formulation. There is little beyond water, yeast, salt and flour. Easy you say, but the secret is in the flour and technique.

Without getting too technical about gluten content, hard and soft wheat, where they’re grown and when they’re harvested; I’ll explain which flours have given the best results during my two year experiment to duplicate the taste and texture of thin crust Italian pizza.

It is spring wheat flour, with a gluten content of 14% or more that is needed for thin crust pizza dough. This is what gives the crust the crisp and chewy texture. You wont find this on grocery store shelves. There are simply not enough pizza bakers to make a mass market for this type of flour.

Here are several flours that will work for this dough.

King Arthur’s Sir Lancelot flour is the first. Do not confuse this with the King Arthur Bread flour, which is for yeast breads to provide greater volume than all-purpose flour. The King Arthur Bread flour has a lower-gluten content than the Sir Lancelot flour. It will work as a second choice, but sadly it is not ideal. The Honeyville Store is another good source for their Honeyville XL Premium Hi-Gluten flour. Other competitive brands are: Gibralter, Remarkable, Magnifico and Eagle.

Also, check out the foodservice distributors with retail outlets; they carry quality ingredients specifically for restaurants. Other possible sources are Sam’s Club, Costco, Jewel and Smart & Final. But, let me stress once again; look for Hi-Gluten Flour with a 14% to 16% gluten content, milled from spring wheat or hard wheat, not common bread flour.

3. Recipe for a 16-inch pizza (16 oz.)

¼ – ½ tsp. dry yeast
1/2 cup water, Pellegrino or other bottled water chilled to 40 degrees
3/4 tsp. sugar
3/4 tsp. sea salt
3/4 tsp. extra virgin olive oil
2 – 2-1/3 cups high-gluten flour

4. Directions

Think of pizza dough as slow fast food. The dough needs to age 2-5 days in the refrigerator to build the proper flavor, more on this later.

Dissolve the yeast in warm water, 105–110 degrees. Wait until the yeast begins active bubbling.

Mix in the sugar and dissolve.

Add cold water. Cold water slows the yeast fermentation process and helps keep the dough temperature down. I prefer bottled water chilled to 40 degrees.

Add the salt, olive oil and some of the flour to make a batter. Beat well for 1-2 minutes until the batter is smooth. If using a mixer, begin the initial mixing with a flat beater then switch to a dough hook.

Add most of the flour until the dough forms into a ball or hangs around the flat beater, and then switch to the dough hook.

Work in flour to make a stiff dough. The amount of flour will vary depending on the kitchen temperature and humidity.

Knead the dough 4–5 minutes to develop the proteins into a strong gluten structure. At first the dough will have no elasticity. As it is worked it becomes stretchable and elastic. If kneading by hand this will take about 8-10 minutes. Turn the dough over halfway through mixing. The dough should be firm, but not hard and lifeless like a rock.

The table test: knead the dough into a closed ball. Use only enough flour to keep it from sticking to the work surface. Set the dough on the table or counter. Wait one minute and watch the dough: the dough should relax only slightly. If it relaxes more than that, knead in a little more flour and try again. If the dough has too much flour it will be difficult to pinch into a tight ball with no relaxation. Too stiff and it will be difficult to stretch out when stretching the pizza. Too slack, it will stretch out too easily.

Check the dough temperature. It should not be over 75°F. Cooler is better. The protein in the dough can be damaged at higher temperatures.

Lightly oil or spray the dough and place into an airtight container. Use a covered container or zip lock bag. Use a container with a semi-tight fitting lid so the gas from the rising dough can escape. Store in the refrigerator for 2-5 days undisturbed until ready to use. Be patient, the yeast is creating flavorful byproducts during fermentation. During this time the protein cures and becomes elastic, so the dough can rise under the weight of toppings in the oven.

If the dough has not doubled in size, remove from the refrigerator let it rest at room temperature until doubled. This may take from 30 minutes to two hours. Or, warm in a 100-degree oven covered to prevent the dough from drying out.

5. Forming the pizza

Place the dough on a floured surface. Some bakers prefer a finely ground cornmeal.

Place a palm centered on the dough and press down. This leaves a raised area in the middle, which will not be worked. The center is left thicker so as the pizza is stretched the center will thin out. If the center too thin, or its toped too heavily, it won’t properly bake in the middle.

From the outer area of the palm print, start pressing outward with the flat part of fingers, with fingers close together, stretching lightly to make the dough thinner and larger diameter. Work to about 1/2-inch from the edge, but don’t flatten the edge. The last 1/2 to 3/4 inch should not be flattened; it will puff up and hold the sauce, cheese, and toppings on the pie.

Now thin out near the edge. Pick up the edge of the dough furthest away, grabbing hold with thumbs on top and index fingers underneath parallel to the edge. Using both hands, lift the edge of the dough a few inches off the table and stretch gently around the circumference of the pizza 1/2 to 3/4 inch from the edge. The dough disk should have a ruffled edge when finished.

Pick up the dough and lay it across your right hand and arm, with fingers just inside the edge. Next transfer the dough to the left hand and arm, rotating it 1/4 turn and gently stretching it upward toward your elbow. Continue transferring from one arm to the other, rotate the dough 1/4 turn each transfer, so a different area is stretched. As you get the feel of it you will soon be doing this in a rhythmic slapping motion, moving your arms inward and outward – and side-to-side at the same time. The dough remains in touch with some part of your body. It is never flying loose somewhere between arms.

Show your new skills by twirling the dough in the air. Here’s how: get under the dough with your hands in a windup position with your right hand about 10 o’clock and your left hand about 4 o’clock; then sail your dough upward unwinding in a clockwise motion! I can almost guarantee your first throw will be a disaster landing on your head or the kitchen floor. This is a show-off mode and tends to be best practiced in private.

6. Basic red pizza sauce

This will make slightly more than 4-cups of pizza sauce.

1 28 oz. can of crushed tomatoes, San Marzano if available
1 6 oz. can of tomato paste
1-3 tsp. sea salt
1-2 tsp. sugar
2-4 tsp. black pepper
½ tsp. red pepper
2-4 cloves garlic, minced or ½ tsp. garlic powder
½ tsp. dried basil
1 tsp. dried oregano

Heat and reduce sauce until thick enough to mound on a spoon to double in size. Let the sauce rest one day before using.

7. Spread the sauce

The sauce should be thin. It will thicken, in the oven, as it bakes. It will require about ½ cup of sauce for a 16-inch pizza, slightly less for a very thin crust. Smooth out the sauce with a wooden spoon stopping ½ in from the edge. Spread evenly with slightly less in the center.

8. Add the cheese

The best pizzas will be topped with a blend of cheeses. My favorite blend is of three cheeses. The first is a fresh hard cheese, not pre-grated, Romano, Asiago or Parmesan. The second is a melter, mozzarella, Monterey Jack or Gruyére. The third cheese can be any personal favorite such as blue cheese or white cheddar.

Sprinkle the cheese over the sauce, slightly less in the center. Items that burn easily such as pepperoni and fresh mushrooms should go on first. Items that need more cooking; raw vegetables and raw meat go on last.

9. Into the oven

Preheat the oven to 550 degrees or 500 degrees if that is the highest setting. If using a pizza stone, allow 20 to 40 minutes to preheat the stone. Cooking at a lower temperature will dry out the dough.

Slide a pizza peel under the completed pizza and transfer to the oven. Check the pizza after 3-4 minutes for any large air bubbles. Prick the bubbles with a long handled fork or ice pick.

Rotate the pizza 2/3 of the way through the baking process to get even browning. Lift the edge of the pizza to check for bottom browning. If the pizza is browning too fast on the bottom, move it to the top rack for more top heat. The baking should take 7-10 minutes at 550 degrees about 12 at 500 degrees.

10. Pizza tips and tricks

Pizza dough should rise once, not twice like bread dough. A second rising will break the gluten strands and makes for an uneven crust.

Let the dough warm before stretching.

If the pizza dough is not browning, increase the sugar in the next batch.

If the previously mention flours are not available, look for flours used for bagels, hard rolls or artisan breads.

Olive oil tenderizes the gluten so the dough is easy to stretch. Increase or decrease the amount to meet your preference for chewiness and crispness. If using a lower protein flour, such as bread flour or all-purpose flour, eliminate the oil completely.

Hard water makes better pizza crust than soft water. I use Pellegrino bottled water because it always tastes better on my palette. Any bottled non-chlorinated water will be better than tap water. Remember to chill the water, for at least an hour, to get to 40 degrees.

Use minimal cheese and toppings for Italian style pizzas. Use up to ½ cup of sauce.

Mix a few teaspoons of fresh herbs such as: basil, oregano, thyme or herbs de Provence with the freshly grated cheese for a more interesting appearance and flavor.

Pizza making is a social activity. Invite friends for a pizza party, experiment and most important, have fun!

Water Bath vs. Pressure Canning: How to Choose

Pressure and Water Bath Canner

Beginning food preservation requires several decisions. Water bath vs. pressure canning: how to choose between these two popular methods?

Water bath canning is easier and well suited for most fruits and pickles, but it can’t be used for low-acid foods such as meat and some vegetables. Pressure canning; on the other hand, can seem intimidating to beginners, particularly, in the light of, old tales describing the horrors of exploding pressure canners in the kitchen.

To help clarify the difference between pressure canning and water bath canning, the United States Department of Agriculture has published the Complete Guide to Home Canning, considered by many home canners to be the most respected information source. It is worth visiting the site and reading these helpful guides.

1. Food acidity and processing methods

Whether food should be processed in a pressure canner or boiling water canner depends on the acidity of the food. Acidity may be natural, as in most fruits, or added, as in pickled foods. Low-acid canned foods are not acidic enough to prevent the growth of bacteria. High-acid foods contain sufficient acid to block bacterial growth, or destroy them rapidly when heated. The term “pH” is a measure of acidity, the lower its value, the more acid the food. Acidity level in foods can be increased by adding lemon juice, citric acid, or vinegar.

Low-acid foods have pH values higher than 4.6. They include red meat, seafood, poultry, milk and all fresh vegetables except for tomatoes. Most mixtures of low-acid and high-acid foods also have pH values above 4.6 unless their recipes include enough lemon juice, citric acid, or vinegar to make them high acid foods. Acidic foods have a pH of 4.6 or lower. They include fruits, pickles, sauerkraut, jams, jellies, marmalades and fruit butters.

Tomatoes are usually considered a high-acid food. Some varieties are now known to have pH values slightly above 4.6. Figs also have pH values slightly above 4.6. These products must be acidified to a pH of 4.6 or lower with added lemon juice or citric acid. Properly acidified tomatoes and figs are considered acid foods and can be safely processed in a boiling water canner. This sounds complicated, to the beginner, but that is precisely why it’s important to follow tested recipes from reliable and trusted sources.

Botulin spores are very hard to destroy at boiling water temperatures; the higher the can­ner temperature, the more easily they are destroyed. All low-acid foods should be sterilized at temperatures of 240 to 250 degrees Fahrenheit, with pressure canners operated at 10 to 15 PSIG. PSIG or PSI refers to pounds per square inch of pressure as measured by gauge.

2. Recommended types of canners

Equipment for heat processing home canned food is of two main types: boiling water can­ners and pressure canners. Most canners are designed to hold seven quart jars or eight to nine pint jars. Small pressure canners hold four-quart jars; some large pressure canners hold 18-pint jars in two layers, but still hold only seven quart jars.

Low-acid foods must be processed in a pressure canner to be free of botulism risks. Although pressure canners may also be used for processing high-acid foods, boiling water canners are rec­ommended for this purpose because they are faster.

3. Boiling water canners

Modern canners are made of aluminum or porcelain-covered steel. Most have removable perfo­rated racks and fitted lids. The canner must be deep enough so that at least 1 inch of briskly boiling water will be over the tops of jars during processing. Some boiling water canners do not have flat bottoms. A flat bottom canner must be used on an electric range. Either a flat or ridged bottom can be used on a gas burner. To ensure uniform processing of all jars with an electric range, the canner should be no more than 4 inches wider in diameter than the element on which it is heated.

4. Using boiling water canners

Before starting, fill the canner halfway with clean water. This is approximately the level needed for a canner load of pint jars. For other sizes and numbers of jars, the amount of water in the canner will need to be adjusted so it will be 1 to 2 inches over the top of the filled jars.

Preheat the water to 140 degrees for raw-packed foods and to 180 degrees for hot-packed foods. Food preparation can begin while this water is preheating.

Load the filled jars, fitted with lids, into the canner rack and use the handles to lower the rack into the water; or fill the canner with the rack in the bottom, one jar at a time, using a jar lifter. When using a jar lifter, make certain it is securely positioned below the neck of the jar, which is below the screw band of the lid. Keep the jar upright at all times. Tilting the jar can cause food to spill into the sealing area of the lid.

Add more boiling water, so the water level is at least 1 inch above jar tops. For process times over 30 minutes, the water level should be at least 2 inches above the tops of the jars.

Turn heat to its highest position, cover the canner with its lid, and heat until the water in the canner boils vigorously.

Set a timer for the total minutes required for processing the food by the recipe.

Keep the canner covered and maintain a boil throughout the process schedule. The heat setting may be lowered slightly as long as a complete boil is maintained for the entire process time. If the water stops boiling at any time during the process, bring the water back to a vigorous boil and begin the timing of the process over, from the beginning.

Add more boiling water, to keep the water level above the jars. Important tip: when adding water, add boiling water from a second container.

When jars have been boiled for the recommended time, turn off the heat and remove the canner lid. Wait 5 minutes before removing jars.

Using a jar lifter, remove the jars and place them on a towel, leaving at least 1-inch spaces between the jars during cooling. Let the jars sit undisturbed to cool at room temperature for 12 to 24 hours.

5. Pressure canners

Pressure canners for use in the home have been extensively redesigned in recent years. Modern pressure canners are lightweight, thin walled kettles; most have turn-on lids. They feature a jar rack, gasket, dial or weighted gauge, an automatic vent/cover lock, a vent port or steam vent to be closed with a counterweight or weighted gauge, and a safety fuse.

Pressure does not destroy microorganisms, but high temperatures applied for an adequate period of time will kill microorganisms. The success of destroying all microorganisms capable of growing in canned food is based on the temperature obtained in pure steam, free of air. At sea level, a canner operated at a gauge pressure of 10.5 lbs. provides an internal temperature of 240 degrees.

Serious temperature errors can occur in pressure canning because the internal canner temperatures are lower at higher altitudes. To correct this error, canners must be operated, at the increased pressures specified in the recipe, for appropriate altitude ranges.

Air trapped in a pressure canner lowers the temperature obtained at 5, 10, or 15 pounds of pressure and results in under processing. To be safe, all types of pressure canners must be vented 10 minutes before they are pressurized.

To vent a pressure canner, leave the vent port uncovered on newer models or manually open the petcock on older models. Heating the filled canner with its lid locked into place boils water and generates steam, which escapes through the petcock or vent port. When steam first escapes, set a timer for 10 minutes. After venting 10 minutes, close the petcock or place the counter­weight or weighted gauge over the vent port to pressurize the canner.

Weighted-gauge models exhaust tiny amounts of air and steam each time their gauge rocks or jiggles during processing. They control pressure precisely and do not need watching during processing. The sound of the weight rocking or jiggling indicates that the canner is maintaining the recommended pressure. The single disadvantage of weight­ed-gauge canners is that they cannot correct precisely for higher altitudes. At altitudes above 1,000 feet, they must be operated at canner pressures of 10 instead of 5, or 15 instead of 10, PSI.

Check dial gauges for accuracy before use each year. Gauges that read high cause under-pro­cessing and may result in unsafe food. Low readings cause over-processing. Replace gauges that dif­fer by more than 2 pounds. Gauges may be checked at many county Cooperative Extension offices or contact the pressure canner manufacturer for other options.

Handle canner lid gaskets carefully and clean them according to the manufacturer’s direc­tions. Nicked or dried gaskets will allow steam leaks during pressurization of canners. Keep gaskets clean between uses.

Use only canners that have the Underwriter’s Laboratory (UL) approval to ensure their safety.

6. Using Pressure Canners

Put 2 to 3 inches of hot water in the canner. Always follow the directions with USDA processes for specific foods if they require more water added to the canner. Place filled jars on the rack, using a jar lifter. When using a jar lifter, make sure it is securely positioned below the neck of the jar just below the screw band of the lid. Keep the jar upright at all times. Tilting the jar could cause food to spill into the sealing area of the lid. Fasten canner lid securely.

Leave the weight off the vent port or open petcock. Heat at the highest setting until steam flows freely from the open petcock or vent port.

Maintain the high heat setting, let the steam flow continuously for 10 minutes, and then place the weight on the vent port or close the petcock. The canner will pressurize during the next 3 to 5 minutes.

Start timing the process when the pressure reading on the dial gauge indicates that the recommended pressure has been reached, or when the weighted gauge begins to jiggle or rock as the canner manufacturer describes.

Regulate the heat under the canner to maintain a steady pressure at or slightly above the correct gauge pressure. Quick and large pressure variations during processing may cause unnecessary liquid losses from jars. Follow the canner manufacturer’s directions for how a weighted gauge should indicate it is maintaining the desired pressure.

If at any time pressure goes below the recommended amount, bring the canner back to pressure and begin the timing of the process over, from the beginning, using the total original process time from the recipe. This is important for the safety of the food.

When the timed process is completed, turn off the heat, remove the canner from heat if possible and let the canner depressurize. Do not force-cool the canner. Forced cooling may result in unsafe food or food spoilage. Cooling the canner with cold running water or opening the vent port before the canner is fully depressurized will cause loss of liquid from jars and seal failures.

Standard-size heavy-walled canners will require about 30 minutes when loaded with pints and 45 minutes with quarts. Newer thin-walled canners cool more rapidly and are equipped with vent locks. These canners are depressurized when their vent lock piston drops to a normal position.

After the canner is depressurized, remove the weight from the vent port or open the petcock. Wait 10 minutes, unfasten the lid, and remove it carefully. Lift the lid away from you so that the steam does not burn your face.

Remove jars with a jar lifter, and place them on a towel, leaving at least 1-inch spaces between the jars during cooling. Let jars sit undisturbed to cool at room temperature for 12 to 24 hours.

7. Selecting the Correct Processing Time

When canning in boiling water, more processing time is needed for most raw-packed foods and for quart jars than is needed for hot-packed foods and pint jars. To destroy microorganisms in acid foods processed in a boiling-water canner, you must: a) process jars for the correct number of minutes in boiling water, b) cool the jars at room temperature.

The food may spoil if you fail to add process time in pressure canners for altitudes above 1,000 feet, process for fewer minutes than specified, or cool jars in cold water. To destroy microorganisms in low-acid foods processed with a pressure canner, you must: a) process the jars using the correct time and pressure specified for your altitude, b) allow canner to cool at room temperature until it is completely depressurized.

Pressure Canning for Low-Acid Foods

Pressure canning to preserve low-acid foods at home. Vegetables, meats, poultry and seafood offer an opportunity to preserve low-acid foods for a well-balanced diet throughout the year. Low-acid foods are simple to preserve, yet require special … [Continue reading]