How to make a better pizza at home
No matter who’s playing, pizza rules on Super Bowl Sunday.
Right up there with chips and dips, pizza will be the star of many a Super Bowl party lineup. Sure, you could order takeout or buy frozen, but why not elevate your Big Day game plan with homemade pizza?
And don’t limit yourself to basic pepperoni. Just about any food can become pizza topping.
“A lot of times, I’ll ask people, ‘Tell me your favorite dish,’ ” said Ryan Ota, pizzaiola – master pizza maker – at Hot Italian in Davis. “Then, I’ll show how you can interpret that on a pizza scale.”
Crave spicy Buffalo wings and ranch dressing? “Those are totally Super Bowl flavors,” Ota said, “and great on a pizza, too. I’ve put braised short ribs and greens on a pizza. That’s the fun part; there are so many options.
“Pizza can be anything and everything,” he added. “You can utilize all sorts of ingredients. In California, we’re so blessed with farmers markets, so I like using a lot of fresh vegetables as part of my pizzas.”
For Super Bowl, Ota envisions a daylong pizza buffet, starting with his favorite breakfast combo. (Pace yourself; kickoff is 3:30 p.m. PST.)
“I love our Casalegno pizza,” he said. “It’s roasted rosemary potatoes, pancetta and Crescenza cheese, which is soft and gooey. Right before it goes in the oven, I break an egg in the middle. It cooks to about over-easy consistency and (the yolk) creates like another creamy sauce when you slice the pizza.”
His go-to pizza is his Basso combo: Artichoke hearts, marinated cherry tomatoes and castelvetrano chopped olives, drizzled with pesto.
One of his current favorite combinations was inspired by those farmers markets trips: Baby kale, pickled red peppers, shaved pecorino romano cheese and chunky bits of pancetta, the Italian bacon. (Instead of pancetta, pre-cooked crumbled bacon works fine, too.)
“Arugula or other salad greens are also very nice on a pizza,” he said. “You can build a salad on a pizza, drizzle on a little lemony dressing – tasty!”
The most popular topping request at Hot Italian is prosciutto, wafer-thin Italian ham, he said. But it needs special handling.
“Put the prosciutto on the pizza right after it comes out of the oven,” Ota said. “Prosciutto shouldn’t be cooked, but the pizza will be so hot, it will heat up right away. Just lay it on to warm; it gets all buttery and delicious.”
Another topping he adds after the pizza comes out of the oven: pesto.
“When you cook basil or pesto, it turns black right away,” he said. “I add them after the pizza comes out of the oven, so they stay nice, bright green.”
Pizza can be intimidating to home cooks, he noted.
“It’s actually a simple food,” he said. “If you make your own dough, it can be very affordable, too. ... Depending on your toppings, you can make your own pizza for about $5.”
For each 13-inch pizza (Hot Italian’s standard size), Ota starts with an 11-ounce lump of room-temperature dough.
“Warm dough is important,” he said. “It’s got to be room temperature; you don’t want cold dough. It will cool down your oven.”
Also, cold dough doesn’t behave.
“If you’re shaping a pizza and it keeps shrinking back, it’s because the dough is too cool or you didn’t let the dough rest long enough,” he said. “Give it more time.”
He dusts his work table with semolina flour before shaping the dough. Like a disc jockey spinning a record, he turns the dough quickly and steadily as he shapes it into a round, then brushes it lightly with olive oil.
“We prefer a thin Italian crust, so I try to make it thin as possible,” he said. “That also makes it crisper.”
For sauce, Ota prefers thin and smooth tomato sauce, but not much of it; a quarter to a third cup is all it needs.
“Sauces are another area to experiment,” he said. “Instead of tomato, try a white sauce – or none at all.”
Cheese and toppings add personality and flavor. Mozzarella goes under the toppings, but other cheese can be sprinkled on top.
“Play around with cheese on your pizza – crumbled feta, Italian cheeses, whatever you like,” Ota said. “Mozzarella works so well because it brings it all together like glue.”
Key to a crisp pizza: a super-hot oven. For example, Davis’ Hot Italian cooks its pizzas in a brick oven at 700 degrees F for 3 1/2 minutes.
“Crank it up as hot as possible – 500 degrees, 550 if you can,” Ota said. “You need to heat it up early; turn the oven on an hour before you’re ready to cook. You and your guests are going to sweat.”
While Ota likes pizza stones, a crisp crust can still be made without one.
“If you can afford a pizza stone, they’re great,” he said. “They get the crust really crisp. But you can also get a crisp crust cooking the pizza right on the oven rack. Or use a screen.”
Pizza screens are available at cooking stores.
For Super Bowl parties, Ota has one more suggestion: “You can’t miss with pepperoni. You can always go to that standby on Big Game Day.”
Homemade pizza dough
Carmichael’s Elise Bauer developed this restaurant-quality dough recipe for her website, Simply Recipes. We tweaked it with Hot Italian pizzaiola Ryan Ota’s suggestions.
Makes 2 (12-inch) pizza crusts
1 1/2 cups warm water (105 degrees F.-115 degrees F.)
1 package (2 1/4 teaspoons) of active dry yeast
3 1/2 cups bread flour
2 tablespoons olive oil
2 teaspoons salt
1 teaspoon sugar
Proof the yeast: Place the warm water in the large bowl of a heavy duty stand mixer. Sprinkle the yeast over the warm water and let it sit for 5 minutes until the yeast is dissolved. After 5 minutes, stir if the yeast hasn’t dissolved completely. The yeast should begin to foam, which indicates that it is still active and alive.
Make and knead the pizza dough: Using the mixing paddle attachment of a stand-up mixer, mix in the flour, salt, sugar, and olive oil on low speed for a minute. Then, replace the mixing paddle with the dough hook attachment.
Knead the pizza dough on low to medium speed using the dough hook until the dough is smooth and elastic, about 10 minutes.
If you don’t have a mixer, you can mix the ingredients together and knead them by hand. Work the dough about 8 to 10 minutes until smooth and elastic.
If the dough seems a little too wet, sprinkle it with a little more flour.
Put dough in warm place to rise: Spread a thin layer of olive oil over the inside of a large bowl. Place the pizza dough in the bowl and turn it around so that it gets coated with the oil.
Cover the dough with plastic wrap and let sit in a warm place (75 to 85 degrees F.) until it doubles in size, at least 1 to 1 1/2 hours.
You can let it sit for several hours if you want. The longer rise will improve the flavor of the pizza crust and also makes the dough easier to work with.
If you don’t have a warm spot in the house, you can heat the oven to 150 degrees F., and then turn off the oven. Let the oven cool until it is just a little warm, then place the bowl of dough in this warmed oven to rise.
Divide the dough in half to make two crusts.
(At this point, if you want to make ahead, you can freeze the dough in an airtight container for up to two weeks.)
Recipe adapted with permission from SimplyRecipes.com
Make-your-own Super Pizzas
This recipe is adapted from Elise Bauer’s Simply Recipes basic pizza method with suggestions from Hot Italian’s Ryan Ota. Note: Store-bought pizza dough or a pre-made crust may be substituted for the homemade dough.
Makes 2 (12 inch) pizzas
1 recipe for homemade pizza dough
Semolina flour or cornmeal
2 cups grated mozzarella cheese (about 8 ounces)
1/2 to 2/3 cup tomato, marinara or white sauce
Toppings (see suggested combinations)
Preheat pizza stone: Place a pizza stone on a rack in the lower third of your oven. Preheat the oven to 500 degrees F. for at least 30 minutes, preferably an hour.
(If not using a stone, still preheat oven as directed.)
Punch down dough, divide into two balls: Remove the plastic cover from the dough and punch the dough down so it deflates a bit. Divide the dough in half. Form two round balls of dough. Place each in its own oiled bowl, cover with plastic and let sit for 10 minutes.
Prep toppings: Prepare your desired toppings. Use no more than 1/4 cup of each ingredient. Slice ingredients very thin for fastest cooking. Precook sausage, ground beef or bacon; drain off fat. Note that you are not going to want to load up each pizza with a lot of toppings as the crust will not get crisp.
Flatten dough ball, and stretch out into a round: Working one ball of dough at a time, take one ball of dough and flatten it with your hands on a slightly floured work surface. (Ota uses semolina flour for this step.)
Starting at the center and working outwards, use your fingertips to press the dough to 1/2-inch thick. Turn and stretch the dough until it will not stretch further.
Let the dough relax 5 minutes and then continue to stretch it until it reaches the desired diameter – 10 to 12 inches. (Ota makes his 13 inches.)
Use your palm to flatten the edge of the dough where it is thicker. You can pinch the very edges if you want to form a lip.
Brush dough top with olive oil: Brush the top of the dough with olive oil (to prevent it from getting soggy from the toppings). Use your finger tips to press down and make dents along the surface of the dough to prevent bubbling. Let rest another 5 minutes.
Repeat with the second ball of dough.
Sprinkle pizza peel or flat baking sheet with corn meal, put flattened dough on top: Lightly sprinkle your pizza peel (or flat baking sheet) with corn meal. (The corn meal will act as little ball bearings to help move the pizza from the pizza peel into the oven. A pizza peel is like a large wooden paddle.)
Transfer one prepared flattened dough to the pizza peel or baking sheet. If the dough has lost its shape in the transfer, lightly reshape it.
Top the pizza: About 1/4 to 1/3 cup sauce is enough for one pizza; too much sauce makes for soggy crust.
Spoon on the sauce, sprinkle with grated cheese (3 to 4 ounces of mozzarella), and place your desired toppings on the pizza.
Sprinkle cornmeal on pizza stone, slide pizza onto pizza stone in oven: Sprinkle some cornmeal on the baking stone in the oven. Gently shake the peel or baking sheet to see if the dough will easily slide; if not, gently lift up the edges of the pizza and add a bit more cornmeal.
Slide the pizza off of the peel and on to the baking stone in the oven.
If not using a stone, slide the pizza directly onto an oven cooking rack. Or use a mesh screen (available at chef’s supply stores). Don’t put cornmeal on rack or screen.
Bake pizza: Bake pizza one at a time until the crust is browned and the cheese is golden. At 500 degrees, that’s fast; about 8 to 10 minutes. At 450 degrees, cooking time is 10 to 15 minutes. After half the baking time, turn the pizza from front to back.
Remove pizza from oven and let cool slightly before cutting.
Pizza topping suggestions: It can be as basic as thinly sliced pepperoni or a 12-ingredient house special. But for crisper pizza, less is more.
Ota’s basic Basso at Hot Italian uses a light tomato sauce topped by mozzarella, artichoke hearts cut into eighths, chopped castelvetrano olives and house-marinated cherry tomato halves. After it’s baked, he drizzles on fresh pesto sauce.
For Hot Italian’s Casalegno pizza, Ota skips the tomato sauce and puts the cheese directly on the oiled crust. He then adds chunks of roasted rosemary potatoes, pancetta and dabs of soft and creamy Crescenza cheese, then drizzles on rosemary oil. He breaks a raw egg into the middle just before baking.
Another unusual combo: Chopped baby kale, pickled red onions, pancetta (or bacon) and shaved pecorino romano cheese on top of tomato sauce and mozzarella.
Recipe adapted with permission from SimplyRecipes.com