Welcome to Italian-American Week, when we’re taking a bit of a break from our usual stories to focus on the important stuff: red sauce, stuffed pasta, porchetta and the chefs and home cooks making it all happen.
For a lot of people, making pizza is an all-or-nothing proposition: Either the kitchen becomes a war zone of an all-day cooking project (flour and tomato sauce vs. the world), or you’re stuck with something that is truly subpar. Don’t get me wrong. I love hosting pizza day and making a total mess sometimes. But sometimes is not every time, so here are a few tips for making awesome pizza at home without destroying your kitchen or your day.
1. Find a dough shortcut.
What’s a Bambi, you ask? Well, it’s just a little dough (I know, I don’t come up with these things). And you don’t have to kill a baby deer to get one. Just go to your local pizza spot and ask for a ball of dough. Anyway, it’s usually freshly made, fully proofed and costs just a few bucks. This way you can skip waiting while your dough proofs, as well as the post-pizza flour cleanup. You can also buy fresh, or even frozen, pizza dough at your local grocery store, Whole Foods and the like.
2. Make pizza sauce, not spaghetti sauce.
If you’re envisioning a big pot of tomatoes and meat and other vegetables simmering away all day while some little Italian grandmother stirs it with a giant wooden spoon, you’re thinking of the wrong sauce. Get one big can of tomatoes and a large sweet onion. Caramelize the onion (yes, all of it, I know it looks like a lot) in olive oil, toss in two to four cloves of crushed garlic (depending on your taste) and cook until soft. Add the tomatoes, a couple tablespoons of fresh oregano, salt and pepper and bring to a boil. Once it’s hot, it’s good to go.
3. Use real (good) cheese.
Shitty cheese = shitty pizza. Avoid the crappy stuff at all costs. The cheapest cheese doesn’t really melt so much as turn to a rubbery cheese-like substance, and nobody really wants to eat that. Get some real cheese. Also, don’t use anything that has a lot of oil, like sharp cheddar. You’ll end up with a grease puddle on top of your pizza.
4. Don’t go crazy with the toppings.
Be reasonable with both your variety and volume of toppings there, Dagwood. If you stick to three or four maximum, you’ll be able to taste and appreciate everything more. Once you go past that, you’re heading into “hot circle of garbage” territory. If you really have to put eight different things on top, first I urge you to reconsider. Second, if you blew off my first suggestion, just do a little bit of each. That way you don’t overload your pizza, and you’ll actually be able to pick up the slices without having them collapse. Also, if you’re using anything that expels a lot of liquid while cooking (fresh tomato, pineapple, etc.), make sure you cut it small enough that the liquid has a chance to evaporate. Giant pineapple rings or whole beefsteak tomatoes will kill your pizza.
5. Pick a format and go with it.
If you’re making New York-style thin-crust pizza, turn your oven up as high as it’ll go and let it heat up all the way. If you’ve built your pie well, as soon as the crust on the edges is done, the rest of the pizza is finished as well. If you’re making thicker crust, or deep-dish, scale it back a bit so it cooks evenly through all the layers, more like you’re baking a cake than a pizza. If you have a good relationship with your pizza stone (as in, you’ve not broken it), by all means break it out, especially for the thin crust. If not, use a baking sheet.
6. Be a responsible adult.
Did you make 10 amazing pies today? Awesome. Did you eat them all? NO! BAD! Don’t force-feed yourself — that’s what our alien overlords want you to do (they’re huge into human foie gras, FYI), and we can’t let them have that satisfaction. And leftover pizza is one of life’s great joys, go ahead and save some so you can enjoy an epic pizza breakfast the next morning.
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