You don't have to have a pizza stone, a wood-fired oven or fancy flour to make a pizza at home that tastes way better than anything out of the freezer or from a delivery guy.
And, if you plan ahead, you can bake an out-of-this-world pizza in less than five minutes without even kneading the dough.
Don't believe me? I don't blame you.
Back in 2006, when New York Times columnist Mark Bittman published a quirky recipe from New York baker Jim Lahey that claimed you could bake light, tender bread without kneading the dough, I scoffed.
Kneading dough is half the fun, but when you find yourself with little kids, you have to tend to them, not the dough. I finally tried his recipe and become a no-knead convert, so you can imagine my delight to find that Lahey has applied the technique to pizza with his new book "My Pizza" (Clarkson Potter, $27.50).
Lahey's recipe didn't just call for less yeast and a longer ferment than most recipes; he claimed that you could bake artisanal-quality pizza in three minutes under the broiler in your everyday oven.
The results were nothing less than stunning, with pies much like the crispy, bubbly crusted ones from local pizzerias such as Tony C's, Bola, Backspace or Cipollina coming out of my homely gas oven that might be older than I am.
The idea is simple: Combine 3 ¾ cups flour, two teaspoons salt and ¼ teaspoon yeast and stir in 1 ½ cups water with a wooden spoon. Cover with a damp towel or plastic wrap and let rest at room temperature on the counter for about 18 hours. The extended fermentation time creates extra gas inside the dough, which is the key to that airy crust.
When you're ready to bake your pies, preheat the broiler (gas or electric oven, no matter) with a pizza stone inside. (I don't have a pizza stone, so I use a cast iron griddle and make smaller pizzas, but you could also use a cast iron skillet or comal.)
Instead of squishing the dough into a circle with a rolling pin, gently stretch and pull the dough into a circle. This is where it takes a little bit of practice to not poke your fingers through the dough but still get it thin enough to not turn out like focaccia, which isn't a bad way to "fail" on your first few tries.
Place the disk on a peel or cutting board that has been generously sprinkled with cornmeal or flour and add fewer toppings than you think you need on top of the dough. (More on those toppings in a minute.)
Slide the dough onto the hot pizza stone or cast iron and close the door. Three to five minutes later, you'll pull out a slightly charred but perfectly cooked-through pizza.
Lahey's book contains far more details on getting the dough from the bowl to the broiler and tips on adjusting the technique for electric ovens that shut off if the temperature hits 500 degrees, and if you're a pizza-making maven, it's a must-have for your cookbook collection.
The dough recipe itself is only two pages long, but the rest of the book is dedicated to recipes for sauces (creamy onion, pureed walnuts, basic tomato), creative toppings (shaved asparagus spears, zucchini, cauliflower) and dishes to serve with pizza (salads, crostini and desserts).
One thing that you'll notice throughout the book, and on many of the best pizzas being served in Austin right now, is what Bola Pizza owner Christian Bowers calls "topping restraint." Few in Chicago would agree with the "less is more" pizza concept, but if you're working with a well-fermented dough whose flavors have had time to develop, you can get away with serving a pizza topped with nothing more than a drizzle of really good olive oil, chopped garlic and a few leaves of sage.
But many don't think a pizza is a pizza without cheese. Chunks of mozzarella, the fresher, the better, melt beautifully using this quick cooking technique, but you don't need more than six or eight dice-sized cubes on a small pie. Shredded cheese just melts too quickly, but a few crumbles of bleu cheese or even something like cotija can add punch to your pie.
Sausage and meatballs should be cooked, but you can crack a raw egg right in the middle of the pie just before you close the oven door for a pizza alla Bismark.
Because the cooking time is so short, vegetables should be cut into smaller pieces or ribbons, unless you don't mind them a little on the raw side. Extract as much liquid as possible out of ingredients such as pineapple or jarred artichoke hearts or else you could end up with a soggy crust.
This kind of pizza dough — easy to stretch, quick to cook, fun to customize — is perfect for a pizza party, which some friends and I threw a few weeks ago. (Lahey, who now runs Co. pizzeria in New York City, offers tips for such a party in the book. Serve pizzas as you cook them instead of trying to sit down to eat together, is his main piece of advice.)
I made a double batch of the dough the day before and divided it into enough small pies for everyone the day of the party.
We all showed up with our favorite toppings (black olives, mushrooms, roasted bell peppers, goat cheese, spinach, garlic, pepperoni, cotija and some freshly pulled mozzarella), but instead of using my friends' broiler, we cooked the pies on the hosts' Big Green Egg, that large ceramic smoker/grill/oven that fanatics claim can cook anything better. The oven got so hot that it melted part of the oven and cracked the pizza stone, but we still got some delicious, if smoky, pies out of the experiment.
Next time, I'll probably fire up the broiler, even though it'll kick the air conditioning into overdrive. Not so environmentally friendly in the middle of summer, but it beats getting pizzas delivered in a stack of cardboard boxes any day.
Contact Addie Broyles at 912-2504 or email@example.com.
Jim Lahey's No-Knead Pizza Dough
Because we all scoop flour differently, weighing the flour will result in a better dough, but I prefer a good old teaspoon measuring set for the yeast and salt. No need to add honey or sugar to add flavor or speed up the rising of the dough. Time on the counter, between 8 and 24 hours, depending on how warm it is, will take care of that. If you don't have a pizza stone and peel, I've had much success sliding pizzas onto a hot cast iron griddle with a well-floured wooden cutting board. Don't worry if the pizza accidentally folds in half on your first try. Increase the cooking time by a minute or two, and you'll have a calzone.
3 3/4 cups (500 grams) all-purpose or bread flour, plus more for shaping the dough
1/4 tsp. (1 gram) active dry yeast
2 tsp. (16 grams) fine sea salt
1 1/2 cups (350 grams) water
In a medium bowl, thoroughly blend the flour, yeast and salt. Add the water and, with a wooden spoon or your hands, mix thoroughly.
Cover the bowl with plastic wrap or a kitchen towel and allow it to rise at room temperature (about 72 degrees) for 18 hours or until it has more than doubled. It will take longer in a chilly room and less time in a very warm one.
Flour a work surface and scrape out the dough. Divide it into 4 equal parts and shape them: For each portion, start with the right side of the dough and pull it toward the center; then do the same with the left, then the top, then the bottom. (The order doesn't actually matter; what you want is four folds.) Shape each portion into a round and turn seam side down. Mold the dough into a neat circular mound. The mounds should not be sticky; if they are, dust with more flour.
If you don't intend to use the dough right away, wrap the balls individually in plastic and refrigerate for up to 3 days. Return to room temperature by leaving them out on the counter, covered in a damp cloth, for 2 to 3 hours before needed.
When you're ready to bake, put the pizza stone on a rack in a gas oven about 8 inches from the broiler. Preheat the oven on bake at 500 degrees for 30 minutes.
To shape the disk, take one ball of dough and generously flour it, your hands, and the work surface. Gently press down and stretch the ball of dough out to 6-8 inches. Supporting the disk with your knuckles toward the outer edge and lifting it above the work surface, keep stretching the dough by rotating it with your knuckles, gently pulling it wider until the disk reaches 10-12 inches. Set the disk on a well-floured peel (or unrimmed baking sheet). It is now ready to be topped.
Switch the oven to broil for 10 minutes. With the dough on the peel, add toppings but leave about an inch of the rim untouched.
With quick, jerking motions, slide the pie onto the stone. Broil for 3 1/2 to 4 minutes under gas (somewhat longer with an electric oven), until the top is bubbling and the crust is nicely charred but not burnt.
Using the peel, transfer the pizza to a tray or serving platter. (Don't cut on the peel. The wood is too soft and your cutter will scar the surface.) Slice and serve immediately.
— From Jim Lahey's "My Pizza" (Clarkson Potter, $27.50)