Getting my doctorate in homemade pizza

I've had a fixation on making good pizza since the COVID lockdown. I, like many other people, decided that the best way to weather a pandemic was to bake bread, so I made a sourdough starter and quickly had to find ways to use up the discard. There are a lot of ways to do that — I've experimented with banana bread, pancakes, waffles, and cake, to name a few, but my favorite way to use it is pizza, because pizza is good.

I am now a real pizza connoisseur and can no longer deign to get takeout pizza because the homemade stuff is just so much better. But I'm also a generous pizza connoisseur, so here's what I've learned after obsessing over pizza for 4 years.

Table of contents

A peach-and-basil pizza that I made using the dark arts outlined in this document.

Why bother?

You can put whatever you want on homemade pizza instead of having to deal with lame predetermined menu combinations. Even if you go to one of those places that lets you supposedly "make your own pizza," you will inevitably have to try (and fail) to control the pizza-assembler-person with your mind so they get the topping ratio right. At home, your topping choices are between you and God and nobody else.

One of my classic tweets (2019): "How come when I order pizza with pineapple they always skimp out and put maybe one weak-ass handful of pineapple on it. Like, do you think I'm just ordering the pineapple for decoration? Load it on there. Go ananas."

Making your own pizza is also way more cost-effective than buying it from a restaurant. And, of course, there's the sense of pride and accomplishment!

(to the tune of personal jesus) your own personal pizza

- Curi

Pregaming

If you are dead serious about making good homemade pizza, get a good quality pizza or baking stone. (A pizza stone is just a type of baking stone that is round, but they can otherwise be used interchangeably.) A nice one will set you back about $100, but it'll pay for itself after, like, four (4) pizzas. You can find stones for cheaper, but if you can bear it, the thicker and pricier ones are ideal because they retain heat better.

A pizza stone is just a slab of ceramic or, well, stone, that you stick in your oven. Its job is to give your pizza a nice, hot bed to sleep on while it's baking; the material absorbs and retains heat, so your pie cooks in a dry environment instead of getting sad and soggy. I assume most of us don't have a wood-fired oven, so this is the next best thing for getting optimal pizza cooking temperatures. You can also use a pizza stone for other baked goods.

Assuming you have procured a stone, stick it in the center rack of your oven and preheat it to at least 450F (230C). I usually go for 475F (245C) and that works fine, but you could even jack the heat up to 500F (260C). Then let the oven sit and heat for about an hour while you're getting the other pizza components ready. If you're not using a stone, you should still crank up your oven temperature. (Yeah, even if the recipe says 425 or whatever.)

Another very useful tool to use in conjunction with the stone is a pizza peel, which makes moving pizza in and out of the oven extremely easy. You don't need to shell out a lot of money for this; your primary concern is getting one that's big enough to hold a pizza while still being easy to handle. Don't worry about getting a fancy nonstick one, for reasons I will address later.

Dough

Traditional homemade dough

In my opinion, the King Arthur Flour sourdough crust recipe is the gold standard for homemade pizza crust recipes. It's very good.

Here are some alternatives:

And there's a lot more where that came from, as King Arthur has a metric shitload of pizza recipes. Pick one that sounds good and give it a try.

If you're making one of the above recipes (or any recipe that doesn't significantly deviate from "normal" pizza crust texture), here is my wisdom:

Since Colorado is 1. high and 2. dry, I put more water in than the recipe calls for. The dough should be slightly tacky, but not so wet that it sticks to everything it touches. It won't rise very well if it's dry to the touch. Put in the amount of water that the recipe gives you and see how that goes. If you need to, gradually add more until the dough is just a little too sticky. If the dough is more than a little sticky, add a teeny bit more flour.

I am aware that sounds completely ridiculous and imprecise. Pizza dough texture optimization takes a lot of trial and error, but the pizza will taste fine either way, so don't stress too much about it.

Store-bought dough

Making pizza crust is a fairly large time and effort investment, and you may not have either of those things. Just go buy some dough at the store! It's fine! I do recommend buying dough and rolling it out yourself for best results if you can manage it.

If there are any bakeries near you, it's worth seeing if they sell frozen or refrigerated dough. Otherwise, you can still make mass-produced grocery store dough taste good. I like the dough Trader Joes sells. It's not very expensive, you can get 2 large pizzas out of it, and it has an Italian seasoning option (which I usually go for).

Secret option 3: Cast iron crust

If you have a small kitchen, live alone, or just don't give a fuck that day, there's one other option: pourable crust. See Whippoorwill Holler's on Youtube, or Emmymade's transcript of that recipe. The recipe makes two 9-inch pizzas, so halve the measurements if you only want one pizza.

This method basically gives you pancake batter that bakes into pizza crust. If you go this route, temper your expectations: it's not going to be luxuriously soft and full of air bubbles like traditional crust is, because there's no yeast in there. But it tastes great, the texture is still good, and, most importantly, it's ridiculously easy!

You can use any kind of milk in this recipe. I always have to use way more milk than the recipe asks for. The result should literally be the consistency of pancake batter; you should be able to pour it easily, but it shouldn't be runny. Once it's in the pan, I like to rotate the pan around so the batter levels itself out.

Since you don't have to roll this crust out, feel free to skip to toppings. Bake the pizza as written in the recipe, but note my advice about cheese.

A pizza that was made using the cast iron crust method.

Crust preparation

Once you have dough of some sort prepared, you need to roll it into crust. As previously mentioned, your dough should be a little sticky, which theoretically makes rolling it out a huge pain in the ass. But you are smarter than the dough, and you will win.

Get two pieces of parchment paper that are about as big as you want your pizza to be. Lightly grease them with oil, then sandwich your dough lump between them. Roll your crust out to your desired thickness through the parchment. Leave the bottom piece of parchment underneath your finished crust as you assemble your pizza.

Toppings

This is not a very complex topic: put whatever you want on your pizza. The only thing I have to tell you is: don't put your cheese on yet! I'm aware this sounds counterintuitive because every pizza place ever puts their cheese on after the sauce, but they have industrial-grade ovens that can get to the temperature of the sun and you don't. Putting the cheese directly over the sauce prevents the moisture in the sauce from evaporating, so all it can do is go down into your crust. Bad! Save the cheese for later. You'll put it on mid-bake. (Side note: I also wait to put basil on with the cheese so it doesn't wilt completely.)

Speaking of cheese, get low-moisture whole milk mozzarella if you can. Emphasis on the "low-moisture" part. Shredding your own cheese is ideal, but you can use preshredded cheese if you'd like.

A bonus to this cheesing method is that the blanket of melted cheese will trap all your other toppings on the pizza, thus sparing you the frustration of watching all your toppings slide off onto the plate.

Caveat: Ignore all previous advice if you're making a Margherita (or something Margherita-adjacent). You need fresh, wet mozz for that, and you can put it on at the beginning because you're not smothering the entire surface of the pizza in cheese.

Baking

As I mentioned earlier, your oven should be turned to at least 450F/230C. You might be concerned because the recipe is telling you to go lower than that, but it's fine because at this point we are completely ignoring the recipe. We will be baking pizza based off of vibes. Vibes-based baking isn't hard, but you need to babysit your pizza during the process. No turning on a timer and forgetting about it until it goes off here.

You should still have a piece of parchment paper underneath your pizza. I find that it helps to trim the excess off so the parchment is a circle that's a bit bigger than your pizza; it makes it easier to handle in the oven. Put the pizza and parchment onto the pizza peel, then slide both the pizza and the parchment onto the stone. The parchment will keep the pizza from sticking, and you can use it to give the pizza a head start if it's not sliding easily.

Now keep an eye on your pizza while it bakes. You at least need to wait until the sauce looks mostly dry, but your main cue will be the color of the crust. If you like your cheese to brown on top, cheese it when the crust is just barely starting to turn brown. If you like a soft, melty layer of cheese, wait until the crust develops a little more color. How long this takes depends on how thick you made your crust and how hot your oven is.

Once your pizza is cheesed, continue to babysit it until the crust reaches the color you're looking for. Don't open the oven willy-nilly, but you can open it occasionally to get a better look at the color. This is another process that requires trial and error, so you might over- or undershoot your first time (but it'll still taste good).

When you're happy with the doneness of your pizza, grab your pizza peel again and position it so you can slide the pizza off the stone and back onto the peel. The parchment paper comes in handy again here because you can grab it and pull the pizza off the stone that way without burning yourself.

Eating and storage

Enjoy your pizza! You don't need to let it rest for a predetermined time period, but it will be very hot, so you'll need to exercise a little bit of patience. A rotary pizza cutter is nice to have, but if you don't have one, you can use a big knife to cut it. (Press the knife straight down with your hand instead of doing a sawing motion.)

A slice of pizza on a plate accompanied by a can of cider

Homemade pizza is best enjoyed with some sort of beverage, alcoholic or otherwise.

My favorite part of making pizza is the leftovers. Homemade pizza, like any other pizza, tastes even better the next day. Wrap the slices in foil, put them on a plate, and into the fridge they go. You can enjoy the leftovers hot or cold. I'm team cold, but if you want to reheat your pizza, avoid the microwave. The microwave will make your pizza, which you worked so hard to keep crisp, soggy. Instead, chuck it in the toaster oven or a pan heated on medium heat for a few minutes until the pizza is heated through.

Recipes

Here are some pizza combinations I like. I'm not a pizza purist, so please click out if you're offended by fruit on pizza!

BBQ pineapple

This also kicks ass if you substitute peaches for pineapples... or use both!

  • BBQ sauce (optimal if you use/make one that contains pineapple juice)
  • Chorizo (or chorizo substitute) (chicken also works)
  • Red onions, cut into rings
  • Pineapple, cut into small pieces (defrost if frozen)
  • Optional: Basil
  • Optional: Hot peppers (habanero is good)
  • Mozzarella cheese

Pizza bianca

Not an authentic white pizza by any means, but it's good!

  • Alfredo sauce (homemade is better than jarred)
  • Roasted red peppers, cut into strips
  • Red onions, cut into rings
  • Baby spinach (or adult spinach cut into smaller pieces)
  • Roasted garlic cloves
  • Basil
  • Optional: Chicken (or chicken substitute)
  • Optional: Sun-dried tomatoes
  • Mozzarella cheese
  • Optional: Top with parmesan or pepper flakes