I've learned these tricks of the trade from a pro, and they make all the difference.
My sister Sarah Jane runs a very successful wood-fired pizza company in Muskoka, Canada's famed cottage country. For four months a year, starting on the May long weekend and ending on Labour Day, she churns out an average of 130 pizzas a day. The pizzas are divine, with a thin chewy crust made from slow-rise dough that's beautifully crisped and charred in places along the edges. There is a perfect balance of toppings, not too little and not too much.
There's a reason why her business consistently gets 5-star reviews online, that a chef from Château Laurier in Ottawa told her it was one of the best pizzas he's ever had, and that an Air Canada pilot who flies between Toronto and Italy said it's better than the pizza he'd eaten in Naples. She knows what she's doing, and over the years I've picked up a few of her tricks. Here I am helping out in her kitchen:
Even though I don't have a backyard pizza oven, my homemade regular-oven pizza now turns out much better than it used to, thanks to her advice. Here's how to make the best homemade pizza, if you're not lucky enough to be in Muskoka to order takeout.
1. Make your dough from scratch -- the earlier, the better.
Sarah makes her dough a day in advance because the long, slow rising times helps to develop the flavor. This isn't always possible, and sometimes you'll find me processing dough in my KitchenAid two hours before I hope to serve my kids dinner, but this is the ideal goal. Homemade dough is supremely easy to make, especially if you have a food processor or a mixer.
2. Make thin crust pizzas.
Everyone has their own preferences when it comes to crust thickness, but I've learned over the years that thick, bready pizza is hard to make well at home. It takes longer to bake through, resulting in a darker, crunchier crust by the time the middle is firm. It's also very filling. I prefer the toppings to be the focal point of pizza, more than the crust, which is why I downplay the crust. Then I get to eat more of it, too.
3. Use fewer toppings than you think you need.
Sarah is always reminding me to put on less cheese, less tomato sauce. One flavor shouldn't overwhelm the others. I learned this lesson while living in Sardinia as a teenager. The pizzas there are remarkably simple, with two or three toppings. My all-time favorite is the Napoletana, with a simple mozzarella-tomato-anchovy topping; that's all there is to it, but it's divine. Don't go crazy with meat and veggies; choose a few you like, and go with that.
4. Learn basic topping combinations.
Certain ingredients go together beautifully. These are useful combinations to learn if you like gourmet pizzas: gorgonzola and pears; prosciutto with arugula; pesto with roasted red peppers or caramelized onions; salty sausage with pickled peppers.
5. Hot oven, hot pan.
Get the oven going well in advance, and turn it up as hot as it will go (in the 500-550F range). Heat your pizza stone ahead of time and slap the dough onto it just before baking. If you've figured out the art of wielding a pizza peel, then you'll transfer the freshly-topped pizza to the stone; if not, you'll want to add the toppings really quickly once the dough is on the hot stone.
6. Finish the pizza properly.
The job isn't done when the pizza comes out of the oven. Now you need to finish it. This simple trick makes all the difference in the world: Run a pastry brush dipped in olive oil around the edge of the crust to soften and add some flavor and shine. Sprinkle the crust lightly with coarse or kosher salt. This turns it into a delicious treat that people will want to eat, rather than discard. Sometimes I made an herbed oil for the crust edges, which is delicious too. For an even finer finish, sprinkle the hot pizza with minced fresh basil.
Is your mouth watering yet? I think I've decided what we're having for dinner tonight!