Making Pizza Dough FAQs: A Slice of Pizza and History

C. Bertelsen)
Pizza, Homemade (Photo credit: C. Bertelsen)

Frances: Have you ever made a pizza?

Claire: … I suppose if I put my mind to it, yes, I could make one. …

Frances: What would make you feel uncertain abut making one? After all, you say you’ve made bread before and and you’ve made things similar to tomato sauce.

Claire: The toppings perhaps, I don’t know. I mean I used to do more cooking when I was at home and didn’t have any responsibilities and didn’t have to watch the clock. …

Frances: Would you use a recipe if you were going to do the whole thing?

Claire: Probably yes. Or I’d get someone else to just tell me what they tried and then go by what they …

Frances: Would that make you feel more confident … using a recipe?

Claire: In some ways, yes. But I’ve used recipes before and it’s never turned out how I expected it. …

Are you like Claire in this interview?* Can’t make pizza dough to save your life? Sick of the cotton wool that passes for pizza dough in your nearby supermarket?

Help is at hand.

Punch Pizza)
Fire in Pizza Oven (Photo creidt: Punch Pizza)

There’s really nothing special about pizza dough; in the old days families baked their bread in large communal ovens. And leftover dough often ended up as a flatbread covered with different toppings on hand, easy to carry to the fields. Look for Carol Helstosky’s new book, Pizza: A Global History, due out on October 15, 2008, published by Reaktion. The book’s premise:

Originally a food for the poor in eighteenth-century Naples, the pizza is a source of national and regional pride as well as cultural identity in Italy, Helstosky reveals. In the twentieth century, the pizza followed Italian immigrants to America, where it became the nation’s most popular dish and fueled the rise of successful fast-food corporations such as Pizza Hut and Domino’s. Along the way, Helstosky explains, pizza has been adapted to local cuisines and has become a metaphor for cultural exchange.

Arthur Mouratidis)
Tossing Pizza (Photo credit: Arthur Mouratidis)

In 1936, the first American cookbook appeared with a pizza recipe, Specialità Culinarie Italiane, 137 Tested Recipes of Famous Italian Food. Since then, dozens of book just about pizza clog the shelves of bookstores —  the bibliography following this article lists some of the best.

Here’s a link to a pizza-making Web site that might be helpful. Jeff Varasano bases his photo-heavy discourse on a piece of Patsy’s pizza he ate 35 years ago. Since Patsy’s celebrates 75 years this year, what we’re seeing is real food history made before our eyes.
“East Coast” or “New York-Style” pizza boasts a thin crust, while Chicago-style lumbers in with a thickness more like focaccia. Not to be outdone, California came up with a new style altogether, called — what else — “California-style,” pioneered by Alice Waters and Wolfgang Puck.

As for me, I use the following recipe, using a pizza stone, and it works every time; note that pizzerias cook pizzas at around 850 degrees F, not possible in the home kitchen, where most ovens heat to only 500 degrees F maximum.

C. Bertelsen)
Pizza Up Close (Photo credit: C. Bertelsen)

Italian Country Bread
Makes 3 loaves, up to 16 5-inch flatbreads, etc.

1 T. dry yeast
1 T. sugar
2 c. warm water
8-9 cups bread flour
1 T. salt
1/3 -1/2 c. extra-virgin olive oil (I put more in when I am making pizza dough from this recipe)
Up to 2-3 c. additional water (more or less)

Proof the yeast in the water and sugar until bubbly.

Put flour and salt in large mixing bowl or Kitchen Aid mixer bowl or food processor; use dough hook.

Pour in yeast and extra water, and start mixing. When gluten strands (string-like) appear, add oil. Mix, add more water if necessary until dough is only slightly sticky. Knead 2-3 minutes in machine or until smooth. By hand this might take 10 minutes or so on a lightly floured board.

I usually give the dough a few kneads on the board even if I do the major part of the kneading in the machine.

Place dough in a large greased mixing bowl, flip over so greased side is up, and cover with a clean and very damp towel that has been wrung out. Let dough rise until doubled.

Shape the dough into whatever you want. Let bread loaves rise, but pizza and focaccia don’t need a second rise.

For free-form bread, heat oven to 375 F and bake 30 minutes or so. Rolls, heat oven to 425 and bake 15-20 minutes. Pizza and focaccia, heat oven to 500 and let heat (with baking stone) for 1/2 hour. Bake pizza and focaccia about 15 minutes or until golden on edges, etc.

For focaccia, I “paint” the rolled-out dough with olive oil and then sprinkle with chopped fresh rosemary or other herbs, coarsely ground black pepper, and coarse sea salt.

I have rolled the dough out for pizza, covered with sauce and meat and frozen it. Works pretty well, though not as well as freshly made unfrozen dough.

*Kitchen Secrets: The Meaning of Cooking in Everyday Life, by Frances Short, p. 121-122.


American Pie: My Search for the Perfect Pizza, by Peter Reinhart

Chez Panisse Pasta, Pizza & Calzone, by Alice Waters

Pizza: A Global History, by Carol Helstosky

Pizza Any Way You Slice It, by Charles & Michele Scicolone

Pizza on the Grill, by Elizabeth Carmel and Bob Blumer