Making Great Pizza at Home

Chuck’s note: This is a guest post from my friend Robert Ramsey. I regularly turn to him for advice because he seeks out the best version of what he is interested in. I learned a few things from this write-up and I’m going to alter my pizza-making method accordingly. 

Homemade pizza can be a bit intimidating. I’m sure you’ve heard that your small home oven cannot produce the heat necessary to make good pie, and the recipes for homemade pizza are often disgusting, with tough, thick crust and pounds of toppings to compensate.

The truth is, you can make good pizza at home. It takes a little work, but with some patience and a hacker attitude you can easily crank out quality slices.

Pizza making, like most things involving good bread, is as much art as it is science. Therefore, your opinion matters quite a bit, and deciding what you believe “good” pizza to be is up to you. I prefer a Neapolitan style both at home and in the restaurant, but I have seen many New York style pies successfully done at home as well. Note: a Neapolitan style dough is actually the easiest of all the non-pan pizza doughs to create. It requires no kneading, can be done in one step, and tends to be less of a mess.

What you will need:

Dough

  • 30 oz Italian 00 flour (I’ve found the best place to get this is Amazon)
  • .6 oz fine sea salt
  • .5 oz instant yeast
  • 19 oz of room-temp water (or so, it depends on the humidity)
  • Semolina flour. This is for sliding the dough into the oven.

Sauce

  • 28 oz can of whole San Marzano tomatoes (or other Italian brands. Check the pasta aisle in your grocery store. You’d be surprised what you can find there).
  • 10 basil leaves
  • 4 cloves of garlic
  • two-finger pinch of salt

Toppings

I prefer basil and wet mozzarella, but you can do things like sweet peppers, sausage, etc. Keep things light! You want there to be far more empty sauce than toppings. Good pizza is about accenting a crust, not being a delivery vehicle for toppings.

Equipment

  • Food processor (you can use a blender in a pinch)
  • Pizza peel or sideless cookie sheet
  • Kitchen scale
  • Pizza steel. This is very important. You CANNOT use a stone. I purchased a Dough Joe online, and I love it. Another good option is the Baking Steel. If you know someone who has a scrap yard, have them cut you a 15×15 piece of steel plate. It works just as well. Chuck’s note: This is critical. You need something that can rapidly and efficiently transfer heat to make a nice crust. Regular pizza stones and pans will result in an underdone crust.

Making the Dough

Combine the flour, salt, and yeast in a large bowl and stir well. Add a little bit of the water at a time and stir with your hands until everything in the bowl is wet. Be patient with this and make sure to stir well with every bit of water, as adding too much results in a sticky mess.

Cover the bowl tightly with plastic wrap and let it sit on the counter overnight or for 10 hours.

Pull the dough from the bowl onto a well-floured surface. Divide it into four equal portions. Put each of these into a Ziploc bag and press the air out. Put the bags into your fridge.

Let the dough cold-ferment for at least 48 hours. I prefer 72 hours. This is going to create elasticity and bubbles within the dough, which is key to delicious dough.

Making the Sauce

Making the pizza sauce

Add the can of tomatoes with half of their liquid to the food processor. Add the rest of the ingredients. Process until “saucy.”

Pizza sauce!

At this point I usually like to throw the sauce in a sauce pan on the stove to simmer for a bit and bring the flavors out.

Making the Pizza

Grab your dough bags from the fridge and let them sit out for an hour or so beforehand

Put your pizza steel in the oven on a rack as close to the broiler as you can comfortably get. I usually go with the rack second-from-the-top, but if you feel like you can easily shovel a pizza in without touching the broiler, go right on ahead.

Heating up your Pizza Steel

Preheat your oven to 550F at least 45 mins ahead of making pizza. You’ll need this to get the steel to maximum heat.

Pizza dough

Liberally flour your counter or pastry sheet. Grab a ball of dough, then, form your hands into a “karate chop” and use the tips of your fingers to poke the ball into a 6-8” disk, occasionally flipping it over to maintain the circular shape. As it flattens out, you should find air bubbles in the dough. That’s gold. Try to avoid popping them.

Pizza dough

Grab your pizza peel or baking sheet and dust it with semolina flour. You don’t want the semolina to be too thick, but don’t skimp either.

Take your pizza dough disk and drape it over your two fists, using them to slowly rotate it around. This is very difficult to do correctly, but you’ll slowly stretch the dough into a larger circle. Don’t get discouraged. If your pizza is shaped like a big pecan, it still tastes good.

When your dough is thoroughly stretched, drape it onto your peel. DO NOT TOUCH IT after it goes down. Touching the dough even slightly will cause it to stick, which is disastrous later on.

Grab a ladle full of sauce and spread it on your pizza. You want the pizza to be well covered in sauce, but make sure that the sauce hasn’t pooled anywhere, as it will slosh when the pizza is put in the oven.

Putting sauce on your pizza dough

Add your toppings. Again, go light.

Toppings

It’s time to add the pizza to the oven. This is fairly dangerous, so make sure you are wearing some high quality oven mitts and that nothing flammable is close to the oven. Grab your peel and give it a quick shake to make sure your pizza slides easily. Open your oven with one hand, and with the other slide the peel at a 45 degree angle as far back onto the pizza steel as you can. Jiggle the pizza onto the steel and close the door.

How long you keep the pizza in varies from oven to oven, so start out with my times and then experiment a bit if you aren’t happy. I let the pizza bake for 7 minutes, shut the oven off, and then turn the broiler on high for 1:40 seconds. This gives you the char on top.

When the second timer goes off, put those oven mitts back on, pop open the oven, and slide it back on the pizza peel. It can be a little tricky, so sometimes I just reach in and grab the pizza.

Pizza!

Let the pizza sit for at least 5 more mins while it finishes cooking (residual heat!), then dig in.

A Year of Kombucha Experiments

Here are my notes from a year of experimentation with making, flavoring, and drinking kombucha. If you haven’t heard of kombucha, you’d better get to searchin’.

Tea types

Regular black tea

This is the first base I tried. It makes your standard, run-of-the-mill kombucha. This is also what keeps the SCOBY happy with the nutrients it needs.

Creme Maurice

Creme Maurice is a fine broken-leaf tea with strong vanilla notes, which come out in the final product. This is my favorite base tea so far.

Irish Breakfast

While I can immediately tell the difference between regular black tea and Irish breakfast tea in a normal cup, I cant really tell the difference in a completed batch of kombucha. I do end up using Irish breakfast tea more often for kombucha because it is what I usually have on hand.

Silk Road

Silk Road is a blend of Assam and China breakfast teas. It is wonderfully malty and earthy. In a batch of kombucha brewed with this tea, I can taste hints of maltiness.

1/3 Green 2/3 Irish Breakfast

This creates a lighter kombucha (in both color and flavor). If you’ve had regular black tea kombucha and think it is too strong, I recommend trying various proportions of green to black tea.

Length of Fermentation

I’ve tried varying lengths of fermentation, anywhere from 7 to 14 days. Here is what is going on around each of those times:

  • < 7 days: Pretty sweet (assuming your base ratio is 1 cup of sugar per gallon of water). The SCOBY is starting to consume the sugar. A new SCOBY will start to form on the surface, but won’t be very thick.
  • 7 days: Still lots of sugar in the tea, pretty sweet, but you can start to taste some acidity and tartness coming out. The SCOBY is growing.
  • 10 days: Here the real kombucha flavor comes out. More sugar has been consumed, the SCOBY is bigger, and the kombucha is more tart. If you smell the top of the batch, you can pick up some vinegary notes the SCOBY is giving off. You may even see some bubbles that have formed around the SCOBY.
  • 14 days: This is when I usually stop my main fermentation and start a new batch. I either start my second fermentation or bottle the finished kombucha. Most of the sugar has been consumed and the flavor is nice and tart with hints of the tea coming through. A full second SCOBY has formed, which I sometimes peel off and give to friends.
  • > 14 days: If left longer than 14 days, the kombucha takes on a distinct vinegary flavor. The longer it goes, the stronger the flavor gets. The SCOBY will eventually consume all traces of the sugar and it will stop growing.

Starter Kombucha

I have used varying amounts of starter kombucha from 1/2 cup to 3 cups and found that it doesn’t affect my final outcome much besides for keeping it from going bad in the first few days. (The higher acidity keeps the wrong bacteria away while the good bacteria gets going.)

Secondary Fermentations

After I siphon the base kombucha from the crock after 14 days, sometimes I like to flavor it. This happens over two days in a second jar without a SCOBY. I use quart mason jars and put whatever fruit or other flavorings I want directly into the kombucha and let it sit covered for 2 days. Not only does this flavor your kombucha, but if you add something with sugar (like fruit), it will give your brew a nice fizz.

It is important to add all flavorings after the original kombucha is finished fermenting. If you try to add it to the first fermentation, you risk weakening or killing the SCOBY.

Hibiscus

While hibiscus tea is usually so sour that you don’t dare drink it without sweetening it first, hibiscus kombucha is much different. When fermented with kombucha for two days, hibiscus petals shed their tanginess and a complex floral flavor results. I find it delicious. 2 tbsp to 16 oz of kombucha.

Dried Orange Peel

Not good. I don’t recommend this. It tastes like a yeasty skunked Oberon. Don’t waste your hard-brewed kombucha on this.

Juniper

I first tried 6 dried juniper berries in a 16oz bottle, but after a week the juniper taste was faint. So I upped it to 14 berries. Still not much. After chalking it up as a loss, I came across a brine that called for crushing juniper berries before adding them. This makes all the difference. I put 4 tablespoons of crushed berries in a quart jar with kombucha for a day and a half and came out with a light juniper flavored kombucha that is very drinkable and refreshing.

Lemon and Ginger

I sliced up half a lemon and about 2 square inches of fresh ginger and let it sit in a quart jar with fresh kombucha for a day and a half. The result was delicious, but has a bit of a bite. It takes me a while to get through a whole 32oz bottle of this because I don’t want to drink it all the time. Perhaps in the future I’d use less ginger and keep the amount of lemon the same.

Flavoring in Bottles

Flavoring in bottles is super simple, but there are a few downsides:

  • Whatever you push down into the bottle is a pain to get out, even with a bottle brush.
  • Things like strawberries get slimy after a few days.
  • Adding things to the bottle could introduce bad bacteria. You probably won’t get sick, but your kombucha will taste a bit off.

I’ve stopped adding favorings directly to the bottle and use the secondary fermentation method instead. It is more work, but produces better results.

Strawberries

This is one of the easiest ways to flavor kombucha and you get a strong flavor even after a few hours. I prefer to use dried strawberries if I’m going to leave them in the bottle instead of doing a secondary fermentation. I flavored a few batches with strawberries and then got tired of it and moved on to other flavor experiments. Strawberry has never been my favorite flavor in general, though.

Strawberries and Ginger

Again, easy and produces great results with a strong flavor in a short period of time. If you are new to making kombucha and are looking for an easy win, this is it. 2-3 sliced strawberries and 2 slices of fresh ginger and you are good to go. If you don’t want the strawberries to get slimy in the bottle, make sure to do a secondary fermentation instead.

Future Experiments

  • Secondary fermentation with lemons (I think this will go especially well with a green tea kombucha)
  • Secondary fermentation with black cherries (Should go well with the Creme Maurice tea)
  • Secondary fermentation with sage and blackberries
  • Secondary fermentation with fresh mint (I think this will go well with a lighter, greener blend)
  • Different ratios of black to green or oolong teas
  • Pu-erh tea as the base (I’m actually trying this right now, it should be done next week. I’ll edit this post with the results.)
  • Trying out adding a bag or two of yerba mate with a 1-2 ratio of green to black tea.
  • Full green tea batch
  • Flavoring with lime juice in the bottle
  • Secondary fermentation with lavender or jasmine blossoms
  • Flavoring with oil of Bergamot with a 100% black tea to get an Earl Grey flavor (Using Earl Grey tea as the base might kill your SCOBY due to the essential oils, so you only want to add them afterward)
  • Second fermentation with concord grapes, perhaps with a green tea kombucha.
  • Green tea kombucha mixed with lemonade to make something similar to Baohaus’s Lang Lang.

Soon I’ll have a post up with links to my kombucha gear and instructions on how to get started with brewing it. If you are interested in getting started but need a SCOBY, tweet at me (@cagrimmett) and I’ll send you one if I have any extras available.