8 Great Tips for Homemade Pizza

Learn to make the easiest, cheesiest pizza in your home kitchen with this guide by Institute of Culinary Education chef Scott McMillen
by Gourmet
From deep-dish to thin-crust, pizza is an all-season favorite and the ultimate blank canvas for culinary customization. Our simple tips will help you achieve restaurant-quality pizza from the comfort of your kitchen, using our basic pizza dough recipe and a secret ingredient for the best-ever sauce.

1. Wet Dough = Crispier Crust
The crispness of your pizza crust is a direct result of the moisture level of the dough. Thin-crust pizza lovers should begin with a very sticky, wet dough (like ours), which can be stretched thin for a crispier crust. If you prefer a chewier crust, incorporate more flour into your dough so that its less sticky. But keep in mind that additional flour should only be added a little at a time, as its much easier to fix a dough thats too wet rather than too dry, which requires adding more water (a trickier process).

2. Chill Out Overnight
Give yourself a head start by preparing your dough the day before and chilling it overnight. Refrigeration allows the gluten to relax, which makes the dough easier to stretch and shape. Before refrigerating, shape the dough into a ball and place it in a lightly oiled bowl covered securely with plastic wrap.

3. The Trio of Tools
Three tools are key to creating restaurant-quality pizza: a pizza stone, a pizza peel, and a pizza wheel. Pizza stones are a great investment, as they guarantee a crispy, golden-brown crust, and a shovel-like peel does double duty: It's a perfect prep surface and also allows you to seamlessly slide the dough into the oven.

If you don't have a stone or peel on hand, use two inverted baking sheets, one in the oven as your "stone" and the second as your peel. Whether using a peel or a baking sheet, make sure to coat it heavily with cornmeal to keep the dough from sticking to the surface. And finally, a sturdy, sharp pizza wheel comes in handy when it's time to slice and serve your finished pie.

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4. Hot Stone = Success
A pizza stone should be heated in a 500°F oven for a minimum of 45 minutes prior to baking your pizza. Always position the pizza stone on the center oven rack before turning on the oven, as placing a room-temperature pizza stone inside a hot oven could cause the stone to crack.

5. Ditch the Rolling Pin
While it may seem counterintuitive, pizza dough is at its best when shaped gently by hand, rather than with the aid of a rolling pin. Rolling pins agitate the gluten in the dough, which makes it retract as you try to extend it. Whatever you do, don't knead the dough before stretching it. Kneading causes the gluten to become tough, which increases the likelihood your dough will tear rather than gently stretch.

The best approach to shaping pizza dough is to begin by dusting your surface with flour, and then place the chilled dough onto the surface, dusting it with additional flour. Next, coat your hands in flour, and using your fingertips, press the dough down and out to form a wide circle. Pick up the dough and allow its own weight to pull it downward as you circle your grip around the edges of the dough until it is stretched to your desired thickness. Thick or thin crust is up to you; the pros consider 1/16 to 1/8 of an inch to be the ideal thickness. Any thicker, the thinking goes, and your pizza will be too doughy.

6. The Secret Simple Sauce
Store-bought pizza and marinara sauces work well in a pinch, but the homemade variety is always best for bringing big flavor to your carb canvas. For a fast and fresh sauce, heat a medium-size saucepan over low heat, add a few tablespoons of olive oil to the pan, and then add chopped onions and garlic. Briefly sauté the mix until the garlic is golden brown, then stir in your choice of fresh or canned chopped tomatoes.

Next, season the sauce with fresh herbs such as oregano and basil, as well as my secret ingredient: Parmesan cheese rinds. No piece of Parmesan should ever go to waste, and the rinds add rich flavor to the tangy tomato base. Allow the sauce to simmer until it thickens slightly, and then remove the rinds before spooning the prepared sauce onto your pizza.

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7. Lighten Up on Toppings
As tempting as it may be to pile on the pepperoni, use a light touch when it comes to pizza toppings, beginning with the sauce. Use the back of a large spoon or a ladle to evenly spread the sauce on the dough, leaving a 1-inch border for the crust. Next, sprinkle on the cheese so that it's evenly distributed over the sauce, and then finish off your pizza with your choice of meat and veggie toppings. Less is more when it comes to the ingredients atop your dough, as a heavy load translates to a soggy pizza.

8. Don't Fear the Dark Side
Once the crust turns golden brown and the cheese gets bubbly, be patient and give your pie an extra minute or two in the oven to ensure the dough is fully baked and to further darken the distinctive bubbles that add character and flavor to the crust. The best thin-crust pizzas have dark, crispy bottoms. Baked right, a good slice wont bend when picked up and will hold its shape without requiring the "New York Fold" (folding a slice in half lengthwise to strengthen the crust, ensuring it hangs on to every last topping).

Pizza is one of the most versatile and picky-eater-pleasing foods. It can be enjoyed day or night with all sorts of toppings. Go ahead and get creative when it comes to flavors and textures, be it bacon- and egg-topped pizzas for breakfast, salad-topped pizzas for lunch or dinner, or marshmallow- and chocolate-topped pizzas for a sweet slice of dessert.

Scott McMillen is a chef-instructor in the career Pastry and Baking Arts Program at The Institute of Culinary Education (ICE) in New York City. He also teaches steakhouse classes and leads cooking parties for ICE's recreational-cooking program.

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