I hail from the Midwest, and tasted my first real deep dish pizza long before I tasted my first proper New York slice. That said, I've always been a thin and crispy kind of girl. When deep dish pizza is done right, it can be awesome: soft, pillowy crust loaded with sauce, cheese, and toppings galore. But when it's done wrong, it's a big old mess.
So many things can go awry with deep dish that you don't necessarily have to think about with traditional pizza. The crust can be under-baked, even gooey in places. The whole thing can be too wet, and all that extra weight can mess with the way the cheese melts and make it hard to eat. But after some research, and a few pizza disasters that I may have eaten with a spoon, I found my preferred deep dish method: A hefty crust on bottom and plenty of crust on the side as well, which ensures there's plenty of room for toppings (also, I really like crust). To all you purists out there, some of my methods may not be tried and true (Chicago-style), but they'll lead to some seriously delicious dinners.
Here's what you need to know:
Shaping the dough.
The sauce situation.
It helps to have a particular kind of pizza dough to make deep dish pizza. You want the finished dough to be lightly crisp at the edges, but soft inside. My go-to dough for deep dish has a blend of all-purpose and semolina flour, the usual salt, yeast, and water, plus a healthy dose of olive oil. Can you use your favorite standard pizza dough recipe to make deep dish pizza? Totally—it should work great, just remember you might need a larger batch than your usual recipe makes. You'll want about 2 pounds of dough for most deep dish pizzas. Other than that, making the deep dish dough is pretty similar to usual dough recipes: mix it, let it rise, go to town. Like most pizza dough, you can make it ahead and hold it in the fridge until you need it (up to three days).
There are many ways to make deep dish pizza, and you can use a variety of vessels, depending on your desired result. While you can pretty much bake in any oven-safe container, I have three favorites. The first is a baking or casserole dish (I use a pretty typical 9x13-inch pan, making sure it's at least 2 inches deep). You can also use a sheet pan, I just like to have the option of a deeper pan so I can have crust on the sides as well as on the base of the pizza. My other favorites are springform pans and skillets. Springform pans are great because they can let you get seriously deep, and allow you to unmold the pizza relatively easily without disturbing all the melty cheese business on top. Skillets are especially good at making sure the base and side crusts are golden and crisp. Whatever you choose, be sure to generously grease the pan with oil—and don't forget the sides!
Shaping the dough.
I don't usually roll the dough for deep dish pizza, I stretch and stipple it, much like making focaccia. Stretch the dough to the right size and shape first. You'll want to lightly oil or flour your hands, depending on your dough. If your dough is wet and sticky, opt for flour. If it's firm and tight, go with oil. Stretch the dough until it's slightly larger than your vessel. I start by pressing the dough down to flatten it, then I pick it up at the edges and pull to stretch it longer. I like my dough to be at least 1-inch thick when it goes into the pan. Pick up the dough and transfer it to your vessel, then stipple it with your fingertips to help get it into the perfect shape. Like I mentioned before, I really like my deep dish pizza to have crust on the sides as well as the base, but if that's not your thing, just stick to crust on the base of the vessel. Once it's in place, let it rest in a warm place for 15-20 minutes. If it puffs up too much, you can stipple it again. But, more importantly, it's good to let the dough relax so you know it's the right size and won't shrink on you when you weigh in down with filling.
The sauce situation.
Sauce can be the enemy of deep dish pizza. Luckily, there's really only two golden rules. The first is to use a thicker sauce. For traditional tomato sauce, this can be accomplished by reducing your favorite sauce a bit or by including a higher ratio of a thicker tomato product, like tomato paste. But you don't have to limit yourself to tomato sauce. I like a béchamel on top of a white pizza and homemade hot sauce can actually make a mighty fine addition, too. The same rules apply: Make the sauce a bit thicker, if you can – or use less of it to avoid soupiness later. It can also be helpful to apply the bulk of the sauce to the top of the pizza (taking a cue from traditional deep dish pies here). You'll still want a little bit of sauce on the base to help tie things together, but keep it minimal—just enough to coat the surface of the dough. Then, layer in your toppings (cheese counts), and finish with more sauce on top. Building your pizza this way helps ensure things don't get too wet, and keeps the toppings evenly distributed, even when you go to slice. They're weighed down a bit by sauce!
The great thing about any kind of pizza is that really anything goes, toppings-wise. But it's important to think of deep dish pizza toppings as more of a filling. You need to handle them accordingly. Any kind of meat or veggie with a high level of moisture should be cooked first to help remove excess wetness. Things like mushrooms, zucchini, leafy greens, and so on should be sautéed, roasted, or so on before adding to the pizza. Things that aren't as high in moisture (onions, garlic, etc.) can be added raw, because they'll have plenty of time in the oven to cook through, thanks to a longer bake time than thin and crispy pizzas. I've found it's best to layer cheese as close as possible to the base crust, due to it's weight and moisture. That said, a thin sprinkling of cheese on the surface of the pie is excellent, especially hard cheeses like Parmesan.
Unlike thinner pizzas, deep dish pizzas need a longer, more gradual bake time to ensure everything comes together. Recipes range anywhere between 350-400°F, but I found 375°F to be the sweet spot—hot enough to get a crisp base and sides, but not so hot you risk burning anything. If you notice the surface is browning too quickly, you can always tent your baking vessel with foil for the remainder of bake time. It can be hard to tell when a deep dish pizza is done, and if you're really unsure, temperature is the best way to tell. Stick a thermometer into the center of the pizza, all the way into the base crust (but not touching the bottom of the pan). The temperature should be at least 190°F.
Deep dish pizzas can be difficult to unmold and slice because they're molten inside. I like to let them cool for at least 15 minutes out of the oven before serving them. They're still plenty hot, but they hold up a bit better.
I always carry three kinds of hot sauce in my purse. I have a soft spot for making people their favorite dessert, especially if it's pie. My first cookbook, The Fearless Baker, is out on October 24, 2017.