You want to create homemade pizza that looks great (read: blackened freckles, stretchy cheese, crust bubbles), but you don't want to install a wood-burning oven in your fifth floor rental apartment.
Sometimes, when I'm sweating bullets in a steamy-hot kitchen, wondering if the crust will ever, ever turn an appetizing shade of golden-brown, I have such doubts: Is it possible to achieve restaurant-quality pizza at home? And what tools do I need to do it?
For answers, I looked to chefs who've built their reputations in crust, sauce, and cheese—Andrew Feinberg of Franny's; Carlo Mirarchi, Brandon Hoy, and Chris Parachini of Roberta's, and Joe Beddia of Pizzeria Beddia—by way of their three respective cookbooks, all of which essentially promise to grant the home cooks that aforementioned superpower.
Then, I put their advice to the test: If I skipped their recommendations and went out on my own path, could I still achieve good results? Jump to the tests here, or read on to hear from the pizza patrol. (Or cut straight to our takeaways.)
Across all three books, the authors suggest preheating a thick, sturdy baking stone in a 500° F oven (or even hotter, if you can) for at least an hour before baking your first pizza.
If you don't have a stone, the folks at Roberta's recommend—and even prefer!— four six-inch square unglazed quarry tiles ("The advantage of the tiles," they point out, "is that they're much cheaper than a stone and if they break, they're easily replaced.") And John Beddia also puts in a vote for terracotta tiles as a pizza stone alternative.
Once you've got your pizza on that very hot surface, the authors unanimously advise a Bake 'N Broil™ system (I just pulled that term out of thin air, but I think it serves a purpose):
And if you don't have a broiler, fret not! Continue to bake the pizza at a high temperature, but add a minute or two to the total cook time.
But how does a stone stack up against a steel? And what about using a preheated, upside-down baking sheet or a cast-iron skillet as a workaround rather than investing in additional equipment?
We made four pizzas, all with the same pizzeria-purchased pizza dough and the same toppings, but we baked them on different surfaces: steel, stone, aluminum baking sheet, and cast-iron. We preheated the vessels for about 30 minutes in a 500° F oven, with the exception of the cast-iron skillet (as we were concerned about landing a delicate pizza into a burning-hot target). We baked all of the pizzas on the oven's middle rack for 10 to 11 minutes.
When the pizzas first came out of the oven, all appeared to be equally delicious, and so similar in appearance that it was hard to keep track of which was which without labels.
But when we flipped the slices belly-down, their true colors—or, er, lack thereof—were exposed. If we were judging the undersides by char-dappling and an underpinning of crunch, none of the pizzas would have mustered a score of "excellent" (perhaps we should have preheated for the recommended hour). Yet regardless of their shortcomings, the pizzas baked on the steel and the stone proved to be winners over those baked on the baking sheet and in the cast-iron skillet.
Let's examine each option more closely.
Ah, the best of the bunch! While the pizza didn't immediately impress me as bubbly or burnished (and its interior was rather damp and soupy—a fault of our own overexcitement with the toppings, I'd assume), compared to the others, it proved to be the best-cooked. Just look at that arc of dark crispiness at the bottom left that demarcates where the sauce ends and the crust circumference begins.
The pizza cooked on the ceramic stone was paler overall, with a snowy-white underside. The crust wasn't quite as well-baked, but the difference might not have been as noticeable had we not been eating the various pizzas simultaneously.
In terms of choosing between stones and steels, many food authorities, including J. Kenji López-Alt of Serious Eats, Joe Yonan, and David Lebovitz, favor steel. Cook's Illustrated concluded that steels, which conduct heat more effectively and store more heat per volume unit, are a worthwhile splurge "if you’re an avid pizza baker seeking to emulate the violent heat of a professional pizza oven." And Kenji, who tested dozens of pizzas, stones, steels, and recipes, found that "in every single case [the steel] produced results superior to anything [he'd] ever been able to make with a standard stone." The caveat? Baking steels are heavier and more expensive (but, treat them well and they'll last forever, with no risk of cracking).
The pie baked on the inverted preheated baking sheet was perhaps the most deceptive of the group. It had some nice color on the underside, to an equal or even greater extent than the pizza baked on the ceramic stone, but we were met with a layer of raw, mushy dough in the center.
If a baking sheet is your only option, you'll want to extend the cook time significantly—probably by at least four or five minutes—before (and if) you broil.
Another clear loser (hey, I'm just calling it like it is), this pizza was cooked all the way through—there was no raw dough in the center, praised be—yet it was soft and pale all over, with a thoroughly floury underside and not much color on the outer crust. And that was even after adding an additional 2 to 3 minutes to the baking time. (I'd guess that we didn't have the same raw dough situation as the baking sheet because, rather than only bottom heat, the sides of the cast-iron skillet provide lateral heat, as well).
We had these results because we weren't able to preheat the cast-iron skillet, as we were worried about nestling an assembled pizza into a hot skillet. We also weren't able to stretch this dough quite as thinly, as it wouldn't have fit in our pan.
If you'd like to use a cast-iron skillet to make a pizza, you may want to preheat the pan and assemble the pizza on a sheet of parchment paper, like fiveandspice recommends for her Creamed Leek and Egg Skillet Pizza. When the pan is hot, slide the pizza, parchment paper and all, into the pan very carefully, then proceed to bake it.
Another option? Preheat your cast-iron skillet but invert it (a recommendation from Peter Reinhart and Heston Blumenthal), so that you have a flat—albeit small—surface onto which you can shimmy your pizza.
What are your best tips for making pizza at home? Share with us in the comments below.