I’m not going to tell you that homemade pizza is easier than takeout. It’s not. Depending on the recipe, it can take days from start to finish. But! The process is deeply satisfying, soothing, and, in the end, rewarding—because you get to eat crusty, gooey, straight-outta-the-oven pizza, even on the couch. Today, we’ll cover what you need to know to get started, and share some of our favorite recipes.
If you can make cake batter, you can make pizza dough. In fact, pizza dough has significantly fewer ingredients. Most recipes consist of flour, water, sourdough starter or commercial yeast (or both), salt, and maybe olive oil. Mix these ingredients in a bowl, knead until smooth, and leave alone for awhile. Got it? Now let’s get into the nitty-gritty.
Pizza dough is mostly flour, so whichever variety you choose will not only determine the structure, but the flavor, too. All-purpose flour is readily available and reliable to work with—a great pick for pizza beginners. Opt for unbleached, which “delivers more flavor and aroma,” according to Peter Reinhart in The Bread Baker’s Apprentice. Some recipes will call for bread flour, which has a higher protein content, which leads to stronger gluten formation. Others call for the Italian specialty 00 flour, which has a similar protein content to bread flour (around 12% to 13%), but is super-finely ground. Once you master a basic recipe, you can (and should!) start to experiment with flavorful whole-grain flours, like whole-wheat, rye, spelt, or einkorn. Just swap in a small percentage by weight (say, 10% to 15%), keeping in mind that the more you swap in, the more difficult the dough may be to work with. And because these whole-grain flours absorb water like a sponge, you might need to increase the hydration.
“After flour, water is the second most important ingredient in pizza dough,” writes Mark Vetri in Mastering Pizza. If you read enough pizza recipes, you’ll notice these terms more and more: bakers percentage and dough hydration. The bakers percentage is a nifty way to understand a dough’s composition. The amount of flour is always considered 100%, then all other ingredients are relative to that. So, if you use 100 grams of flour and 65 grams of water, your dough has 65% hydration. This is the standard hydration for yeasted breads, but some recipes push the limits toward 80% (wow!). Note: The more hydrated the dough, the harder it is to shape and work with. Start with a lower or standard hydration, then build up from their as your skills blossom.
Odds are, you’re already comfortable with baking soda and baking powder as leavening agents. It helps to think of commercial yeast and sourdough starters in the same way: You mix the ingredient into the dough and it helps your crust reach its full potential. Easy.
Let’s start with yeast. The most basic types are active dry yeast and instant yeast (aka quick-rising). These are available in just about any supermarket and are easy to get the hang of. (If you’re worried whether your yeast is active, you can mix it into warm water with a pinch of sugar before incorporating into the dough—it should start bubbling within 10 or so minutes.) Some bakers believe that fresh yeast (aka cake or compressed) leavens more efficiently and produces better flavor. If you’re intrigued and stumble upon a recipe that calls for this, go for it! Just don’t swap dry yeast for fresh or vice versa; they are not the same.
Now onto sourdough starter. Just like yeast, this acts as a leavening agent in doughs. It also contributes a funky-tangy depth of flavor and better, chewier texture. In this week’s Dear Test Kitchen (above), Roberta’s veteran and international pizza expert (yes, this is a real thing) Anthony Falco uses all sourdough starter in his pizza dough (100% flour, 63% water, 15% starter, 3% salt, 2% olive oil). You can also team up a starter with yeast. To add a percentage of starter to a yeasted pizza dough recipe, just calculate how much water and flour is in the starter, then subtract that amount of water and flour from the dough. To learn more about starters, we’ve got you covered with this Dear Test Kitchen episode starring sourdough expert Sarah Owens.
What you need to know: Salt makes pizza crust taste good. You can use kosher salt or fine sea salt, which some bakers prefer because it seamlessly blends into the dough. Reserve the flaky salt for sprinkling over the pizza after it’s baked.
What you might want to know: Many bakers argue that you should mix all ingredients but the salt, let the yeast do its thing for awhile, then add the salt later on (since salt can inhibit the yeast). Other bakers, like Falco, would rather not forget the salt (no one wants a bland pizza crust), so he mixes everything all at once. When you’re just getting started, follow the recipe to a T. As you get more comfortable, see whether you notice a difference by adding the salt at the beginning or midway through.
Certified Napoletana pizza crust is unenriched, which is baker speak for: no fat, such as oil, in the dough. As Vetri notes in Mastering Pizza, “Oil makes the dough richer, softer, and easier to stretch.” If all these things sound good to you (me too), follow Falco’s lead and estimate adding 2% olive oil (there’s that bakers percentage again) to a dough recipe, if there isn’t already oil there. This is a surprisingly small amount—sometimes even less than the salt by weight—but it makes a difference.
Some rebellious pizza recipes include more than what’s listed above. You might see sugar, malt, or even milk, all of which are meant to feed the hungry yeast. Sugar obviously contributes sweetness. Both encourage the crust to brown. If you’re just getting started with pizza-making, opt for a simpler crust instead, then feel free to branch out with these bonus ingredients depending on what you’re looking for.
“The single biggest flaw in most pizza dough recipes is the failure to instruct the maker to allow the dough to rest overnight in the refrigerator (or at least for a long time),” Reinhart writes in The Bread Baker’s Apprentice. “This gives the enzymes time to go to work, pulling out subtle flavor trapped in the starch.” It also allows the gluten to relax, which results in more efficient stretching and shaping.
All of this to say, if you want to rival your favorite restaurant (go get ’em!), you should start the recipe a day before you want to eat (say, make the dough on Friday for dinner on Saturday). But if you want pizza tonight, fear not, there are options for that, too:
Finally, it’s not from-scratch or bust. If homemade dough is the only thing standing between you and homemade pizza, forget everything I just said and use store-bought. Many supermarkets sell balls of dough that are ready to stretch, top, and bake (perfect for spontaneous pizza cravings, which all get and should not fight). You can also swing by a local pizzeria and ask if, pretty please, you can buy a couple dough balls.
Here’s something you might not want to hear: Your first pizza may not be perfect. But odds are, your second will be better. And your third will be better than that. And your fourth—well, you get the idea. Pizza dough is a skill just like any other recipe, so give it some time. I recommend landing on one recipe, then sticking with that for several tries before moving onto another one. You’ll learn something new about dough and crust every time. And, to keep things fresh, you can always switch up the sauce and toppings.
While pizza sauce has become synonymous with a simple tomato sauce, this is far from the only option. You can opt for a lemony cream sauce (check out the Dear Test Kitchen episode above for a demo), BBQ sauce, pesto, romesco, or—wait for it—no sauce at all. I love finding pizza sauce recipes in not-pizza places. Look to crudité platters, baked pastas, you name it.
If you’re looking for that classic tomato sauce, though, here’s a mini recipe: Dump a can of whole-peeled tomatoes and their juices into a blender. Add a splash of olive oil and pinch of salt. Blend. Done!
Whichever sauce you choose, just remember these caveats:
1. Don’t use too much. It will weigh down the pizza and lead to a denser, soggier crust.
2. Make sure it’s loose enough to slightly thicken, since the sauce will continue to cook in the oven.
Anthony Falco’s best advice when it comes to toppings: “Use restraint.” Too many ingredients muddies flavors and distracts from the crust (the real star of the show here). Too much of any ingredient weighs the pizza down, preventing it from rising and crisping properly. All toppings should be at room temperature or cooler before being added to the dough.
Most importantly, pick a cheese that melts well. This means halloumi, paneer, and even feta aren’t great options. (That said, you could use a small amount of these, paired with another melty pick.) Mozzarella is classic—you could go with torn fresh (for margherita-style) or shredded low-moisture (for American-style). Other options we love: Taleggio, goat cheese, gorgonzola, Fontina, cheddar, Gruyere.
A nice way to bulk things up. Whichever you pick, meat should always be fully cooked before it goes on the pizza. Think crumbled sausage; pulled pork; chicken fingers. Cured meats are also a great option. Pepperoni, ham, and salami don’t need to be additionally cooked. Bacon and pancetta should be crisped in a skillet first, however.
Like meat, seafood is a great way to add savory oomph to a pizza. This could be as simple as canned anchovies or sardines, which add lots of umami. Or you could be like Wolfgang Puck and top a just-cooked pizza with ribbons of smoked salmon. Clams, mussels, and shrimp are also delicious.
When in doubt, cook your vegetables before adding to the pizza. This not only concentrates their flavor, but also reduces their water content (no one wants a watery pizza). Try roasted mushrooms, blanched asparagus, sautéed peppers and onions, or par-cooked potatoes. You can also top a finished pizza with raw vegetables, like a salad—baby arugula, shaved fennel, ribbons of zucchini, etc. Always season the vegetables before they go on the pizza (they should taste good all on their own).
You’ve probably seen pineapple on pizza, but why stop there? You can add just about any fruit that’s in season. Try sliced apples to go with cheddar, cabbage, and bacon. Or peaches to go with fresh mozzarella and basil. Or even a smear of jam.
Pizza toppings are endless, so don’t be afraid to mix and match. And if you’re feeling low on inspiration, just check out the menu from your favorite pizzeria. Here are some combos from popular restaurants around the country to get started:
Pro tip: Just before you serve your pizza, lightly drizzle it with olive oil. This will shine up any flour-dusty patches on the crust and make the whole thing smell (even more) amazing. And don’t forget a sprinkle of crunchy salt.
Pizzerias love making a show of their ovens. Whether wood-burning or electric, these are oversized and sometimes visible as soon as you walk through the door. Let me be clear that you do not need a professional oven to bake awesome pizza. All you need is the determination to make awesome pizza, which I’m guessing you’ve already got if you’re reading this. (Yeah!)
As Reinhart writes in The Bread Baker’s Apprentice, “It is possible to make a great pizza at home even if your oven cannot reach the heat levels used by the very best pizzerias that burn hardwood or bituminous coal and reach between 800° and 1200°F.”
Odds are, your oven only goes up to 550°F. Same. However high your oven goes, that’s the temperature you should bake your pizza at. Remember that this can take awhile, so crank that dial way before you shape and top your dough.
Now let’s cover a couple common baking approaches:
If you’re making a Grandma-style pizza, with a focaccia-like crust, all you need is a sheet-pan. You press the dough into the pan to shape, top it right there, and pop the whole thing into the oven. This is a foolproof method if you’re getting your sea legs (pizza legs?). Similarly, deep-dish pizza takes place in a 9x13-inch baking pan—yep, like the one you’d use for blondies.
If you want to get a little fancier, consider buying a pizza stone or steel. As The Joy of Cooking explains it, “When preheated to a high temperature, these plates provide a consistent high heat that results in a deeply browned crust ... to defy what we once thought of as homemade pizza.” Sliding a pizza directly onto a stone or steel is like riding a bike: awkward at first, but an important life skill. You assemble your pizza on a peel (or an upside-down cookie sheet or sheet pan), hold these over the steel or stone, then confidently jerk the sheet backward, so the pizza drops down. I recommend practicing this with not-pizza, not-oven props beforehand, and watching the video above to visualize the motion.
Josey Baker, who owns Josey Baker Bread in San Francisco, says this method leads to “the raddest homemade pizza the world has ever known” in his book. Basically, you heat an oven-safe pan (such as cast-iron) on the stove over high heat and heat the broiler. Add your stretched dough to the pan and cook it for 3-ish minutes while you add the toppings. Then slide it under the broiler for another few minutes to finish.
Are you ready to make pizza? Rhetorical question—of course you are! Here are some of our favorite recipes. If you’re starting out, read the recipe a couple times, and try to follow it as closely as possible. The more comfortable you get, the more you can off-road (incorporating whole-grain flours, switching up toppings, playing around with the baking method).
P.S. The best way to reheat leftover pizza is in a cast-iron skillet on the stove. Feel free to @ me.