I get asked this one a lot. Or, more accurately, I get lots of e-mails asking some variation of the following question: What do I need to do to make the best pizza dough? Since that's a loaded question, subject to subjectivity and regional bias, I usually punt and focus on a couple of general tricks that seem to bring best results for nearly any kind of pizza dough. The two most valuable tricks, in my opinion are, one, to crank your oven up as high as you can get it and, two, to make your dough at least one day ahead. The reason for the first suggestion is pretty simple: the faster you can bake the pizza, with both the crust and the toppings finishing up at the same time, the more moist and creamy (yet snappy) your crust will taste. Of course, if your oven is generating too much top or bottom heat and only half of the equation gets baked before the other half, all bets are off. Or, you may have to make some adjustments as to which shelf you use. Baking is a balancing act between time, temperature, and ingredients and it's usually possible to fix an uneven bake by simply adjusting one or more of those cardinal points. In most cases, it's usually the shelf but sometimes its too strong a convection.
But first you need a good dough and next week I'll provide three master recipes for pizza doughs based on my book, American Pie: My Search for the Perfect Pizza. But, in the meantime, assuming you already have a dough recipe that you like or want to improve upon, perhaps from another source, the first change you can make, if you haven't already, is to make the dough the day before (or, at the very least, early in the morning that you plan to make the pizzas). A few years ago very few people knew about this trick and most cookbooks provided recipes that treated pizza dough just like sandwich dough: mix, rise, shape, and bake. This made dough for pizza but, sadly, not for memorable pizza and, as our regular readers know, this site is all about shooting for great (i.e., memorable) pizza experiences.
This little trick begs the questions, why make the dough so far ahead? Why does it make better pizza? If you haven't asked these questions and are just taking my word for it, then I have failed you because another of our goals here is to explore how to cook, not just how to follow a recipe. What I mean is that ingredients have a certain functionality as well as having flavor, and the difference between a real cook and a recipe follower is that the former, after following recipes for awhile, develops an intuition about the functionality of ingredients so that you can cook without recipes because you know what the ingredient, or the technique, provides to the process. Sometimes, it just takes one piece of new information to trigger that aha moment in which everything becomes clear, as if for the first time. Making dough ahead of time is one of those pieces of information and I'm going to tell you why and, if you don't already know what I'm about to say, this may change your baking ability forever:
Flour consists of mostly starch, with some protein and a small amount of minerals and enzymes. Starch is, when push comes to shove, just sugar -- that is, it consists of complex weaves of various sugar chains such as glucose, fructose, maltose, dextrose, and the like, that are so tightly woven together your tongue can't access the sweetness, and bacteria and yeast can't get to the sugars to ferment them. Fortunately, the amylase and diastase enzymes that also exist in the grain (and sometimes additional enzymes are added at the mill in the form of malted barley flour), act upon the starches and begin to break off some of the sugar chains, especially the glucose and maltose, and free them up for the micro-organisms to feed on, and also for our palates, and also for the oven to caramelize them when they bake. But it takes time for all of this to happen, at least 8 to 12 hours, so the refrigerator becomes our friend, slowing down the rate of fermentation so that the yeast (and, to a lesser extent, the bacteria) don't digest all the newly available sugar threads but leave some behind for our tongues and for the oven. The colder the dough, the slower the rate of fermentation and also the enzyme activity. If we hit the balance point just right, by the time we bake the pizzas (and also breads, to which this technique can be applied, as I show in my book, "Artisan Breads Everyday"), we can produce the most beautiful golden crusts (caramelization of the sugars), and the sweetest, nuttiest tasting crusts due to the acidity created by the fermentation, and the deep roasting of the protein threads caused by the high heat, as well as the remaining sugar threads still remaining for our own pleasure. It's all about hitting that balance and, fortunately, while it is science, it is not rocket science and most of the work is done for us by the use of refrigeration and letting the ingredients work it out for themselves.
Next week, three pizza dough recipes.