What is it that sets the pie from your favorite pizzeria so much apart from the one you’d typically make at home?
In my humble opinion as a self-proclaimed pizza connoisseur, which you should always take with a grain or two of salt (Maldon sea salt, ideally), the difference boils down to two things: the crust and the toppings.
Restaurant pizza has a light and bubbly crust that’s filled with pockets of air of all sizes. The crust feels soft to the touch and, when you press down on it, it’s so lively that it almost immediately springs back up.
An airy crust can only be achieved with a well-fermented dough and the correct baking technique.
To put it in plain English, dough that hasn’t been given sufficient time to rise will rarely puff up. And a pie that’s been baked for too long will, more often than not, come out with a hard and stiff crust.
This brings me to my first piece of advice to those of you who want to make pizza at home that resembles (and why not rivals?) that of a good pizzeria: always give your dough enough time to ferment.
Let the Dough Rise Long Enough
In its most traditional form, pizza dough is made from four ingredients: flour, salt, water, and yeast.
Flour, being the main ingredient, contains 11-12.5% of the protein called gluten. The rest is starches, sugars, minerals, and, in high-quality flours, vitamins and enzymes.
Dissolved in the water and mixed with the dough, the salt brings out the earthy aroma and wheaty flavor naturally present in the flour. It also gives strength to the gluten strands, making the dough more workable.
The secret to bubbly crust is in the yeast. Yeast is a single-celled micro-organism that feeds on the starches and sugars in the dough, farting out ethanol and carbon dioxide as a byproduct.
The ethanol adds taste to the dough, and the carbon dioxide bubbles get trapped inside it—building up in the form of the same air pockets that you’re looking for in the perfect pizza.
For this to happen, you need to give the yeast in your dough enough time to ferment it. I recently wrote a whole post about making airy pizza, so I’m not going to go too much into the details of this.
So here’s the too long; didn’t read version:
For a light and bubbly crust, rest your dough for 4-6 hours at room temperature or 1-2 days in your fridge before shaping and baking. This gives the yeast the time it needs to ferment the dough and make it rise.
For one reason or another, this isn’t common knowledge.
When I share this with my friends, they’re often surprised that pizza dough can last so long!
Now, it’s turned into a thing; we keep emailing photos to each other of the puffiest pizzas you could possibly imagine, bragging about how long each of us managed to ferment their dough.
Here’s a photo of my absolute best one so far:
Another thing that makes pizzeria pizza so good is that it’s made in a wood-fired brick oven, at least in the good pizza joints. These ovens can reach temperatures as high as 800°F (427°C) and bake a pie in as little as 60-90 seconds.
This not only allows your favorite pizzeria to bake more pies and serve more customers at any given moment of time; it also enhances the quality of the pizza.
Heat dramatically speeds up the process of fermentation, which is why dough puffs up in the first few seconds when it hits your oven. Eventually, the surrounding air and the internal temperature of the pie get too hot, and the yeast cells die.
Bake the Pie on a Hot Surface in a Preheated Oven
Congrats for reading (or skimming?) this far! We got to the second thing you need to know to make restaurant-style pizza at home:
Pizza puffs up best when it comes into sudden contact with a scorching hot surface like a pizza stone or cast iron skillet preheated to the maximum temperature your oven allows.
This is where many home cooks make the mistake of topping their pizza and putting it in a cold oven. As a result, the crust stays flat, and the bottom, cold and moist from the sauce, comes out undercooked.
Hey, even I was guilty of doing this myself before I got into baking five or six years ago.
But, now, you and I both know better.
I have a Bosch convection oven that goes as high as 520°F (≈ 270°C). So I place my pizza stone or a thick-bottomed skillet in the oven, then crank it up and preheat it for 30 to 45 minutes.
When the pie goes in, I want the air in my oven so hot and the temperature of my baking surface so high that the tomato sauce almost instantly starts boiling.
Heat is your friend, and not your enemy, when it comes to making pizza. Readers who don’t have a pizza stone (I highly recommend you get one) or thick-bottomed skillet can use a baking sheet turned upside-down.
Keep the Toppings Simple
The toppings are the last thing that tends to separate pizzeria pizza from its homemade counterparts.
Your friendly neighborhood pizzaiolo, especially if you lived in Naples, likes to keep their toppings fresh and humble.
Picture Margherita pizza. You don’t need that many toppings to make it! A can of uncooked peeled San Marzano tomatoes. A juicy ball of fresh buffalo’s milk or cow’s milk mozzarella. A drizzle or two of extra virgin olive oil, preferably of Italian origin. A few fresh basil leaves. Perhaps a generous cracking of black pepper.
That’s not to say you shouldn’t make Capricciosa, Pepperoni, or Prosciutto e Funghi at home. But leave the Italian seasoning in the cupboard, where it belongs, and maybe drop the cheddar. Pizza originated as affordable street food for Italy’s working class.
It’s best eaten plain and simple.
Now, you know my secret to homemade pizza that can rival your go-to pizzeria on any day.
Give the dough enough time to rise, top the pies with a few high-quality ingredients, and bake them on a hot surface in a preheated oven, and they will keep coming out consistently looking like the one in the picture.
How did it work out for you? Any tips of your own as you were trying out my method? Share your thoughts with the rest of this post’s readers and me in the comments below!