Pizza – on the grill, or in the oven.

From S., 11 December 2009, Great pizza begins at home.

Q:  I like pizza, but LA is devoid of any reasonable retreat.  How do you make a great pizza at home?  I am particularly interested in grilling a pizza (on a BBQ Grill).  And I hate watery pizza from the vegetable sweat that often happens with homemade pizza.  Your thoughts appreciated….

A:  I hear you on the pizza front.  I lived in California for three years and only managed to find one place that served decent pizza on the cheap.  It’s possible to get good pizza in fine dining restaurants and pizzerie that specialize in artisanal pizza – A16 in San Francisco does it better than anyone – but if you lived on the east coast, and you’re used to the ubiquitous tasty $2 slice, California can be a pretty big disappointment.

I’m not just gratuitously bagging on California – let me take a minute to explain what’s wrong with California pizza, because it will help you make a better pizza at home.  Each pizza, other than pizza bianca, or white pizza – has three components:  the crust, the sauce, and the toppings.  Proper balance makes a perfect pizza – the crust should be yeasty and chewy, but not thick like bread; the sauce should be well-seasoned and neither too sweet and paste-like or too thin and watery; and the toppings should deliver a flavor and/or textural contrast to the crust and sauce and must be in proportion to the quantity of both.  Because pizza is essentially a baked open-face sandwich – toppings on a flatbread – the bread must support the sauce and toppings.  If the toppings are too heavy or wet, or out of proportion to the crust, you have a problem.

Almost all the inexpensive pizza I ever ate in California suffered from problems with all three components.  First, the crust was always too thick and doughy, almost like foccacia.  Second, the sauce tended to be watery.  And third – possibly the worst of all – the quest for quirky ingredients often led California pizza makers to pile the toppings on their pizzas.  Many of these have no place on pizza – smoked chicken?  Barbecued pork and scallions?  Shrimp with mozzarella cheese?  “Garden vegetable” pizza featuring four or five types of toppings?   More is not usually better.

To make great pizza at home, then, you need a great crust, a great sauce, and at most a few carefully selected toppings that won’t overwhelm the crust and sauce.

You asked about grilled pizza.  This technique came from the east coast, from a restaurant called Al Forno in Providence.  Chefs George Germon and Johanne Killeen pioneered the method for grilling a fully raised pizza dough on an oiled grill over charcoal.  Since then the technique has been imitated widely as it produces a smoky taste and the sort of char one associates with the coal-fired pizza ovens in New Haven, CT.  I’m providing their grilling technique below.

You also asked about avoiding the “vegetable sweat” that happens with homemade pizza.  Here, a little science is helpful.  “Vegetable sweat” happens because vegetables are mostly water; in raw vegetables, plant cellulose and fiber structures contain water, keeping the vegetable crisp or giving it snap.  When you cook vegetables, the structure collapses, and no longer can contain all the water.  Most vegetables are 85-90% water by weight or more, so they will exude large quantities of liquid.   For this reason, you must precook vegetables before adding them to pizza, to avoid wateriness, squeeze out excess liquid in the case of very watery vegetables (like spinach) and avoid adding too many.  You should never add raw vegetables to pizza unless they are so thinly sliced that their water content will evaporate during a short stay in a hot oven, essentially dehydrating and crisping the vegetable.

Pizza dough is easy.  Remember – people have baked bread, and made flatbreads, for thousands of years.  All you need are water, yeast, flour, salt, and time.  I normally write my own recipes but the technique below comes from the masters, Germon & Killeen. The grilling recipe is easier than the oven baking recipe.

A quick note on effort: If you are freaked out by the amount of effort you think goes into making the dough, or you want to make a quick pizza facsimile at home, avoid using Boboli crust, which is far too thick to make a good pizza. Instead, use the packaged naan bread from Fabulous Flats or Whole Foods, which, while not an authentic pizza crust by any means, make a pretty good flatbread. You can grill it on one side, flip it, top that side, and then return it to the grill as specified below under “Grilling directions.”

Pizza Dough

1/4 tsp active dry yeast
1 1/2 c warm water – use a thermometer.  100F to 105F, not warmer than 112F or the yeast will die
2 1/4 teaspoons kosher salt
about 2 tbsp olive oil, plus extra for oiling the bowl
about 4 c flour, “00” type if you can find it, all-purpose otherwise

In a large bowl, sprinkle the yeast over the water and let stand until foamy, about 5 minutes.  Stir in the olive oil.

In a separate bowl, combine the salt and flour; whisk well.  Combine with the yeast/water/oil mix and mix with a wooden spoon until the mixture becomes difficult to mix and is shaggy (if using a stand mixer, use a dough hook and beat on medium-low speed for this step).  Turn the dough out onto a well-floured work surface and knead, adding a little flour if necessary, until it is smooth, elastic and no longer tacky, about 10 minutes. Do not be tempted to keep adding flour unless it is quite wet, because the dough will lose its tackiness as you knead.  If using a stand mixer, continue to knead with a dough hook for this step, pausing at minute 5 to let the dough rest for five minutes.

Lightly oil a large bowl. Transfer the dough to the oiled bowl and brush the surface  of the dough with olive oil. Cover the bowl with plastic wrap and let the dough rise in a warm, draft-free place until it doubles in bulk, 1 1/2 to 2 hours.  Alternatively, you can let it rise slowly overnight in the refrigerator, which promotes full flavor development.

Punch down the dough and knead it a few turns, then return it to the bowl. Cover the bowl and let the dough rise again until doubled in bulk, about 45 minutes.  If you are preparing far in advance, you can let it rise overnight again in the refrigerator. Punch down the dough again and use it at this point, or refrigerate.  

Oven baking

Shaping the dough: Divide the pizza dough into 4 to 6 equal pieces, depending on the size you want; work with 1 piece at a time and keep the rest covered with a clean, moist cloth towel. Form a smooth ball with each piece, tucking stray bits under and shaping continuously until you obtain a smooth ball. Place each one on a floured cutting board or similar surface, and keep covered with a clean, moist cloth towel. Let them “proof,” or go through a final rise, for about 2 hours. If you are ready to bake, preheat your oven to 500F when your dough begins to proof, and place a pizza stone – if you have one – in the oven. Otherwise, you can freeze the dough, tightly wrapped, at this point.

After proofing, form the crust. Work with one at a time on a floured board, flattening the dough into a disk and then pressing it out from the center toward the edge with the heel of your hand. If you encounter resistance, cover with a damp kitchen towel and rest, to let the gluten relax. Continue pressing outward, forming a thin, flat crust with a slightly raised lip. The crust should be about 8-12 inches, depending on whether you are forming 4 or 6 pizze.

If you are using a pizza stone, dust a peel with flour and place the crust on the peel. Otherwise, flour a rimless baking sheet and place the crust on the sheet. Sauce the crust and scatter evenly with toppings. Do not overload. [See below for sauce and toppings.]

Slide the pizza into the oven or use the peel, using a quick jerking motion, to load the pizza onto the stone. The pizzas are done when the cheese is melted and the toppings are hot, 3 to 4 minutes.

Grilling directions – technique by George Germon and Johanne Killeen (source:  Food & Wine, September 2003)

[Follow the pizza dough directions up to the point above that says “Oven baking.”]

Light a grill, preferably using hardwood charcoal. Set the grill grate 3 to 4 inches above the coals.

Divide the pizza dough into 6 equal pieces; work with 1 piece at a time and keep the rest covered with a towel. On 3 lightly oiled baking sheets, flatten and stretch the dough with your hands to form six 8-inch rounds about 1/16 inch thick; do not make a lip and don’t stretch the dough so thinly that it tears. Brush the rounds with olive oil.  [Note:  be sure to use enough oil – if you don’t, the crust will stick to the grill.]

When the grill is hot, working in batches if necessary, gently drape the pizza dough over the hot grate and cook until it puffs slightly, the underside firms up and grill marks appear, about 1 minute. Rotate the dough once and cook for 30 seconds.

Brush the top of the pizza rounds with oil and flip them over using tongs.  Grill 1 minute and remove to a plate.

Sauce the pizzas on the more-grilled side, and scatter evenly with toppings.  Do not overload. [See below for sauce and toppings.]

Slide the pizzas near the hot coals but not directly over them. Using tongs, rotate the pizzas frequently, checking often to make sure that the undersides are not charring. The pizzas are done when the cheese is melted and the toppings are hot, 3 to 4 minutes.

Pizza sauce

This is simple.  You don’t want anything in your tomato sauce except tomato and salt.

1 28-ounce can tomatoes

1 1/2 tsp kosher salt, more or less

Empty the tomatoes, and their juice, into a bowl.  If you see a lot of clear watery juice before emptying the can, spoon off the water.   Add the salt and break up the tomatoes with your hands until you achieve a sauce-like consistency.   You also can use a food mill, but do not purée the tomatoes smooth.  They should be slightly coarse.

Pizza toppings

I don’t subscribe to the belief that pizza toppings are entirely a matter of choice.  As far as I’m concerned, most things have no business being on a pizza. Fundamentally, pizza is an Italian food, and the selection of toppings should respect its origins. At a minimum, I think the choice of toppings should be Mediterranean.  I recommend the following, for example:

* Proscuitto, added at the end of grilling or baking
* Pancetta, sliced paper thin and fried crisp before adding
* Italian pork sausage, crumbled and cooked before adding to pizza, with a little of the sausage fat spooned over the top
* Pepperoni or another hard cured sausage, sliced thinly and scattered judiciously about
* Cured olives, like kalamata or niçoise
* Anchovies, diced
* Caramelized onions, judiciously distributed, especially with pancetta or mushrooms, or on a pizza bianca [white pizza sauced with olive oil and seasoned with salt] – in that case you should use more
* Mushrooms, either pre-cooked or sliced paper-thin and scattered about the top and drizzled with olive oil
* Mozzarella, either fresh and sliced 1/4″ thin, or grated and scattered in thin layer over the pizza
* Roasted red peppers, cut into thin strips
* Ricotta cheese, drained and scattered over the pizza
* Grated hard cheese, like Parmigiano-Reggiano or another sort of grana cheese
* Basil leaves, added either before or after cooking
* Olive oil, drizzled on the pizza

2 thoughts on “Pizza – on the grill, or in the oven.

  1. Pingback: When L.A. gives you crappy pizza, make your own. « The Upstart Kitchen

  2. Starvin says:

    You absolutely rock. I used to eat the Al Forno Pizza as made by their chefs when they grilled it at Louis Boston – the retailer/restaurant. amazing stuff.

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