If you want to make homemade pizza, the first step is—of course—to make the dough.
It's easy to get carried away thinking about toppings and so on, but more than anything else, when you're eating pizza, it's the crust you're tasting. And not just tasting. Biting into. Chewing. The crust of a pizza is literally its foundation, but it is also its essence.
For all its complexity, pizza dough is built on a remarkably simple formula. Classic Neapolitan pizza is made with only flour, water, salt, and yeast. And while different flours have different properties depending on whether they're made from winter wheat, summer wheat, and other variables, it's the yeast that gives the dough its flavor—primarily through the process of fermentation that takes place while the dough is undergoing its rise.
Of course, every recipe is different. And if you're following a recipe, it's a good idea to actually follow the recipe. That means when a recipe says to let the dough rest for a certain amount of time, give it the full time, even though it might seem like nothing is happening. The reality is that everything—from the elasticity of the dough to its crunch, its chewiness, and particularly, how yeasty it tastes—is being determined during this resting time.
So before we get to our actual five tips, here's a bonus one: If a pizza dough recipe says to let the dough rest 8 to 24 hours (or overnight), plan to use the high end of whatever that range is.
Know Your Flours
Having just resolved to follow the recipe as written, you might not feel like you need to know the difference between bread flour and all-purpose flour. After all, you're just going to use whatever the recipe calls for, right? Right. But it's also useful to know a little bit about the difference to help you choose a recipe that will produce the kind of crust you want.
Briefly, because of its higher gluten content, bread flour will produce a crunchier exterior with a chewier interior. All-purpose flour is going to produce a softer crust. Some recipes will specify something called 00 flour, which is both high gluten and finely ground, which makes a difference in wood-fired ovens, but not so much in your home oven. That means in most cases you should stick with bread flour—and skip recipes that call for all-purpose or 00.
Learn the Difference Between Lean and Rich Doughs
The idea of a lean versus rich dough has to do with how much fat there is in the mixture. As we noted earlier, classic Neapolitan pizza dough is made with no oil or fat, making it extremely lean. Some recipes will call for some amount of vegetable oil or olive oil and, while oil contributes flavor and moisture, it also interferes with the way the gluten molecules develop during mixing and and resting.
In short, the leaner the dough, the more elastic it will be and the chewier the crust will be. With richer dough, the crust will be more fragile, almost crumbly. So if you want a strong, chewy crust, go with a recipe that features no added oil.
Bring the Dough to Room Temperature
Most pizza dough recipes involve mixing the ingredients to form a dough, shaping it into a ball, then letting it rest in the fridge for a certain amount of time. They may also instruct you to let the dough come to room temperature before you start working with it and this step really is important.
Not only will colder dough be more difficult to stretch and more likely to tear, additional fermentation is also taking place during this time and fermentation means flavor development. Which means, don't skip this step! Your pizza will taste better if you let the dough come fully to room temperature.
Stretch, Don't Roll
Hopefully your recipe doesn't say anything about using a rolling pin. Shaping a ball of dough into a flat crust is not so much a matter of flattening it, which is what a rolling pin is good for, but actually stretching it.
But the objective is not merely about increasing its diameter. Stretching the dough also works the glutens in a particular way that rolling can't. And again, gluten development produces crunch and chewiness. Instead of rolling, gently stretch the dough with the backs of your hands.
Mind the Shape
No one is saying that your pizza crust needs to be perfectly round. In fact, it shouldn't. One of the charms of handmade artisanal pizza is the fact that looks like it was made by a human, not stamped out by a machine. But with that said, it's important to bear in mind that whatever shape you make the original dough ball is going to approximately determine what shape the pizza is.
Yes, you can shape it and stretch it to some extent, but it's that initial shaping that determines most of the final shape. So if you want a roundish pizza, strive to form a roundish ball. If you want an oblong pizza, form an oblong ball. And so on. Indeed, an oblong pizza, cut into squares rather than wedges, is a very rustic and artisanal look.