A Yearlong Quest to Craft the Perfect Pizza Dough From Scratch

30 Pizzas and 60 Cups of Flour Later

illustration of woman looking at pizza dough

The Spruce / Madelyn Goodnight

It's Bread Month here at The Spruce Eats. All through February, we'll be sharing stories about this important staple in all its glorious forms—from pizza to pretzels to bierocks—and the way it's made, eaten, and shared across countries and cultures.

If you received an invitation to my wedding, you’d know that the envelope contained an oversized postcard depicting a goofy, illustrated rendering of me, my partner, and our dog. We’re standing in front of our city’s skyline and my hand holds a tiny slice of cartoon pizza. It didn’t stop there. We served traditional, thin crust margherita pies at the reception. To be clear: I love pizza. Thick or thin, vegetarian or meaty, deep dish or stuffed crust—I have room in my heart and my mouth for all of them (except you, Hawaiian). 

For some, a deep-dish slice bowing under the weight of cheese, sauce, and super-sized pepperoni is next to Nirvana. For others, anything but a thin, wood oven-fired crust topped just so with anchovies and dollops mozzarella is sacrilege. Thick or thin, chewy or crispy, pizza and most importantly, the dough upon which it is served, is the unsung hero of many a restorative meal. But did I really understand this essential flour and yeast foundation of my most beloved food? I'd have to knead, bake (and eat) to find out. So that’s what I did.

For many people, pizza is the international food sign for 'it’s time to relax'. In my house, pizza Friday means it's time to sip wine, connect, and slow down. And as I’ve come to realize along my crust-making journey, to dough is to slow. But there is a mystique around dough. A sense that it’s too hard to make and it takes too long to create. Tell others you make dough—or better yet offer to make it for them—and prepare to be thought of as a hero. But in reality, like so many other things, you can learn to do it if you’d just put your phone away and slow down. 

To perfect my pizza-making prowess, I generally stuck with the same ingredients, varying only technique and timing with each attempt. Throughout 2019, I made and ate some 30 pizzas and I’m not ashamed to say it! That’s 60 cups of flour sifted lovingly through a sieve and 240 grams yeasty fermenting fungus to bring it all to a rise. Placed all in a row, my pizzas would be about half as long as a professional bowling lane.

Knead dough on floured board

The Spruce

And yet, I never tired of the taste or the process. I learned it’s important to mix dry and wet ingredients with care and to knead until the dough is smooth, soft, and bouncy when pressed. I discovered that—when dough sticks to your palms or the surface during kneading—adding a bit of flour to your hands can keep it smooth and stretchy. It also came to my attention that I have low ceilings and no capacity for dough tossing—and that the only special tool you need is a boring old perforated pizza dish. Roughly 12 months later, the legend of pizza night at my house has spread through my friend group. The only question now is: thick or thin?

The Crispy and Crunchy, Craft-Ingredient Crust

Sometimes a girl gets her hands on a great piece of prosciutto or some fresh-made mozzarella and is compelled to make a thin, crispy crust dough befitting of these carefully crafted toppings. Throughout this dough-making odyssey, review of many websites and YouTube videos revealed that the crispy crunchy texture synonymous with thin crust pizza is in large part achieved by avoiding ingredients like milk and oil. No milk means less fat and less rise, while opting out of oil means less moisture and more crunch. Chef’s kiss.

Bubbly and Chewy, This-Week-Was-Awful Thick Crust

Picture this: you’ve been experimenting with pizza dough for months; you live in Canada where it’s the dead of winter and you just had an objectively brutal workweek. This is a job for thick crust, a deep-dish dough loaded unashamedly with cheese. In cases like these, be sure to include milk among your ingredients and let the time-honored dance of dairy and yeast fill your dough with the air bubbles needed to create a softer, more bread-like effect. This is a great time to roll the dough in oil before it rises and to accidentally eat all of the spicy genoa while exchanging battle stories from the week. Thick-crust vegetarian is also delicious.  

Bake

The Spruce / Julia Hartbeck

Even When You Fail, You Still Get Pizza

Like slowing down, learning to make pizza dough takes time and practice and a willingness to make mistakes. In the beginning, dumping all of the flour into the liquid created a too-watery mixture, setting off a useless overcompensation cycle of more flour, then more water and so on. In another attempt, seeking to make the crust extra thick and chewy, I used milk only and created what was essentially a loaf of bread confused about why it was topped with sauce and cheese.

On many occasions, insufficient kneading and working of the dough yielded odd crusts, some with the look and texture of connective tissue. I learned, too, that rushing to warm the milk with a steam wand produces what I should probably patent as focaccia crust. And yet, despite all of these trials and errors, I enjoyed each and every crust that came from my oven. Along with the taste and the texture, I appreciated the time each one took to make and what every crust had to teach me for next time.