Frontier Psychiatrist

Frontier Gastronomy: It’s not Delivery

Posted on: July 26, 2010

(Does your inner gourmet want more? Check out K-Town Homestead.)

Make Your Own Pie

Summer inevitably brings a spate of food articles wherein the writers feature “different” angles on grilling….grilled fruit, grilled pound cake, grilled pizza. While I’m all for experimentation, these grilling recipes usually land off the mark, especially if, like me, you are using charcoal and not gas. The standard home grill has a fairly small surface area, with uneven heat from the coals, no matter how carefully you try to spread the pile. While you can move pieces of meat around to compensate for this uneven heat, a large disk of dough is another story. Grilled pizza is a such a good idea in theory — not only should it give a smoky “brick oven” flavor but the outdoor cooking means the house stays cool. I have tried to grill pizza many times, and it has never yielded consistently good results. The dough is unevenly cooked and the toppings are never heated through — let alone melted — before the center of the pizza starts to char. So I leave the grill to the meat, or the pound cake and peaches if I want to get fancy, and accept that pizza works best in the oven.

This isn’t a post with a recipe. Pizza dough has four ingredients: yeast, flour, salt, olive oil (and this last one isn’t essential). Recipes abound in print and on the Internet, so I won’t reinvent the wheel. I will, however, share three hard-won lessons in home pizza making that perhaps you already knew, but took me a lot of trial and error to learn:
  • You need a pizza stone. You need to heat it for a long time. I know there are minimalists out there who insist on cooking everything with one pot and a baking sheet, and chafe at any suggestion to purchase specialty equipment. But my pizza will always, always be better than theirs. The stone gives even, blistering heat to the bottom of the crust. I heat it at 500 degrees for at least an hour before the pizza goes into the oven. Your kitchen will get ninth-level of hell hot, but the end product will be worth it.
  • Make your pizza on a piece of parchment paper. Don’t use cornmeal (it doesn’t work, and the dough will stick to the counter), don’t use a baking sheet (it is cold metal and will prevent the whole “even, blistering heat” situation). Rip off a square of parchment, dump the dough on top and pat out a crust the size of your stone — if you make it bigger, the topping will slop off and the crust will cook poorly. Be careful while transferring the parchment to the oven. Here is where you don’t need specialty equipment, but it helps: transfer the parchment to the stone with a pizza peel. You can be DIY and use the back of a baking sheet. If you make pizza on a regular basis, you can find a pizza peel for less than 20 bucks and it makes your life incredibly easy. Worth the investment, but not an absolute necessity like a pizza stone.
  • Moist toppings are the enemy of good home pizza. A well-heated stone maybe, just maybe, gives you an acceptable temperature from the bottom. But we can’t recreate a real pizza oven unless we line the entire chamber with tile. So remember that you aren’t working with blistering heat on the top. If you load the dough with a wet sauce, juicy tomato slices and fresh mozzarella balls, the moisture won’t evaporate before the bottom of the crust cooks, and you inevitably end up with a soupy, raw-tasting pizza with a burned bottom. There’s a reason that pizzerias use “low-moisture” cheese. My husband loves fresh tomatoes and fresh mozzarella on our pizzas, so here’s what to do: salt the tomato slices and press out the moisture with a dish towel. Wring out or press the water out of the mozzarella balls. The five minutes of extra effort makes your pizza come out right every time.
If all of this seems like a lot of work and heat for one measly dinner, I agree. I wish it was as easy as slinging some dough on the grill. Do many Italians actually make pizza in their own homes? I doubt it — they probably go the pizzeria. In a similar vein, there has been much American hand-wringing in the past four decades about how to bake the perfect baguette. Guess what? French people don’t bake their baguettes — they go and buy them. But I don’t have a bakery with a pizza oven around the corner, so this is my best bet. I don’t care what Chicagoans say, the pizza here is horrifyingly bad. Until we move back to New York, our pizza fix will be of the hard-won, oven-baked, homemade variety.
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1 Response to "Frontier Gastronomy: It’s not Delivery"

I respectfully, yet HIGHLY disagree with your idea of Chicago pizza.

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