No New York Water Necessary!
New Yorkers are rightly snobby when it comes to three things: Bagels, Coffee, and Pizza (quite frankly, we can be snobby about pretty much everything, but these are the three biggies). Good pizza was something I gave up so I could see the starry sky, smell fresher air, and encounter some suicidal deer along the side of the road―That is, until discovering that of course great pizza can be made at home!
After getting over the fear of raw dough some years back, I began experimenting with methods to make homemade scratch pizza taste better. Originally, it tasted good, but a bit yeasty and the sauce was quite sour. It turned out that subtle differences in the baking methods and the ingredients used can make it taste incredible if not significantly better―no New York water necessary. It came down to four main things: Long and Cold Dough Fermentation (If you are making your own dough), San Marzano Tomatoes, Buffalo Mozzarella, and a Hot Oven Temperature.
Long and Cold Dough Fermentation, San Marzano Tomatoes, Buffalo Mozzarella, and a Hot Oven…
Long and Cold Dough Fermentation
For 1 day (but up to 5 days) allow your freshly mixed dough to sit in the refrigerator in a large bowl lightly greased with olive oil and loosely covered with plastic wrap. A looooong, cold fermentation will create those desired complex flavors we love in pizza dough, and completely rid you of that yeasty taste.
Although it isn’t entirely clear the exact factors that create more flavorful dough, we do know that a combination of “enzymes in the flour, yeast metabolites, dying yeast byproducts, or other chemical reactions” contribute to bread flavors, especially since the proof is in the vast difference in taste between a freshly mixed dough that is baked after 3 hours versus a dough that has rested in a cold environment for a minimum of 24 hours.
…a combination of “enzymes in the flour, yeast metabolites, dying yeast byproducts, or other chemical reactions” contribute to bread flavors…
Here’s why a cold rise is important: Enzymes and their chemical reactions change the chemical composition of the dough, creating better flavor profiles. In a nutshell, enzymes are a diverse set of large molecules (usually a protein) that create and speed up chemical reactions and changes in organic material.
In the case of pizza dough (and bread), the enzymes in flour―when saturated with water―begin to break down the starches into the sugars maltose and glucose. The glucose can then be metabolized by the yeasts introduced into the dough. The yeast also has its own collection of enzymes that break down the starches and process the maltose into glucose. Glucose is a critical sugar the yeast needs to provide it with energy―A.K.A yummy food, if you will. After digesting the glucose, it gets converted into two byproducts: carbon dioxide and alcohol.
Carbon dioxide produced by yeast serves a purpose leavening and adding flavorful gasses―the glorious holes woven into a baked loaf of bread. The alcohol adds acidity and flavor to the dough, which becomes more complex with longer fermentation―think of it as aged wine; the longer it sits, the richer it tastes.
Think of it as aged wine; the longer it sits, the richer it tastes…
Additional organic materials such the bacteria naturally occurring in the flour and even on your hands also play a part in competing for dough sugars. They produce their own flavor-adding acids and byproducts during a cold rise, which may otherwise be less noticeable during a warm rise where the yeast can quickly wipe out the bacteria’s sugar supply.
Essentially, dough is a mass of pre-digested material. These intricate reactions are the reason why quickly mixed dough lack the flavor profile we love in a good loaf of bread and a good pizza dough.
If the yeasts were to react in a warmer climate, you would end up with hyperactive dough that has been poorly digested by the yeast, resulting in blander dough that is also harder for us to digest.
Personally, I prefer using sourdough for a pizza crust. It’s a lot easier to digest and has better mouth-watering, tangy flavors to compliment the sauce and cheese.
San Marzano Tomatoes
Make your own marinara sauce with San Marzano Tomatoes. These babies swept me away with their tomatoey goodness, fresh sweetness, and smooth texture. Chefs swear by them, and of course it’s incredibly tricky to get your hands on them. But, they are the truth when it comes to making a sweet marinara sauce to slather on your pizza.
The flavor of your sauce is not entirely what you add to it, but the kind of tomatoes you use. Use whichever tomatoes you enjoy; they can be vine tomatoes, Kumato tomatoes, or even fancy Heirloom tomatoes. But for that characteristic Italian flavor, San Marzano tomatoes are the way to go.
Keep in mind that like store-bought parmesan cheese and sourdough, San Marzano tomatoes suffer the same confusing marketing ploys in standard supermarkets where incomplete information and false marketing tactics are used to sell cheaper, inauthentic versions of tomatoes to American customers.
When shopping for San Marzano tomatoes, look for a label that says Protected Designation of Origin Dell’Agro Sarnese-Nocerino. And since that’s a mouthful, you can also look for the DOP symbol and the Consorzio symbol. Note also that San Marzano tomatoes only come in tins as peeled whole or in fillets. Cans that show “San Marzano” tomatoes as a puree, organic, sauce, chopped, or diced are not true San Marzano tomatoes.
When shopping for San Marzano tomatoes, look for a label that says Protected Designation of Origin Dell’Agro Sarnese-Nocerino….
A good brand to use is Sclafani San Marzano DOP Whole Peeled Plum Tomatoes. The price is definitely steep, so a cheaper (but not DOP certified) brand is Cento San Marzano, which is a product of Italy (so it does have good flavor), but not officially labeled despite its packaging.
Packages that say“San Marzano Style” are whole peeled plum tomatoes typically grown in California. They are not necessarily bad and you can still use them, but the flavor will not be the same. Be wary of brands that use “San Marzano” in its brand name. This is false marketing.
Use buffalo mozzarella instead of the shredded stuff. Buffalo mozzarella is a special cheese made from the milk of water buffalos, typically in Italy and Bulgaria, which also come with a DOP label. Recently, however, there is buffalo mozzarella being produced in Columbia.
My first taste impression of this cheese was a combination of bliss and confusion! It wasn’t what I was expecting after years of eating shredded mozzarella and fresh mozzarella made with cow’s milk. It was fresh, tangy, not gooey at all, slightly firm, but still soft. And then, I could not go back.
…First taste impression… it was fresh, tangy…, slightly firm….
Water buffalo are beautiful animals with gorgeous, shimmering black fur. But, like the entire cheese industry, Buffalo mozzarella production does come with many questionable practices, with several farms in Italy being called out for cruelty. Some of this includes confinement, neglectful treatment of wounds and diseases, utilization of antibiotics to make up for poor farming conditions, and especially the killing of male calves, which are unfortunately seen as “unwanted byproducts”.
Not all farms are apt to kill or neglect their male calves, with many being reared until they can be sold as buffalo meat, which tastes like beef, but is healthier and leaner than beef.
There are also farms such as Tenuta Vannulo in Capaccio, Italy that attribute its dairy’s prized flavor to the utmost care it gives its water buffalo. The buffalo “follow their natural rhythm, ‘deciding’ when they want to be milked.” This is in addition to being given clean quarters, messages, and grazing grounds. They are also fed only the milk of the buffalo they live with. It’s not a perfect set up, but it has better standards than other farms. The cows get incredible care, which is shown in the taste of the farm’s dairy.
If you’re worried about poor farming practices and animal welfare, Buf Creamery is a good company to get the elusive mozzarella from. This is the brand readily available in my town. The buffalo are grass fed and allowed to roam their entire lives.
Now, occasionally I’ll “ruin” my pizza on purpose with mounds of shredded mozzarella cheese if I’m craving heaps of fat and my pockets are a bit windy. So, there’s absolutely no shame in using it instead of buffalo, or even cow’s milk mozzarella as a substitute.
No shame in using [shredded mozzarella] instead of buffalo…as a substitute…
Hot Oven Temperature
Classic brick oven pizzas need heat as high as 800°F (426°C) to achieve their level of awesome. The good news for us, though, is that fancy ovens and pizza stones are not necessary for a good homemade pizza. All you need to do is get your oven as high a temperature as possible. You can bake the pizza in a large skillet if you don’t have a pizza sheet.
If you can get your oven as high as 550°F (288°C), then you’re golden. If you can only get your oven as high as 450°F (232°C), then you’re still golden. But, the higher, the better.
My current cheap electric oven can get to 550°F (288°C), which is enough to get a pizza better than what I used to eat even back home.
Heat is key because it caramelizes the sugars and proteins in the dough, producing that subtly nutty flavor that makes pizza crust so addicting. Even if parts of the crust are charred black, you’re in luck because (without using the “Cajun Style” excuse) it gives a smoky aftertaste that melds very well with the sauce and cheese. It also gives the crust a beautiful crispy outside and a chewy inside.
Heat is key because it caramelizes the sugars and proteins in the dough, producing that subtly nutty flavor…
Now that I’m finished being long winded, here’s the pizza recipe:
- 1 lbs Sourdough Bread Recipe or Pizza Dough already mixed, pre-risen, and room temperature
- 1 Cup (225g) Marinara Sauce
- 7 oz (200g) Fresh Mozzarella, preferably Buffalo Mozzarella
- 1 or 2 Romano Tomatoes sliced
- 1 Bunch Each Rosemary, Oregano, and Thyme chopped (or 1 tsp Italian Seasoning)
- 1 Small Bunch Fresh Basil Leaves
Preheat your oven to 550°F (288°C).
Lightly grease a 16” pizza pan, pizza stone, or half sheet pan lined with parchment paper with olive oil. If you don’t have a large pizza pan, you can also cut the dough in half and shape it into a large skillet lined with parchment paper.
Using your hands or a rolling pin, gently stretch the pizza dough into a flat circle (or rectangle if using a sheet pan) on a lightly floured surface, being careful not to roll out all of the gas bubbles.
Carefully place the rolled out dough onto your pizza pan, stone, or sheet pan. Pull the dough as close to the edges of the pan as possible.
Par bake the dough for 8 to 10 minutes, or until the dough has risen a bit and is pale brown.
Take the pizza out of the oven and pierce any large bubbles with a knife. Evenly spread the marinara sauce over the surface of the dough and evenly disperse all of the tomato slices and mozzarella over the marinara sauce.
Sprinkle the chopped herbs or Italian seasoning over the pizza and place it back into the oven. Bake it for an addition 10 to 15 minutes (8 to 12 minutes in a smaller skillet) or until the pizza dough is pleasantly, toasty brown and the cheese has melted. You can also test to see if the pizza is ready by checking underneath the dough with a knife or fork to see if the bottom is brown.
Take the pizza out of the oven and let it cool for 2 to 3 minutes before cutting into slices.
Evenly top the pizza with a few fresh basil leaves. Don’t use dried basil; it lacks the bright herbaceous flavor of the fresh leaves.
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