“How do you make your pizza?” “How do you make dough?” These questions are difficult to answer. Pizza dough, and dough in general, is such an intuitive process born from experimentation and ‘getting a feel for it’ through practice; it’s not something one can easily summarize for the curious.
I know that I would have no idea about how to make pizza if I hadn’t grown up watching my mom make it — and, eventually, actually tuning in to her process and asking questions in order to learn. It probably wouldn’t even have occurred to me to try!
Since I know that many of you are interested in how she makes her pizza, I decided that the next best thing after trailing her all day, watching all the steps and getting to feel the dough at different points, would be to have a whole lot of pictures to help give you the idea.
So, I took these pictures, somewhat on a whim, in real time through the pizza-making process. You might notice the change of lighting; dough-making is a process that spans many hours, so of course I had better natural light at some times than at others.
Since we didn’t plan this out too thoroughly, there are actually a few moments I missed getting on film. But hopefully what I have here will be enough to give you a sense of how Auntie Leila approaches her pizza making on a normal day, complete with leaving the house for errands, etc.
The notes are a combination of her instructions and my observations.
There are roughly two categories of bread, she tells me: country loaf and sandwich/roll. Pizza dough falls in the former. You can use this dough and process to make crusty loaves of country bread, including with additions and variations.
For pizza, it is helpful to have really good pizza in your taste memory! Auntie Leila grew up eating pizza in that Mecca of all pizza, New Haven, CT. So that is her ideal — the thin, crusty, chewy-yet-tender (not crackery!) crust with a layer of sauce and some great toppings — not too many.
As you’ll see, this approach is for using a large stand mixer. If you were using a food processor fitted with a plastic dough blade, the main difference would be the order of wet and dry ingredients.
Let’s get started!
Ingredients for dough:
(Note about yeast: it’s easy to overpay for it! I get mine on Amazon. Auntie Leila also suggests that you buy in bulk at the health food store, big box store like BJs, or spice store — the kind in packets or jars is very expensive! You can store the extra in the freezer to keep it fresh until you’re ready for it.)
Start your pizza dough no later than right after lunch for best results. Do not worry about exact measurements!
1. Proof the yeast and get something on the order of a poolish going. This is also known as your starter.
The preliminary mixing of the warm water, yeast, and flour (unbleached, all-purpose) will make for a much more textured and tasty bread/crust.
Use roughly 1-2 cups lukewarm (between 90 and 105*) water; 2 teaspoons of yeast , 1/2 – 1 cup of flour.
Whisk together and let stand for at least 15 minutes — and up to an hour or two.
You will see it get bubbly as the yeast does its thing:
Mistake #1 of home bread bakers: Not leaving enough time between steps. The benefit here is that you can get your starter going while you are loading the dishwasher in the morning or what have you, and delay the work of mixing it for a bit.
2. Once you’ve got your starter, add flour to fill the bowl to about 3 inches from the top.
The issue here is simply this: How much flour can you get in there without having it spray all over the counter when you mix? That is your limiting factor. The yeast has multiplied in the poolish that you’ve made. It can leaven the whole lump. You just want to keep things relatively tidy at this point!
Auntie Leila isn’t much of a measure-er, since the process is so very intuitive for her. For my pizza dough, I usually use about 7-8 cups of flour (which ends up at around 4 pizza crusts).
Add 2 tablespoons of salt.
Mistake #2 of home bakers: Not adding enough salt.
3. With the mixer running on low, and using your dough (hook) attachment, add warm water (warm to the touch — up to 110* — you are warming up your now cool starter and all that flour) to which you have added a tablespoon or two of olive oil.
You are mixing in the wet ingredients at the bottom of the bowl and adding more liquid to the heap of flour on top. You want to time things so that the dough gets neither soupy around the blade nor stiff and lumpy. This takes practice. Feel free to stop the mixer at any point to pause and readjust!
When I make my dough, I add around 2.5 cups of warm water. Auntie Leila’s guess was that she did around 4 cups. In any case, it’s all about watching how the dough progresses as you gently add the water.
Mistake #3 of home bakers: Making the dough too stiff. That dough needs to be loose!
If there seems to be a lot of flour staying dry at the bottom of the bowl, time the pouring of your warm water to reach it as the blade turns away from you — don’t just pour the water on top of the already wet part.
Remember, you can stop the mixer and figure things out.
When the consistency is that of a thick pancake batter or what you think of as bread dough that is going to be impossible to knead, you are there and should stop adding water. If the dough ends up being too watery, you can always add flour, but my guess is that it’s not loose enough, if you are used to making bread dough.
You want all the flour to be moistened, including what’s at the bottom of the bowl, but don’t worry about inconsistency of texture. Lumps (as long as they aren’t hard, dry lumps) are fine at this point.
4. Now just let it rest. Just like that, in the bowl, with the hook still attached. Go read your kids a book, fold a load of laundry, clean up the kitchen around your mixer, correct a pile of French exercises, or check your email. This stage is called autolyse, and it’s very important to the structure of the gluten for you to leave it for at least 20 minutes. An hour is fine — although if your kitchen is warm, the dough will rise above the blade and that’s obnoxious.
Mistake #4 of home bakers: Trying to work the dough before it has rested. Advantage to the autolyse: Your issues fix themselves while you get something unrelated done!
5. After the rest, give the machine a few more turns. You will see the strands of gluten forming at this point, the lumps vanishing, and the dough resolving itself into a cohesive whole.
6. Let the dough rise for the first fermentation, about 30 minutes and up to a couple of hours with a turn or two to prevent overflow, since that bowl isn’t big enough, for real.
For pizza, this is all Auntie Leila does for rising. If this were all going to be made into bread, she would transfer to a larger bowl and let rise twice (one fermentation with a gentle turn, and then one rise before shaping). We’ll discuss that in another post.
She moves the bowl over to a cleaned workspace for moving into the pizza-making phase.
The dough will seem too loose to knead. That’s okay, because you won’t be kneading in the sense that you probably think of it. It’s not good for the dough to be pounded, slapped, and punched! Just turn it out onto a floured counter. Two tools that will help you: a sturdy plastic spatula (hers came with her food processor and is perfect for scraping out dough) and a bench scraper.
7. Divide your dough into 4 pieces, using your bench scraper and keeping the counter floured.
If you have a 5 quart mixer like she does, each piece will be the right size for a 16″ pizza (assuming you filled the bowl with enough flour to all but fly out as you mix!). If you have a bigger mixer, you need to set aside some of your dough for country loaves.
Pro-tip: Take off your rings or they will get covered in dough!
First divide in half, keeping the outsides of the pieces well floured (but not really mixing flour into the dough itself). Use your bench scraper to move the pieces around so that you aren’t getting stuck in the dough. Keep the exterior of each piece intact. Think of it as the pillowcase…
Mistake #5 of home bakers: Mixing a lot of flour into their nicely fermented dough. The new flour won’t be fermented and will make the whole thing taste flat.
Stretch the outer covering over the interior as you roll. Tuck it under. Make a ball by enclosing the dough. Lightly flour the outside but don’t incorporate flour inside.
Before you know it, possibly just after you are about to despair, the dough will magically respond to you.
As you form your pieces of dough to be rounded (for even rolling out later), note that they take shape. Where they were sticky and too soft and formless, your rolling action, in which you tucked the piece into itself, gives them an outer layer and a resistant interior. You can pat the dough and feel it. It’s springy but not at all dense.
Cover it all with a warm, damp towel. Don’t clean your counter — you will roll the dough out right there, so leave it floury.
8. Let the round pieces of dough rest while you get your toppings ready, clean up around yourself a bit, and get the oven hot (500* with the rack at its lowest point).
Voila! From starter to a quartered batch of dough, ready to be rolled out for pizza! Stay tuned for Part II!