Pizza Crust and Tenacity

Pizza absolutely tops the list of foods I love eating.  Tragically, in the year or so since I’ve been teaching myself how to cook, making pizza crust from scratch is the one thing I have tried and totally bombed out at… over and over and over again.

I’m not being too hard on myself either.   We are talking outright failures.  Not even an inch of a rise out of the dough… over and over again.

In my lifetime, I have not nurtured the patience and sensitivity necessary to deal with the delicate nature of yeast.  I’d estimate my number of attempts that ended in less than acceptable dough was about seven or eight.  All the time spent forming it, kneading it, then waiting to see if anything was going to happen, only to realize a couple hours later that I’d better check to see what else I might have on hand for dinner was horribly disappointing and just a little ego-bruising.

And so, one Monday night after work, I loaded myself up with about three times the amount of ingredients necessary and made a pledge to myself that I would not go to bed that night without having successfully made a pizza dough rise.

I got into the kitchen at about five.  By seven-thirty, trial number one was deemed a total flop.

By 9:30, I was staring straight at what couldn’t be denied: another one in the loss column.  But I was tired and annoyed, so I talked myself into believing there was a small detectable rise where there actually was none, and went ahead and dropped the dough out onto the cutting board.  It promptly broke apart.

Those who know me in real life might expect this point of the story to include a few plates smashed against the wall, but I was resolved to do everything in my power to overcome this handicap, and that meant no time for meltdowns.

Instead, I collected myself, marched over to my laptop and researched for the next hour.  I brought up multiple recipes from multiple sites and compared them to one another, watched instructional dough-making videos on YouTube, read Wikipedia’s entire page on yeast, and even scanned through my DVR’d episodes of Julia Child and Company.  And I took notes… a lot of notes.  I didn’t just make changes to the recipe I had started with.  I included reasons for the changes, what the expected new outcome would be, and what to do if that outcome wasn’t occurring.

Yes, I did all of these things.  That’s how badly I wanted to master the art of pizza dough from scratch.

Here is some of what I learned: when adding water to the yeast, most recipes simply say the water should be “lukewarm.”  That is not specific enough. If the water’s not warm enough, the yeast won’t activate (that was one of my problems), but if it’s too hot, it will kill the yeast.  I went with a temperature between 100 and 105F. The only thermometer I had was the digital thermometer in my medicine cabinet, so out it came.  Into my yeast-water mixture I also added some sugar, which I had been advised acted as food for the yeast and helped in activation (I was later told that honey also works).

Another suggestion that worked: pastry flour mixed in with the all-purpose.  It’s will help with the tenderness and the elasticity.

Beyond some measurement adjustments, the pastry dough, water temperature and sugar addition were the main changes I was armed with when I headed back to the kitchen for my third attempt of the night.  Two hours later, when I checked in on my dough, I nearly squealed like a little girl surprised by a new puppy.  The dough had more than doubled in size and was slowly making its way out of the bowl like The Blob! I punched it down and let it rise for another hour.  Then I kneaded it for about ten minutes, rolled it out, dropped on all my toppings and cooked it.  When I finally sat down to eat it, it was 2 am.

But I did it.

So when I say to you that this pizza dough recipe works, you know it comes to you heavily proofed, tested, and celebrated.  I’ve made it about ten times since then, and it always turns up a winner.

It’s ridiculous how proud I am of myself for mastering pizza dough from scratch.  But when I think back to this night, I get a huge smile on my face I’m happy to wear.

I was too hungry to take a picture of the actual first pizza success, and I was new to the rolling pin so it came out in the shape of a sideways capital D.  The pics in this post are combined from a number of successive pies.

With these measurements, you’ll be able to get two large pizzas or three smaller ones. Divide it up before you roll out, and you can freeze what you’re not ready to use for later. It doesn’t take long to thaw either, so make sure you stock up on your oregano!

Successful Pizza Crust

  • 2 teaspoons yeast
  • 2 teaspoons sugar
  • 1/2 cup water – temperature between 100 °F and 105 °F
  • 2 1/2 cups all-purpose flour
  • 1 1/4 cups pastry flour
  • 2 1/4 teaspoons salt
  • 1 1/4 cup tepid water (don’t worry about the temperature for this.  It’s going into the dough, after the yeast has activated separately)
  • 3 tbsp olive oil (and extra for bowl coating)

Optional Additions:

  • 2 tablespoons white wine
  • 1/2 teaspoon honey
  • 3 sprigs of rosemary, chopped

Combine the yeast and the sugar in a small bowl.  Add the heated water and stir.  Let sit for about 10-15 minutes.  The combination should bubble and double up.

Put the salt, all-purpose flour and pastry flour into a large bowl.  Add the honey, wine and rosemary if you’re using.  Then add the yeast mixture along with a cup of warm water. Mix with a fork (really put in some muscle) until it comes together as dough.  As it begins to come together, add in your olive oil, a little at a time.

Transfer your dough into another bowl well-coated in olive oil.  Turn over once to coat completely, or simply drizzle a little more olive oil over the top.  Cover with plastic wrap and leave in a warm draft-free spot for at least an hour.  The dough should at least double in size within about an hour, but don’t worry if it takes longer.

Once it’s doubled, take off the plastic wrap and punch the dough down.  Let it rise to the same size a second time.  Punch it down again and  turn it out onto a well-floured board. Lightly flour your hands and begin to knead the dough.  Do this for about 8 – 10 minutes. This process allows the gluten molecules in the flour to join and make the dough elastic. With enough kneading, you should be able to form it into a long cylinder shape, pick it up at one end and swing it down onto the board and it should hold together (that’s what Julia did, so I’ve made it integral to my process, and it’s also great for working out aggressions).

Divide your dough into two or three smaller balls.  With a lightly floured rolling pin, roll out the flour to a thin round crust.  Brush lightly with olive oil.  Top with sauce and toppings and cook in an over pre-heated to 450F for 18 – 20 minutes.

Got any pizza making tips you’d like to share?  Please let me know!

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6 thoughts on “Pizza Crust and Tenacity

  • September 22, 2010 at 9:32 pm

    You better believe I’m trying this tomorrow night. 🙂

    Looks good, thanks for the recipe!

  • September 22, 2010 at 10:01 pm

    Hey Dave – let me know how it comes out.

  • September 23, 2010 at 12:09 pm

    Way to go Gary! I know it was worth the struggle. Looks divine.

  • September 24, 2010 at 3:31 am

    I’m definitely going to give this a try!

  • September 24, 2010 at 1:02 pm

    Yay, Gary! Whenever I make anything w/yeast, I try to make sure the water is warm to the touch, but not too hot to put my hand in. I figure if it feels good to me, the yeast will like it, too. If I’m in a hurry, I’ll also heat the oven to 200, *turn it off* (very important), put the dough in an oven-safe bowl, spray some oil on it & cover it with a damp cloth, and put it in the oven, opening & closing the door slowly so some of the hot air can get out. The point is for the oven to be nice & warm inside w/o being hot.

    And sometimes you just get bad yeast.

  • October 27, 2011 at 10:29 pm

    The rest of us – the ones who just love to eat pizza but have no interest in mastering it… we thank you deeply for your hard work and for not giving up!

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