Food & Drink

How to nail the ultimate homemade pizza, from crust to toppings

Neapolitan-Style Pizza Dough. MUST CREDIT: Photo by Tom McCorkle for The Washington Post; food styling by Lisa Cherkasky
Neapolitan-Style Pizza Dough. MUST CREDIT: Photo by Tom McCorkle for The Washington Post; food styling by Lisa Cherkasky for The Washington Post.


Poll everyone the world over about their favorite foods, and this cheesy, saucy, crusty combination is likely to land at the top of many lists.

But how many of those people routinely make it at home? Not enough.

We’re here to say that it’s worth the effort. After all, you can make your pizza any way you like. You can recruit your family and friends for a fun evening in. And the sense of accomplishment when you pull that gorgeous pie out of the oven: priceless. Heck, even if your pie comes out less than gorgeous, it’s PIZZA. You’re gonna eat it.

We understand the obstacles. Getting a pizza is as easy as placing a delivery order or swinging by your favorite neighborhood spot. The dough can be finicky, unpredictable and intimidating, especially for novices. Plus, you have to plan ahead. Then, your kitchen gets hot - even though your home oven doesn’t come close to the temperature a restaurant one can reach to achieve crust perfection.

Thankfully, we have learned a few tips and tricks - and recipes - that will set you on your way to success. Sure, shaping dough takes practice, but the right recipe and technique make the job that much easier. We can also help if you would rather your pizza be whole-wheat or even gluten-free. No wood-burning oven? No problem. A super-hot cast-iron skillet and your broiler can do the job.

Once things are getting hot, move quickly. Have your ingredients prepped and ready to go. And don’t forget the most important one: your best can-do attitude.

Now let’s start slinging some pies.

The basics

Crank it up: Heat is crucial. It helps give your crust the right color, texture and rise. So preheat your oven - as hot as it can go - for at least 30 minutes. Cook the pies on a surface that has been preheated, ideally one that will retain and share the heat well, such as a pizza stone or cast-iron skillet. Heating your cast-iron pan on the stove top for a few minutes before baking works well. Just be sure to keep an eye on your pizza when it’s in the oven, because at such a high temperature, it can burn quickly.

Give it time: Up to a certain extent, more time means more flavor. The yeast needs time to work, consuming sugars and creating the byproducts that make pizza dough taste so good. Time is also crucial for providing structure and lift. You can extend the process, and therefore the flavor, by allowing dough to rest in the refrigerator for a few days. If your recipe calls for just a few hours (such as with the featured Whole-Wheat Pizza Dough), don’t cut it short. Your patience will be rewarded.


Stretch it out: Shaping the dough takes some getting used to. The Neapolitan-Style Pizza Dough uses bread flour, so it’s elastic and can stand up to more handling. Stretch it on the counter first and then drape the dough over your clenched fists. A less elastic dough, such as the Whole-Wheat Pizza Dough, requires more care, because it tears easily. For that one, start by enlarging the round with just your fingertips and then gently tug it out. Regardless of your dough, use enough flour to keep it from sticking to your hands or work surface, and frequently rotate.

When it’s gluten-free: As bakers with gluten-free expertise know, working with wheat-free pizza dough calls for different techniques and methods. Its consistency is spongy and damp; wet your hands to keep it from sticking. Resting times are in minutes, rather than hours. Because the dough is so wet, it’s best to parbake the crust before you add toppings. You can refrigerate the dough for a day, but freeze it only after it has been parbaked.

Top it right: Your standard delivery pizza may be loaded with toppings, but less is more when it comes to your homemade pies. An abundance can lead to a soggy, dense crust that isn’t cooked through. Precooking the toppings also cuts back on their moisture and ensures that they’re not still raw by the time the crust is done. You can always add freshly grated cheese, herbs, greens (such as arugula), honey and/or olive oil when the pizza comes out of the oven.

Don’t sweat it: It sounds cliche, but the adage “practice makes perfect” is particularly apt when it comes to pizza. Whether you’re a novice or a veteran, things can go wrong: The humidity affects the moisture of your dough, you tear a hole in the dough, your crust flops over when you try to transfer it to a skillet or pizza stone. (Been there!) So what? It takes time to learn your dough and your oven. It’s okay. Patch together the dough, call the flopped pie a calzone and eat up. More practice means more pizza, right?

Neapolitan-Style Pizza Dough

8 to 16 servings (makes enough dough for four 10-inch pizzas)

Name a pizza-making flop, and I’ve probably done it. Dough that sticks to the peel? Check. Toppings that slide off the pie? Check. Huge mess on the pizza stone? Check. Setting off the smoke detector? Check. Check. Check. (Just ask my howling dogs.)

That’s not to mention the pizzas that I know just could have tasted better.

Well, you live and learn, and the latest in my long-running pizza education has brought me to this Neapolitan-style dough and a method for cooking it that doesn’t require any special equipment or nail-biting anxiety.

The dough comes from food writer Katie Parla’s new book, “Food of the Italian South,” and it’s a beauty. It’s Neapolitan-style, because as the official organization of the pizza will tell you, true Neapolitan pies must be cooked in a wood-fired oven, among other requirements. True to Neapolitan pizza’s spirit, though, this recipe produces a thick, raised rim and a springy crust, thanks in part to the use of higher-protein bread flour. A long, cold rise in the fridge provides excellent flavor.

While I’ve previously experimented with pizza-making without a stone, I wanted a method that got me a little closer to restaurant pies. Another new cookbook, “Mastering Pizza,” by Marc Vetri and David Joachim, held the answer. It uses a cast-iron skillet, preheated on the stove top, and the broiler to try to replicate “the intense bottom and top heat of a domed wood-fired oven,” the duo writes. I like to think Parla and Vetri would approve of my mash-up, as the two are friends and “Mastering Pizza” recounts how Parla joined Vetri and Joachim on their pizza research trip in Rome.


Not only does the skillet-broiler strategy contribute to a rip-roaring hot cooking surface, but using a skillet - a cheap piece of kitchen equipment many home cooks already own - also solves a couple of other problems. While Vetri and Joachim suggest sliding the dough round off a floured peel, I found it even easier to immediately transfer it to the skillet after shaping. As far as the shaping itself goes, Parla’s combination of patting it out with your fingertips and then draping it over your clenched fists really does work. If you struggle, don’t worry. Because of the contained nature of the skillet, even a slightly off-kilter round of dough will bake into a perfect circle. One word of caution: Because the broiler runs so hot, certain toppings, especially soft cheeses such as mozzarella, can overcook, so you might want to add them partway through baking.

A backyard wood-fired oven, or pizza residence in Naples, was always going to be a pipe dream anyway. But excellent, easy homemade pizza? That’s my kind of reality.

Whole-Wheat Pizza Dough

I have made many, many pizzas in my time, in more shapes and forms than I can probably recall off the top of my head. But one with a 100 percent whole-wheat dough? Not once.

After all, I’m perfectly fine getting my whole grains elsewhere. Pizza, a sometimes treat anyway, was not at the top of my list.

But as we put our heads together for our giant pizza package, we knew that plenty of people would want a whole-wheat crust. In addition to the dietary and nutritional benefits, the hearty, nutty flavor that whole-wheat flour imparts is enough to recommend it.

The problem is that the very things that make whole-wheat flour what it is - the inclusion of the wheat bran and germ, as opposed to just the endosperm of “white” flour - can make it problematic when it comes to baking, especially with yeasted breads. The bran, the outermost part of the grain, is sharp, meaning it can hinder rise by cutting into the dough and wreaking havoc on the gluten network you have worked to establish by kneading. The bran is also extremely thirsty, able to absorb several times its weight in water. (These are among the reasons you often find recipes that call for mixing whole-wheat flour in with regular all-purpose or bread flour.)

After several rounds of testing whole-wheat pizza doughs that turned out dense, gritty and lacking in satisfying chew, I turned to Jonathan Bethony, the co-owner and head baker at Washington’s Seylou Bakery. Seylou’s goods are exclusively whole-grain, and it even hosts a weekly pizza night.

Bethony helped set me down the right path. He emphasized the importance of a wet dough (high hydration, in baker speak), to soak into all the extra fiber in the dough. His dough actually has more water than it does flour (10 percent more). My early recipes were clearly too dry.

Whole-grain dough also “needs a lot of upfront attention,” Bethony says. You really have to work to establish the gluten structure. Then, however, you need to treat it delicately after it’s risen. Bethony compared the strands of gluten to a spider web, with the bran existing as a kind of weak spot, meaning the dough can’t take as much tension without tearing.


Armed with that insight, I set about finding the right recipe and perfecting the technique. A whole-wheat pizza dough from Sally McKenney of the blog Sally’s Baking Addiction was the winner. While not as wet as Bethony’s dough, McKenney’s recipe (about 87 percent as much water as flour) was hydrated enough to get much closer to the texture and chew you expect in a pizza crust.

Seriously, though, it is wet and sticky, and you’re going to think you did something wrong, but you’ve got to - sorry! - stick with it. Try to resist adding more flour as you’re kneading, or your dough will be too dry and gritty. Keep kneading in the stand mixer until the dough has become much more elastic. Follow the cues I’ve included below, and you’ll be fine.

Shape the dough into rounds carefully. Yes, you’ll probably tear it at least once, but pinch it back together and proceed. I had the most success by using my fingertips initially to flatten the dough into a round. Getting the dough up to 10 inches in diameter can be tricky. Try gently stretching it almost as if you were tucking someone in under a blanket. Stretch more from the center than the very edge, so you still get a good crust on the rim. Be sure to rotate the dough frequently.

The cooking starts in a cast-iron skillet on the stove top and finishes under the broiler. That’s especially ideal for cooking off some of the dough’s extra moisture and beginning to puff the crust. (Because the broiler runs so hot, certain toppings, especially soft cheeses such as mozzarella, can overcook, so you might want to add them partway through baking.)

As fussy as it sounds, the extra care paid off. We were frankly surprised at the chewy texture and yeasty flavor (even though it only rises for about 2 hours) of the whole-wheat crust, so when you, too, are ticking through all your pizza possibilities, keep this one in mind.

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