Pizza serves as a good measuring stick to see how serious people are about cooking. There are, on one end of the spectrum, culinary pros who think a pizza stone is an essential piece of kitchen equipment. (Stone ovens are traditional in Naples, where pizza was invented, but the pizza stone didn’t start catching on among the Williams-Sonoma set until after the New York Times Magazine endorsed it in 1990 as “a disk about the size of a record” that “makes the dough hard and crispy.”)
On the other end of the spectrum are delivery devotees whom you couldn’t pay to make pizza from scratch.
In the middle lies what I suspect is a moderate majority: people who think homemade pizza is a fun occasional weekend project—but not something to make a frequent habit of. And it’s this moderate majority that is most prone to doing homemade pizza wrong. Which isn’t to say that the resulting pies are bad: Most homemade pizza tastes pretty good, so long as you eat it when it’s still hot from the oven. But there are common errors in judgment that unfailingly prevent good homemade pizza from being great.
First: dough thickness. Making pizza dough is not difficult; it contains literally five ingredients (flour, yeast, salt, olive oil, and water), and you can throw it together in ten to fifteen minutes. What is difficult is achieving the right thickness when you’re stretching the dough out, after it’s risen and before it’s been topped. Here’s a good rule of thumb: When you think you’ve stretched the dough thin enough, keep stretching it until it’s half as thick. And then stretch it a little thinner for good measure. It should be cracker-thin, crêpe-thin, even paper-thin in places. There is no risk of stretching it too thin; it will rise like nobody’s business once the heat of your oven hits it. When your dough resists stretching further—and it will—leave it alone for a minute, then come back to it and try again; it will eventually acquiesce to the will of your fingers.
Second, and possibly most important: topping quality. Your stretching efforts will have been for naught if you cover the dough with mediocre toppings. Most so-called pizza sauce—the kind that comes in a jar or can—is an abomination. (Here are the ingredients in Ragú’s “Homemade Style” pizza sauce: “Tomato Puree [Water, Tomato Paste], Soybean Oil, Salt, Spices, Natural Flavor.” Q.E.D.) And higher-quality premade sauce is a waste of money, since you can with very little exertion make something just as good, if not better, from cheaper ingredients: canned or boxed tomatoes, olive oil, onion, garlic.
Shredded mozzarella cheese, meanwhile, is a rubbery, bland approximation of the real thing. Fresh mozzarella—the kind sold in fist-sized balls or braids—is significantly creamier and more appetizing than those suspiciously dry little tatters, and it doesn’t contain questionable additives like potato starch and cellulose powder.
Third: spacing. You may be tempted to overload your pizza with mountains of sauce, cheese, and other discretionary toppings in accordance with the theory that more is better (call it the Sufjan Stevens Theory of Composition). Don’t do this; smothered pizza crust is soggy pizza crust. Spread your tomato sauce thinly, and allow for plenty of room between pieces of cheese—they may look sparse, but they’ll expand in area as they melt, and your crust will end up sturdy and crisp rather than pliable and waterlogged.
Margherita pizza is about as basic as pizza can get, but there are still a couple of legitimate points of contention about how to do it. I like the nutty flavor of whole-wheat flour in pizza crust, but all white is more traditional. And you can leave off the basil until after the pizza’s cooked, if you prefer. (The leaves dry out in the oven, which some see as a detriment—but they also cohere to the cheese and sauce that way, which I see as an advantage.)
Finally, feel free to add any other pizza toppings you like to this plain model: vegetables, cured meats, other cheeses, other fresh herbs. Just—for the love of the VPN—make sure they’re good, and don’t use heaps of them.
Yield: About 6 servings
Time: 2 to 2½ hours, largely unattended
1¾ cups all-purpose flour
1¾ cups whole-wheat flour, or more all-purpose flour
2¼ teaspoons instant yeast or one ¼-ounce packet active dry yeast
5 tablespoons extra-virgin olive oil, plus more for greasing and drizzling
1 medium yellow onion, chopped
3 garlic cloves, minced
One 26-ounce box or 28-ounce can chopped tomatoes
1 pound fresh mozzarella cheese, thinly sliced and blotted dry with a paper towel
About 30 fresh basil leaves
1. Combine the flours, yeast, and 2¼ teaspoons salt in a large bowl. Add 3 tablespoons of the olive oil and about 1¼ cups warm water—about the same temperature as the inside of your wrist—and stir with the dough-hook attachment of a stand mixer or by hand. Knead the dough with the dough-hook attachment of a stand mixer or by hand until it feels smooth and elastic, about 10 minutes. Grease a large bowl (it’s fine to use the same one you mixed the dough in), add the dough, and turn it over to coat it lightly with oil. Cover the bowl with a clean kitchen towel or plastic wrap, put it in a warm place, and let the dough rise until more or less doubled in size, about 1½ hours.
2. Meanwhile, put 2 tablespoons of the olive oil in a medium saucepan over medium heat. When it’s hot, add the onion and garlic and season with salt and pepper. Cook, stirring, until the onion begins to soften, about 5 minutes. Add the tomatoes and adjust the heat so the mixture simmers steadily, and cook, stirring occasionally, until the mixture is thick and saucy, about 30 minutes. Taste and adjust the seasoning.
3. Heat the oven to 500°. Punch down the dough and let it rest for a minute or two. Generously grease two 13- by 18-inch baking sheets. Divide the dough in two and put each half on a baking sheet; gently and gradually stretch each into 13- by 18-inch rectangle. Spread the tomato sauce in an even layer over the dough, and top with the cheese and basil. Drizzle with a little additional olive oil and sprinkle with more salt and pepper if you like.
4. Bake until the cheese is bubbly and the edges of the crust are golden brown, 10 to 15 minutes. Let rest at least 5 minutes at room temperature before cutting and serving.