HOW TO MAKE BET­TER PIZ­ZAS AT HOME.

Crusts, sauces, top­pings — how to do them right

San Antonio Express-News (Sunday) - - Front Page - By Paul Stephen STAFF WRITER

First, the good news: You do not need an im­pos­ing wood­fired, Neapoli­tan-style brick oven to make a good pizza at home. Your kitchen’s stan­dard-is­sue oven is per­fectly ca­pa­ble of de­liv­er­ing de­lec­ta­ble re­sults.

Now comes the hard part: To avoid a leaden or limp crust, wa­tery top­pings or oth­er­wise sad re­sults, you’ll have to flex a few culi­nary mus­cles. Noth­ing too de­mand­ing, mind you. And chances are, you can pull off a re­spectable pie with the tools you have on hand.

Our handy pizza primer will walk you through all the tools, tips and trade se­crets you’ll need the next time

you crave a slice.

Hard­ware

The mar­ket’s crawl­ing with bril­liant in­no­va­tions and ridicu­lous gim­micks for at-home piz­zaio­los. In short, you prob­a­bly don’t need it, what­ever it may be. The fol­low­ing, how­ever, are on our list of tools that will help step up your game.

• A pizza stone ($30-40) is a fairly cost­ef­fec­tive way to get pizze­ria-cal­iber re­sults. Look for a rec­tan­gle shape

• For about twice the cost ($60-$80) of a stone, a bak­ing steel at least a quar­ter-inch thick will cook faster and more evenly, never break and can dou­ble as a grid­dle on the stove­top.

• Wooden pizza peels are not only ef­fec­tive for trans­fer­ring pies to the hot oven, they’re an ideal cut­ting board and serv­ing plat­ter.

• On a tight bud­get? Then a big cast-iron skil­let or pan can do the job of a stone or steel and peel for a frac­tion of the cost. See this week’s recipes for proof.

• Yes, a dra­mat­i­cally large mez­za­luna is the sex­i­est way to cut a pie. You could even use your fancy chef ’s knife. But a

ba­sic $5 restau­rant-grade wheel cut­ter is still the most ef­fi­cient tool for the job.

The crust

With vir­tu­ally all piz­zas, suc­cess starts with the dough.

• Noth­ing beats home­made. And no home­made dough will out­per­form the no-knead ver­sion we’ve in­cluded in this week’s batch of recipes. The down­side? You have to plan at least 12 hours in ad­vance.

• Short on time but still crav­ing scratch-baked re­sults? Em­brace the Mid­west­ern-style un­leav­ened cracker crust (see recipe). It’s sat­is­fy­ing, fail-safe and sturdy enough to carry a gen­er­ous pay­load of top­pings.

• Bot­tom line, if you want to buy pre­made pizza dough, you will not beat Trader Joe’s fresh ready-to-bake va­ri­eties for value and re­sults. The stuff costs a lit­tle over a buck and works par­tic­u­larly well with our Cast-Iron Margherita Pizza recipe.

• The pro move is to source dough from your fa­vorite neigh­bor­hood slice joint. Plenty of lo­cal pizze­rias — Dough Pizze­ria Napo­le­tana, Cer­roni’s Pur­ple Gar­lic and Grimaldi’s among them — will gladly part with a ball of their ex­pertly made dough for a few bucks.

• Un­less you’re look­ing for a gluten-free, cau­li­flower or other spe­cialty crust, pass on the pre­formed frozen crusts. At that point you might as well save a few bucks and buy a whole frozen pie.

Saucy se­crets

There’s noth­ing like a longsim­mered ragu over pasta. But this is pizza. The rules are dif­fer­ent.

• Stop cook­ing your pizza sauce al­to­gether. A 15-ounce can of toma­toes, a cou­ple gar­lic cloves, a ta­ble­spoon each of dried oregano and dried basil, and a pinch of salt run through the blender is all you’ll ever need. The oven will take care of the rest.

• Feel­ing lazy and don’t want to wash the blender? Swap the toma­toes for a 4-ounce can of to­mato paste and thin that out with a cup of water in a bowl.

Add olive oil, gar­lic, oregano, salt and other fla­vors as de­sired.

• Olive oil is a per­fectly le­git­i­mate “sauce.” It’s even bet­ter mixed with gar­lic, Parme­san cheese and a gen­er­ous fist­ful of herbs.

• If you love pesto on your pizza but don’t like the dull brown color it gets af­ter bak­ing, blanch your basil in boil­ing water for 15 sec­onds first.

• Want some­thing com­pletely dif­fer­ent? Spread your pie with roasted and pureed sweet pota­toes or fig jam or chimichurri or hum­mus or bar­be­cue sauce in­stead of to­mato sauce and top ac­cord­ingly.

Top it off

The right type and com­bi­na­tion of top­pings can make or break a pizza.

• In most cases, sauce first, then cheese, then the rest of the top­pings. The cheese forms some­thing of a wa­ter­tight bar­rier. If mush­rooms, pep­pers, onions and other veg­gies are trapped be­low that cheese shield, you’ll get soggy and soupy re­sults.

• Re­straint, gen­er­ally speak­ing, is your friend with home­made pizza. A three-top­ping pie will bake up crisper and quicker than a 13-top­ping su­per-deluxe mon­ster pie.

• If you must have the megatop­pings, par­tially bak­ing the crust first un­til it’s just firm will pre­vent all that meat, cheese and veg from wreck­ing the crust.

• For a luxe touch, driz­zle your pizza with a rib­bon of top shelf olive oil when it comes out of the oven.

• Ten­der greens like arugula and baby spinach are ter­rific pizza top­pers, but wait un­til the pizza is done cook­ing to sprin­kle them on. Bonus points if you toss those greens with a lit­tle salt, olive oil and lemon juice first.

Paul Stephen / Staff

Cast-Iron Margherita Pizza: Recipe on Page E4.

Pho­tos by Paul Stephen / Staff

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