An Italian Cook Taught Me 9 Secrets that Made My Homemade Pizza Insanely Better
Like many of you stuck at home with lots of time in the kitchen last year, I got pretty good at homemade pizza. But that doesn't mean there isn't always room for improvement! On a recent trip to Italy, I had the rare privilege of taking a pizza-making class at a premier culinary school in Naples called Accademia Enogastronomica Medeaterranea. The experience was eye opening, in part because some of the techniques I had been using at home were underscored as the best way to do it, but also because I picked up some simple tips and tricks that allowed me to come home an even better pizzaiolo!
Here is what's most important to remember. At its core, pizza is simply four things: crust, sauce, cheese, and toppings. But there are ways to ensure that the marriage of those four simple things can be ideal.
Here are 9 fantastic lessons the chef instructor taught us that you can adapt to your own homemade pizza practice.
Pizza dough is more than a vessel for toppings.
While a lot of pizzas here seem to treat the crust as merely a delivery service vehicle for cheese and sauce and toppings, in Italy it is an essential part of the recipe and Italians take care to ensure it is flavorful and texturally pleasing.
A big part of that is proofing the dough in the fridge for a minimum of 48 hours before making pizza with it to develop the flavor and let the gluten develop the perfect amount of elasticity without getting rubbery or tough. Whether you are making dough from a starter or commercial yeast, or even buying store-bought dough, giving it a long rest in the fridge will work wonders on flavor and texture.
Don't cook your sauce.
The sauce we learned to make in class started with a can of beautiful DOP San Marzano tomatoes packed in juice. To make the sauce, we crushed the tomatoes into the juice by hand, seasoned with salt and pepper. This raw sauce was the base for our pizzas, and we were all surprised it wasn't cooked. The chef explained that the heat of the oven and the baking process cooks the tomatoes, and if you pre-cook the sauce, then you mute the flavors during the high heat baking. He was also adamant that you do not add any oil to the sauce, which can get an acrid burnt taste.
Use less sauce than you think you need.
A single small ladleful should be enough for a 12-inch pie; you don't want a lot of sauce, just a thin coating. Think of it more like glue between the crust and the toppings, not a pool for them to float on.
We are used to pizzas getting a thick blanket of grated or shredded aged mozzarella over the top. In class, we used a fresh style mozzarella, cut into more of a stick shape, and placed in and around the toppings instead of in a full coating. This allowed the cheese to spread as it melted and not overwhelm the flavors, but just become melded with the crust and sauce. Fresh mozzarella also does not melt and release grease the way aged mozzarellas can. Even if you choose to use aged mozzarella, they recommend buying whole and cubing instead of grating or getting pre-shredded.
Go light on toppings.
I know there is a soft spot for those heavy-laden pies covered in six types of meat, but we learned that less can be more when it comes to pizza. Going light on toppings, a scattering instead of handfuls, means that your toppings are exciting pops of flavor as you eat, and keeps your dining experience exciting all the way through. And again, no oil to prevent both fire and burnt taste! Instead garnish your pies with a drizzle of oil as soon as they come out of the oven to give a bit of fresh flavor.
Not all toppings need to be cooked!
Adding some raw ingredients after the pie comes out of the oven can make your pizzas next level. Any fresh herbs will scorch in the oven; you'll have much better flavor if you add them after cooking. Hearty raw mushrooms do well when cooked, but more delicate mushrooms will shine when shaved thinly over the top of a hot pie, just enough to wilt them a little bit and bring out their flavor. And adding a fresh peppery green like arugula, dressed with olive oil and lemon juice, on top of a simple pie can really make for an exciting pizza!