Hint: The crust doesn’t matter

By Stacey Ballis
July 14, 2020
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Feeling very into homemade pizza this year? You’re not alone, if my Instagram feed is any indication. We all seem to be experimenting with America’s favorite food, from super thin cracker crusts to epic deep-dish versions.

And while you may have been told that the secret to a great pizza is the crust, I’m here to tell you otherwise. Sure, crust matters, but from where I sit, it’s secondary. Use these 8 tips to make every pizza you create at home—whether super fancy or on an English muffin with jar sauce (you read that right)—the best it can be.

Tip 1: Use three cheeses.

While you can certainly make a perfectly delicious pizza with just one cheese, thinking of cheese as more than a single ingredient can really make a difference. Use a hard cheese like Parmesan, Asiago, or Pecorino Romano as a seasoning cheese: A light sprinkle right on your sauce layer can add some depth and umami that is subtle but very welcome. Low-moisture part skim mozzarella scattered lightly around the top of your pizza will provide great melt and that classic elastic cheese pull, and some fresh mozzarella, torn into small chunks and dotted around will give you little bonus puddles of milky cheese that add freshness and texture.

Tip 2: Prep your own cheese.

Pre-shredded cheeses are convenient, but they have added ingredients to keep them from clumping, and you’ll never get as great a melt from them. Buy blocks of Parmesan and mozzarella and grate by hand or in your food processor, and tear balls of fresh mozzarella by hand.

Tip 3: Use a light hand with sauce.

A quarter cup of sauce is more than enough for a 12-inch pizza, and English muffins might only need a half-tablespoon per side. Sauce is there as a condiment, not the star: It should enhance and support the other flavors, not be a sloppy liquid layer between cheese and crust.

Tip 4: Don’t overload the toppings!

The best pizzamakers in the world will tell you that great pizzas do not have 11 pounds of cheese and toppings on them. You want each bite to be balanced between crust, cheese, and toppings, supported by enough sauce to brighten. The more toppings you choose, the less of each you should use. For example, while a pure pepperoni pizza might have slices of pepperoni all over the pizza separated by half-inch intervals, if you are doing pepperoni/onion/mushroom, you might alternate slices of pepperoni with slices of mushroom and then add a light sprinkle of chopped onion all over.

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Tip 5: Protect delicate items.

Pepperoni can stand up to some heat, and there is nothing sweeter than seeing those little cupped slices slighty crispy on the edges topping your pie. But more delicate things like mushrooms can burn or dry out. Optimize by layering: Delicate items go under the cheese, while any toppings you want to crisp or color go on top.

Tip 6: Cook as hot as your oven will go.

Pizza ovens can often hit more than 1000 degrees and will fully cook a pizza in 90 seconds. When cooking at home, especially if you are using a raw dough, preheat your oven as hot as it goes, preferably with a pizza stone, baking steel, or cast iron skillet inside, or in a pinch, a baking sheet. Preheat for longer than you think you need—40 minutes to an hour is best. High heat will help prevent a crust that feels bready or cakelike.

Tip 7: Give a final flourish.

At high-end pizza places, garnishing the pizza can be as important as the pizza itself. A twirl of good olive oil, a fresh grating of Parm, a toss of chopped herbs—all of these touches will bring that extra something special to your pizza. 

Tip 8: Let rest for 5 minutes before slicing.

If your homemade pizzas are terrific until you slice them and then all the toppings slide off into a puddle when you try and grab a slice, you have sliced too soon! Think about resting your pizza like you do your meat before carving. Look at it this way: The takeout pizza you order gets a 30-minute rest before it shows up at your house, so give your homemade pizzas at least 5 minutes down-time before you dive in.