My Real N.Y. Pizza Dough

I went through some crazy mental calisthenics to perfect our pizza at home. Over a period of two years, I pored over countless books and online articles, viewed more YouTube videos than I care to remember (one of them was narrated entirely in Italian and I could only learn by watching his hands move), and swung back and forth like a pendulum, enjoying small successes, a few near misses and more than enough total disasters that left me cursing like a sailor.

Luckily, you don’t have to go through all that because I’ve done the heavy lifting for you, and I’m happy to share what I’ve learned. This pizza dough, says my dear husband, is as close as he’s ever had (at home) to a real New York pie. And he should know.

If you’ll be using dry yeast, please check to see if it’s “instant.” There are differences between instant dry yeast and active dry yeast, and you might need to adjust the process to be successful. I’ll explain more in the “Getting Technical” section, where I’ll also demonstrate the most accurate way to measure your flour.

If you’re a sourdough nerd like me, follow the sourdough instructions, beginning with a “fed” 100% hydration starter. Otherwise, use a small portion of an envelope of instant dry yeast, and the flour and water measurements that accompany it.

Here we go!

Standard Yeast Version

2 1/2 cups bread flour or all-purpose flour (see slides for measuring tips)

3/4 cup white whole wheat flour (look for King Arthur brand orange bag)

1 cup + 2 Tbsp. cold filtered water

1/2 tsp. instant dry yeast (or yeast marketed for pizza dough)

1 tsp. sugar

1 1/4 tsp. fine sea salt

1 1/2 tsp. extra virgin olive oil

Combine all dry ingredients in a mixing bowl. Add cold water all at once and blend until all flour is incorporated and mixture becomes a cohesive mass. Drizzle the oil on top but do not mix yet. Cover and rest for about 20 minutes,* then proceed to “next steps.”


Sourdough Version

280g (approx. 2 1/4 cups) bread or all-purpose flour

70g (approx. 2/3 cup) white whole wheat flour (King Arthur brand in orange bag)

200g (just shy of 1 cup) cold filtered water

100g (almost 1/2 cup) ripe sourdough starter (mine is 100% hydration)

1 tsp. sugar

1 1/4 tsp. fine sea salt

1 1/2 tsp. extra virgin olive oil

Combine ripe starter and cold water in your mixing bowl until fully blended. Stir together dry ingredients in a separate bowl, and add them all at once to the mixing bowl. Mix on low until all flour is incorporated and mixture becomes a cohesive mass. Drizzle the oil on top but do not mix yet. Cover and rest for about 20 minutes,* then proceed to “next steps.”


Next Steps

After the 20-minute rest, switch to a dough hook (if using a stand mixer) or turn dough out onto a clean, lightly floured countertop (if you’re kneading by hand) and work that dough. This step is crucial, because it is here that the gluten will begin to develop. Gluten is the web-like structure that allows bread dough to rise when the yeast does its job. If you haven’t already drizzled in the olive oil, do it now. Your recipe won’t be ruined without it, but the oil helps to condition the dough, which makes it a bit easier to manage for shaping later.

After 6 minutes of kneading by mixer or 8 minutes by hand, you should have a smooth, supple dough that is soft and slightly tacky, but not sticky. If you pinch a small piece from the ball and stretch it between your fingers, you should be able to see the light through it. If it tears easily, knead a few more minutes until it reaches this point. If it feels dry and tight, wet your hands and knead another minute. If it is very sticky, try to knead another tablespoon or two of flour into it.

Lightly flour your countertop and use a bench scraper or sharp serrated knife to divide the dough into two equal pieces. Shape each into a ball by repeatedly tucking the edges under and turning the dough in quarter circles. When it’s smooth and round, slip the dough ball into an oiled quart-size zip top bag. Use a spray oil to mist the inside of the bag first. Repeat with the other dough ball. Seal the bags, keeping a small amount of extra air inside.

Put the dough balls in a protected spot in your refrigerator (we pop it into the deli drawer) for at least 36 hours, and up to 3 days before your pizza party.

On pizza day, remove the dough from the refrigerator about 2 hours ahead of your meal time. Follow instructions in the “Tips” section regarding preheating of the oven because the temperature and rack placement varies based on whether you’re using a steel, a stone or a pan . While the dough is still cold, take it out of the bag and dust it generously with flour, then cover loosely with oiled plastic wrap or a clean dish towel.

When it reaches room temperature, shape the dough into 12 to 14 inch circles. Please, for the love of all things pizza, do not use a rolling pin!


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Getting Technical

One of the things that makes this pizza crust special is the cold fermentation of the dough. It might seem strange that we are using cold water, not giving the dough time to rise, and especially stuffing it straight into the fridge. But trust me, it works!

Yeast does not need warmth to do its work, it only makes it work faster. In a typical bread recipe, warm water and rising time in a warm spot of the kitchen allows you to make bread (or whatever) in a couple of hours, but what you gain in time, you lose exponentially in flavor and health benefit, which is even more technical.

Despite the wait time, this is a quick recipe. You can make this dough in 30 minutes, including the 20-minute rest.

Speaking of which, the technical term for the rest period is “autolyze,” though there’s dispute on whether the yeast and salt should even be present at this point. Purists would say no, and in artisan bread making, the autolyze might go as long as an hour. Whether or not this is a “true” autolyze, the down time gives the flour a chance to fully absorb the water before you begin the more strenuous work of kneading. At any point during the rest, you may drizzle the olive oil over the dough—I usually do this simply so I don’t forget to add it. But don’t begin mixing it into the dough until the rest period is finished.

This recipe suggests “instant dry yeast,” which isn’t instant in terms of how quickly it works, but in the fact that you can add it from the start of the recipe without “proving” it first. “Active dry yeast” requires pre-dissolving in warm water before it will do its job. If you have this “active” type of yeast, you might be able to make this dough with a simple adjustment. Measure your total water, but remove about 1/3 cup of it to a bowl. Warm it in the microwave to bathwater temperature, sprinkle the yeast over and wait 5 minutes until it’s foamy. Then proceed with your recipe. If it doesn’t get foamy, it’s no longer active (bummer). If your yeast is labeled “quick-rise” or “rapid-rise,” both are forms of instant yeast and you’re good to go.

For any baking recipe, it is important to measure your flour correctly. I highly recommend a kitchen scale if you intend to take up bread making, but for now, if you rely on volume measurements, trust the “fluff, sprinkle, level” method described in these slides. Digging your scoop directly into the flour bin is going to ruin your recipe, and even spooning straight from the bin to the scoop can yield a crummy result. Proper measuring does make a difference. The flour I’m using for this demonstration should weigh 125 g per cup. Let’s see how it goes.


Tips for Success

This dough is for thin crust pizza, which means it does not “rise” after you shape it. Simply add sauce, toppings and bake.

Take it easy on the toppings. You should be able to see the dough through the sauce, and the sauce through your toppings. Your pie will be much more evenly cooked if it isn’t piled high with too many ingredients. Pre-cook and cool meats and vegetables for best results, and use cold shredded cheese.

If you’re using a stone or steel, you must preheat it the proper amount of time. This means set a timer for one hour, from the time your oven reaches the set temperature. These tools will absorb a great deal of heat, which will then be transferred back to your pizza. We bought our steel from this company, and it is freaking awesome. You can also find them on Amazon.

Just go ahead and get one.

Oven temperature should be HOT. Les and I shake our heads at the Papa John’s commercial, boasting about its 450° F oven. This is absurd. For best results (at least, with this recipe), bake your pizza at 550° F, which is the max for most home ovens. To bake on a pan, place the rack in the center to lower third of the oven. If using a pizza steel, set the rack about 8 inches from the top heating element. Some pizza stones have specific temperature limits, so please follow the instructions on yours and allow extra time accordingly. I would hate for you to lose the whole pizza if the stone breaks under the heat.

OK, so…I have something to say.

Let me say this loud and clear: gluten is not everyone’s enemy. So many people are convinced today that they have issues with gluten. And some really do, including people diagnosed with celiac disease, and I hate it for them. But plenty of others are simply buying into the idea that gluten is solely to blame for their bloating, discomfort and other digestive issues. I’m not a doctor, but I understand enough about bread chemistry to suspect that the sudden widespread clamoring over gluten sensitivity is much more likely related to the speed with which modern high-volume bakeries are churning out bread. Hear me out.

Time is our friend when it comes to yeast breads. More time allowed for fermentation improves not only the flavor of the end product, but also its digestibility. During fermentation, the yeast coaxes the sugars out of the grain, which results in complexity of flavor (this is particularly true when using whole grains in baking), and many of the “anti-nutrients” in the grain get broken down, which means your body doesn’t have to do the work. Anti-nutrients are not bad components, but they block absorption of the good ones. Speed up or skip through this fermentation step and—well, it pretty much spells disaster for sensitive bellies. It’s like putting green wood in your fireplace or microwaving a steak. You wreck the whole thing.

The cold fermentation on this pizza dough will take 36 to 72 hours (depending on how quickly you’re planning to make your pizza). When commercial bakeries speed up the process, it’s for the end result of getting more loaves to market shelves faster—not for quality and certainly not for flavor. Just one of many reasons I’m in love with sourdough.

All of this to say, if you’re not allergic to wheat, and not officially diagnosed with celiac disease, your sensitivity issues may be related to cheap bread. Please talk to your doctor. Real sourdough bread (naturally leavened, not just “sour flavor” added to commercial yeast bread) may be the miracle you’ve hoped for.

Thanks for letting me share that. I hate for anyone to miss out on bread.

The Foundation of Good Pizza

Homemade pizza dough isn’t as complicated as it seems. Unless, of course, you happen to live with the one person who is seemingly the expert on all things related to “New York pizza.” And I do.

My husband, Les, is a little finicky completely fanatical about his pizza, to such a degree that I am still nervous about making it for him, even 3+ years into marriage. Like, “Beat Bobby Flay” kind of nervous. If you ask him what part of the pizza is most important, he will answer before you finish the question—the sauce is important and you should never, ever use too much of it. And the cheese should be good quality and never, ever pre-shredded from a bag. But the crust? Ohhh, the crust—the very foundation, the bedrock of a good pizza—this, Les declares, is most important.

When we met, I was still early into my adventures of bread making, but I was gaining confidence in it. And because pizza crust is, essentially, a bread, it made sense to me that I would simply make it. As you have probably already imagined, I wasn’t quite prepared for the onslaught of constructive feedback I’d receive:

This one is OK, but it’s a little dry. The texture on this one is good, but the flavor is a little bland. This one is all right, but it’s a little too thin, like a cracker. This one is a bit too chewy, but not bad.

During our honeymoon, we went straight to a NYC mecca of pizza, so I could see what “true north” looked like. Between the aroma of great pizza emanating from the shops and the ubiquitous New York street performers, it was a great moment in time.

And the pizza at John’s of Bleecker Street was indeed amazing.

I’m not even slightly embarrassed to admit that we ate the entire pie.

Back at home, I got serious about upping my game. By day, I’d research formulas, test recipes, develop my technique. By night, I’d pray feverishly to the pizza gods for some kind of divine dough guidance. I scoured through books written by bread experts including Peter Reinhart and Ken Forkish, clicked through about a million Pinterest buttons claiming they had the “best New York pizza dough EVER” and I sat through dozens of YouTube tutorials to learn the correct way to shape my dough. In case you’re wondering, you don’t have to throw it into the air to be successful. My ceiling is thankful.

Finally, I found the dough recipe that was closest to Les’s memory of New York pizza, and with a few tweaks of my own (most notably, my effort to build the dough from my sourdough culture), I have earned my keep. You can imagine my joy today, each time we make pizza at home, when this man of mine declares out loud (and, of course, to all his Facebook friends) that our homemade pizza rocks.

Just go ahead and get one.

Beyond the recipe, we have discovered the beauty of a pizza steel, which has completely changed the game for us. If you’ve ever considered getting one, just do it. It inspires me to make even more homemade pizzas, and in the weeks ahead, I’ll elevate your happy by sharing some of my favorite unconventional toppings (because everyone can figure out a pepperoni and cheese).

Ready to roll in the dough (well, figuratively)? I’ve created a tutorial for replicating our favorite homemade pizza dough—complete with recipe, instructions for yeast version and sourdough version, and steps for shaping the crust so you can enjoy pizza at home that rivals the best local takeout joints.

Have fun with it!


On Sourdough Baking

While the world continues to panic over the latest developments in the COVID-19 pandemic, something is quietly brewing (or should I say fermenting?) in the stillness of people’s kitchens. All over the globe, people are suddenly taking new interest in sourdough baking. It makes sense in the new normal of grocery shopping far less frequently, that making bread at home would be more top of mind. Except for essential workers, most of us have more than enough time on our hands. But why sourdough in particular? Why not just regular homemade bread?

Because there’s a yeast shortage.

It’s temporary, of course, because yeast is quite literally everywhere around us—in the air, on those brown bananas sitting on my counter, hanging on the grape clusters out in the vineyards, everywhere. We’ll never actually run out of it. But the usually available commercial form of baking yeast—you know, in the little yellow square envelopes—has gone MIA. During the initial coronavirus pandemic freak-out, it seems people (some who have never even baked before) went bonkers and snapped up all the yeast. In the wake of that, we are learning that it takes a good bit of time to replenish (you can’t rush nature), and with the supply chain already stretched nearly to the point of breakage, it’s dicey. Thankfully, my baking hasn’t slowed down one bit amid the crisis at hand. You see, I’ve been riding the sourdough train for just over four years; this little critter was born in early 2016:

This picture of my starter still brings joy to my heart!

That’s my natural sourdough culture, and although I’m suddenly feeling slightly ashamed that I’ve not given appropriate thought to naming my culture, I am quite diligent about nurturing it and we most definitely have a solid relationship. And I’m thankful, because we all need sourdough culture more than ever.

I will have a lot more to say about sourdough, and that discussion will develop over time (pun intended). The main impression I hope to make today is that sourdough is not a flavor of bread. Sourdough is a method of natural leavening in baked goods, bread or otherwise. A sourdough culture is yeast. If that seems confusing, consider this visual example of two completely different breads I’ve made with my sourdough culture:

The crusty round bread (or boule, as the French would say) is most likely what you imagine as sourdough, with its slightly tangy flavor and firm, chewy crust. But the soft, buttery pumpkin sesame knots on the right were crafted from the same culture. Different ingredients, different ratio of liquid in the dough, different baking method—all amount to a different outcome, but still sourdough. I even make sweet things, like cinnamon rolls, out of sourdough. Because, again, sourdough is not a flavor.

If you’re pondering whether you could do this, too—yes, you can. And I’ll be happy to help you get started. Hey, if you live close by, I’ll even offer you some seed culture so you don’t have to build your own starter from scratch (though you’d probably be a better parent and give yours a name).

For now, check out this easy recipe I’ve been making recently, along with an alternate recipe if you happen to be among the lucky ones with a yeast packet in your pantry. Sourdough English Muffins, y’all!

Sourdough English Muffins

Sourdough English Muffins

Who doesn’t love an English muffin? It’s a terrific change-up from the usual toasted bread for breakfast, and at our house, we’re eating a lot of them lately. They’re quick and simple to make, with or without a stand mixer, and you don’t even need to turn on your oven. My recipe makes 12, and though that may seem like a lot for one household, I’ll note that these muffins aren’t just for breakfast. They also make exceptional burger buns, and my husband uses them to make sandwiches to take to work for lunch, too!

My inspiration recipe comes from King Arthur Flour, my favorite brand. And while I would certainly disclose any financial agreements with vendors, I will be clear to say that KAF is not paying me to brag about their products (not yet, anyway, but I’m open, baking team). I just like them, and I trust their website for products, baking ideas and help when I need it.

Their recipe for Sourdough English Muffins does require the use of ripe (fed) sourdough starter, and although it typically calls for addition of commercial yeast (for quicker rise), it’s possible to omit it, and I’ve adjusted for that in my notes below. If you don’t have a starter, their yeast-risen English muffins are great, too. It’s tough to find yeast during the COVID-19 pandemic, but if you happen to have some in your pantry, you’re golden. Here’s a tip—you can ration your yeast by halving the amount called for in the recipe; just give it more time to rise. This is true for virtually any yeast recipe, by the way.

Let’s Get Cooking!

Because the KAF recipe yields 24 English muffins (holy moly, that’s a lot!), I’ve taken the liberty of adjusting all the ingredients by half. Additionally, I always swap in some portion of whole grain flour in place of white, and I usually add some milled flax seed because I cannot leave well enough alone. You decide, based on your own experience and comfort level. If you notice grainy spots in my technique photos, this is the reason. They literally are grainy spots.

When these are completely cooled, you can put them in a sealed plastic bag. They’ll keep on the counter for up to a week, or you can put them in the freezer. No need to thaw them before toasting. I hope they turn out great for you!

Ingredients and Tools

(weight measurement included for seasoned bakers; if you’re baking these for the first time, please see notes section for tips on the best way to accurately measure your flour for baking)

1/2 cup (114g) ripe sourdough starter* (stirred down before measuring – see notes)
1 cup (227g) warm filtered water (ideally, about 110° F)
1/2 tsp instant yeast (optional, for quicker rise)
1 Tbsp. (12g) sugar
3 1/2 cups (422g) all-purpose flour* (see notes for measuring and substitutions)
1/4 cup (22g) nonfat dry milk* (see notes if you don’t have this)
1 1/2 tsp. fine sea salt
2 Tbsp. (28g) butter, room temperature
Additional flour for dusting counter for kneading
Cornmeal for dusting muffins before baking

*Notes

  • If you don’t have a kitchen scale, use this method for accurately measuring flour in baking
  • For sourdough science nerds who may be wondering, my starter is 100% hydration; I feed it (once or twice a week) 90/10 high protein bread flour/freshly milled rye flour
  • You may substitute whole wheat flour up to 1/3 of the total amount of flour
  • If you don’t have nonfat dry milk, adjust the water to 3/4 cup and use 1/4 cup regular milk along with it

Stand mixer or large bowl and heavy wooden spoon
Plastic wrap and clean lightweight kitchen towels
Electric griddle or pan for stove-top “baking”
Heat-safe spatula for turning
Cooling rack for finished muffins


Instructions

In a mixing bowl, bring your starter to room temperature, or at least allow some of the refrigerator chill to wear off. Combine with warm water until it’s an even slurry, and stir in the sugar (and instant yeast, if using) a minute or so to dissolve sugar.

In a separate bowl, combine flour, dry milk and sea salt until well blended. Add to the wet mixture and stir with a heavy wooden spoon or blend in stand mixer until all dry ingredients are incorporated. Switch to kneading hook or turn the dough out onto a floured countertop. Knead until the dough feels a little less shaggy and more organized. Cover with plastic wrap and let it rest about 20 minutes.

Stretch out the dough and spread the soft butter over it. The KAF recipe suggests adding the butter at the start, but I’ve learned to add fats after the flour is fully hydrated, so this is my method. Fold the dough up with butter inside and continue kneading, about 10 minutes by hand or 5 to 6 minutes by machine with dough hook. This part will get messy, but keep at it and eventually, the butter will work its way through the entire dough. You want smooth and even dough—soft and slightly tacky, but not sticky. Shape dough into a tight ball (if you imagine squeezing it around and toward the bottom, you’ll get a feel for this), place it in a lightly oiled bowl and turn to coat, then cover the bowl with plastic wrap or lid and let it rise at room temperature until it’s puffy and nearly doubled in size. If your room is warm and you used additional yeast, this will be about 60 minutes. If you didn’t use yeast, it may be a couple of hours—give it the time it needs. Gently deflate the dough by pushing the center with your closed fist (one day soon, I’ll explain why I hate the term “punching down your dough”). With lightly oiled hands, reshape it into a ball, cover the bowl and put it into the refrigerator overnight. This step is beneficial either way, but especially important if you did not add yeast. Sourdough bakers already know that cold fermentation is a magical thing, and this down time in the fridge will result in extra flavor and improved texture.

In the morning, turn the cold dough out onto a lightly floured countertop and cut it into 12 roughly equal pieces. The simplest way I’ve found to do this is the cut the ball in half, then each half into halves, and each resulting half into thirds, like 12 little pieces of pizza. Shape each wedge into a tight ball, and flatten each ball with your fingertips onto a piece of parchment paper, sprinkled lightly with corn meal. They should measure about 3 1/4” across, or the size of—you guessed it—an English muffin! You will probably want to do two cookie sheets, each holding 6 muffins. Sprinkle the tops of the muffins with additional corn meal.

If the dough is still cold, it will probably shrink back—that’s OK. Cover them with plastic and let them rest 15 minutes to relax the gluten, then flatten them again. Cover the muffins with loose plastic wrap, lay a clean lightweight kitchen towel over the plastic and allow the muffins some privacy in a warm (but not hot) spot in your kitchen. I usually slide the pans into the oven, where it’s quiet and not at all drafty.

About 2 hours later, your muffins should look soft and puffy. My last batch rose to about 1/2” thickness, but they will puff more when you introduce them to heat.

If you have an electric griddle, heat it to about 325° F. If not, you can do it stove-top in a cast iron pan or griddle over medium-low heat. Our gas range has a “griddle in the middle” that allows me to do 6 muffins at a time; in a skillet, you’ll probably want to limit to 3 at once. I kept the flame pretty low because it’s better to cook them a tiny bit longer than to burn them.

I squeezed my camera underneath the griddle so you can see how low I set the flame. If you’re cooking your muffins stove-top, give the pan or griddle plenty of time to reach consistent heat.

When the griddle or pan is radiating consistent heat (you should be able to feel it easily with your hand about 6” above), gently place the muffins onto the surface. They will puff a bit more as they cook, but they won’t spread outward the way cookies do. Still, try to keep a bit of room between them so you can wiggle in a spatula when it’s time to turn them over.

After about 7 minutes, your muffins are probably ready to turn. Check by gently lifting up one edge and peeking underneath. If it looks golden and toasty, it’s time! Gently turn them without flipping too hard—you don’t want to deflate them in the process.

Give the second side about 6 more minutes, then check for doneness and remove them to a cooling rack to calm down. The sides of the muffins will still feel a bit soft, and that can be a little unnerving until you’ve made them a few times. Here’s a simple tip for testing doneness: when you turn over the first muffin, tap the cooked side lightly with your fingernail or the tip of your spatula. If it sounds hollow, you’re good. If it still feels a little soft or spongy, they probably need another minute. To be certain, you can slide the finished muffins onto a cookie sheet and into a pre-warmed 350° F oven for a few minutes to finish any raw insides.

When the muffins have completely cooled (and please, not one second sooner), use the tines of a fork to split through to the middle, all the way around.

Fork-splitting the muffins creates a perfect texture inside, and ensures plenty of pockets for butter or jam. Be certain they are completely cool before splitting them.

This will allow you to easily break them open later, for the beautiful nooks and crannies that I’m probably not allowed to talk about because of trademark rules.

But just look—can you think of a better way to describe those butter-loving pockets?

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