Crafting a Better Pizza Crust

By: Roberto Ferdman

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When perfected, pizza crust is light and airy, substantial enough to hold its toppings, but never so heavy that it weighs you down. Each bite is at once chewy and crunchy, and each mouthful is a delicious balance between texture and taste.

But last week when I pulled a pie from out of my own oven, it was none of those. I kneaded it and let it rise, shaped it, dressed and tossed it into an oven set at the highest possible temperature. To my disappointment, the crust was dense and heavy. Where did I go wrong?

Looking for an answer, I caught up with Frank Pinello from Best Pizza in Williamsburg, Brooklyn to learn the ins and outs of perfecting pizza crust.

It's not hard to notice the big wood-burning brick oven when you walk in — it's bright and red and burning hot. While Frank admits that exceptionally high cooking temperatures certainly help in achieving a fantastic crust (their oven burns at over 1000 degrees F), he assures me that no matter what oven you use, a few tips and techniques can go a long way.

Hailing me around the counter, he says the best way to learn is to watch him at work. And after a few hours, Frank made good on his promise by filling me up with loads of great tips and lots of delicious pizza. Here's the round up.

1. Never Start With Cold Dough

Once the dough has risen, Frank begins, it sits at room temperature for a couple hours before being used. Pizza dough should always warm for about two hours so that it stretches easily. At colder temperatures, it tends be a bit stubborn and takes longer to shape.

2. Clean up the Excess Oil

Emptying a round blob of dough onto the floured working surface, Frank explains that the details are already in play. "Always drop the dough upside down onto your working surface, so the oiled side faces up and doesn't gobble up all the flour." Using a clean towel, Frank pats dry the exposed part of the dough, removing excess oil. If the dough catches too much flour, he explains, the pie will go into the oven with patches of flour that will burn and produce flour scabs (the small white spots you sometimes find on pizza bottoms).

3. Sift Your Flour

Frank suggests using sifted flour for both the working surface and the top of the dough. He always runs his flour through a sifter to make sure no lumps, stray dust or dirt is added.

4. Don't Overwork the Dough

You never, Frank cautions with a raised finger for emphasis, ever want to overwork the dough. Overworking pizza dough is what produces crusts that are dense and spongy.

5. Use A Light Touch

The biggest mistake people make, Frank continues, is using their entire palm to work the dough. Frank uses only the top half of his fingers, and presses the dough gently as though he were leaving faint fingerprints. Air bubbles, he explains, are what make a pizza light and airy, and if you press too hard on the dough, you're just pushing them all out.

6. Start with the Edges

When shaping the pie into a circle, begin with the outer rim. "The edges should always be the first step — that way you ensure your pizza will have a nice and airy crust at the edges," he says. Only when he finishes with the edges does he move on to shape the center.

7. Keep it Round

The best way to ensure a pizza comes out of the oven round is to keep it round while working it, Frank explains. "If you keep it round the entire time, you won't have to struggle at the end." Pressing lightly, with only the upper half of his fingers, Frank dabs at the dough and reminds me how important it is to preserve all the air bubbles inside.

8. "Slap" the Dough

To stretch the pie into its full size, Frank uses a technique he calls "slapping," where he tosses the pie from hand to hand like a hot potato. This helps you stretch it quickly. Afterward, he makes sure it's still round, and lays in onto a peel.

9. Keep it Moving

Once on the peel, Frank works quickly to ladle a heap of sauce over the center, urging that this part needs to happen fast — if the pizza sits for too long on the peel, its oils will sink to the bottom and the crust will stick.

10. Go Easy on the Cheese

Though it may be hard to hold back, the key to a balanced crust is a modest amount of toppings. When Frank sprinkles on the cheese, he does so in concentric circles, starting from the outside and working his way in. As the cheese melts, he explains, it tends to shift inwards and weigh down the center of the pie. If you put too much cheese in the middle, you'll end up with a crust that's soggy in center. Too much of anything, he adds, will just weigh the whole thing down.

As Frank pulls the margherita pie out of the oven, the cheese bubbles and pops — and my belly almost jumps out of excitement. When I finally get my hands on a slice, it's well worth the wait. Frank's pizza crust lives up to his promise: nicely charred but never burnt, the texture a perfect intersection between chewy and crunchy.

Frank Pinello, founder and head pizzamaker at Best Pizza, is one of NYC's rising pizza stars. Before opening Best Pizza in the fall of 2010, Frank worked at Pulino's Bar & Pizzeria in NYC and Giacomo's Pizza in the Poughkeepsie area, and graduated from the Culinary Institute of America.

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Special thanks to Andrew Foti for help with the photos.

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