Ask A Pizza Maker: All Your Crusty Queries, Answered

Last month we put out a call to see if you home cooks out there had any questions for a professional pizzamaker, and you responded in droves. Well, some of you had questions, and the rest of you grew distracted by smack talkin' about the best and worst pizza styles. Simmer down, everyone! Pizza is a uniting force!

We hand-picked a few questions that we thought would be most useful for home cooks, and I asked my boss, pizza mentor, and long-time friend, Derrick Tung of Paulie Gee's Logan Square and the recently opened Paulie Gee's Wicker Park, for his expert assistance. [Full disclosure: Derrick is still my part-time boss, since I cover shifts occasionally.] Paulie Gee's is an offshoot of a pizzeria based in Greenpoint, Brooklyn, so we've got some East coast and Midwestern knowledge coming your way. If Derrick's name sounds familiar, it's because The Takeout has previously leaned on him to answer questions about pizza toppings. Now, on to your most pressing questions.

My worst nemesis: Fixing your pizza dough when you've started to get a thin spot in a random area while you're still stretching it out. How do you fix a thin spot?

You can't really fix a thin spot once you've created it. You've only got a few choices from here:

a) Be super careful with the thin spot, don't over-top that area, and fire the pizza, giving it time to bake and get sturdy before spinning the pizza.

b) Re-ball the dough, let it rest for at least a few hours, likely a day or so, and then try again.

c) There's a trick where if you throw a piece of basil underneath the thin spot and fire it, it helps prevent the pizza from ripping and can help seal up small holes. I don't understand the science behind it, I've just seen it work. It's crazy.

[Note from Dennis: I used this basil trick on the line when the tear was minor. It's basically a Band-Aid; the sauce and cheese melt into the rip, gluing on the basil. Still, this maneuver can be quite a gamble and has resulted in occasional disaster. When it does work, however, you feel like a superstar.]

I've always wondered: does using a pizza stone really make a big difference? Are the results of using the stone more delicious than using a pan/putting it straight on the rack?

A pizza stone makes a huge difference. The reason is that when you're baking your pizza, especially if you want that nice puffy edge (we call it cornicione, or the good old-fashioned word "crust"), you want to the dough to heat up quickly internally, ideally faster than externally. It's like a race.

If the outside heats and dries first, the crust will stabilize and won't be able to expand. If the inside heats first, the yeast will release carbon dioxide and allow for a puffier crust to form before the outside crust stabilizes. This is part of the reason you don't want convection in bread baking, and you want extra moisture. You don't want that crusty exterior to prevent the interior from reaching full expansion.

A heated pizza stone has a lot of energy built up inside, and can transfer that heat quickly into the dough. With a cold aluminum pan, the pan itself will be absorbing some of the heat, whereas with a properly heated stone, the heat is being immediately pushed into the dough. It's even more pronounced with a baking steel, which has the ability to not only store more heat than a stone, but can also transfer heat faster, making it a superior surface for baking pizzas at home. But in the end, anything you make with your own two hands is going to be delicious.

Our oven is unable to go above 450 degrees (it's old and broken). How do we adjust crust thickness and cooking time for this? I've noticed we can't use practically any wet toppings, like fresh mozzarella.

You can still make great pizza at 450 degrees Fahrenheit, you just have to make some adjustments and can't be aiming for Neapolitan authentic of 800+ degrees. Like any pizza, the thicker the crust, the more time you'll need to bake the pizza to make sure that it's properly cooked through. Stuffed crust or deep dish requires far more time than a paper-thin pizza.

I'm a big fan of parbaking (partially baking the dough) as it stabilizes the crust. You can get a really crispy result when it's done right, so you may want to explore slightly parbaking your dough so that it's easier to work with. And if you're hosting a party, you can have the crust ready to go. For really wet toppings or fresh veggies, you'll want to drive some moisture off first. Fresh mozzarella will need to be dried, potentially with a little salt sprinkle as well to help reduce the moisture. Ingredients like mushrooms and peppers can be sautéed, which will reduce moisture and intensify flavor. You'll learn quickly how to adapt the more you do it.

I've made scratch pizza, and was surprised to find a bog of steamed swamp water and grease in the middle that wrecked proper baking. How do pizza chains pile so many toppings without the swamp?

Pizza chains are likely using ingredients that have less moisture as a whole, which will help reduce the water content of your pizza. It comes down to a lot of careful ingredient selection. Whole milk mozzarella vs. part skim milk mozzarella will change your moisture content significantly.

Big pizza chains have also measured exactly how much they're putting into each pizza by volume. There's no mistakes to be made there. Every pepperoni pizza is going to have a similar amount of cheese, pepperoni, and sauce with very little variation, because that's what big chains do to achieve consistency and control their profits. Smaller restaurants like us may or may not be that specific, depending on the emphasis they place on consistency and financial margins.

Is pizza really a pie?

Is it a "toMAYto?" Or a "toMAHto?"

Any thoughts or advice for relatively novice woodfired pizza lovers? Any recommended type of wood—or does it even matter? Should we be turning it while in the oven? What's the best thing to put on the crust to keep it from sticking?

Personally, I learned a lot by going to some of my favorite woodfired places, talking to the owners and pizzamakers, and just by watching them work. A lot of woodfired places tend to have some sort of pizza bar or open kitchen area where you can see how they make the pizza. There's a lot to be learned just by watching, and then trying to replicate at home.

The standard wood in Illinois is oak, because it's fairly abundant in the Midwest and doesn't leach resin (pine, for instance, is terrible in the oven because the resin it leaches can be poisonous for ingestion). For the woodfired fanatics, check out this chart to better understand the relative rankings of BTUs by wood type.

Just remember to make sure it's not a resin-based wood! If you can get it kiln dried (or dry it yourself over a couple seasons), you're going to get a much better burn; wood that's freshly cut is too green (literally) and you'll waste too much energy driving the moisture out of the wood on your burn.

In terms of cooking, you definitely need to turn your pizza in the oven. Think of it like when you're tanning at the beach and you fall asleep and forget to turn. Your pizza is the same! If you're looking for an even crust all the way around, turning gives different sides exposure to the heat and flames.

At our restaurant, we use semolina to help prevent the crust from sticking—just a bit, not a ton. It's really just to prevent it from sticking to the peel before you slide the pizza in. A lot of Chicago restaurants will use cornmeal (great but very defined texture and flavor), and you can use other types of flour as well (ground rice flour, etc.). Ultimately, you just need to make sure you peel has a nice thin layer of the flour you're using on it, and possibly a bit on the crust before you lay it down on the peel.

While using all-purpose flour can be done, too much on the crust will cause it to burn in the oven, leaving dark marks that are extremely acrid. Semolina is a slightly larger flour that doesn't easily form gluten structures (also rice, corn, etc.), which is great for sliding your pizza. The key is always to make sure the pizza is still sliding around a bit when it's on the peel. Give it a shake when you put the dough on the peel and after you top the pizza before you start heading toward the oven. If any point it's not moving, you need to fix it then and there, otherwise it's just gonna be a terribly shaped pizza.

[Note from Dennis: But a funny shaped pizza is still delicious nonetheless.]