While I love eating pizza, making it at home has always felt intimidating. The strongly worded opinions online telling people they’re doing it wrong aren’t helping my confidence. After years of practice, I’ve learned many tricks to share with you so you can improve your pizzas at home.
“Wow, that crust tastes so buttery.” No one had ever said that to me before. Probably because my pizzas were a soggy, limp disappointment when I first started making them years ago. We invited friends over for lunch yesterday, and my friend was the first person to tell me that my pizzas tasted “out of this world.”
She urged me to share my tips on Garlic Delight.
When I started, I read dozens of scary articles and forum threads about making pizza. Advice like, “use a pizza stone”, “ferment the dough for 3 days”, “if you’re not milking the buffalo to make mozzarella yourself, you’re doing it wrong.”
This article takes the opposite approach.
We’re going to focus on applying 20% more effort to achieve 80% better tasting homemade pizzas. This is the approach I wish someone shared with me when I baked my first pizza from scratch. These tips are especially useful when you’re making pizza for guests. You don’t have time to fuss around with pizza peels, cornmeal, and topping droppings.
Quick note: we’re not covering how to make a Neapolitan pizza (you probably don’t have a wood-fired pizza oven in your backyard anyway). We’re going to focus on making fresh-out-of-the-oven, divine-smelling pizza with dripping cheese pulls that are achievable at home. Let’s dive in.
This is a loose collection of tips. I recommend jumping to the section you care about using the table of contents.
If you don’t know what to focus on, read through the whole article. Then choose 2-3 tips to follow. That’s it.
You don’t have to adhere to every tip in this post to make a great pizza. Over time, you’ll add more steps to your process and that’s how your pizzas will improve with practice.
Homemade pizza dough
Tip 1: Find a great, well-tested recipe if you choose to make homemade dough (and there’s nothing wrong with store-bought dough, seriously). There are many different kinds of dough using different flours (no-knead dough, using “00” flour, fermentation for days, heirloom yeast). If you’re unsure, pick the simplest recipe you can find. Or check out this pizza dough recipe I wrote for Nick at Macheesmo.
Tip 2: Use a high-gluten flour. More gluten gives you a chewier crust. My favorite flour is King Arthur’s Bread Flour. I’ve even added Vital Wheat Gluten made by Bob’s Red Mill to all-purpose flour to give it more elasticity.
Tip 3: Proof the yeast properly. Use the recommended water temperature in your recipe along with the correct amount of sugar. Make sure the yeast is frothy and spongey before adding the flour. This is especially important if your yeast is old, meaning it might take longer to wake up and grow.
Tip 4: Adjust to your environment. When you’re making dough (including bread, pie, or pizza dough), no recipe will have the perfect ingredient measurements for your environment. The dough might need to rise for longer if your kitchen is cold. You might need to add an extra teaspoon of water or flour depending on the humidity. Even in the same kitchen, your dough will need different ratios of wet to dry ingredients depending on the season.
Tip 5: Cover the dough. When the dough is sitting around resting or rising, remember to cover it to avoid drying out the edges. If you get dried edges, cut them off and discard them. I like to cover my dough with plastic wrap or the lid for the food processor if I’m using it to knead the dough.
Store-bought pizza dough
As I mentioned in my homemade trial, which compares homemade and store-bought pizza dough, I preferred the taste of the store-bought dough. I found it tender, easier to work with, and added notes of caramelization missing from my homemade dough.
This isn’t surprising if you look at the ingredients list for the dough from Whole Foods. It contains malted barley flour, which acts as a dough conditioner and adds additional protein. Unless you love experimenting with malted barley flour, you can just buy the dough ready to go.
That’s why I feel that if you have time and you want to save money, homemade dough is the best choice. However, if you’re in a rush to get the pizzas going, store-bought dough is the best option. Plus, these tips will make your store-bought dough taste as good as, if not better, than homemade.
Tip 6: Buy dough from a local pizzeria. Some pizza restaurants will sell you raw dough. Don’t hesitate to call them to see if they have some available.
Tip 7: Give store-bought dough adequate time to rise. Since the dough was sitting in the fridge, it needs time to warm up. I typically allow it to rise for twice as long as the package recommends. I also put it in a warm place like in the sunlight or on the stovetop over a preheated oven.
Tip 8: Preheat the oven. Give your oven plenty of time to heat up. While you’re waiting, set up your toppings. Related: see tip #7.
Tips to stretch out pizza dough
Tip 9: Flour a clean wood chopping board to use as a work surface. You can also work directly on your countertop. But I like to keep my workspace confined because it’s easier for clean up. You can use a marble slab or kneading board. I avoid plastic chopping boards because it tend to have grooves and dents from chopping that catch the dough.
Tip 10: Watch videos to learn how to stretch out pizza dough by hand.
The slapping and tossing techniques are the most popular. You can see them in the video below.
Even though slapping and tossing are widely lauded, I find these techniques intimidating. I don’t want to drop the dough and make a big mess.
Instead, I prefer these technique where you push and pull the dough until you get a thin circle. I also like the technique to patch holes. Check out the technique below.
Tip 11: Use the rolling pin. If stretching by hand leaves you frustrated, roll out the dough using a rolling pin. Roll from the middle out to the edges. Rotate the disc in quarter turns to get a round shape. Avoid rolling the dough too thin. I find the texture ends up like a cracker. You may want to allow the dough to rise 10-15 minutes longer if you use a rolling pin to avoid the cracker-like texture. Related: see tip #5.
Tip 12: Let it relax. Sometimes the dough feels elastic and stubborn. When you try to stretch it, it snaps back to its original shape without giving you an inch (or centimeter). In this case, cover the dough and give it a 10-minute break to relax the gluten. You can prepare toppings while you wait.
Tip 13: Smaller pizzas are better for cooking at home. I keep my pizzas about the size of a baking sheet, no more than 10 inches/25 cm in diameter. This makes the pizza faster to cook and easier to transport.
Tip 14: Rectangular and square pizzas are OK. It’s hard to make circular pizzas.
Crispy buttery crust tips
Tip 15: Spread olive oil on both sides of the crust. I’ve seen chefs drizzle olive oil under the dough and over it before spreading toppings. This gives you a flavorful, crispy crust. Some people prefer butter.
Tip 16: Par-bake the crust. If you find your first pizza turns out soggy, you might consider baking the crust for a few minutes until it firms up. Flip the crust over and spread the sauce on the side that is more cooked. This is helpful if your ingredients are wet. Related: see tip #21 about sauce and tip #24 about cooking raw ingredients to avoid soggy crusts.
Tip 17: Use the hottest oven temperature sometimes. I see the advice to always use the hottest oven temperature possible (even using the broil or oven cleaning setting on Reddit). I want to caution beginners because not everybody is aiming to make a Naples-style pizza at home. This NPR article explains why a home oven cannot emulate the high temperatures of a professional pizza oven.
If you have a thicker crust, you may want to cook it at a lower temperature for longer. This allows the inside of your dough to cook through without burning the bottom of the crust. I’ve made delicious pizzas at 450ºF/232ºC. Follow your pizza recipe’s recommendations for temperature and cook time, keeping these nuances in mind.
Tip 18: Be careful with parchment paper. Parchment paper is excellent for transferring the pizza from the pan to oven. But it catches on fire if it touches the heating element.
Tip 19: Preheat the pizza pan. Whether you’re using a pizza stone, steel, pan, or cast-iron skillet, you’ll want to preheat the surface so it’s hot when you plop your raw pizza on it. This gets you closer to a crispy crust.
Pizza stone or steel
Tip 20: It’s OK not to use a pizza stone. I have a pizza stone, and I find it cumbersome to use. I’m usually too lazy to get the pizza on and off. I’ve switched to using a cookie sheet that I preheat. Am I making the best pizza possible? 🤷♀️ When I have guests, nobody complains about freshly baked pizza with steaming cheese and toppings even if it wasn’t baked on a stone.
Tip 21: Try unglazed tiles for a budget pizza stone. If you are looking to buy a pizza stone, try unglazed tiles from your hardware store to test out whether you like cooking on a stone. Unglazed is important because glazes may contain lead. You want the red-brick, rough-surfaced terracotta tiles. If you decide you like it, you could later upgrade to a ceramic pizza stone or a pizza steel, which gets hotter and conducts heat faster than clay or ceramic.
Tip 22: You don’t have to make your own sauce. If you have time, feel free to make sauce from scratch. I have a great recipe for Garlic Pizza Sauce. But we love Rao’s marinara sauce and don’t think we can make better sauce. That’s why it’s my go-to pasta and pizza sauce. I also like Trader Joe’s marinara pasta sauce.
Tip 23: Don’t use too much sauce. This is one of the top reasons why you end up with a soggy crust. Add enough sauce so that when you spread it, you can still see the dough underneath. I use about 2-3 tablepoons of sauce per pizza. Related: see tip #15 on par-baking crusts.
Tip 24: Experiment with sauce on top and sauce on the bottom. The typical way of saucing a pizza is with the sauce on top of the dough and under the cheese. Alex and I performed a taste test and ended up preferring the sauce on top of the cheese.
Tip 25: For the cheese, use a low-moisture, whole milk mozzarella. If you want to use fresh mozzarella, drain it and pat it dry. Adding wet cheese leads to a soggy crust. Related: see tip #22 on experimenting with how to layer ingredients.
Tip 26: Cook all raw ingredients. I pre-cook ingredients that tend to release water so they don’t make the pizza soggy. The likeliest offenders are vegetables and raw meat:
- Bell peppers
- Spinach (unless you’re adding 2-3 raw leaves on top)
Tip 27: Protect the herbs from burning. I top the pizza with hand-torn basil after it’s out of the oven. If you put herbs on the top of the pizza, they often shrivel into brown dust because they dry up or even burn in the hot oven. I’ve heard good results from people hiding the basil leaves under the cheese.
Tip 28: Use scissors to cut the pizza. I find kitchen shears provide greater control. They’re sharper than a rolling pizza cutter, which makes your job of separating the pizza slices easier.
Easy clean up
Tip 29: Use a “liner” in the oven. I place baking sheets on the bottom shelf to catch sauce and cheese drips. This has saved a lot of cleaning time. Related: see tip #8 on workspace and tip #17 on parchment paper.