"The dough is at least 80 percent of the experience," says Peter Reinhart, author of American Pie. Reinhart, who is an acclaimed baker and James Beard award winner, embarked on a two-year "pizza quest" trekking through America and Italy in search of the perfect pie. He found that "there's a big difference between good (about 99 percent of pizza out there) and very good (1 percent)" – and a lot of that is due to the crust. Here is Reinhardt's recipe for neo-Neapolitan pizza dough, which takes advantage of techniques he discovered that produce a consistently great dough.
Reinhart's Neo-Neapolitan Pizza Dough
This dough, from American Pie, makes a thin, crisp pizza and requires high-gluten flour (about 14% protein) or strong bread flour if you cannot get high-gluten. Try buying high-gluten flour from a local pizzeria that makes its own dough, or from a bakery.
Makes 4 medium-size pizzas (10–12 inches in diameter)
5 cups (22.5 oz) unbleached high-gluten flour (or unbleached bread flour); you may also substitute a small amount of whole wheat or rye flour for an equal amount of all-purpose flour, up to 1 tbsp per cup of flour
1 tbsp (.5 oz) sugar (or honey)
2 tsp (.5 oz) salt (or 3 1/2 tsp kosher salt)
1 tsp (.11 oz) instant yeast (or 1 1/4 tsp active dry yeast dissolved in half of the water, below)
2 tbsp (1 oz) olive oil, vegetable oil, or shortening
2 cups (16 oz) water at room temperature (70 F)
1. With a large metal spoon, stir all ingredients together in a 4-quart bowl (or the bowl of an electric mixer) until all the flour is absorbed. If using an electric mixer, use the dough hook and mix on medium-low speed for about 4 minutes. The dough should clear the sides and bottom of bowl. Add flour or water as necessary to achieve a dough that's firm but supple, tacky but not sticky. Let the dough rest for 5 minutes, and then mix again on medium-low speed for 2–3 minutes more. If mixing by hand, repeatedly dip one of your hands or the spoon in warm water and use it, much like a dough hook, to work the dough vigorously into a smooth mass while rotating the bowl in a circular motion with the other hand. Add more water or flour, if needed, to make a slightly sticky, very supple dough. When dough sets up, wash and dry your hands and then transfer the dough to a lightly floured counter; dust the top of dough with flour to absorb the surface moisture, then knead it by hand for about 8 minutes, until smooth and elastic. The dough should be very tacky and even a little sticky, and it should feel soft and supple. It should pass the windowpane test (it doesn't tear when a little piece is carefully stretched to translucency); if it doesn't pass, continue kneading.
2. Divide the dough into four pieces. Form each piece into a ball, and rub with olive or vegetable oil. Place each piece inside its own zippered freezer bag, or on a sheet pan that has been lined with either baking parchment or a silicone baking pad. Let the pieces sit at room temperature for 15 minutes, then refrigerate the pieces that will be used the next day; freeze the pieces that will be extra (these can be pulled out and thawed in the refrigerator the day before you need them).
Note: If you make the dough the same day that you need to make the pizzas, give them one hour to ferment and rise before punching them down (de-gassing), rolling them back into a ball, and then refrigerating them.
3. Pull the desired number of dough balls from the refrigerator about two hours before you plan to roll them out to take the chill off and to relax the gluten. When ready to make pizzas, flour the work surface and your hands and press out the dough with floured fingers into a flattened disk about 1 inch thick. Then flour the back of your hands and carefully lift the dough to rest on the back of your hands as a platform for gently rotating the dough, using the tips of your thumbs only on the outer edge to extend the circle of the dough. If the dough resists being stretched, lay it down on a floured surface and let it rest for a minute or two and lift it again. Each time the dough rests it will spread a little wider, but don't pull it; just let gravity and your thumbs do all the work until it is about 9 to 11 inches in diameter.
4. Preheat oven to 500–550°. Transfer pizza to a lightly floured pizza peel (or onto a baking pan that has been lined with baking parchment or a silicone mat). Spoon on enough tomato sauce to just "kiss" the surface, and add the desired toppings. Slide the pizza into the preheated oven, either on the hot stone or in the baking pan, and bake up to 7 minutes till done (the crust is crisp and there's a slight char on the crown).
Reinhart's Pro Dough Tips
Ferment the dough overnight before baking it.
"If you divide it into parts and wrap it up and put it in the fridge to let it ferment overnight, you get a geometrically better dough. You have to be thinking at least a day ahead," Reinhart says.
Go for a wetter dough.
Try to get as much water into the dough as possible. "The more water there is, the more it will puff up and give you a crusty dough. Usually it's 60–65 percent water to dough. With 68–72 percent water, you're going to get a better pizza dough. . . . It's easier to handle sticky dough if you have flour on the table and water or oil on your hands," he says.
Use as hot an oven as possible, preferably a convection oven.
If your home oven goes to 450°–550°, it will work for pizza. The target cook time at home is four to seven minutes for smaller pizzas of about 11 inches. Pizzerias bake at 600°–650° for five minutes. With a wood oven, it's 800° for one minute. "The quicker you can get it out, the better [to make it crispy and crackly on the outside and creamy in the interior]. This is why you want to put in so much water – so it doesn't dry out," he says. "Use a pizza stone that's preheated a minimum of 45 minutes to radiate heat back into the pizza. If you don't have one, use a sheet pan or a cookie sheet."
Go easy with toppings.
"More is not better," Reinhart says. "Better is better." So the crust should not be swimming in tomato sauce, and you should keep it to three or four great toppings. "If there are too many, it takes longer to bake [the pizza] and you get a confusion of flavors."