The Ridiculously Thorough Guide to Making Your Own Pizza

A Guide for the Pizza Amateur

There are a few "secrets of the trade" in making your own pizza; once you know them, it is not hard to make your own and it takes very little time. In fact, after you make it a few times you'll wonder why I made such a big deal out of it.

The instructions below are for making a pizza in the traditional American pizzeria style. The intended audience for this guide is the amateur home cook with little to no experience making pizza and possibly no equipment to do so.

The time-condensed pizza-making plan overview

  1. Tools you need before you start
  2. Make the dough
  3. Prepare toppings while dough rises
  4. Shape dough into pizza
  5. Top it and cook it
  6. Cut it and eat it!

Tools you need before you start

You will need a large, flat surface that you can get messy, and you will need a large (large!) bowl. Also, you will make a mess the first few times you do this.

Making pizza is much easier with a pizza paddle. With a paddle, you can get your pizza in and out of the oven easily without burning yourself or losing your pizza. Also, it makes the job of putting a topped, raw pizza onto a pizza stone much easier.

With my pizzas, I prefer to use a pizza screen. There is no question that a pizza cooked on a stone comes out lighter, springier, and with a generally better crust. The reason I prefer a screen is that pizza stones are not amateur-friendly. Here's why:

I actually have a stone and I use it at home on occasion. I would not recommend a stone to somebody when they are making a pizza for the first time and they had never used a stone before. If that sounds like you, consider buying a pizza screen. In a pinch, you can use something else.

Make the dough

Making the dough is complicated enough that it deserves its own page. See How to Make Pizza Dough, which has detailed instructions on how to make the pizza dough. This step will take between 15 to 30 minutes.

Prepare toppings while the dough rises

Roasted garlic, zucchini, and parsley butter on wheat crust
Roasted garlic, zucchini, and parsley butter on wheat crust

At this point, you should use the dough rising time to slice, dice, and pre-cook any ingredients that you are going to put on the pizza. It is important that you pre-cook any meats that would not be safe to eat raw before you put them on a pizza. These meats include (but are not limited to) beef, sausage, chicken, and pork. This is also a good time to cook any tough vegetables, such as asparagus, broccoli, cauliflower, or eggplant. Basically, get everything ready to go so that when you have the crust shaped out, you can just slap it on and throw it in the oven.

Shape dough into pizza

This is the part that requires the most practice. The process can be broken down into a few steps, though they are not quite linear, unforutnately. Still, you should try them in the order below, and go to a previous or later step if required.

The basic goal here is to form the dough into a flat circle (or square) that is about the same size as your cooking vessel.

  1. Dust your working surface with a thin layer of flour or corn meal (corn meal is best). You may need to dust again if your dough sticks to the surface in the following steps.
  2. Grab a chilled dough ball and smash it out evenly with your palms (I use one on top of another, with my body weight behind them) to make the ball about twice the diameter it was.
  3. Pick up the dough and hold it between the palm and fingers of your preferred hand, letting the rest of the dough dangle and stretch down. Now smash the edge of the dough with that hand while you gently pull the dough counter-clockwise with the other. Rotate the dough clockwise and repeat. One step of this process should take you about a second.
  4. Once you have rotated the entire ball in your hands twice or three times, the ball should look like a small flying saucer - flat on the edges, and a little more spherical towards the middle. Place the dough on your surface and smash it down with your palms (one on top of the other) until you have a more uniform shape.
  5. At this point, you need to stretch out the dough evenly into a larger size. You may need to add more flour or corn meal to your surface, because it is important that the dough moves without any friction. Place your palms a few inches apart on the top half of the dough about halfway between the center and the edge. Start rotating the dough on your surface, pulling with your palms in opposite directions. Make sure you pull gently; however, if you pull a hole in the dough, don't panic - just grab one side of the tear and pull it on top of the other, then smash it to "glue" the pieces together. After you make one pull, rotate the dough clockwise about 1/8 turn and repeat. Make sure that you don't concentrate on one area too much - stretch both the middle and edge out evenly; however, only work on the top half of the dough.
  6. You can continue to shape the dough into the right size through the method immediately above, or you can be adventurous and try to toss the dough. Tossing the dough is a quick way to stretch out the dough, using the inertial force of the spinning dough (sometimes referred to as centrifugal force) to stretch itself while it spins above you. Tossing is a bit tricky, though, and can end in disaster in two ways:
    1. Huge hole forms in the dough because you spin it too hard or you puncture it when catching it (not so bad)
    2. You don't catch the dough, and it lands somewhere gross, like the floor (BAD)
    Needless to say, tossing takes practice. This is not to say that you won't pick it up on the first try - some people just have a knack for this. I've attempted to describe how I do it below. Please remember, though, that the basic idea is to spin the dough up in the air, and that you may find a better way to do it yourself.
    • Hold the dough with the tips of the fingers of your left hand and the palm and fingertips of your right hand (or vice-versa if left-handed), in such a way that most of the dough spills over between you and your hands.
    • You will spin the dough counter-clockwise if you are right handed; clockwise if you are left-handed. Before you toss, reverse spin about 1/4 turn - then gently but quickly spin the dough and toss it up in the air simultaneously. Catch the dough with as much "hand real estate" as possible - I go to the length of using my forearm - to avoid puncturing it.
    • Repeat as necessary until the dough has stretched to the desired diameter.

Top it and cook it

Before you top your pizza, make sure that you have placed the dough on top of the screen or stone. You'll never get it on if you put toppings on first! Even if you have preheated your stone, you should take it out of the oven and put the dough on top before you top it. [Note: if you happen to have one of those huge pizza paddles, you can top the dough on your counter top and then slide it on the stone afterwards - just make sure you have plenty of cornmeal underneath the crust first. Be careful about throwing toppings into your oven, though.]

Now is a great time to preheat the oven - I usually crank it up to the highest temperature before "broil", which on my oven is 500F. I've found that it takes about 20 minutes for the oven to preheat to that temperature.

This step is, by far, the one most rife with pizza pitfalls. We are cooking fast, and we are cooking at a high temperature - this means that there are two things to worry about: uneven cooking and burning.

  1. Avoid uneven cooking
    • Spread your toppings evenly over the surface of the pizza, avoiding any "mountains." Avoid piling up toppings in the center - pizza rookies tend to make this mistake, with disastrously undercooked results! Don't be afraid to push the toppings as close to the edge of the crust as possible.
    • As mentioned before, pre-cook any ingredients that may not be cooked thoroughly in 10 or so minutes of 500F heat. This includes raw sausage, chicken, thick cuts of certain vegetables (such as eggplant), and beef. Some people also prefer to pre-cook onions that have been cut in thick chunks.
    • Every 3 to 4 minutes, check on your pizza by peeking through the window (but avoid opening the oven door so the oven doesn't lose heat). If one side of the edge of the crust is browning, and another is not, this is a sure sign of uneven heat in your oven - twist the dough 1/2 turn.
    • Don't put too many toppings on your pizza. If the height of your pizza reaches more than an inch or so, you've probably got too much stuff on it, and the toppings buried way down on the bottom (not to mention the cheese) may not heat up.
  2. Avoid burning
    • There are certain ingredients that must be underneath cheese or other ingredients if you don't like them black and crispy:
      • Spinach (GROSS when burned!)
      • Fresh basil leaves (also gross if burned)
      • Ham, Canadian bacon, prosciutto
      • Pepperoni, salami (though some like them burned or crispy)
      • Minced or chopped garlic
    • Use a cheese or blend of cheeses with low moisture. Avoid cheeses with a low melting point (such as cheddar, American, and Monterrey Jack) and absolutely do not touch your pizza with Velveeta . Mozzarella and provolone are always good on pizza.

After you add your toppings, slide the pizza into your oven, and enjoy the wonderful smell that will emanate from your kitchen.

When your pizza appears to be done (for me, this usually means that the cheese on top has browned and the crust is nearly burned), take it out of the oven and place it somewhere safe, like a stove burner or wooden cutting board, to cool down. Let it cool down at least a few minutes before you cut it. All in all, a pizza should cook in about 10 minutes . Again, use your judgment and taste to decide when it is done; however, if it takes considerably longer than 10 minutes, you probably need to turn up the temperature on the oven.

Cut it and eat it!

Some people prefer to use a pizza-cutter (one of those circular blades with a handle) to cut pizza; I find that one can rarely put the right amount of force behind the blade of a pizza-cutter. I prefer to use a large chef knife (as in an 10" knife) to cut my pizzas at home. In restaurants, I have seen all kinds of great gadgets to cut pizza - the best is the pizza rocker knife . It might be a little over-the-top if you are not an avid pizza maker, but let me tell you - if you ever have to cut more than 3 pizzas at once, you'll thank me for this baby. Even if you cut just one, you'll understand the value of this clever knife.

If you do plan to use a pizza-cutter, you should try to use the "lift and cut" method. In other words, don't just drag the cutter over the pizza - you'll end up taking all of the toppings with it off the edge of the pizza! You should firmly push the cutter down on the crust, move it back and forth about an inch, and repeat until you have cut the entire pizza.

After cutting the pizza, you can sprinkle some Parmesan or Romano cheese and a little chopped parsley on top. Finally, enjoy your beautiful and tasty pizza!