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Taste Test: Whole Foods' DIY Pizza Ingredients

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[Photographs: J. Kenji Lopez-Alt]

Semi-Homemade Pan Pizza Recipe

Have some dough but don't know how to cook it?
Easy Pan Pizza! (the recipe) »

So I was in line at Whole Foods yesterday afternoon purchasing a quarter cow's worth of ground beef for what's sure to be an interesting day of Burger Lab testing, marveling at the efficiency of their queue management system, and quietly musing about my favorite subject for daytime musing: "What am I making for dinner?"

I happened to glance over to my left at the ready-to-bake pizzas. They sat there, tightly cling-filmed to their cardboard stretchers like a row of DOA bodies. My lip curled in an involuntary sneer. Ugh. But then! I noticed that right next to them, Whole Foods offers a complete DIY pizza kit: 22 ounces of raw dough, a pint of store-made pizza sauce, and a few ounces of freshly shredded mozzarella cheese.

Now, I'm not one to be lazy, and I'm no slouch when it comes to pizza ("serious pizza testing" comes in third just underneath "serious burger testing" and "my wife" on my favorite-things-to-do-on-a-Sunday-afternoon list), but if I could find a supply of cheap, convenient, and—above all—good pizza dough, well then, my Sunday afternoons might just become a little bit lazier.

I bought all three ingredients for a whopping total of $8.77—you can't even buy peanuts for that cheap at Whole Foods—and brought them home for closer inspection.

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I decided that the best way to go about this would be to divide the 22-ounce dough ball in two, using one half to make a traditional NY-style thin-crust pizza, and the other to make a pan pizza, alla Pizza Hut, to see how well it fared in both applications.

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I immediately noticed that the dough was quite dry and stiff, even after letting it rest and come to warm room temperature. I'm guessing it has a water content of around 58% or so, as opposed to the 60-65% that I prefer to work with. Still, it was properly kneaded, and passed the window pane test handily.

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After letting it rise until about double its volume in a covered bowl, I tried stretching it out. This is where I ran into some problems: the dough was simply too stiff to stretch properly. Anyone whose seen an amigo working the dough station at a NY pizza joint knows that the dough should be silky and smooth, stretching out wide and thin with minimal effort. The Whole Foods dough required some serious pulling and stretching before I got it to a reasonable size.

Even then, the stretching was uneven and lumpy. Hydration is definitely the problem here.

New York Style

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Still, with the help of a 500 degree oven and a pre-heated pizza stone, it emerged looking pretty good. The crust bubbled and browned nicely, with a few darker charred spots around the cornicione

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The sideview shows the decent bubble structure in the cornicione, though due to difficulties with stretching, the center of the pie ended up much too thick for a true NY-style slice. This was more akin to really good Vermont Ski Lodge pizza, if you know what I mean.

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The upskirt further demonstrates stretching problems: see the elephant folds of wrinkled pizza flesh? That's due to poor stretchiness, where the dough tried to shrink back on itself. Still, charring was excellent (I love my pizza stone).

As far as flavor goes, I was really blown away—this stuff is as good as the best slow-fermented doughs I've tasted. It must be due to the malted barley flour they add to the mix. Tangy, malty, full, and ever-so-slightly sweet, even the un-sauced, un-cheesed cornicione packed a flavorful punch. On the other hand, it was entirely too soft, lacking the crisp chew of a good NY slice. Not bad per se, but just not what I'm looking for in NY pizza. Maybe it'll fare better in other applications.

Speaking of sauce and cheese, I found the sauce to be slightly too dry-herb-and-garlic-powder heavy, tasting like standard-issue jarred pizza sauce, but it had a good balance of sweetness, and is superior to many by-the-slice joints around town. The cheese was excellent, melting beautifully (much better than the pre-shredded, cornstarch coated brand-name packaged cheese), with the pronounced tang and saltiness of a well-aged mozzarella. I'd buy this cheese for a number of uses.

Pan Pizza

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After seeing how soft the baked dough was, I was much more confident about this second application. I rolled the dough out with a rolling pin into a 10-inch disk, then slipped that disk into a cast-iron pan slicked with extra-virgin olive oil, covered it, and let the dough rise again for half an hour before saucing, cheesing, and baking.

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Success! This is the epitome of a good pan pizza: soft, thick, and tender, with a crisp, crunchy, cracker like crust on the bottom. The soft dough is a perfect match for this style. It blows my fond childhood memories of Pizza Hut out of the water.

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Note to self: next time I order bad pizza, try deep-frying it in olive oil.

So final verdict? Excellent. I'd buy all the ingredients again in an instant. For 8 buck and change, and in under 2 hours (including rising time), you can have enough fresh, home-made pizza coming out of your oven to feed four (about the equivalent of 2 medium Domino's pies). It's a steal. And if you like the pan pizza style, you're in even better luck, because this produces one of the finest examples of it that I've ever tasted.

Though I don't yet have children, my goal is to father a pair of identical twins. They will be treated in exactly the same manner, except that one child will be allowed to assist me in selecting toppings and constructing pizzas during our DIY Sunday afternoons, while the other watches Rachael Ray reruns. Don't worry, I'll take careful psychological notes and blog the results. Predictions?

Need the recipe? Easy Pan Pizza »

About the author: After graduating from MIT, J. Kenji Lopez-Alt spent many years as a chef, recipe developer, writer, and editor in Boston. He now lives in New York with his wife, where he runs a private chef business, KA Cuisine, and co-writes the blog GoodEater.org about sustainable food enjoyment.

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