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New York pizza is my favorite style of pizza. Sure, I love me a neo-Neapolitan, sit-down-with-a-fork-and-knife on occasion, and grilled pizzas are fantastic in the summer. Even chewy, Roman-style pizza bianca has its place. But the pizza I find myself most often craving is of the simple, by-the-slice, medium-thin, crusty and lightly chewy style.
Luckily for us, it's also the variety that seems most easily adaptable to the home kitchen. Unlike, say Neapolitan pies which require wood-burning, 1000°F ovens (or at the very least a reasonable workaround), the modern* New York pie is baked in gas ovens that don't often go north of 500 to 550°F or so—a temperature range not out of the pale of even the most bog-standard home oven fitted with a pizza stone.
So what is it that makes a New York pizza unique?
First of all, it's the sauce. It's an emphatically tomato-ey sauce with a balanced sweetness and acidity and the barest hint of herbs and alliums. I tackled this sauce in a previous Pizza Lab post (the secret is a mix of butter and olive oil, using whole tomatoes, dried oregano, a couple of halved onions that get removed, and a slow simmer on the stovetop). No problem.
Next, it's the cheese. Unlike a Neapolitan, which uses fresh mozzarella, New York-style pizza uses grated, dry mozzarella—the kind you can get sliced on a meatball sub or wrapped in cryovac blocks near the milk. It's applied sparingly so that it melts into a loose matrix that mingles with the sauce underneath, browning ever so slightly in the heat of the oven. The top of a New York-style pie should look mottled with red, white, and brown, definitely not a solid expanse of white melted cheese.
With a couple pies under your belt, you'll quickly discover two things about the cheese: it must be full-fat mozzarella (the part skim or low-fat stuff just doesn't stretch right), and you must grate it yourself. No matter how much you are tempted, do not buy pre-shredded cheese. Shredded cheese is coated with a dusting of potato or cornstarch intended to keep it from clumping. What it ends up doing is preventing it from melting properly. Your cheese will not acquire the requisite goo-factor. I've found that the best way to get good cheese for pizza at the supermarket is to go to the deli counter and ask them to cut you a pound or so straight off the slicing block in one chunk. Grated on the large holes of a box grater, it's perfect for the job.
Here's a problem I used to have: the cheese would overbrown and burn before the crust was done cooking. This happen to anyone else? I don't know if it's because professional pizza ovens have different convection patterns or some other sort of thermodynamic oddities going on, but the only solution I've found is to grate the cheese onto a plate, then pop it in the freezer for 15 minutes before applying it. This slows down its cooking just enough so that the crust can catch up before the cheese starts to burn.
The final factor that makes a great New York pizza—and this is the real key—is the crust. This is what separates the men from the boys. The New York slices from the Sbarros. The true Ray's from the hordes of imitators.**
Let's take a closer look, shall we?
Thicker than a Neapolitan crust but thinner than a pan pizza, a New York crust starts with a crisp, well-browned bottom layer about 2 millimeters thick. It must be sturdy enough that a single slice slightly bent lengthwise down the center will cantilever out straight under its own support, not requiring the eater to prop the tip with a second hand. There's nothing worse than walking out on the street with a slice, having the tip sag down, and the cheese slip off into a greasy puddle on the sidewalk. Even thinking about it makes my eyes well up.
The crust has to be sturdy enough, but—and this is important—just sturdy enough. Crunchy, tough, or cracker-like are not adjectives that can ever accurately describe a great New York pizza. The slice must crackle and give gently as you fold it, never crack or split.
After the initial crispness, the next 3-4 millimeters are devoted to a thin layer of soft, slightly chewy, and tender cooked dough. This layer must be as flavorful as the best bread with a savory, wheaty, and complex aroma. Never floury, never bland, the crust is absolutely not just a support mechanism for the cheese and sauce on top. It's this layer that gives the slice its distinctive chew. You've got to pull slightly with your teeth to separate a bite from the rest of the slice. It should not break off with no effort. If that's what you're after, you're better off ordering a Domino's thin crust with its matzoh-like base.
The very top 1-2 millimeters of crust—the bit in closest contact with the sauce and cheese—should be a slick, and nearly doughy, though again, it shouldn't taste raw. This crust-to-sauce interface is one of my favorite parts of the pizza, and should not be taken lightly.
Finally, we get to the raised outer crust known by pizza snobs as cornicione, or colloquially as the bones. Unlike the poofy, leopard-spotted edge of a Neapolitan, a New York pie has a crust that's only slightly raised. Indeed, the pie as a whole goes from thicker at the edges towards thinner in the center, an artifact of the toss-and-stretch method favored by most piemen. The crust should be relatively evenly browned, with a couple charred bubbles here and there, and an open bread-like structure, though again, not as outright airy as a Neapolitan crust.
So the obvious question is, how does one go about achieving a crust like this?
It's all in the dough.
There are a couple of key characteristics that separate a New York dough from a classic Neapolitan dough.
- The flour in a classic Neapolitan dough is a high-protein, finely milled Italian Tipo "00" (referred to as "double-oh" by the cognoscenti). It absorbs water easily, and bakes up with a super-thin crisp layer surrounding a moist, airy interior. New York pizza, on the other hand, is generally made from American bread flour. Also high in protein, it readily develops gluten (the protein matrix that gives bread structure). It is made from a different variety of wheat and not milled as finely. It results in a crust that's chewier, a little denser, and with significantly more structure.
- Sugar is almost always added to New York crusts. Asides from adding a bit of flavor and a little activity-boost for the yeast, it also aids in browning—essential if you want to get a nicely browned crust at relatively low oven temperatures.
- Olive oil is the last addition. By coating individual flour granules, oils will effectively lower the maximum level of gluten formation in a given dough, making the resultant baked crust slightly denser and notably more tender than a fat-free dough. Without oil, a New York pie would dry out and toughen during its 12-15 minute stay in the oven. Olive oil keeps it nice and supple.
Luckily for me, there's already a pretty fantastic recipe for New York style pizza dough out there in Peter Reinhart's American Pie, a new classic on pizza, which if you don't already own, you should. His method is to mix together the flour, yeast, salt, sugar, olive oil, and warm water in the bowl of a stand mixer, knead it slowly for a couple minutes, then allow it to rest for a few minutes in a step called an autolyse. Autolysis allows time for flour to absorb water, and for the gluten-forming proteins to shorten themselves through enzymatic action, allowing them to be more easily aligned and stretched with subsequent mixing.
The dough is then kneaded again until enough gluten is developed to pass the window-pane test, allowed to rise overnight in the refrigerator, then shaped, proofed, rolled, and baked.
The results are pretty good. Texturewise, they're spot on. It's the flavor that's always seemed lacking to me. It's not bad per se, nor underseasoned, just a little... off.
It was only recently when I was perusing my McGee that I came up with a theory as to why. Here's what he has to say on the subject of kneading:
As oxygen from the air and oxidizing compounds from the yeasts enter the dough, the gluten molecultes begin to bond end-to-end and form long chains. An excess of [exposure to air and oxygen] bleaches the remaining wheat pigments and alters the flavor.
So here's my theory: in order to get a ball of pizza dough to pass the window-pane test, it needs to be kneaded for a relatively long period of time. In a large-scale, New York pizza operation, dough is made in massive 30-40 pound batches. With such a large mass of dough, there's significantly less exposure to oxygen while the dough kneads, as only the dough on the very surface of a rather large ball is exposed, the rest being protected by the sides of the mixing bowl, and by the dough itself. With a small ball of dough in a home mixer, on the other hand, a much higher proportion of the dough is exposed to the flavor-altering effects of air as it mixes.
The result? A dough made in small batches at home oxidizes more, and thus never tastes as good as a dough made in large batches in a pizza parlor.
McGee goes on to suggest that mixing doughs in a food processor might actually be a better method than the stand mixer, something counterintuitive to me, as the stand mixer seems to resemble the gentle action of hand-kneading far more accurately. The idea is that the rapidly rotating blade of a food processor will batter and realign the proteins in the flour much more efficiently than the slow-moving stand mixer. It should give you a window-pane worthy dough in a fraction of the time. Less time kneading means less time oxidizing, and thus better flavor.
To test this, I decided to set up a three-way bake-off.
- Dough mixed in the stand mixer for a full 7 minutes post autolyse (until it passes the window-pane test).
- Dough mixed in the stand mixer for only half the time (it doesn't pass the window-pane test, but should show improved flavor).
- Dough mixed in the food processor.
I was frankly shocked at how quickly the food processor dough came together. Within about 30 seconds, I had a dough that easily passed the window-pane test with a smooth, supple feel that you only get with many minutes of stand-mixer kneading after an autolyse period. I packed away my three 12-ounce balls of dough in the quart-sized deli containers I use for overnight proofs (I highly recommend them for this task!) and waited until the next day, where another surprise awaited me.
The fully-kneaded stand mixer version, as expeced rose quite well - coming up to the 3-cup mark on my container. The barely-kneaded stand mixer version showed significantly less, coming up to around the 2 1/2 cup line (pictured at left, above). The food-processor kneaded version, on the other hand, nearly blew the top off of the lid. What's all this mean?
Well, bread doughs rise because as yeast consumes the sugars naturally present in the flour, they release both alcohol and carbon dioxide gas. This gas gets trapped within the gluten structure formed by the flour proteins. The stronger this structure, the better the gas bubbles are trapped, and the more the dough is leavened. Thus the fact that my food processor dough rose better than either stand mixer dough was a good indicator that the dough sported superior gluten formation, and would thus have a better finished texture.
Even forming them into balls showed a superior structure. The barely-kneaded stand mixer version tore as I formed it, ending up with a rough surface that translated into a risen ball of dough that was far more fragile as I tried to stretch it before topping. The well-kneaded stand mixer dough and the food processor dough, on the other hand were a dream to work with. Smooth, supple and elastic, they were easily shaped and just as easily stretched for topping.
So would a better-feeling dough produce a superior end product? As they say in the industry, the proof is in the pie.
After applying my sauce and cheese, I baked all three pizzas one after the other in the same oven, at identical temperatures (I used my laser thermometer to ensure that the pizza stone came back up to temperature before baking the next pie). Every oven may be different, but in my own oven, I've found that placing the baking stone directly in the middle is the best way to get the top and the undercarriage to cook simultaneously. If your bottom is cooking too fast, raise your stone a level or too. Top burning before the bottom browns? Just lower the pizza stone (or take it to the extreme and place it directly on the floor of the oven).
As expected, the under-kneaded crust came out with a miserably inadequate texture (pictured above). Dense and almost cake-like, it nevertheless had a decent, wheaty flavor.
Of the two remaining crusts, both baked into perfect New York-style pies—at least in appearance. The stand mixer version had the familiar off-flavor that I'd noticed with my NY pies in the past. Only the food processor-produced crust created a dough that was perfect in both texture and flavor. Tender, chewy, and crisp all at once with that coveted slick layer at the sauce-crust interface and a thin layer of melted cheese just hinting at brown, it was the archetypical New York pie, and it had just come out of my own oven!
Are you as surprised as I am? Is it really true that, at least as far as small batches of dough go, a food processor can produce a crust better and faster than a stand mixer can?
I'm a convert, and as a devout atheist, converting me ain't an easy task.
Continue right this way for the full recipe!
*I say "modern" because traditional New York pies are cooked in coal ovens, but the vast majority of corner-slice joints these days use gas, even the best ones.
**In New York, there are a half dozen or so "Famous Original Ray's" pizzas, all of them unrelated, and few of them any good. Prince Street Ray's is the original, and the 6th Avenue Ray's is the best.