Pizza Obsessives: Bill SFNM, the Passion That Burns -- Four Decades Later

"The more I learn, the less I know. What I do know is that this path is not linear. It wraps back on itself like a möbius strip. Back to the beginning."

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A pizza made with 9-day-old dough fermented with a Russian sourdough culture. [Photographs: Bill SFNM]

Imagine a wood-fired pizza oven as part of your outdoor kitchen. A fork mixer to more gently mix and knead your dough. A refrigerator stocked with multiple sourdough cultures and the curiosity to coax the different flavor characteristics out of each. While we're at it, how about some high-grade video and camera equipment to take stills and video so that you can better capture the cooking cycle of a pizza as it expands and bubbles in that wood burner? Why not put all of this in a location where you could partake in activities like, I don't know, being able to take your dog along to forage for beautiful porcini mushrooms not too far from your house?

Sounds a lot like a pizza dreamland, no?

For one man at least, the dream is reality. However, it's one thing to have some fancy toys and quite another to have the passion, drive, and curiosity to push yourself over the years to experiment and make great pizza with said do-dads. Bill SFNM is the real deal, constantly refining his process and technique, producing mouthwatering pies, and offering help and insight for those with questions.

As you'll see, a chance rainstorm in Central America more than 40 years ago sent Bill on the path to Obsessive-ville, a path he still treads today. Needless to say, Bill's experience makes him a candidate to get his toosh into the hot seat. Let's go!

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You have an Earthstone modular wood fired oven in your outdoor kitchen. What led you to choose the Earthstone product when you were shopping for an oven?

I built the oven for my outdoor kitchen about ten years ago. My research at the time turned up only two manufacturers of ovens suitable for residential installation: Earthstone and Mugnaini. I was woefully uninformed and had little criteria then to decide which might be the better choice. All I knew is that I wanted to try my hand at Neapolitan-style pizzas, brick oven breads, roasted meats, etc.

Maurice at Earthstone was so helpful that he made the decision an easy one. These days there are many more alternatives on the market and if I were making the choice today, the decision would be much more difficult.

Did you assemble the oven yourself? How long did the assembly take?

I did most of the basic construction myself. I did have a guy help me with the heavy lifting and with the cosmetics of the exterior. I wanted the oven to resemble a Native American horno and to be covered with stucco to match my adobe house. I started with absolutely no experience in any kind of construction. Without Maurice of Earthstone holding my hand at every step of the way, the project would have been a disaster. It was a long time ago, but I'm guessing the project lasted around three months.

How often do you make pizza at home?

At least once per week. Pizza for lunch on Friday has become a family tradition

How many pies do you typically make in a session?

Five to eight depending on how many family members are able to come over.

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How long have you been making pizzas at home?

I have been baking pizzas for about 40 years...seriously for the past 10.

There are so many variables in a wood fired oven like temperature, fire placement, ember to wood ratios, etc. What took the longest for you to dial in for your specific oven?

The biggest challenge was, and continues to be, a balance of all these factors so that all parts of the pie are perfectly cooked at the same time. The problem is compounded by the small size of my oven, which has a 35 inch diameter cooking surface. The intensity of the heat radiated from the bed of embers falls off with the square of the distance, so having to cook closer to the fire [because of the smaller refractory chamber of my oven] means I have to deal with larger temperature variations across the entire pie. The further away you can cook from the fire, the more uniform are the temperatures.

I normally place the pie as far as I can from the fire. But, depending on how much heat the fire is putting out, I may slide [the pizza] a little closer if one side segment seems to need more heat.

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Bill, I have seen previous pictures with your ember/firebed distributed in a "U- shape". What is your current "pile" positioning?

The U-shape supplies so much heat to the pie that it can be overcooked in an instant. I typically use it if I am ready to bake, but the oven hasn't gotten to the desired temperature.


The "U-Shape" pile cooking one of Bill's pies

You've mentioned recently that you are now at 62% hydration and are bringing the deck/floor up to 975° to 1025°F. Which came first, the oven temp or hydration of your dough?

The oven temperature came first. Hydration is easy to control precisely, but it took me about three years to learn how to manage the fire so that I could even start producing consistent results with different hydration levels.

For the way I make pies, the higher the hydration, the better. For a long time, 62% was the highest I could go without having to use a lot of bench flour to avoid sticking to the peel. Lately, I have increased the hydration level to 64% and am getting an easy to handle dough with very little bench flour. Is the water less wet? Nope. Is the flour I use (Caputo 00 Pizzeria) being milled/blended differently? That's possible. But I think I am just getting more experience at mixing and managing the dough so that it better absorbs the water.

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White pizza with clams

What qualities are you looking for in your pizzas when trying to make that "perfect" pie?

Of all the pies I make, I would guess that no more than 10% make me swoon. After all these years, the ratio of "perfect" pies has improved much more slowly than I would like. I guess my tastes may be evolving and I have become more discerning. Perhaps pizzas I really enjoyed several years ago would not impress me now. And is it possible the pies I love now would have disappointed me several years ago.

Although I enjoy all kinds of pizzas, with NY-Style being near the top of my list, it is the "perfect" Neapolitan pie that fuels my obsession. My pies diverge from classic Neapolitan pies in one important aspect; I love a big, puffy edge. I always start eating the center point of the a slice, enjoying its very thin, but still airy crust. In the perfect pie, there is a balance between the subtle flavors of crust and the bolder ones of the toppings. As I approach the edge, all systems go on high alert for that part of the pie which for me is for me the very best. There will be a paper-thin layer on the surface which instantly melts away as the teeth sink into the soft and airy interior. The texture is fluffy, not chewy. The flavors are nuanced and complex...not yeasty and with just the slightest tang. I don't nail it nearly as often as I would like, but when I do, it makes all this well worthwhile.

People seem to spend a lot of time discussing what the perfect Neapolitan pie, especially the crust, should look like. This aspect is the least interesting to me. I've made plenty of pies that look "perfect", but have been far from that. I see photos of lots of pies with big, black leopard spots. Generally, when I bake a pie that looks like that, it has been overcooked. My "perfect" pies typically have a larger number of very small spots.

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Click to make bigger

You started using the Neapolitan Slap technique in March of last year (2010). Are you still using it? If so, about how many pizzas did it take for you to gain some sense of competency with the technique?

The slap has become an essential part of my routine. It allows me to stretch out the dough with less handling, which is a good thing for the texture of the pie. And it is fun and looks cool too! I would guess it took about 100 pies before I was comfortable with the technique. I have an advanced degree in klutz, so I'm sure others are able to master it a lot quicker.

Lol. I hold that degree as well. How long does it take you to open and form a skin now using the slap?

I use a three step process: With my hands I press out the ball into a disk about six inches in diameter. I then slap and rotate the dough no more than five or six times. Then I do a quick, final stretch with my fists around the rim. The total time takes ten to fifteen seconds. I'm dealing with a very soft dough which stretches with very little effort.

You live at an elevation of about 7000 feet. Please explain some of the things other home pizzamaking peeps need to consider when making sky high pies.

Altitude is going to have three main effects. The first is that gas bubbles produced by the yeast are going to be larger due to the lower atmospheric pressure. In baking things like quick-breads that lack a strong gluten structure, this is a major problem since these large bubbles often burst, resulting in a dense crumb (the first angel food cake I baked after moving here from sea level rose beautifully and then crashed into a disk as thin as a pancake!). What this means for pizza makers is that you need to develop a strong enough gluten structure to contain the gas bubbles, as the danger is in gas escaping during baking. You may want to use a little less yeast as well.

The second issue is that the thinner air holds less moisture. So your flour may be drier and need a bit more water.

The third issue is that there is less oxygen in the air. It may be a little harder to get the fire in the WFO started. The wood won't burn as hot so it may take longer or more fuel to get the oven up to temp.

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Pesto pizza

Interesting. Approximately how long does it take for your oven to reach your desired cooking temperature once you fire the oven?

Two to four hours depending on how recently the oven was last fired or what the ambient temperatures are. My oven has been overbuilt with a very large thermal mass so that it takes a lot of fuel to get it up to temp, but it holds the heat for a long time. I commonly bake pizzas for lunch, roast a chicken in the evening, and bake bread the next day.

You use a Santos fork mixer. Anything about switching to a fork mixer surprise you right away? How do you feel the fork mixer has positively contributed to your pizzamaking?

Yes, I still use the Santos for all my breads and pizzas. The biggest surprise was how little time it takes to develop the gluten structure. My KitchenAid stand mixer with a dough hook was much less efficient; it was difficult to get just the right speed so that the dough wouldn't flop around the bowl and just spin on the hook. And there is something about the way the fork cuts through the dough while it spins...laminating in thin layers that I feel gives me better breads and pizzas.

On a related note, as I'm increasing the hydration in my doughs I am also cutting down on kneading time. More gluten is being formed during fermentation due to the increased moisture.

You have mentioned that you ferment in clear plastic and gauge the readiness of your dough by its appearance as it ferments. What visual cues are you looking for when determining if your dough is adequately fermented?

I look for a distribution of gas pockets both large and small throughout the lower portion of the container. Gas pockets are also being formed in the upper portion, but are less visible.

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Click to make bigger

You've tinkered a lot with various strains of sourdough cultures. For pizzamaking, which is your favorite starter and why?

I have five strains of starter and they all can make great pies. Each has distinctive flavors and are most active in different temperature ranges. I pass through phases. At one time, my favorite was the Camaldoli. It died in a tragic accident involving a housekeeper cleaning out the refrigerator. We don't talk about it.

My current favorite is the Ischia starter. Perhaps more than any of the other starters, it wants to be fed and used frequently.

What temperature do you personally feel is best to keep the Ischia culture at and what characteristics are delivered at that temperature range versus another?

I only recently started using a more accurate chamber for fermenting and proofing which has me starting from scratch on teasing out the best flavors from my starters. Right now I am playing around a with two-stage fermentation where I am starting fermentation at 75°F, where the yeasts are more active, and finishing at 65°F where the bacteria are more active. I'm guessing that at the end of the first stage, the bacteria have the right concentration of by-products from the yeast metabolism. Still too early to draw conclusions.

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You are using a Thermokool MR-138 to better control the temperature of your fermentations. What led you to go in this direction?

Natural starter cultures are very sensitive in certain temperature ranges. Especially during the summer, there are very wide temperature swings in my kitchen. Nighttime temps outdoors can drop into the 40's and daytime temps can exceed 100F. So even in my kitchen, the temperature can vary from mid-60's to mid 80's...not condusive to consistent fermentation and proofing.

I first tried the MR-138, an inexpensive thermoelectric chamber that both heats and cools. It wasn't very accurate (+/- 5 degrees), but it was better than nothing. This past summer we had some prolonged heat spells. The Peltier heating element in the unit just could not handle the load, so I cast around for other alternatives. In my garage, I have an old wine cooler I picked up at a garage sale that I use mainly for curing meats. I added a heating pad, temperature controllers and a fan to it and I couldn't be happier with the results. I now can keep the dough at any temp I want regardless of the outside temperatures.

What is your current pizza "recipe"?

I was afraid you were going to ask that. There is something about Neapolitan pizza that defies reduction into a list of ingredients and instructions. In my quest to master Neapolitan pizza, my focus in the beginning was on learning the underlying biochemical and thermodynamic principles. I made countless experimental batches in which everything was precisely measured with the expressed goal of making the next batch better. This approach only took me so far.

There are just too many interdependent variables, many of which are not easy to control or even identify. Every starter activation is different, every batch of dough is different, every ball in each batch is different, every firing of the WFO is different, every log in the fire is different, every spot in the oven is different every second, every pizza is different, every slice in each pizza is different....

As I came to fully understand this dilemma, I started looking at pizza making in a whole different way, paying much more attention to what my senses were telling me, what I was tasting, smelling, seeing, feeling. Precision has yielded to improvisation and often I just seem to know that some adjustment is needed and not in any touchy-feely way like I commune at the top of Mt. Vesuvius with the spirits of the ancient pizzaiolos. Clearly at some level my brain is integrating knowledge, experience, and observations...pizza making after many years has become "second nature". There is no question that the pro's that bake a few hundred pies each day achieve this level pretty quickly. At the rate I am going, it has taken me almost 10 years and I still have a long way to go.

The ratio of "perfect" pies has dramatically improved although I still produce plenty of sub-optimal pies. And the whole process has become much more relaxed and fun! This style has spread to all of the things I cook; cookbooks and recipes are great for inspiration, but I don't think I have followed a recipe in a few years. And I think my cooking is the better for it.

So the answer to your question is that I really don't have a recipe for pizza.

What part of the pizzamaking process is most challenging for you?

I continue to struggle with knowing when to pull the pie out of the oven. At 900°F plus, it can take a pie just a few seconds to go from perfectly-cooked to over-cooked. Too many of my pies are overcooked. The best visual cue I have is not the color or spotting of the crust, but how long before the crust initially begins to puff up [once being placed in the oven] and, once it starts to rise, how quickly it takes to reach maximum rise/expansion. This gives me visibility into what is going on inside of the dough.

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What part of the pizzamaking process is most enjoyable for you?

There is nothing more enjoyable for me than to be sitting at the head of the table and looking at the faces of the people I care most about while they are enjoying my pizzas.

What is your favorite pizza to make?

This changes often, but my white "Spanish Pie" has to be my current favorite. The skin is topped with Manchego cheese. After baking I drape it with paper-thin slices of Serrano ham. Then some arugula on top of that dressed with a splash of olive oil and sherry vinegar.

You have cooked a lot of different foods, as evidenced by your high quality YouTube Channel ExtremeCooking. What keeps you coming back to pizzamaking over the years?

I think we all have foods to which we have strong emotional connections. Often these are foods that are difficult to find in commercial establishments the way we like them, so we embark on quests to make them in our kitchens to our own standards. Pizza is one of several such foods for me.

What is your favorite pizzeria that you have visited?

Da Michele in Naples.

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Was it Da Michele that inspired you to pursue Neopolitan pizzas?

The inspiration for my obsession with Neapolitan pies long predates my first visit to Naples. About 45 years ago, I had moved to Panama City in the Republic of Panama. To escape a sudden torrential downpour, I ran for cover under the awning of a little commercial center to wait out the storm and found myself at the entrance to a Neapolitan pizzeria with a brick oven. The memory of those magical pies was seared into my brain and I have, over the years, been generally disappointed in my search for something similar. When I moved into my present home I had a chance to fulfill my dream of having a real WFO.

Wow, what an awesome story! Forty-five years ago, in Panama? Any chance you have the name of that place stored in your memory banks?

Pizzeria Napoli. It is still in business although it isn't in the same location and after so many years, is it remotely possible the pizzas could be as good?

What is the pizza scene in the Sante Fe area like? Any place that shines more than others?

Nothing special, in my opinion. There is a new pizzeria with a WFO that I haven't tried. I'm not optimistic. This town has a vibrant food scene, but pizza isn't part of it.

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For two years now, you have posted pictures of incredible looking mushrooms that you and your dog Gustavo go out together to forage. How far away from your home do you have to go to find those delicious looking shrooms?

It takes about 35 minutes to drive to the trail head. Sometimes Tavo and I find mushrooms right next to the parking lot, but we usually need to hike into the forest another 15-20 minutes. Some years we have to drive a few hours up into Colorado.

Any tips for coaxing the best flavor out of a mushroom when using it as a pizza topping?

Porcini season coincides with our monsoon season, so the mushrooms can be packed with moisture. I slice them thin, brush with oil, and blast them over the coals in the WFO to drive out the excess moisture and concentrate the flavor. I pull them out when the edges just begin to char.

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Click to make bigger. Porcini mushrooms foraged by Bill & Tavo and a porcini pie from 2010

Anything new you are looking to accomplish with pizzamaking?

Nope. Just happy with getting better at what I'm already doing.

Who would you like to see interviewed next?

Marco (a.k.a. pizzanapoletana at pizzamaking.com forums). Unfortunately, he rarely posts any more at the forum and he deleted much of his content, but what he discussed there strongly informed my early approach. I found his views on pizza; highly opinionated, outspoken and passionate, reflect the traits I find most endearing about Neapolitans. He had little patience for people like me who rejected his belief that the most important ingredient in pizza is tradition.

Fellow Slice'rs, help solve a pizza mystery Bill has with regards to a certain pizzeria. Bill mentions:

Actually, I had a short flirtation with NY/NJ Style pizzas about 25 years ago. I was on a business trip to Paramus, NJ. At the end of a very long day, I was driving back to my hotel, took a couple of wrong turns and ended up in front of a small, nondescript pizza joint to ask for directions. Best NY-Style pizza I have ever had. I have no idea how I got there, was never able to find it again, and descriptions of everything I recall about that night to people who live in the area turned up nothing. Much better than the pies I have enjoyed at the more renown NYC pizzeria.

Thanks for everything Bill! Catch more of Bill SFNM's pizza and food videos at YouTube Channels ExtremeCooking and pizza101101

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