The Pizza Lab

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The Pizza Lab: The Complete Updated Guide To Grilled Pizza

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[Photo: J. Kenji Lopez-Alt]

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I've long said that grilling pizza is by far the easiest way for a regular home cook to get pizzeria-quality, soft and airy, crisp, well-charred, smoky pies at home (that is, without resorting to hacking your kitchen equipment), and with grilled pizza season well into full swing, I figured it was time we updated last year's Grilled Pizza Guide, which gives a pretty good overview of the process, but ignores one thing: Toppings.

Time to fix that. But first, a quick recap on the basics.

How to Grill Pizza, a Crash Course

Grilled pizza is made by laying a stretched piece of dough directly on the grates over hot coals, cooking the first side, flipping it, topping it in reverse order (that's cheese, then sauce), then returning it to the fire to cook the second side. As the second side cooks, the cheese melts, and the sauce warms. It's as simple as that.

Here's how to get it done.

Step 1: Pick A Nice Day

You preferably want to make your dough at least a day in advance, so look at the forecast, and plan accordingly. We picked this past Wednesday, which started out as a sunny, balmy 85°F New York summer day. Our hope was that we'd be down to comfortable lounging temperature at just about the time the grill was fired up and evening started to settle in.

Step 2: Make Dough

Any type of pizza dough will work on the grill, but I generally use the recipe here, making it the night before, letting it rise in the fridge overnight, then portioning it for its second rise a few hours before I plan on grilling.

The dough in that recipe is hydrated at 66% (8 ounces of water for 12 ounces of flour), a little lower than my normal Neapolitan pizza dough recipe. If you are worried about having trouble stretching the dough and laying it over the coals, you might want to cut down the water even a little more (take out, say, 1/4 cup from the recipe) to give you a slightly tighter dough to work with. The texture won't be quite as puffy and airy, but it'll still get the job done.

Step 3: Get Your Other Ingredients Ready

If there's one thing that's of the utmost importance with grilled pizza, it's having everything on hand and organized before you start. The pies cook so fast (under a minute per side, depending on the strength of your fire) that there's no time to fumble around looking for your cheese or your toppings.

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Along with your dough, a surface for rolling, and a rolling pin, for a basic pie, you'll need, in this order:

  • A cup of extra-virgin olive oil with a brush. You can flavor the oil with garlic, chilis, or herbs, if you'd like.

  • Kosher salt and a pepper mill filled with black pepper.

  • Shredded melting cheese (like Mozzarella, Fontina, or Jack).

  • A block of hard, flavorful cheese like Parmesan or Pecorino, along with a grater.

  • Roughly pureed, seasoned tomatoes and a spoon (I just pulse a drained jar of San Marzanos in the food processor a couple times and season with salt).

  • Toppings (more on this later), with forks or spoons for applying them.

  • Garnishes (I like to use roughly chopped basil or finely sliced scallion greens).

I prefer to keep all ingredients in individual containers on a single tray or table right next to the grill so I don't have to move around much. You'll also want a thin pizza peel, or at the very least a large, thin spatula for moving the pie around.

Step 4: Ignite Your Coals

I use a full, slightly overflowing chimney of coals, which will provide enough continuous heat to cook at least a half dozen pies.

On Wednesday, after setting up our ingredients and lighting the coals, here's what happened:

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Uh oh. Monsoon season has hit New York. After frantically dragging everything inside, covering the grill, then chasing airborne deck furniture through the wind and rain (and losing all of our carefully chiffonaded basil to the storm), we nearly gave up. But just as the chimney of coals was approaching readiness, the skies cleared, the wind calmed down, the birds started singing, and this suddenly appeared:

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Now if that's not a sign of good things to come, I don't know what is!

Spread the coals under one side of the grill (leave the other side unheated so that you have space to slide the pizza while you top it), then cover the grill to let the grates heat up.

Step 5: Roll Your Dough

You can work one ball of dough at a time while you're cooking, but I find it much easier to roll out a half dozen at a time, stacking them in between well-floured sheets or parchment paper (keep them in a cool place, like in a cooler after rolling and stacking, or they will expand and stick). That way, you can fire them off one after the other without any break in the dining.

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After rolling the dough out, brush one side with a thin coat of olive oil (this'll help it brown more evenly) and a sprinkle of salt and pepper.

Step 6: Grill the First Side

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Lay the dough oiled-side-down on the grates and allow it to cook for about a minute, shifting and rotating it every fifteen seconds or so to cook it evenly. It should start to bubble and blister within 10 seconds. This is fine. You can flatten any extra large bubbles, but anything under two inches or so will take care of itself when you flip the dough.

While it's cooking, brush the top side with a little more oil.

Step 7: Flip and Top

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Once the first side is cooked, flip the pie and slide it over to the cool side of the grill. Working fast, apply a sparing amount of cheese (about 1 1/2 ounces of shredded mozzarella and 1/2 an ounce of grated Parmesan is what I aim for) directly to the top of the pizza. The residual heat from the crust should begin to melt it. Next, dot your sauce onto the pie in distinct piles, which helps keep everything neater than simply smearing it around (and disturbing the cheese).

Finally, add the toppings of your choice (again, more on those in a bit). If you want your cheese extra melty, you can cover the grill for 30 seconds or so at this point while the pizza is sill on the cool side.

Step 8: Finish'er Off

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It's time to slide that pie right on back over the coals (I find it helps to slide it along the same orientation as the grates rather than fight against them, using them as kind of casters to move your pizza about) and cook the second side just like the first.

You'll want to get your peepers right on down to grill level in order to peek under the pizza as it cooks by lifting the edges with a spatula. That's really the only way to gauge doneness without knocking the toppings off. As before, you'll have to rotate the pie frequently to get it to cook right. But when it does, boy, is it worth the work.

The Toppings

Topping a grilled pizza is a completely different beast from topping a regular pie. Why? Because once you add the toppings, they don't get heated again like they would in a normal pizza oven. That means that every topping you use has to either be par-cooked, grilled, or thin enough that it'll cook through via the residual heat in the pizza.

Here are some of your options:

Other Cheeses

On top of your base of melted mozzarella and Parm, you can always add dollops of other cheeses for enhanced flavor or texture. Creamy slices of fresh mozzarella (or mozzarella di bufala), blue cheese, fresh ricotta, stinky French cheeses; it's all good. The key is to apply in spots, and be sparing. Remember—massive amounts of cheese will not melt!

Marinated/Pickled/Preserved Stuff

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This pie combines some fresh ricotta (awesome stuff from DiPalo, across the street from our office), along with sliced sun-dried tomatoes packed in olive oil.

Other marinated/pickled/preserved things you could try are:

  • Olives, sliced or whole pitted
  • Anchovies
  • Artichoke hearts, roughly chopped
  • Mushrooms, sliced or quartered
  • Hot peppers or sweet peppers, sliced
  • Roasted red peppers, sliced
  • Sardines
  • Hot pepper cream
  • Giardiniera
  • Olive salad, Muffaletta-style (here's our recipe)
  • Capers

Par-Cooked Vegetables

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For the pie above, I cooked down sliced onions and portobello mushrooms in olive oil until well caramelized, then spread them over the pie on top of the tomatoes. Other options include:

  • Roasted shallots
  • Sauteed peppers
  • Braised greens, like kale or collards
  • Greens sauteed with a bit of olive oil and garlic
  • Roasted or sauteed, whole or sliced garlic bulbs
  • Tomato slices or split cherry tomatoes slow-roasted in the oven with olive oil and garlic
  • Braised or roasted fennel
  • Sauteed eggplant and squashes
  • Potatoes, boiled and sliced (I like creamy yellow fingerling or Yukon Golds)
  • Mashed potatoes, made with plenty of olive oil (and if you're into it, truffle oil. I'm not into it).
  • Fruit, lightly sauteed in butter with or without sugar

Grilled Vegetables

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You've already got the grill going, so why not grill a few vegetables to top your pizza with? The pie above is made with thin slices of grilled eggplant (I brushed them with oil before grilling), along with strips of marinated red pepper. You can grill basically any vegetable that you can par-cook indoors. I especially like to grill scallions or onions. Asparagus are awesome as well. Grill them whole, then chop them up before topping.

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Cured Meats

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Ok, so I know some folks like to stick chicken, steak, hamburger meat, and the like on a pizza, but for me, that just seems wrong for some reason. It's as if the pizza is not good enough on its own, and you've gotta make up for it by sticking another meal on top. Of course, if you feel otherwise, the grill is a perfect place to cook off some protein before slicing and topping your pizza with it.

Cured meats applied sparingly, however, flavor the pizza without overpowering it. The pie above has got very thin slices of soppresata (which warm through just fine from the residual heat, releasing a bit of their spicy oil), along with some chunks of sauteed sausage, which I browned in a skillet beforehand. Here are some more ideas:

  • Thinly sliced pepperoni, cooked in the microwave or oven until crisp
  • Thinly sliced prosciutto, speck, jamón Serrano, or other types of raw cured ham
  • Crumbled browned sausage meat
  • Bacon, cooked until crisp and crumbled
  • Guanciale, fatback, lardo, and other cured pork fat products, sliced thin and applied raw
  • Salami, soppresata, mortadella, bresaola, lomo, or other cured sausages, sliced thin and applied raw

Finishing Touches: Fresh Herbs and Flavored Oils

A little bit of green goes a long way. As I said, the storm blew away our basil from this photo shoot, which explains the number of pies topped with sliced scallion greens here, but those are far from your only two options. Freshly chopped parsley, oregano, thyme, chives, rosemary, marjoram, you name it, it'll work on a pizza. Apply these to the pies just before serving.

Flavored oils are another way to add richness and complexity. The simplest way is to use a good quality extra-virgin olive oil. If you want to get more complex, try infusing oil with various flavors. Whole garlic cloves, chili flakes, black pepper, dry spices, fresh herbs, anything is fair game here. I like to warm the oil slightly (to about 150°F) then pour it over the flavorings until they're just covered, then let it sit out at room temperature at least overnight.

Be aware that infused oils don't last forever and do carry some risk of botulism. Make and use them fresh.

Combinations

Here are a couple examples of successful combinations:

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This was one of my favorite pies of the night. I combined slices of fresh mozzarella, a few dabs of olive oil-mashed potatoes in place of the tomato, sliced par-boiled fingerling potatoes, and freshly grilled scallions. I drizzled the whole thing with good extra-virgin olive oil after it was done. It was awesome. Perhaps some chopped thyme, rosemary, or oregano could have pushed it over the top, but it didn't really need it.

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This pie starts with a bit of fontina cheese, then pears sauteed in sugar and butter are added on top while the pizza cooks. As soon as the pie comes off the grill, a handful of arugula is added (not too much—this is a pizza after all, not salad on bread), it's drizzled with a little extra-virgin olive oil, sprinkled with salt, and spread with ultra-thin slices of prosciutto. It's sweet, salty, porky, peppery, and pretty freaking awesome.

Of course, all of this is just the tip of the iceberg. The combinations are truly endless, as long as you keep three simple maxims in mind:

  1. Par-cook any toppings that need to be cooked. This means cooking indoors, or grilling, and includes any and all meats and vegetables that can't heat through under the retained warmth of the pizza crust.
  2. Keep it simple. It's easy to go overboard, but the best pies usually have two or three toppings max. Consider texture, flavor, and color when picking toppings to go together.
  3. Apply sparingly. Grilled pizzas are delicate beasts and not intended to hold massive amounts of toppings like, say, a pan pizza. If you've got more topping by weight than crust, you're probably stepping over the line.

What are your favorite grilled pizza combinations?

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