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The Pizza Lab: Awesome Pizza Without An Oven (aka Skillet Pizza)

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[Photographs: J. Kenji Lopez-Alt]

There are quite a few things that make the summer better than the winter. Shorts, sundresses, and smaller loads of laundry. Snow-less beaches. The freedom to wiggle your toes around without the unwelcome encumbrance of socks and close-toed shoes. Saving a few bucks on coat checks.

Then again, summer also means kitchens that transform into 4th-level-of-hell grade raging infernos when you preheat your oven long enough to crank out a few homemade Neapolitan pizzas. You could go the whole grilled pizza route, and the results you get are no doubt incredible. But they also require you to a) have access to outdoor space and a grill and b) light up a grill.

So how do you make great pizza at home without having to light up the grill or preheat the oven? Well, that crisp, puffy, charred, tender-chewy pizza in the photo above was made using nothing but a skillet and a burner. That's right: this week we're making a 100% bake-free skillet pizza, and yep, it's good.

Dough Business

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Before we get to the actual cooking method, let's start with ingredients. Any good pizza has to start with good dough. Cooking pizza in a skillet doesn't require any special recipe, but recently I've been really into high-hydration no-knead doughs in the style of Jim Lahey of New York's Sullivan Street Bakery and Co. By mixing your flour, salt, and yeast with plenty of water (you want a very, very sticky dough for maximum puffing when baked—er... skillet'd) and letting it sit at room temperature overnight, you allow your dough to develop plenty of flavor and gluten without the need to knead.

My basic dough recipe uses 4 ounces of all-purpose flour per 10-inch pizza, along with 2% salt (baker's percentage—so that's 2% of the weight of the flour), 1% yeast, and 75% water

On Heat Capacity and Conduction

The first question to ask when adapting an oven-based pizza recipe to work on the stove top is exactly what's going on when that dough enters a hot oven. Real wood-burning Neapolitan pizza ovens have floor temperatures in excess of 700°F and dome air temps pushing 1,000°F. Under these conditions, pizzas cook in around 90 seconds. Fast cooking guarantees a couple things.

First off, high heat causes plenty of oven spring—that is, when heated, gas bubbles trapped inside the dough rapidly expand before the protein in the dough has a chance to set and turn stiff. The hotter the oven, the faster the gas expands, and the poofier your crust becomes.

High heat also guarantees that the exterior of the pie will get charred and crisp before the inside has a chance to dry out too much. The ideal Neapolitan pizza should have an ultra-thin layer of crispness around the edges of the crust, a slightly thicker layer of crunch in the underbelly, and a very soft, airy, open crumb structure.

A pizza oven will cook the pizza from both sides—top and bottom—simultaneously, but obviously a skillet is a one-sided cooking instrument. The key to skillet pizza? You have to cook both sides individually, one after the other.

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In an early attempt, I figured that since the stone floor of an oven is at at least 700°F, I'd want my pan to be that hot as well. I heated up the pan and promptly burnt the bottom of my pizza do a dark crisp within 45 seconds or so. What was going on?

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Turns out I forgot to take into account the relative specific heat capacity of a stone oven floor vs. a metal skillet. See, just because two things are at the same temperature does not mean that they both contain the same amount of heat energy. The stainless steel and aluminum core of a good skillet can both hold significantly more energy and better at conduct that energy into the bottom of a pizza than a stone oven, so pizzas cook faster in steel than on stone. Around 500°F is the ideal temperature for a metal pan when cooking pizza dough.

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It's hot enough that your stretched dough will immediately start puffing and bubbling (there's that oven spring you're looking for), but not so hot that it'll burn before it's cooked through.

Method 1: The Cook, Flip, Top

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For my first attempt, I decided to simply use my grilled pizza method. That is, cook the bottom until nicely charred, flip the whole thing over, then quickly add my sauce and cheese, cover, and let the cheese melt while the bottom side crisps up.

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To be honest, even using this ridiculously simple method, the results were phenomenal. Crisper and more tender than many true oven-baked pizzas I've eaten in my day.

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See that nice hole structure and the contrast between the moist, soft interior and the crisp layer around the edges?

But I have a minor quibble with this simple method: the pizza looks like it was constructed upside down. That is, the cornicione—the raised lip around the edge of the pie—is on the underside, not on the top. Not only is this aesthetically unpleasing, it also introduces a few structural issues. The pizza slices don't lay flat, making the entire cheese-and-sauced surface tilt slightly downwards toward the tip, making for uneven distribution and a propensity for drippage.

Not only that, but without a raised lip, you're just as likely to get sauce and cheese dripping off the back of the slice as you are the tip. If there's one thing that gets my goat, it's undue drippage.

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On the other hand, the underbelly actually reveals a much more pronounced cornicione. Isn't tnis the side we want on top?

Method 2: The Cook, Flip, Flip, Top

Doing exactly that gives you a much better finished product. It works best if you start by cooking the first side until it's slightly underdone, then flipping it over so that the puffed edges come into contact with the pan.

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Once the top side is nicely spotty and charred, you can completely remove it from the skillet, top it at leisure (make sure your toppings are at room temperature—fridge-cold ingredients won't heat up fast enough without the heat from an oven to help'em along), then stick it back into the skillet, cover, and cook until the cheese is melty and the bottom is completely crisp.

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With an electric or induction burner and no other equipment, that's just about the best you can do, and it ain't half bad!

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That said, it's still missing a couple of key characteristics, namely more even browning and char. If you've got a couple of tools, there are ways to fix this.

Method 3: The Cook, Flip, Flip, Top, Torch

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[Photograph: Robyn Lee]

If you happen to have a propane torch—the kind that plumbers use to solder pipes—you're in luck, as it'll perform perfect double-duty as a crust-charrer and cheese-melter. Even an electric heat gun will perform well in this capacity. Don't try and use a puny propane crème brûlée torch. It's like trying to kill a rhinoceros with a fly swatter. Indeed, if you own one of those tiny torches, you should seriously reconsider your life—chances are you've probably made a few other questionable decisions in the past.

The key to good, even torching is to keep the flame moving. You should take several passes over the same area before you see significant coloration changes occurring. Using a torch will also help you get your cheese a bit more melty and can even be used to crisp up toppings like soppressata or pepperoni.

The skillet-torch method is the closest I've ever gotten to producing a clone of a wood-burning oven pie on the stove-top.

That said, there's an equally simple way to get nearly the same quality results without the use of any special equipment at all, provided that you have a gas range. How? Try this:

Method 4: The Flip, Flip, Burn

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[Photograph: Robyn Lee]

Yep, just use the direct flame from the burner to char the heck out of that crust. If you're careful, you can do it simply by letting the edge of the crust hang off the edge of the pan long enough to char just a bit, rotating it to get even charring all the way around the edge. Then all you have to do is flip, top, put a lid on it, and finish cooking just like with the first two methods. You end up with a very pretty crust that looks something like this:

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The final option is even easier if you don't feel comfortable hanging half a pizza out of your skillet. I use a wire metal cooling rack and place it directly on top of a gas burner. I then have a nice little platform to place my crust on as I use the direct heat from the range to char the edges. With this method, you get a few little grill marks here and there, but the texture and flavor are spot on.

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So there you go. Not just one, but four ways to get really good pizza without having to preheat your oven or broiler. Of course, you all realize the implications of this, right? Pizza that takes just moments to make (provided you have the forethought to rest your dough) and can be made anywhere where you've got a pan-ready heat source. Portable burners, camping stoves, fireplaces, bonfires, kitchen-less office environments, New York city taxi cabs; you name it, you can make pizza there. That's a good thing.

Get The Recipe!

Skillet Neapolitan Pizza »

About the author: J. Kenji Lopez-Alt is the Chief Creative Officer of Serious Eats where he likes to explore the science of home cooking in his weekly column The Food Lab. You can follow him at @thefoodlab on Twitter, or at The Food Lab on Facebook.

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