It's time for another round of The Food Lab. Got a suggestion for an upcoming topic? Email Kenji here, and he'll do his best to answer your queries in a future post. Become a fan of The Food Lab on Facebook or follow it on Twitter for play-by-plays on future kitchen tests and recipe experiments.
[Photographs: J. Kenji Lopez-Alt]
There hasn't really been a lack of coverage on fried pizza here on Slice. The first I heard of it was probably about the same time that most of you heard about it as well: when Adam first wrote about the Montanara at Forcella in July of last year. And that's with good reason. At that point, Forcella was the first and only place in New York (perhaps in the country?) serving fried pizzas of this particular style, and according to owner Giulio Adriani, modeled after only a handful of restaurants in Naples that served them.
For the record, what we're talking about here is an entirely different beast than the battered and deep fried regular pizza slices that have been popping up at state fairs and fry-everything bars in Scotland—ever since that fateful night when a fry cook and a stoner got drunk together. (Or perhaps the two were one and the same).
The fried pizza we're talking about is made much in a Neapolitan style—that is, dough topped with a simple sauce of pureed tomatoes, salt, a bit of fresh mozzarella (smoked mozzarella in the case of the Montanara), olive oil, and basil, all cooked in a hot, wood-burning stone oven. The key difference? Before any of this happens, the stretched-out disk of dough is deep fried until crisp.
Since being introduced to this style, we've taken you on a behind the scenes tour of how the Montanara (as the fried pizza is called) is made, we've seen the opening of La Montanara—an all-fried pizzeria on Ludlow street—named after the signature pie, and we've even been taken on a tour through its history, courtesy of Scott. Fried pizzas have indeed come a long way.
But there was one part of Scott's post that really intrigued me: while many people find deep frying to be a technique relegated to the professionals with restaurant kitchens, in Naples, the traditional fried pizza is quite a different beast—a creature of the home kitchen created in order to quickly cook a pizza without the benefit of a blazing hot wood-burning oven.
Home pizza technique, eh? Sounds intriguing!
While Scott briefly explained the method back then, I figured it was worth a deeper look. I'm glad I did, because I can tell you that these were some of the finest pies to ever come out of my home kitchen, and believe it or not, it's remarkably simple to do.
I'll get to the frying method in a moment, but first I'd like to discuss an issue that has deeply troubled me for most of my life: Most smoked mozzarella stinks. It's either made with the dry, aged stuff so that comes out more similar to a smoked gouda than a mozzarella, or it loses so much of its fresh, soft, milky texture that it comes off as something more suitable to playing a round of handball with (Alleva dairy, I'm looking at you!).
It wasn't until I tried the imported smoked mozzarella in the Montanara, that I realized that you could have a cheese that combined a sweet, balanced, subtle smokiness, along with the creamy, moist melting qualities of a great mozzarella. The problem is that I have no clue where to get good imported smoked mozzarella in New York, which leaves one solution: do it myself.
My first attempt was to actually smoke the mozzarella using my standard wok-smoking technique—you line a wok with foil, put wood chips (or whatever) on the bottom with the food on a rack above it. Heat it up on a stovetop, then when it starts smoking, seal the foil trapping the smoke inside. The cheese definitely got smoky, but it also got far too hot, losing its soft, tender texture, and squeezing out all of its whey.
I've also had good luck cold-smoking cheeses in the past using a smoking gun—a hand-held cold food smoker. Unfortunately, they cost around $100.
The final solution I ended up with is one that's liable to get me banned from barbecue websites and competitions around the country, but it's one that I stand behind 100%: just use liquid smoke.
I know, I know. It's unnatural, acrid, and all that stuff. And some brands are. But not all of them. A few brands, like Wright's, are 100% natural, made by smoking real wood chips in a moist environment, running the moist smoke through a condenser, then collecting the concentrated liquid that drips out the other side. It's precisely the same stuff that ends up penetrating your meat when you smoke it in a real wood smoker. Indeed, when I worked at Cook's Illustrated a few years ago, I made some for myself just to prove it.
Point is: used sparingly and applied in the right way, liquid smoke works.
Having just explored ways in which to improve poor mozzarella a couple weeks back, I knew that you could soak mozzarella in a warm, salty bath of milk to help it get softer and creamier. So I figured, why not just add a few drops of liquid smoke to the mix as well?
The method worked. Before adding the mozzarella to the smokey milk bath, I ripped it into rough chunks to increase its surface area to absorb more smoke flavor. What I ended up with was a nice, subtly smokey cheese with all the moist, creamy, melting qualities of a 100% fresh mozzarella.*
*In fact, at Don Antonio, the cheese they use on their pizza is stretched in milk, not in water, to add creaminess. Cool!
Time to Fry
Having read through Scott's experiments and having seen the pizza men fry their pies at Don Antonio, I had a pretty good grasp of the basics. But there were still a few things to tweak.
To start with, I began with my basic no-knead pizza dough, the dough which I use for most of my pizza projects these days. It's a moist, supple, slightly difficult to work with dough, but produces excellent, bubbly, puffy crusts. There's a direct relation between the amount of water you put into a dough and how much the dough will puff when it bakes, but with too much water, you run the risk of making a dough that's impossible to handle.
This particular dough is hydrated at 75% (that is, the water in the dough weighs 75% as much as the flour), a very high water content that puts this dough at just about the limit of what I can handle in a normal cooking environment. I quickly discovered that what works in the oven becomes dangerous in a wok full* of oil. Imagine trying to gingerly lower a slippery conger eel slowly into a pool without getting any water on you, except instead of water, the pool is filled with 350°F oil.
You end up getting burned. (Or at least, I do).
*yes, the wok it the best vessel for deep frying at home)
I found that lowering my water content all the way down to 62.5% made for a much more manageable dough that could still stretch quite easily. I was afraid that with less water, it wouldn't puff up dramatically enough as it cooked—I like my pizza with big, airy pockets—but it worked out just fine. See, that puff—which bakers call "oven spring"—is caused by air and water vapor rapidly expanding inside a stretchy network of interconnected flour proteins. The faster you can transfer energy to the dough, the faster it'll inflate, and the better your oven spring.
That's why pizzas baked in a 900°F Neapolitan wood-burning oven end up so nice and poofy, while your home-baked crusts may only rise a little bit.
Well, turns out that oil is such a terrific transferrer of energy that even at 375° and a lower hydration, your crust ends up getting just as much oven spring (or should I say "fryer spring"?) as it would in a very hot oven with a wetter dough.
Poofiness was not an issue. What was an issue was this:
Oops. Looks like I didn't learn the first lesson of fried dough—you must make ventilation holes. Without them air and water vapor collect under the center of the crust, which bubbles up into a dome. Press down on that dome to try and release the gas, and it comes out—FAST. It basically bubbles up and out through the hot oil like a geyser, causing it to fly up and over the edge of the wok and reminding you exactly why restaurant kitchens have a "no open-toed shoes" policy in place.
Want to save your feet? Do a bit of this:
And once it goes in the oil, hold it in place with a large wire-mesh strainer (a couple of slotted spoons would work just fine.
The key to this stage is that you want to cook the pizza just long enough to puff and being to develop some crispness. You don't want to fry it 100% of the way or it'll end up drying out in its subsequent visit to the oven. About a minute and a half total is what I did. I tried both flipping the dough and simply holding it down with the strainer and didn't find that either one produced a noticeably better crust. Flipping was definitely easier though, so that's what I'll do from now on.
Once it comes out of the fryer, it goes into a metal pan (I used a pre-heated cast iron skillet), gets topped with tomato sauce, smoked mozz, and basil, then finished off in a hot oven to melt the toppings and char the crust slightly. You'd think that the hoels in the crust would lead to drip through, but I made over a dozen pies when testing this and not a single one had that problem.
I used my go-to broiler method for the final oven visit.
Note to those of you who've made pizza under the broiler before: a fried pizza crust burns MUCH faster than a regular pizza does.
Now that looks like a pizza that was fried by Dom DeMarco himself.
Cutting down the cooking time delivered this beaut:
[ASIDE:] And it was then that I had an insight about one of the big problems I have with homemade pizza—the cheese always browns or burns before the crust is properly browned. My theory is that with good neapolitan pizza, the outer rim of the crust bubbles up above the level of the cheese, and thus cooks faster. Homemade Neapolitan pies don't show quite as much oven spring, so the crust ends up not much higher than the cheese, and thus doesn't brown as fast.
It's just a theory, but one working into. [/ASIDE]
You want fryer spring? You want fryer spring? I'll get you your fryer spring.
How's that? And notice, if you will, the micro-bubbling on the crust. It's shockingly, beautifully crispy. Enough so that one of my tasters during round 1 of testing asked me if there was corn meal in the crust.
And I'm sure you're all wondering, "but isn't it greasy?" The answer is no. Not in the slightest. Sure, it doesn't taste exactly like a regular oven-fired pizza, in that it's crisper and puffier, but the grease itself has very little impact on the flavor, and you're certainly not left with oil running down your arms or anything like that. Besides, pizza ain't health food.
This is a plain homemade sausage and tomato pie I made for a friend with a dairy allergy. The sausage fat soaks into the crust quite nicely without a cheese barrier protecting it. I may have to try this again.
To tell you the truth, I'm pretty enamored with this technique. Indeed, it may well be the crispest, puffiest, best-textured pizza ever to come out of my home kitchen, and it all came with very little work.
As it so happens, I have been working on a number of recipes for the breakfast chapter of my book (homemade breakfast sausage, foolproof no-whisk no-double-boiler hollandaise, and perfect poached eggs), so I figured what the heck and made a breakfast pie with sausage, egg, parm, and a drizzle of hollandaise to finish it off.
Guess what? That bad boy was the sleeper hit of the night. (Stay tuned for a full recipe tomorrow).
Get The Recipe!
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.