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The Pizza Lab: Three Doughs to Know

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[Photographs: J. Kenji Lopez-Alt]

We've gone through a lot of pizza styles and recipes here at The Pizza Lab, but I still often get asked "what's the best pizza crust recipe you know?"

Well that's a tough question to answer. I like lager, my wife likes lager, sometimes cider. Different drinks for different needs, if you know what I mean. When I'm in the mood to fire up the grill or heat up the broiler, I might take my time and make a Neapolitan-style lean dough. If I want to relive my childhood without stepping out my apartment door, it's a New York-style. Company coming over and I want to feed a crowd without messing up the kitchen? It's Sicilian-style square pie all the way.

Here's a brief run-down on the three recipes that every home pie-maker should have in their arsenal to tackle all manner of pizza-centric circumstances.

The Classic: Neapolitan-Style Pizza Dough

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The Skinny:

Neapolitan pizza is where it all started. In some ways, it's the simplest form of pizza out there—it has the fewest ingredients of any. In other ways, it's the most complicated. Few ingredients and blazing hot temperatures in excess of 900°F mean that the slightest mistakes will amplify in the finished product. Producing a perfect Neapolitan pie is no easy feat, but it's not impossible.

Neapolitan pizza is made from a lean dough—that is, it's got nothing but flour, water, salt, and yeast. No oil, no sugar, nothing. The flour is generally a high-protein flour, often of the Italian "OO" type, which is ground extra fine, giving it a unique texture and the ability to absorb more water without becoming soupy.

With so few ingredients, the key to great Neapolitan pizza crust is a good long fermentation period during which time starches will break down into simpler sugars, yeast will create flavorful by-products, and gluten formation will occur, allowing you to stretch the dough out easily and making for a dramatic rise and good charring in the oven.

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The best Neapolitan pies should have a thin, thin layer of crispness to the crust, followed by an interior that is moist, poofy, and cloud-like with good, stretchy chew, and plenty of flavor. Even browning is not what you're looking for. Rather, you want a leopard-spotted look, with many small dark spots surrounded by paler dough. True Neapolitan pies are not stiff—you can't pick them up as a slice—a fork and knife are perfectly acceptable utensils.

Neapolitan pies are traditionally cooked in wood-fired ovens and go from raw to finished in about 90 seconds or so. But baking excellent Neapolitan pizza does not require a fancy oven. There are many hacks that'll allow you to cook up quality pies at home with great spotting and a tender-crisp crust. Here are a few of our favorites:

What Makes It Unique:

Lean, simple dough cooked at ultra-high temperatures to ensure good puffing and charring before it can dry out and become tough.

Type of Flour:

Any sort of high protein flour, though for the most "authentic" results, use a finely milled Italian-style flour, such as Caputo "OO" or King Arthur's "Italian-Style" flour.

Mixing Method:

No-knead is the easiest method and coupled with a long cold ferment—that is, a retarded rising period in the refrigerator of at least three days and up to five—it makes for a dough that's extremely flavorful with virtually no work involved. Mix up the ingredients, cover it, and just let it sit until you're ready to roll.

The Ratios (for the nerds):

All-purpose or bread flour: 100%
Salt: 2%
Instant yeast: 1.5 %
Water: 65%

Get The Recipe!

Basic Neapolitan Pizza Dough »

The Modern: New York-Style Pizza Dough

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The Skinny:

New York-style pizza dough is an offshoot of Neapolitan-style dough designed to be cooked in a slightly cooler-burning coal-fired (or as is more often the case in modern New York pizzerias, gas-fired) ovens. It's stretched out slightly thicker than a Neapolitan base, though on the scale of pizzas, it's still considered "thin crust."

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. When bent slightly down the center (A.K.A. the "New York Fold"), it should cantilever out straight under its own support.

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After the bottom layer of 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. 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 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. Unlike the poofy, leopard-spotted edge of a Neapolitan, a New York pie has a crust that's only slightly raised. It should show some spotting, but in general, will be more of an even golden brown than a Neapolitan.

What Makes It Unique:

New York pizzas take between 12 and 15 minutes to bake. A Neapolitan-style dough would dry out, becoming tough and crackery during this period. New York pizza owes its unique texture and flavor to two key components added to it: oil and sugar. Oil coats individual granules of flour, effectively lowering the total amount of gluten formed and thus creating a more tender finished product, even though it takes a longer time to bake than a neapolitan crust.

Sugar helps the crust to brown more evenly at lower oven temperatures. Without it, you'd end up with a paler, less flavorful crust.

Type of Flour:

Bread flour is best, all-purpose will do just fine.

Mixing Method:

Either the stand mixer or the food processor will do. I prefer the latter, as it develops gluten a bit faster and with New York dough, you can essentially bake it the day after it's made, so no need for the long, slow ferment that best benefits no-knead doughs or stand mixer doughs.

The Ratios (for the nerds):

All-purpose or bread flour: 100%
Sugar: 2%
Salt: 1.5%
Instant yeast: 1.5 %
Olive oil: 5%
Water: 67%

Get The Recipe!

Basic New York-style Pizza Dough »

The Best For Parties: Sicilian-style Pizza Dough

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The Skinny:

This is the simplest, most forgiving pie in my arsenal, and the one that I reach for most often when I have company coming over. It's ready to eat within hours of starting, and it doesn't even require any rolling or stretching or messing up your counter. Everything takes place in the bowl of a stand mixer and an oiled sheet tray.

In New York City, it's called Sicilian pizza, and it comes in inch-and-a-half-thick slabs coated with a thick layer of garlic-heavy tomato sauce and melted mozzarella cheese. To a true-blooded Sicilian, the real pizza is sfincione—a thinner, chewier version dotted with salty anchovies and pungent pecorino. Long Islanders refer to square pies Grandma-style (aka nonna-style) pies; chewier, slightly thinner versions of a Sicilian with a garlic-loaded tomato sauce.

In any case, the basic process is the same: make a variant of a New York-style pizza dough, then bake it in a tray loaded with olive oil. As it bakes, the bottom of the pie essentially fries, coming out ultra-crisp and flavorful.

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For me, the ideal square pie needs to combine bits of all of these square-pie styles. A soft, moderately chewy, and pliant crust, with a few large bubbles here and there, a distinct sweetness and a fried crispness to the bottom. The end crust should be well-browned with bits of crisp aged cheese, and like in a good New York-style pizza, there should be a thin layer right at the interface between the bread and the toppings where the crumb remains ever-so-slightly doughy and chewy.

For a while I was making my square pie with a cooked potato added to the dough, which added a starchy richness and sweetness to the dough without interrupting gluten formation. These days, I stick with straight flour, making for a much faster, easier finished product, and with this style of pizza, more pie-for-your-time is a good thing.

What Makes It Unique:

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With all the oil, crispness, and fryed-ness in this dough, you still develop plenty of flavor even without a slow ferment, which is another thing that makes this dough great for parties. You can start from scratch and have a finished pie in a matter of hours.

The other great thing? With so much water in it (70% hydration!), it basically stretches itself. I mix mine in the stand mixer, dump it into an oiled baking sheet, lightly cover, then wait for it to spread out naturally. All it requires is a bit of stretching by hand at the very end before topping and baking.

Type of Flour:

All-purpose or bread flour. This one is the easiest and most forgiving recipe of all, designed for anyone to make, from really basic pantry staples. No special flour required.

Mixing Method:

A stand mixer makes for the fastest results. It won't work in a food processor as the dough is just a bit too wet and ends up gumming up the works. No-knead methods will work too, but require an 8 to 12 hours of rising.

The Ratios (for the nerds):

All-purpose or bread flour: 100%
Salt: 2%
Instant yeast: 1.5 %
Olive oil: 3%
Water: 70%

Get The Recipe!

Basic Square Pan Pizza Dough Recipe (Sicilian-Style Dough) »

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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