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The Pizza Lab: Foolproof Pan Pizza

[Photographs: J. Kenji Lopez-Alt]

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I've got a confession to make: I love pan pizza.

I'm not talking deep-dish Chicago-style with its crisp crust and rivers of cheese and sauce, I'm talking thick-crusted, fried-on-the-bottom, puffy, cheesy, focaccia-esque pan pizza of the kind that you might remember Pizza Hut having when you were a kid, though in reality, most likely that pizza never really existed—as they say, pizzas past always look better through pepperoni-tinted glasses.

It would arrive at the table in a jet black, well-worn pan, its edges browned and crisped where the cheese has melted into the gap between the crust and the pan. You'd lift up a slice and long threads of mozzarella pull out, stretching all the way across the table, a signpost saying "hey everyone, it's this kid's birthday!" You'd reach out your fingers—almost involuntarily—grasping at those cheese strings, plucking at them like guitar strings, wrapping them around your fingers so you can suck them off before diving into the slice itself.

That perfect pan pizza had an open, airy, chewy crumb in the center that slowly transformed into a crisp, golden-brown, fried crust at the very bottom and a soft, thin, doughy layer at the top right at the crust-sauce interface. It was thick and robust enough to support a heavy load of toppings, though even a plain cheese or pepperoni slice would do.

It's been years since I've gone to an actual Pizza Hut (they don't even exist in New York aside from those crappy "Pizza Hut Express" joints with the pre-fab, lukewarm individual pizzas), but I've spent a good deal of time working on my own pan pizza recipe to the point that it finally lives up to that perfect image of my childhood pan pizza that still lives on in my mind.

If only pizza that good were also easy to make. Well here's the good news: It is. This is the easiest pizza you will ever make. Seriously. All it takes is a few basic kitchen essentials, some simple ingredients, and a bit of patience.

The way I see it, there are three basic difficulties most folks have with pizza:

This recipe avoids all three of those common pitfalls, making it pretty much foolproof. To be perfectly honest, every single one of these steps has been done before, and none of it is rocket science. All I'm doing is combining them all into a single recipe.

You can jump straight into a full step-by-step slideshow of the process or find the exact measurements and instructions in the recipe here, or read on for a few more details on what to expect and how we got there.

No Kneading

By now, everybody and their baker's heard about no knead dough. It's a technique that was developed by Jim Lahey of Sullivan Street Bakery and popularized by Mark Bittman of the New York Times. The basic premise is simple: mix together your dough ingredients in a bowl just until they're combined, cover it, and let time take care of the rest. That's it.

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So how does it work? Well the goal of kneading in a traditional dough is to create gluten, a web-like network of interconnected proteins that forms when flour is mixed together with water. All wheat flour contains some amount of protein (usually around 10 to 15%, depending on the variety of wheat). In their normal state, these proteins resemble tiny crumpled up little balls of wire. With kneading, your goal is to first work these proteins until they untangle a bit, then to rub them against each other until they link up, forming a solid chain-link fence.

It's this gluten matrix that allows your dough to be stretched without breaking, and what allows it to hold nice big air bubbles inside. Ever have a dense under-risen pizza crust? It's because whoever made it didn't properly form their gluten in the process.

Now you can see how how this can take a lot of work. Kneading, aligning, folding, linking. That's why most pizza dough recipes takes a good ten to twenty minutes of elbow grease or time in a stand mixer.

But there's another way.

See, flour naturally contains enzymes that will break down large proteins into smaller ones. Imagine them as teeny-tiny wire cutter that cut those jumbled up balls of wire into shorter pieces. The shorter the pieces are, they easier it is to untangle them, and the easier it is to then align them and link them up into a good, strong network. No-knead dough recipes take advantage of this fact.

Over the course of an overnight sit at room temperature, those enzymes get to work breaking down proteins. Meanwhile, yeast starts to consume sugars in the flour, releasing carbon dioxide gas int he process. These bubbles of gas will cause the dough to start stretching, and in the process, will jostle and align the enzyme-primed proteins, thereby creating gluten.

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Simply allowing the dough to sit overnight will create a gluten network at least as strong (if not stronger!) than a dough that had been kneaded in a mixer or by hand, all with pretty much zero effort. Indeed, the flavor produced by letting yeast do its thing over the course of this night will also be superior to that of any same-day dough. Win win!

Other than time, the only real key to a successful no-knead dough is high hydration. Specifically, the water content should be at least 60% of the weight of the flour you use. Luckily, high hydration also leads to superior hole structure upon baking. I go for about 65%.

Problem 1: Avoided

No Stretching

One of the happy side effects of having a loose, moist dough is that it practically stretches itself. Form the dough into a ball and let it sit around at room temperature and you'll see it spreading slowly outwards until it it nearly disk-shaped. The only thing holding it back? Friction. It sticks to the countertop or board.

What do you use to eliminate friction? Grease. Coating the dough ball in grease and placing it on a smooth surface (such as, say, the inside of a skillet or round cake pan) allows it to stretch completely under its own power.

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All that's needed is a few gently pokes with your fingertips to do the final shaping and to eliminate any ultra-large air bubbles.

You may wonder why we'd want to get rid of those bubbles, when an open, airy structure is what we're after. Well, it's because this dough is almost too good. It's so loose and easy to stretch that large bubbles will form giant domes, shedding their cheese and sauce, eventually collapsing into large barren craters when you pull the pies out of the oven, like this:

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Some simple fingertip docking eliminates that problem while sill keeping your dough plenty light and airy.

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Problem 2: Avoided

No Transferring

Do I need to spell it out here? If your pizza is constructed in a pan, there's no need to use a peel or a stone. Just throw the pan straight into the oven.

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As the pizza bakes, the olive oil it was stretched out in will allow the bottom and sides to fry, getting them extra-crisp.

The one issue you might run into is this:

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Air bubbles that form under the crust as it rises will pull away from the pan bottom, preventing them from browning and crisping properly. To avoid that, I make sure to give the dough a quick lift around the edges before topping it, just to release any air bubbles that may be trapped.

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You end up with a nice, even golden brown like this:

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The Details

Really, that's the sum of the process. Most other details are incidental. You can use whatever sauce you'd like, whether it's simply pureed canned tomatoes with a bit of salt and olive oil, or a cooked pizza sauce. You can use grated mozzarella, or go for a more eclectic choice like cheddar or jack.

Here are a few tips.

Cook Hot

I max out my oven (550°F) when I bake pizza. Why? Hotter cooking leads to a few differences in the end product. For one thing, it produces more micro-bubbles on the exterior, giving your pie more crunch and character. These microbubbles form because air and water vapor inside the dough expands rapidly under high heat, filling up and stretching out gluten-walled bubbles before they harden and crisp. The hotter the oven, the faster these bubbles will expand.

You can easily see the difference in the texture of a crust cooked at 400°F:

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Versus one cooked at 500°F:

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Cook it even hotter and the differences become more clear.

High temperature cooking also leads to superior interior structure for the same reason: bubbles inflate rapidly, giving a pizza cooked at a high temperature a more open, airy crumb.

Again, here's a pie cooked at 400°F:

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And the identical dough cooked at 550°F:

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The difference is striking.

Top Away!

Normally I'm a minimalist when it comes to pizza. I like my New York or Neapolitan-style pies with either no toppings, or at most one or two carefully selected items. With a thick, robust pan pizza, on the other hand, I'll add as many toppings as it'll hold, which is a whole lot. Multiple cheese (a good melting cheese as the base and a hard grating cheese to add at the end is my go-to), some pickled items, fresh vegetables, cured meats, whatever.

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Toppings

This pizza can handle whatever you throw at it.

Be Generous With The Sauce

Again, it's counterintuitive—normally I'd advise a thin, thin layer of sauce—but for a thick pie like this, you need a nice thick layer of sauce.

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Sauce well

I go with around 3/4 of a cup per 10-inch pie.

Cheese to the Edges

With a New York pie, the cornicione, or pizza bones are essential to the slice. For many folks, they're the best part.

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Cheese to the edges

With a pan pizza, on the other hand, I've got no such need or desire for those edge crusts. I'd much rather have my pie fully topped from edge to edge, allowing some of that cheese to drip into the cracks between the crust and the pan, browning into those wonderful crisp, charred bits.

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Add Some Post-Bake Flair

Some toppings are best added before baking. But a few are better added once the pie emerges from the oven.

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Topping that list? Hard cheeses. I like to add grated Parmigiano-Reggiano by the fistful to the top of the pie after it emerges from the oven. I love the contrast you get between the browned, bubbly bits of mozzarella and the sharp, fresh bite of the un-cooked parmesan.

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Other than that, there's really not much more to say. Like I said, the recipe is stupid-easy. Mix together ingredients, then let'em sit for a while. Top them, and bake them. It's as easy as that.

Next time someone asks you "I want to make pizza at home. Know any good recipes for beginners?" (and if your life is anything like mine, you hear that question at least a couple times per week), you'll know where to send them.

Get The Recipe!

For a full step-by-step slideshow, head right this way! »

Or get the recipe for Foolproof Pan Pizza here! »

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