The Pizza Lab: Foolproof Pan Pizza

The Pizza Lab

Dedicated to unraveling the mysteries of home pizza making through science.

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[Photographs: Vicky Wasik. Video: Serious Eats Video.]

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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 had melted into the gap between the crust and the pan. You'd lift up a slice, and long threads of mozzarella would 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 could 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 prefab, 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 the 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:

  • Problem 1: Kneading. How long is enough? What motion do I use? And is it really worth the doggone effort?
  • Problem 2: Stretching. Once I've got that disk of dough, how do I get it into the shape of an actual pizza, ready to be topped?
  • Problem 3: Transferring. Okay, let's say I've got my dough made and perfectly stretched onto my pizza peel. How do I get it onto that stone in the oven without disturbing the toppings or having it turn into a misshapen blob?

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.

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 the bowl, and let time take care of the rest. That's it.

Overhead shot of mixing dough for pan pizza

So how does it work? Well, the goal of kneading in a traditional dough is to create gluten, a weblike network of interconnected proteins that forms when flour is mixed 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 eat a slice of pizza with a dense, under-risen crust? It's because whoever made it didn't properly form their gluten in the process.

Now, you can see how this could take a lot of work. Kneading, aligning, folding, linking. That's why most pizza dough recipes takes a good 10 to 20 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 cutters that cut those jumbled-up balls of wire into shorter pieces. The shorter the pieces are, the 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 in the 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.

Dough being transferred from bowl to work surface after overnight proof

Simply allowing the dough to sit overnight will create a gluten network at least as strong as a dough that has been kneaded in a stand mixer or by hand (if not stronger!), 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's 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 cast iron skillet or round cake pan) allows it to stretch completely under its own power.

Pan pizza dough placed in greased cast iron pan to proof

All that's needed is a few gentle 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:

20130121-pan-pizza-lab-recipe-03.jpg

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

Two hands docking pan pizza dough in greased cast iron pan with tips of fingers

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.

Problem 3: avoided.

How to Make a Pan Pizza, Step by Step

What follows is a step-by-step guide to making a pan pizza with a crisp, olive oil-flavored crust; an open, airy, nicely chewy crumb; crispy, browned cheesy bits around the edges; and plenty of sauce and cheese. It ain't the classiest pizza on the block, but sometimes you're just looking for something cheap and easy.

Step 1: Mix and Proof

Collage depicting mixing of dough for pan pizza

This is the hardest part of the whole process: weigh out your flour (400 grams), salt (10 grams), and yeast (4 grams) into a bowl, then add water (275 grams) and oil (8 grams) and mix it up, either with your hand or a wooden spoon. That's it. No need to knead, punch, massage, nothing. Just make sure there's no dry flour left, and you're good to go.

Hands wrapping mixing bowl with dough tightly with plastic wrap for proofing

Wrap it up tightly with plastic wrap and let it rest, anywhere from 8 to 24 hours.

Step 2: Ball the Dough

Collage of removing proofed pan pizza dough from mixing bowl

After all those hours of you doing absolutely nothing to it, your dough should look something like the photo in the top left—basically a big, puffy, lumpy-looking bowl of soup. When you uncover the plastic and knock the bowl slightly, you'll see the whole thing deflate a bit. This is A-OK.

Sprinkle the top of the dough with some flour, then dump it out onto a floured work surface. It's fine to use a fair amount of flour here; just don't knead it into the dough. This should not be hard, as kneading isn't on your agenda anyway. Divide the dough into two even balls.

Collage of hands showing how to ball pan pizza dough

Working with one ball of dough at a time, form and roll the dough on the counter using the sides of your hands to form a taught ball with a smooth, elastic top. Use your fingers to pinch and smooth out the bottom side of the ball of dough. Repeat this process with the second portion of dough.

Step 3: Proof Dough in Cast Iron Pan

Collage depicting placing pan pizza dough in cast iron dough to proof

Pour some olive oil into the bottom of a 10-inch cast iron skillet or a 10-inch round cake pan. If you want to bake your pizzas simultaneously, you'll need a pan or skillet for each ball of dough.

Alternatively, you can store unused dough balls in sealed containers in the refrigerator for up to three days (leave room in the container for the dough to expand), or in the freezer indefinitely. Place the dough you want to bake in the middle of the pan.

Turn the dough over a few times until it's coated on all sides with oil, then swirl it around the pan to get oil into all the corners and the sides of the pan. Cover the whole thing with plastic wrap, and let it sit in your kitchen for a couple of hours. Watch a movie, do your laundry, take your third bath of the day, you get the idea. Just leave it alone and let it do its thing.

Step 4: Touch up the Dough

Collage of photos depicting touching up pan pizza dough before baking: docking surface with fingertips and lifting edges to release trapped air

You should come back to find the dough has mostly stretched out to fit the pan.

Using just the tips of your fingers, poke at the dough a bunch of times, working it into the corners a little bit harder and popping any big air bubbles you happen to come across. Those big bubbles will inflate like balloons in the oven, shedding their cheese and sauce, if you don't take care of them now.

Make one quick lap around the edge of the pan, lifting the dough like a blanket. This is just to make sure that no large bubbles are hiding underneath, since air bubbles that form under the crust as it rises will pull away from the pan bottom, preventing the crust from browning and crisping properly.

Step 5: Sauce the Dough

Collage of photos depicting saucing a pan pizza dough before topping

You can use any sauce you'd like, or make your own from scratch. Whatever sauce you use, for a thick pie like this, you need a nice thick layer of sauce. I go with around three-quarters of a cup per 10-inch pie.

If you like having a rim around your pizzas, leave a little rim. I prefer going all the way to the edge with my sauce and cheese, which makes for some delicious crunchy bits later on.

Step 6: Add Toppings

Overhead view of unbaked pan pizza with cheese and toppings

Spread cheese over the top of the pizza (again, going all the way to the edges, if desired). Any good melting cheese will do—mozzarella is classic, but a young cheddar, provolone, Muenster, or Jack will work. You can even go extra crazy and mix 'em up.

Most of the time, I say go easy on the toppings, but a pan pizza with a thick, robust crust can handle some serious loads, so go wild here.

Step 7: Bake in a Hot Oven

Now you just have to place the pan in a hot oven. How hot? Very, very hot.

I max out my oven (550°F/290°C) when I bake pizza, since 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 micro bubbles 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 (200°C) versus one cooked at 505°F (260°C):

Side-by-side comparison of pizza cooked in 400 degrees Fahrenheit oven and 550 degrees Fahrenheit oven

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.

The difference is striking.

Step 8: 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.

Topping that list? Hard cheeses. I like to add grated Parmigiano-Reggiano by the fistful to the top of the pie after it's done baking. I love the contrast you get between the browned, bubbly bits of mozzarella and the sharp, fresh bite of the uncooked Parmesan.

Other than that, there's really not much 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 says to 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 at least a couple times per week—you'll know where to send them.