The Secret to Pizzeria Quality Pizza

We used to go to our favorite pizzeria once a week. For a small pie and a salad to split, our bill was usually less than $20. At the time, this seemed like a decent deal. I thought you needed a commercial pizza oven and special ingredients to make a pizzeria quality pie. But over the last few years, I’ve uncovered the secrets to making pizzeria quality pizza. These techniques do require some planning, but not much time. And pizza ingredients are very cheap – we can make better pizza than our local pizzeria for $2 a pie.

Homemade Pizza Napoletana Margherita for $2

How to make a Pizza Napoletana Margherita at home

The secret to excellent pizza is allowing your dough to cold rise over several days. The cold rise is what separates pizzeria pizzas from mediocre homemade pies. I usually make a very basic dough recipe that is used for a traditional Napoletana pizza. The only ingredients are flour, water, yeast, and salt. These simple ingredients are transformed into something completely different through a long, slow, cold fermentation.

Those big air pockets and dark crust come after a long cold rise

While the ingredients are simple, the type of flour you use is important – I use King Arthur bread flour. Bread flour has a higher protein content than all purpose flour. The proteins are transformed into gluten which become the glue that holds your dough structure together. This translates to big airy pockets and nice browning of the crust. I have tried imported Caputo flour from Italy as well as cheaper Pilsbury dough flour, both work, but I prefer the King Arthur flour.

Pizza Napoletana Dough Recipe (enough for 3 pies) :

3.5 cups Bread Flour
2 cups Water
1 tsp Active Dry Yeast
1.5 tsp Salt

Put the salt in the bottom of the mixing bowl, add the flour on top, then make a well in the flour to add the yeast and the water. It’s best to let the yeast activate in the water before it comes in contact with the salt. Slowly swirl in the flour with your fingers. Once the mixture starts forming a dough, take it out and knead it.

Form a well , add yeast then pour in water to activate the yeast

You can adjust the hydration of the dough by either adding more flour or wetting your hands while kneading. I like to have the wettest dough that is still workable. Because home ovens are not as hot as the commercial ones, you will have to cook the pie for longer, and having a dough with higher water content will keep the crust light and fluffy during a longer bake.

Knead the dough for at least 10 minutes until smooth

The dough should be kneaded for at least 10 minutes, and I’m talking some vigorous kneading – you should be getting a workout. After a good kneading, you should have a uniform ball of dough. Place it back into the mixing bowl, cover it, and let it rest for about 1 hour. The length of this rest period can vary based on the dough temperature, but let it at least double in size before moving on to the cold rise.

Once the rest is completed, the dough should be perfectly smooth. You want to split it into 3 equal sized chunks. I use a kitchen scale to measure out the portions, but it’s no big deal if they are off by a bit. Form each chunk into a ball by continuously pinching the bottom in on itself pulling the skin of the dough tight.

After resting dough, form dough balls

Place the dough balls in containers and let rise for 3-7 days in a refrigerator. The fermentation process slows down at a lower temperature, and the yeast develops all the nice flavors and aroma. A good cold rise of 5 or more days will result in a darker crust with large bubbles and excellent flavor.

Store in fridge for 3-7  days

What do you need to bake your pizza pie

You don’t need a brick oven, but you will need a pizza stone and a pizza peel. Get a good pizza stone – cheap ones will crack after a few uses. I recommend one that is made of cordierite. For about $40, I bought both this pizza stone and a pizza peel online. I’ve used them to make dozens of pizzas over the last 3 years without any issues.

Preheat the pizza stone

The pizza stone stores the oven’s heat and needs time to come up to temperature. Place the pizza stone in your oven and crank it to the max temperature setting – the max for my oven is 550 deg F. You can check it with a laser thermometer, but usually I just start heating the stone 1 hour before baking. Don’t skip this step or you will end up with a burnt mess for dinner.

It is also a good idea to pull your dough out of the fridge at this point. It’s better if your dough isn’t cold going into the oven.

Make the sauce

Most “tomato sauce” you buy in the store tastes nothing like tomatoes. Making sauce from canned whole tomatoes is key. Depending on how much sauce you like, a big can covers 2-3 pies. Pop open a can and take out the tomatoes, leaving the juice behind. For 1 pie, add about 1/8 tsp of salt (salt levels vary by brand, so taste as you go) to 3-4 tomatoes and puree in a blender or food processor, or just mash it with your hands, you animal. Consistency is up to you, we like ours a little chunky.

Prepare toppings

Get toppings ready so you can top your pie quickly once you have the dough stretched out. Be sure not to overdo it. If you put too many toppings, your crust will not cook correctly. A Napoletana Margherita calls for fresh mozzarella, fresh basil, and a drizzle of olive oil.

Assemble your pizza pie

Be very gentle while handling the pizza dough. It should have nice CO2 pockets formed inside, and the goal is to keep them intact. This is why a good pizzaiolo will carefully stretch the dough with his hands rather than using a rolling pin. If you roll the dough, you will pop all the CO2 pockets and give Tony Gemignani an aneurysm. Always stretch around the perimeter to avoid weakening the center of the pie.

Carefully work the dough, stretching around the perimeter for an even crust

Place the uniformly stretched pizza base on a well floured surface and spread on the sauce. Once you start topping it, you need to work fast, the wet dough will absorb the flour underneath and stick to the surface. I usually start on the counter top, then transfer it to a floured pizza peel. This requires a bit more care to avoid a hole in the pizza, but allows for one final stretch and minimizes chances of it sticking to the peel.

If the dough feels weak, I pull it onto the peel before finishing the toppings

Take your pizza peel and with a little shimmy, slide the pie onto the hot stone in your oven. Cooking time will vary based on thickness of your pie and the oven temperature, but 6-8 minutes usually does the trick for me.

Just shake it onto the stone

Practice makes perfect

While we ate them all, not all of our early pies were pizzeria quality. I’ve had pizzas get stuck to the counter top, the pizza peel, and some even folded under on the pizza stone making a big mess. But with practice I’ve learned how to better handle the dough and time the cold rise. Now we look forward to the winter when we can brew beer and run the oven for hours to make pizzas and heat up the house.

One of the best local pizzas vs. ours

We rarely eat pizza out anymore. It takes the same amount of time to prep some dough as it does to drive to a pizzeria. Once the dough is ready, we just need to start the oven an hour before we want to eat. And once the oven is heated up, it takes less time to prepare and bake a pie than it does to pay the check at a pizzeria. Maybe we are biased, but after a few years of practice, I don’t think we can buy a better pie than what we can make at home.

33 thoughts on “The Secret to Pizzeria Quality Pizza

  1. Interesting. I’m forwarding along to the cook in my household. Mrs. Full Time Finance loves making pizza from scratch. I’m not sure what she’s doing for dough. I do know recently a few of the pizzas have been made using sourdough which adds a different texture/flavor.

  2. Haaaa mahhh gahhh that pizza looks freaking amazing!

    We recently made pizza at home for pennies and it was awesome. While most pizza doughs (like this one) call for bread flour, I used a Gordon Ramsay quick recipe that didn’t require bread flour. I don’t like having 14 types of flour lying around, so all-purpose is my jam all the way.

    Luckily for me, Mr. Picky Pincher used to be the manager and delivery guy at a pizza chain for 6 years. If there’s anything this guy knows, it’s pizza. He imparted lots of his tricks, which has been awesome!

    I still suck at using a pizza peel, though.

    Anyhoo, for our pizza we did a Bianca. The sauce was truffle oil, olive oil, roasted garlic, and fresh rosemary. For the cheese I did a mix of mozzarella, parmesan, and a touch of gorgonzola. I topped it with tomato slices and fresh basil. It wasn’t hard at all and it was soooo tasty.

    It takes just as much time to order delivery as it does to make a pizza at home. It’s honestly not hard and homemade pizza tastes so much better.

    • Nice, you have some insider knowledge! I worked in a pizza place during college for a couple semesters, only the place I worked at didn’t make very good pizza…

      That Bianca pie sounds tasty 🙂 I’ve seen some of the food you make, and judging by what I’ve seen it must have been delicious!

  3. Funny, I’ve been thinking about doing a pizza post recently too!

    Like you, I feel like I can make *better* pizza at home for considerably less. Yes, there is some technique required, but it isn’t all that hard to master.

    Great post!

  4. Cool, CK! But I was hoping for a pic of you tossing a UFO-sized pie overhead to stretch the dough… Maybe next time!

    More cool stuff – I’m not surprised. And I love the side-by-side picture of your pizza versus the “competition”: “This is your pizza. This is your pizza on CK. Any questions?”

    Gonna have to give the cold fermentation/cold rising thing a try. Now the big question: With a 500% profit markup available to you, why aren’t you running Mr. CK’s Pizzeria Rustica??

    • You know, I have often thought about opening a brick oven pizzeria/brewery. The only problem is I can’t figure out a business plan that works when we keep eating and drinking all the product 🙂

  5. Outstanding! Mr. Groovy’s dream is to build an outdoor pizza oven. But until then, your pizza looks delicious. We’ll have to give it a try. I have trouble rolling dough, let alone stretching it by hand. This will have to be his baby!

    Happy new year!

    • Happy New Year Mrs. Groovy!

      I’ve made pizzas in both home ovens as well as in a wood fired brick oven. The same skills apply for both, but it’s much cheaper to get started in a home oven. I have been scheming cheap ways to make an wood fired oven, maybe this summer 🙂

  6. We love pizza and will have to try your process. Have you ever tried freezing the dough? If so, at what point in the process do you freeze and any tips for unfreezing?

    • I haven’t ever considered freezing. It only takes 20 minutes to make the dough, and it only takes a few minutes to make a pie after the stone is heated up. The dough is good in the fridge for over a week. So it’s very convenient, and tastier, to just make fresh pies.

      If I were to attempt freezing, I probably would freeze a partially baked pie rather than the dough.

      If it takes you longer at first, don’t get discouraged, this is something that takes a little practice. Best of luck on the pizza making 🙂

  7. Man, I am pregnant with #2, and when I saw that pizza I thought MUST HAVE FRESH MOZZARELLA. I used to make pizza all the time, and then we started having kids. Maybe it’s time to dust off those skills.

    We live in the CT area too. Good luck with all the snow today!

    • I am not even pregnant, and I was just thinking the same thing! I think it’s gonna be a pizza night for us, snow days are the best for staying in and baking pizza pies 🙂

      Keep warm, and good luck with the snow. This one might actually stick around!

  8. Oh my. That looks amazing. Thanks for sharing your recipe. I’ve never tried the cold rise technique, but it looks like the results are worth the wait.

    I used to make my own pizza, but have gotten out of the habit. You just convinced me I need to do it again. Unfortunately I’m not spending any money this month – so it will have to wait until February.

  9. I just ate dinner but my mouth is watering. Your pizza looks absolutely delicious. I absolutely love pizza but have never tried to make pizza from scratch. You have definitely inspired me to try and the recipe you provided looks compelling. Thanks for sharing and I’ll definitely have to share how it turns out.

  10. Interesting. We make pizza pretty often, but haven’t mastered the dough yet. I just use a bread machine to make the dough. It’s good, but cold rise sounds like it would really help.
    How long do you preheat the oven? What temp do you use? I usually go with 500.

    • The a nice long cold rise will make a huge difference in your crust. You can probably still use the bread machine to do the mixing and kneading. Then, when the bread machine is done, just ball up the dough and let it cold rise in the fridge.

      I preheat the pizza stone at 550 deg F (the max for my oven) for 1 hour before making the pizza.

      Good luck with the pizza making!

  11. Now I’m stuck at my desk and terribly hungry. Damn you, Mr. CK. We don’t eat pizza very often because Mr. BITA is gluten intolerant and we haven’t found gluten free pizza that we love. I love it though, and I’m hoping once Toddler BITA grows we’ll have the numbers to make pizza at home worthwhile again.

  12. This looks AMAZING! We make pizza at home a few times a month but we aren’t nearly as fancy as this. I even admit to buying pre-made crusts sometimes (fail). Definitely going to have to try this next time to step up our game!

  13. Good time of the year to do pizzas for sure. We’ve been making them a lot lately – same method that you describe here.

    I’ve been itching to try a baking steel. Have you heard of these? Apparently the steel gets hotter than the stones and you can do pizzas in around 2 to 3 minutes. There’s one call the NerdChef Steel Stone over on Amazon that looks intriguing.

    • Cool! Winter is definitely the best time. We just had some pizza last night and I’ll be making dough again today 🙂

      I’ve heard of using a baking steel and read a little about it, but I’ve never tried one. Sounds like they have some pros and cons vs the stones, would be interesting to try out.

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