Jonathan Waxman’s Tips for the Perfect Pizza

Making pizza at home can be easy with tips from Jonathan WaxmanPizza fanatic? Celebrity chef Jonathan Waxman explains what ingredients and equipment are critical for homemade pies–it’s simpler than you think. From Italian, My Way: More Than 150 Simple and Inspired Recipes That Breathe New Life Into Italian Classics.

San Francisco had some damn good pizza when I was growing up. I played in a lot of pizza joints as a trombone-playing rock ’n’ roller, and Tommaso’s in North Beach was way ahead of the curve. The restaurant has been offering wood-oven pizza since 1935, and hungry customers still line up around the clock to eat at this landmark.

I’ve eaten pizzas all over Italy, and one standout was in the old Milano train station many years ago. I noticed three things: a roaring wood fire, a reluctance to hurry the pie, and dough that was both tender and sticky. The image of that perfect pie has stayed with me, and over the years I have worked hard to replicate the dough. Flour is critical. I’ve tried bread flour, organic pizza flour and Italian hard wheat flour, and I have settled on one that is readily available: King Arthur white organic flour. It is perfect. It does change according to the season, and altitude is a huge factor, as is relative humidity.

I agree with the argument that fresh dough is not as delicious or as imbued with that certain tang as it is when enhanced by adding old dough. Therefore, I find that saving the dough for a day in the fridge helps achieve two things: a crisp crust and a better taste. I want bubbles to appear as the dough bakes, and day-old dough helps to promote those bubbles. Don’t keep the dough in the fridge for longer than a day or it will look like pita.

Yeast is a major factor. I like fresh yeast, but it is sometimes hard to come by. Granular yeast is convenient but has a less interesting flavor. I add some organic unprocessed honey as a feeder for the dough. A little stale organic beer is good as well. Sea salt is important for texture and flavor, and last, the water needs to be fresh. If your water is hard, too warm from the tap or otherwise suspect, use bottled water.

Ovens are an exciting subject. I have used electric, wood-burning, grills, gas, gas/convection, and a new-fangled device with convection and microwave. I find that an oven with a tight seal is not as good as one that has a bit of a gap that allows it to breathe. The addition of a pizza stone is nice, but unnecessary. An old-fashioned perforated pizza pan is good, but a simple baking sheet works well, too. Your oven needs to have constant, regulated heat; always use a thermometer. I worry about the crust more than the top, and always check the pizza’s bottom as it bakes. Timing can be erratic; the first pie is always a tester.