While there is much to commend the classic American pizzeria-style, delivered-in-a box pizza, it will almost always fall short of a Neapolitan-style pizza. When Raffaele Esposito created the Margherita pizza in Naples back in the mid-1800’s and launched the popularity of pizza, he used a woodfired brick oven that had enough heat to lightly char the chewy crusty, giving it a flame-kissed flavor that was as important as any toppings.
But I don’t have a brick pizza oven, and, statistically speaking, neither do you! So, how are you to get a crisp-char crust on your favorite homemade pie? The grill! Opinions vary, but most people will agree that an “authentic” pizza oven must be in the range of 600–900°F (343–482°C), and your house oven just can’t hit that temperature. And anyways, in the summertime, who wants it to!
By grilling your pizza, you can achieve the kind of temperatures you need for maximum flavor development while also sparing your household a roasting. But where to begin? What temperatures do you need to know to become a real pizzaolo? Read on to find out!
HOW TO MAKE PIZZA DOUGH
The best pizza doughs are made with bread flour. Bread flour has a higher protein (gluten) content and can, therefore, create a crust that is chewier and more pliable. Chewy crusty is one of the most sought-after characteristics of a pizza crust, and pliability is necessary if you want to fold a slice in half without it crumbling like a biscuit. Use a good quality bread four for your pizza dough.
Note: Some people will tell you to use only Italian Tipo-00 flour for your pizza. This is good advice, except that it doesn’t necessarily refer to high-protein flour. Tipo-00 refers to the largest granule size of the flour, not its protein content. You can find pastry AP of this fineness, if you look, and they could even be pastry flour. Go ahead and use Tipo-00 if you can find/afford it, but make sure it’s high-protein flour for pizza our pasta.
After flour selection, the rest of the ingredients for pizza dough are simple: water, yeast, a little sugar if you like, salt, and a nice helping of good olive oil. There is no mystery to the ingredients. It’s all in how you put them together.
There are two important factors that will affect the outcome of your dough:
- temperature and
CRITICAL TEMPERATURES FOR PIZZA DOUGH, ALSO KNEADING
The temperature of the water that you add to the dough is of critical importance to the success of your pizza.
If it’s too cold, your yeast won’t rise quickly enough. If it’s too hot, you can actually kill the yeast and it will never rise. Not only will your dough be flat and hard to manage if that happens, but it will also taste flat and uninteresting. (We’ve written about the importance of temperature in making breadbefore. Read more about it there!) If the water is far too hot, you can even denature the proteins in the flour before you get a chance to develop the gluten.
The ideal temperature for the water in your dough is 105–120°F (41–49°C), which will activate the yeast without overheating it. Using a fast and accurate Thermapen® Mk4 will help you get the environment for your yeast just right. Be sure to take extra care to get the water temperature just right before adding it.
With everything combined at the proper temperature, it’s time to knead.
To get the classic chew of a pizza crust, you need major gluten development, and that means major kneading. Kneading the dough increases the gluten connectivity and makes stretchy and elastic. Knead the dough until you can take a small piece of it and stretch it out into a very thin membrane. This “window pane” test is used by professional bakers to make sure their bread is ready for rising.
Be warned, this may take up to 10 minutes of kneading. Be strong (or use a mixer with a dough hook).
Once you’ve combined the ingredients and kneaded them together, you’ll want your dough to be in a comfortable temperature range. Check it again with your Thermapen Mk4 so you can know what to expect from the rise. If your dough temp is in the 80’s °F (30’s °C) you can expect a quick rise. If your flour was cold and your dough finishes the kneading cycle in the 70’s °F (20’s °C) you can expect a longer rise time.
After kneading very well, you need to let the dough rise for a while. A barely warm oven is a great way to proof your dough (proofing is what bakers call allowing dough to rise), as is a cooler with some warm water in the bottom. Yeast rises best when the air temperature is 85°F (29°C), so try to get an ambient temperature as close to that as is possible.
Let the dough rise until its volume doubles before shaping the dough to make your pies (or tossing it in the air, if you feel so inclined).
GRILL SETUP FOR GRILLED PIZZA
There are two ways you can set up your grill for grilling pizzas: with or without a pizza stone.
GRILLING WITH A PIZZA STONE
You may say to yourself that grilling pizza with a pizza stone isn’t very, well, grill-y, and you may be right about that. But by placing your pizza stone directly on the grill surface, you can get a surface temperature that rivals a woodfired pizza oven!
To cook on a pizza stone, place the stone directly above your heat source (gas or charcoal work well for this) and let it preheat with the grill. You’ll want a surface temperature of at least 570°F(299°C) on the stone, which you can read comfortably from a distance with an infrared thermometer like the IRK-2 that has a circle laser showing the area where the temperature is being measured.
Once the stone surface is up to temp, slide your shaped dough onto the stone, arrange your toppings, and close the lid for cooking. Check the bottom of the pizza after a few minutes to see how it’s doing. A well-browned, crisp crust is the goal, and if your air temp is high enough, you’ll get bubbly brown cheese at the same time the crust is ready.
Cheese browning is dependent on many factors, as it turns out. The strain of bacteria used to make the cheese can affect its coloration by limiting or accentuating the content of galactose, which browns more readily than lactose. In general, cheeses will brown well at or above temperatures of 450°F (232°C). If you want browned cheese, your air temp will need to exceed this level.
The advantages of this method are its ease—it’s easier to not burn the pizza this way—and its convenience for smaller grills. As you are cooking directly over the heat, you don’t need room for two-zone cooking.
The disadvantage is the length of time it takes to cook the pizzas. On our gas grill, the pizzas took about 7-8 minutes to cook with this method. That’s not a long time, but when you’re anticipating hot, melty, crisp pizza, it can feel like a long time.
GRILLING ON THE GRILL GRATE
Grilling directly on the grate is a little more exciting and a little more challenging. Gas grills are a little easier to wrangle with this type of cooking, but if you can get a steady, even fire on your charcoal grill, the higher temps will reward you with cheese bliss. The surface of your grill will likely be in the 600°F (316°C) range, which is perfect. Check it with an IRK-2 pointed at a cast iron pan to make sure it’s hot enough before you begin.
You’ll need to set your grill up for two-zone cooking and have a lid for your grill at the ready. To cook pizza on the grill grate, shape the dough, then place it directly over heat on the grate. Close the grill for a little less than a minute, then check the dough. You want the bottom to have well-browned grill lines on it and the top to be quite bubbly. Remove the dough from the grill using tongs and place on a work surface (upside-down cookie sheet). Brush the bubbly side with olive oil, then flip it so that the grilled side is up. Oil that side also. Sauce and top the pizza and slide it back onto the grill over direct heat for another minute to set the dough before moving it to the indirect-heat side.
Replace the lid and cook until the cheese is melted and bubbly.
The disadvantages of this method are its fallibility—it can be easy to droop dough down into the fire—and its active time—there’s a lot more action than putting it on the grill and waiting. But then, that might be an advantage in its own way.
The advantages are the sheer fun of it and the smoke-flame char patches that will develop, reminiscent of the charred bubbles on a Napoli pizza.
SAUCING AND TOPPING A PIZZA
Use any sauce you like for your pizza, but use far less of it than you think you’ll need. A bare skiff of sauce across the surface of your pie will suffice without bogging your crust down in sogginess. The same goes for cheese. I like a cheesy slice as much as the next guy, but you’ll be surprised at how far a little cheese goes on a pizza. Don’t put a mountain of it on your pizza. Too much cheese is hard to melt, harder to get bubbly, and becomes unpleasant on a nice thin crust.
The type of cheese is up to you. I like a blend of mozzarella and provolone (equal parts) with a little parm in the mix, but try your favorite to see how it goes.
As for toppings, let your imagination run wild. Bacon, pepperoni, and tomatoes; charred scallions and fresh sweet corn; pesto, wing sauce, Alfredo. Make a pizza with Nutella and strawberries for dessert. Just don’t put more toppings than the crust can bear.
Cook hard-to-cook toppings first. Pre-brown your sausage, blanch and dry broccoli, even roast or sauté peppers first for the best texture. Don’t count on anything cooking that is thick and dense. If it takes a long time to cook on the stove, it’ll take a long time to cook on the pizza!
Note on dough: If you just want to grill a pizza but don’t want to make pizza dough, ask a local bakery if you can buy a lump of dough. They often oblige and it will make delicious pizza. Just make sure your grill is at the proper temperature!
GRILLED PIZZA DOUGH RECIPE, GRILLED PIZZA RECIPE
Recipe from Simply Recipes Homemade Pizza
Grilling tips from Bon Appétit and Simply Recipes
- 1 1/2 cups warm water, 105–115°F (41-46°C) as measured on a Thermapen Mk4
- 1 Tbsp active dry yeast
- 3 3/4 cups (490 g) bread flour
- 2 Tbsp olive oil
- 2 teaspoons salt
- 1 teaspoon sugar
- In a mixer or a large bowl, combine dry ingredients.
- Make sure the water temp is correct, then add the water and the olive oil.
- Mix to form a shaggy dough mass. If using a mixer, switch to a dough hook at this point.
- Knead the dough for 7-10 minutes until it is smooth and elastic.
- Check the temperature with a Thermapen.
- Place the dough ball in a bowl greased with olive oil, cover and allow to rise, optimally in a location that is 85°F (29°C).
- Once the dough has risen to double its size, punch it down and divide into 8-oz chunks.
- Roll out or hand-shape each crust to an 8-12″ oval as you need it, making the pizzas in turn.
- The crusts can be ugly shapes, perfect roundness is not necessary.
- Place the shaped dough on a floured pizza peel or upside-down cookie sheet and then slide it onto the grill.
- Follow above directions for cooking pizzas on either a grill grate or a baking stone.
There’s nothing quite like a hot, fresh pizza from the grill. You have control over the sauce, the cheese, the toppings, and the crust. And with the knowledge you get form your Thermapen Mk4and your IRK-2 thermometers, you have control over the temperatures, which means you can better affect the outcome.
So dive in, make some dough and make pizza night a new tradition. You’ll never want to cook a pizza any other way!