The Raw Deal
I have been making pizza for over 15 years now, and I can proudly say that I have most likely eaten my weight in pizza. I have eaten pizza all over the world, and for the most part it has always been delicious. On occasion I stumble upon a pizza that just misses the mark. It is not because the pizza lacks in flavor but because the pizza was improperly cooked. In busy restaurants it is easy to let a pizza slide through that has been cooked incorrectly but it’s always that one pizza that haunts you. There are a number of different factors that contribute to a well-cooked pizza, and they don’t always stem from the oven. A pizza that has been cooked completely and correctly actually begins well before the dough has been stretched.
One of the most common errors I see in kitchens is not enough dough has been pulled out of the refrigerator before service.
Just as you should never put a cold steak on a grill, you should never put cold dough in a hot oven. If you are cooking Neapolitan pizza, cold dough tends to blister more giving it that leopard spotting everyone loves but at the same time is that much harder to cook all the way through. No matter what style you are cooking, your oven is going to have a set point and a specific cook time. In every kitchen I have worked in there is always that one cook or new person that loves cold dough because it is easier to stretch and harder to tear. The downfall of this is an improperly trained cook. During the cooking process your dough is rising in temperature to cook the toppings, cheese and dough. If your dough is cold, it is harder for it to cook all the way through while your toppings cook and the dough browns. When the pizza enters the oven, the water in the dough begins to boil and evaporate. If the dough is cold, it will not cook all the way through leaving too much moisture in the dough resulting in a gum line.
A gum line is the term we use to describe a portion of uncooked dough. If you cut into a pizza and look at the interior of the crust, you will sometimes find a line that looks almost like gel. To combat cold dough, I recommend having enough space to accommodate multiple trays of dough or a system to stage your dough. Have an area where you can pull the dough out of the fridge when it is busy but not near your workstation. The dough will gradually come up to room temperature and you can rotate it to your worktable as needed. If you are not as busy as you originally thought, your dough will then be salvageable because it has been held in a warmer environment than your fridge but not a hot environment like right next to your oven.
A gum line can also be a result from too hot of an oven or too quick of a bake. For high hydrated doughs you need the correct cooking temperature to allow for a long enough bake time to evaporate out enough of the moisture. For styles like Roman this is imperative. If this dough cooks too quickly, you end up with gum lines and a dough that does not become crispy or one that does not retain its crisp. Too cold of sauce can also inhibit the cooking process. Health codes require you maintain proper times and temperatures. In order to stay in compliance, I recommend keeping sauce in small enough containers on top of your table or work surface so that it comes to room temperature quickly. Using small enough containers will also ensure that you are going through it quick enough to appease health department standards.
Another flaw I see repeatedly is improperly cooked bottoms.
On busy nights it can be hard to keep up with dine-in as well as take-out and delivery. It can become overwhelming and adding on people constantly asking where their food is can be anxiety driven and frustrating. Most cooks try and compensate by putting as many pies as they physically can in the oven thinking they’re going to push food out faster that way. What really ends up happening is the oven cools down to a point where the stones cannot recover with each new rotation of pies. As pizzas cook, the heat from the stones is absorbed by the pizza. By putting pizzas in the same spot, those areas completely lose their heat meaning the bottoms never cook. To combat this, I recommend leaving at least one spot where nothing is cooking leaving it as a “hot spot”. By keeping a hot spot in the oven, you will always have an area to rotate your pizzas into towards the end of the bake to finish off the bottoms. If you are using screens, it is smart to remove the screen halfway through so the pizza can finish on the physical stone. The contact with the stone will ensure a well-done bottom as well as ensure you get the desired crispiness.
The opposite side of the spectrum is pizzas that are burnt. At times what appears to be burnt areas are thin spots on the crust that formed during the stretch but were never degassed before entering the oven. A simple fix is to pop thin bubbles before cooking or using a bubble popper to deflate enlarged bubbles inside the oven before they firm up.
Perfectly cooked pizzas are what we strive for every day. At times it seems everything is working against us. But remembering to always bring your dough and sauce to room temperature before use, keeping a hot spot in the oven and popping those pesky bubbles will make it that much easier to bake a great pie.
Laura Meyer is Administrator & Instructor, The International School of Pizza.