As a child, I made a pizza using some old cardboard, my scented markers and a bit of glitter. As an adult, my first attempt at baking a real pizza probably didn’t taste or look as great as my childhood creation did. My kids picked the unburned cheese off the top, and my dog gagged on the slice slipped to him under the table. You could say I learned the hard way how not to make a pizza.
Pizza is a meal unto itself. It contains few ingredients yet tastes like a four-course meal. It looks so simple, but can be so easy to mess up. But don’t fear. Following a few basic pizza-making tips can set anyone—yes, even me—on the path toward success. I can now make a perfect pie that even my kids (and dog) adore.
1. “Dough Not” Mess Up the Crust
The dough is where vital work must take place first before you can think of moving on to the “prettier” aspects of pizza making. The crust is the key to the whole dish and defines the pizza. Many experts believe a good pizza dough begins with a blend of quality, high-protein, all-purpose flour and wheat flour in a 3-to-1 ratio. All-purpose flour alone won’t create the beloved crust texture. The yeast needs to be activated and dissolved first in order to avoid a bland crust.
Once you’re ready to start working with the dough, make sure the temperature is right. Once it is, don’t waste time.
“Cold, out-of-the-fridge dough is not elastic,” says Gabriele Corcos, host of “Extra Virgin” on Cooking Channel and author of UndertheTuscanGun.com. “It will keep shrinking while you try rolling it. On the other side, dough kept out of fridge will keep rising and eventually start developing a sour flavor. Pizza dough can last at room temperature no more than 1 hour past its ideal proofing time.”
You don’t need to spin a huge disc of dough on your fingertips to create the perfect pizza. Throwing dough stretches it and gives it some elasticity, but to do it perfectly and not have your dinner wind up on the floor (guilty!) takes practice. It’s absolutely possible to roll your dough on top of parchment paper and create a delicious crust.
2. Avoid Over-kneading
On that note, kneading the dough too much—either by hand or in a machine—will produce a disastrous crust.
“Overworking the dough results in tough, chewy [crust],” says Erik Freeberg, chef di cucina at Bar Toma in Chicago, ranked by Food & Wine Magazine as one of the best pizza places in America. “Don’t touch it too much.”
3. Feeling Saucy
Putting too much sauce on your pizza is a surefire way to destroy it. In fact, many chefs say the sauce should just “kiss the dough.” If there is enough sauce to finger paint with, you’ve used too much.
“Pour a spoonful in the center of the dough, and slowly, in a spiral movement, lay the sauce toward the edges of the dough,” Corcos says. “Never, ever, ever put too much condiment on your pizza. The dough won’t cook properly, loading and unloading from the oven will be a nightmare, and pizza slices will spill ingredients all over the place.”
4. Soggy Setbacks
Nothing can ruin a homemade pizza faster than a rubbery, soggy crust. Who wants to bite into a pizza pie that feels as chewy and damp as a wad of bubble gum? (Yes, that is the colorful way once used to describe my pizzas.)
Thankfully, this mistake is easily remedied: Use less sauce or oil. Adding too many toppings—especially those that release a lot of liquid, such as fresh tomatoes and zucchini—also will result in a less-than-crispy crust.
A too-thick crust won’t cook properly, either, and can result in a mushy mess. “Traditional Italian pizza is paper-thin,” Corcos says. “Keep rolling that dough!”
Another soggy-crust culprit is a too-cold oven. Pizza usually should be cooked between 450 to 500 degrees F.
5. Raw Is Wrong, and Burned Is Bad
As bad as soggy pizza is, burned pizza is worse. When cooking at high temperatures, keep an eye on the timer, and check the pie to make sure it browns on the top and at the edges. If the crust starts to look like a car tire, you’ve gone too far. Don’t confuse properly browned with burned, though, especially when it comes to the toppings, Freeberg says char is a good thing.
Also don’t put raw ingredients on your pizza; they won’t finish cooking before your crust is ready and might give your dinner guests a whopping helping of Salmonella. Meats, like raw chicken and sausage, and raw vegetables, such as onions, eggplant and potatoes, should be cooked beforehand. Then they simply require heating up on top of the pizza.
6. Beware of Topping Overload
All pizza ingredients should work well together without one overwhelming the others. Beginning pizza makers will often throw everything they love on top of a pizza and create a giant, conflicting mess. Don’t make a “kitchen sink” pizza disaster. Focus on a few solid flavors, and add half of what you think you should on top of the crust. Remember: Less is more. Master pizza chefs recommend about four or five toppings per pizza, including the sauce and cheese.
7. Layering Faux Pas
Try to not bunch up all of your toppings. You don’t want a piled-high pizza pie that looks like a giant tostada salad. Layer each piece of meat or vegetable so that you still can see some cheese and sauce underneath. Leave breathing room between the toppings. Don’t lump everything in the center, either; spread out the toppings to the far reaches of the crust.
8. Cheese Knowhow
A mistake beginners often make is buying cheap mozzarella cheese, thinking that’s the only choice. Nope. Pizzas can and should feature a variety of different types of cheeses, from crumbly feta to rich cheddar.
Make sure to use high-quality—even homemade—cheeses to minimize any grease, which is sure to ruin the pie. Pick cheeses that work with the toppings you’ve chosen, and don’t add buckets of it. Remember: You want each ingredient in a pizza to complement and enhance the flavors of the others. If everything is suffocated under a greasy cheese blanket, that won’t happen.
“I personally like to grate my mozzarella and spread it on a pizza almost like seeding a field, slightly spilling grated cheese out of my hand,” Corcos says. “I find slices of cheese tricky, as they might make the pizza wet.”
9. Time It Right
Waiting for that gooey, bubbly, garlicky slice of heaven to emerge from the oven can be torturous. Take a deep breath and wait. If you pull the pizza out of the oven too soon, a soggy crust and unbrowned toppings might occur. Timing is everything when it comes to baking pizza.
Even once the pizza slides out of the oven, wait. Yes, wait. We’ve all launched ahead, grabbed a too-hot slice and just about burned a hole through the roof of our mouths. You know you have. Wait about two minutes for the pizza to settle; then cut a slice, and enjoy.
10. Feel the Fear
Do you think that Gorgonzola, pear and bacon sound divine? Try it. Love the marriage of spinach and artichoke hearts? Serve it up. Pizzas cry out for experimentation, so have fun trying different topping combinations. Don’t feel locked into the same mozzarella-pepperoni-marinara combination week after week. Take a chance. It’s only pizza.
This article originally appeared in Hobby Farm Home Presents: Homemade Pizza.