Until 18 months ago I was making pizza using such techniques as:
- Rolling out the dough with a rolling pin
- Preparing the pizza and baking it on regular a baking pan/tray
- Baking the pizza in a 400 or so degree oven for 25 minutes
However, after being prompted by a friend, I read up on pizza making, and I’ve never looked back.
Specifically, I read about the pizza Neapolitan style and to say I have made some changes to my technique would be an understatement. The way I now make pizza bears almost no resemblance to my former method and the resulting pizza reflects that.
My main source for information has been Jeff Varasano’s Pizza Recipe page which I would highly recommend spending some time with to get the technical details of the recipe. For now though, I’ll give a high level overview of the principles.
Starting at the beginning, the first thing I do differently is to rise the dough with not only dry yeast but also sourdough starter. The majority of the rising is still done by the dry yeast, the main reason for the addition of the sourdough is for the flavour it provides.
A sourdough starter is very easy to make. It’s simply a case of mixing flour and water and leaving it on your counter for a few days. The bacteria and yeast that are naturally present in the flour and water will do their thing and you’ll end up with a bubbling mass. S. John Ross has the details; I used his instructions when I started my sourdough culture in San Francisco.
Turn up the heat
Regardless of whether you are trying to get vegan cheese to melt or not, I’d recommend turning the dial on your oven all the way up.
I make pizza at around 575 F using my standard gas oven you’d find in most rental apartments with a $20 pizza stone on the bottom shelf. With this setup, the pizza cooks in around 7 minutes and you end up with a crispy crust yet the inside is still super soft. The charring on the outside of the crust really improves the flavour and the combination of crisp and soft makes the texture much more interesting.
You may wonder how it’s possible to get an oven up to 575 F when its temperature dial stops at 450. The secret is knowing that when you continue to turn the dial past 450 and all the way to the broil setting, the oven simply supplies more gas to the heating element which allows the oven to become even hotter. You will find that you have to have the oven preheating for around an hour to reach the absolute maximum, but it is well worth it. However, it’s not necessarily a great idea on a hot summer day with no air conditioning.
The dough I make now has a much higher water content than previous attempts. The additional water aids in the texture of the crust. The aim is to end up with a crust that is crispy and partially charred on the outside, yet still soft in center. The wetter dough has a suppleness that helps in the shaping process and while it is in the oven, the stone draws moisture from the layer of sough in contact creating that charred, crispy exterior.
Wet dough is certainly more difficult to work with, however. You will almost certainly need a stand mixer (I use a Kitchenaid) to mix and knead the dough as its consistency is probably as close to pancake batter as it is to the bread dough you’re used to.
The techniques I’ve found to help working with wet dough are fairly obvious; use a liberal amount of dough on your hands, and on your work surface.
This post is not going to be a round up of commercial vegan cheeses (of which there are many), there have already been several vegan cheese showdowns. Nor do I have a homemade recipe to recommend. I will say, however, that if you’ve had difficulty coaxing your favourite store-bought cheese to melt, the extra 100 or so degrees should have it melting in a matter of minutes.
For a in-depth look at the whole process, I would fully recommend reading Jeff Varasano’s page.