There are few people we trust on all carbohydrate-related matters as much as Andrew Janjigian. A former Test Cook and Senior Editor at America’s Test Kitchen specializing in all things leavened, he set out on his own last year to start Wordloaf, his self-proclaimed “breaducational newsletter” to help us mere mortals bake like a pro. He’s also a professional baking instructor, serving as a guest instructor at King Arthur Baking Company and teaching remotely via Momence (including upcoming classes on pizza making). We turned to him last year when yeast was in short supply for a crash course on sourdough starter and now he’s back to teach us the secrets of making New York-style thin-crust pizza at home. We suspect you won’t ever want to go back to takeout.
The early days of pizza making
Jack Van Amburg: Since the reboot of Wordloaf early last fall, the month you spent on pizza is the first significant deep dive you’ve spent on one topic. It clearly is a subject you are quite passionate about. What was your relationship to pizza growing up?
Andrew Janjigian: Everyone loves pizza, so as a kid I loved pizza. I don’t know what came first: the desire to make pizza, or the desire to get into cooking in general. But in my early teens, the two were intertwined, so the first thing I wanted to learn to cook was pizza.
It’s a story I’ve told so many times that I don’t remember what’s truth or not. I was given a pizza making book and a perforated aluminum pizza pan. I haven’t seen the book in a while, but my parents just moved and we helped them pack up their house of 44 years and the pan was there. I guess I didn’t have enough sentimental attachment to it to want to add it to my collection, but it still exists. I started making pizza based on the recipes in the book.
Jack: Was it one of those big metal Nordicware ones?
Andrew: Yeah, sort of a shiny metal pan with pretty good sized holes in it. The kind of pan I would steer anyone away from now. (laughs) But I didn’t know any better at the time. I don’t know if I learned to make any good pizzas using it, but it was the moment that I became a cook, and so pizza, in one way or another, has been the thing I’ve been playing around with the longest.
It’s funny because given how much I’m into bread and pizza now, I wasn’t. I went to France for a semester in college and just let all the bread stuff go right over my head. I was a film nerd at the time, so I spent a lot of my time in Paris in movie theaters in the dark. I mean, I’m sure I had great baguettes when I was there and croissants, but I didn’t delve in it and I sort of regret it now. I didn’t really get into bread baking until about 15 years ago and decided I really needed to rethink my pizza recipes.
Jack: Wasn’t pizza one of the first recipes you developed when you arrived at America’s Test Kitchen and Cook’s Illustrated?
Andrew: Yeah. I had already done a Cook’s Illustrated breakdown and rebuilding of my pizza recipe. I mean, it wasn’t great yet, but I’d already sort of thought about it along those lines, so when I got there, they already knew that I was pretty obsessed with pizza and bread. I’d already built a wood-fired oven in my backyard at that point, so it was no secret that I was super nerdy about it.
Jack: Sounds like you definitely left the perforated pan behind.
Andrew: Yeah. Long, long behind. I’m sure it’s been in my mother’s kitchen since I left for college.
Handle pizza dough with patience
Jack: Speaking of, people might be reaching for that pan because that’s what they’re used to, which you mentioned you’d steer people away from now. While it has been said “there is no such thing as bad pizza,” there are certainly things that can go wrong and make not good pizzas. What are the biggest stumbling blocks for home cooks?
Andrew: I think the number one pitfall for most people, myself included for many years, is being able to stretch the dough evenly and easily without messing it up and having it either tear or spring back. With those doughs that fight back, the problem is compounded because the more you fight with it, the more it tightens up and springs back.
One of the things I’m always trying to troubleshoot in my recipes and teach is a dough that doesn’t require a lot of effort, because the less effort it requires, the less trouble it will give you. The key is having it very relaxed when you use it so it’s very, very pliant and easy.
Jack: So you can’t rush it, and have to work at the pace the dough wants to go?
Andrew: Yeah, and the beauty is that it doesn’t require anything more from you than patience, because the way to get dough that’s easy to work with is to just leave it alone for a long time, and by that I mean days. Typically, most of my recipes are a minimum of a day in the fridge, but if you can sock a couple of balls of dough in the fridge for two to three days, you’re going to have something that’s really easy to work with and really just requires patience and foresight. As long as it’s shaped into a ball ahead of time so you don’t have to reshape it at all, it should be really easy to work with.
Jack: For many people, their only experience with pizza at home apart from baking a frozen one is buying one of those bags with the fresh pizza dough in it and using that. Compared to homemade dough, this is a real time-saver. Is making the dough yourself really better? What can you expect from a homemade dough that you won’t get from a supermarket dough?
Andrew: I’m not gonna knock anyone who wants to skip over this process, because like you just said, even bad pizza is good pizza and if you’re making it at home, chances are it’s going to be better than it would be from a pizzeria because pizza is an ephemeral product. The longer it sits before you eat it, the worse it is. I mean, even my pizzas I don’t think are very good five minutes after they’ve come out of the oven, or maybe even 10 minutes. The best time to experience pizza is literally the minute it’s been sliced and it’s not so hot that it’s gonna burn the roof of your mouth. That’s when it’s at its best and just starts kind of falling from that point on.
Jack: Kind of like a new car. The second it leaves the lot, it starts depreciating.
Andrew: Exactly! So if you’re making it at home, you get to experience that in a way you usually can’t. Store-bought dough isn’t terrible and if you get to put your own toppings and twist on it, you can get a lot out of it. That said, I think that gives you a certain type of pizza that isn’t my preference. My go-to kind of pizza is modeled on the New York-New Haven axis: it’s very thin and has a cross section that is flat from crust to tip. Store-bought dough is filled with bubbles and you can never stretch it that thin. There’s no way you could do New York-style thin crust using store-bought dough.
The key, aside from the long fermentation time, is that the dough formulas I like have a really small amount of yeast in them, fractional compared to a bread or even a pizza done at room temperature. Instead of 1% yeast [by weight], it might be a quarter of a percent. Then they go into the fridge without any fermentation at all beforehand, which means it starts only after they’re sitting in the fridge and builds up very gradually. The cold dampens the carbohydrate production in favor of all the flavor development that happens before that, meaning you get very few or very fine bubbles in the dough and a lot of flavor instead. I was taught that fermentation actually develops gluten and the CO2 bubbles pushing on the dough strengthens it, so keeping it cold means there’s less of that kind of activity pushing against the gluten.
Jack: So what’s the best way to shape a pie at home? It doesn’t sound like you’re putting on Dean Martin singing “That’s Amore,” drinking red wine, and tossing it in the air like in the movies.
Andrew: Nope. People are often surprised by how quickly it happens. Literally, with the doughs that I like, you can lift it up and almost in one motion it gets to the dimensions it needs to be. There’s a little bit of knuckles pulling on the dough, and then you put it down on the feel. It’s very fast. That’s the key to not overworking it.
The best oven setup for pizza
Jack: When you were on the podcast last year talking about sourdough baking, you described your oven setup and I remember it involving pie plates filled with lava rocks and washcloths you poured boiling water over as the bread went into the oven. I hear your pizza setup is a lot more streamlined. Can you tell us about it?
Andrew: Pizza’s almost entirely different. For a baking surface, I prefer steel to stone and that’s not true for bread. I think we might have talked about this then, but I find steel to be too fast and too hot for bread. Steel is too conductive for that. So I still recommend people use baking stones for bread or a Dutch oven, but for pizza, I think steel is the best option.
Home ovens don’t get hot enough and the key to good pizza is that it cooks quickly as possible. In a wood-fired oven, pizzas are cooking in 90 seconds, maybe 3 minutes tops. The key characteristic of a good pizza is contrast. The crust should be nice and crisp but the inside should be just shy of undercooked, and the only way to do that is to cook it fast. We’ve talked about this all the time when it comes to cooking meat, that how you get a good sear on the outside while not overcooking the inside is you get [your cooking surface] really hot so the inside doesn’t have enough time to catch up to the outside. It’s the same with pizza, and steel is the most conductive surface you can use. It means you can reduce your cooking time by about half from a stone, maybe even a third. I can get mine in and out of the oven in less than five minutes and it makes a huge difference.
The other part is how you position things in the oven. My typical recommendation is to put your stone or steel as high in the oven as you can get, because it doesn’t just cook from one side up. This gives you that heat reflecting from the top of the oven down and if you want to get advanced you can use the broiler in your oven if it’s good enough to preheat the top of your oven or you can actually have it on during the bake and cook the pie faster.
Jack: Ok, so this is the part that terrifies me the most: getting the pizza into the oven. I have this fear the pizza isn’t going to come off the peel or end up all over the floor of my oven. What are some dos and don’ts of moving your pizza without catastrophe?
Andrew: A lot of good pizza technique comes from having the right set of tools, and one of my favorite tools that I shared is called a Super Peel. It’s like a conveyor belt for pizza or bread, and it eliminates all risk of the pizza sticking to the peel. That’s the problem for most people, the longer it sits on a regular peel, the more likely it’ll stick. So you move too fast and that’s when problems occur. If you’re new to pizza, or you just want to be able to be calm about it, then a Super Peel is the way to avoid all of them.
The next best thing for loading pizza into the oven is an uncoated wooden peel. The porous nature of it wicks away some of the moisture that would otherwise collect between the dough and the peel and you have a little more time between stretching and baking to get it off the peel. Metal peels tend to be the stickiest. Unfortunately, wooden peels aren’t good for moving pizzas around. Once it’s in the oven, I like a metal peel because it acts like a spatula and you can jam it under the pie really fast without issue.
Show restraint with pizza toppings
Jack: If Domino’s and Pizza Hut had their way, almost anything would be fair game to put on a pizza. Do you have a line in the sand for what absolutely should not go on a pizza? How should we be topping our pizzas?
Andrew: I have my opinions, but I tend to keep them to myself when it comes to what other people want on their pizza. The thing I do tend to recommend is that you top conservatively. Try to use things that have concentrated flavors so you don’t have to use a lot of them. If you overload a pie, then that slows down the cooking and we’re back at square one. I mean, if you’re an extra cheese and everything pizza person, then great, maybe it doesn’t matter that the dough is now overcooked, because you’re getting to enjoy a half pound of cheese and all that. Typically, I tend to go lightly with toppings so that they cook quickly. Vegetables, depending on what they are I’d like to precook in some form or prep ahead of time so that they don’t need as long and will proceed at the same pace as the pie itself.
Jack: So what’s your perfect pizza. Like, if you were going to make pizza tonight and had every ingredient available to you, what would you make?
Andrew: That’s a tough one. I mean, I always make a plain pie. I feel if you can’t make a really perfect cheese and sauce pie, then you really haven’t mastered the craft. So I don’t need a lot to enjoy pizza or to feel like I’m fulfilled by it. Just a good cheese pizza, which typically is going to have a combination of either whole milk aged mozzarella or fresh mozzarella, and then some hard, more aged cheese like Parmesan and pecorino.
In terms of other pies I commonly make, I am a big fan of something like pepperoni, but my go-to meat is typically something like soppressata, and then when it comes out of the oven, usually it gets a drizzle of hot honey, which is a relatively recent pizza thing, but it’s genius and now pretty much essential.
Jack: Oh, that reminds me of the Hellboy pizza from Paulie Gee’s in Greenpoint the last time I visited New York. I’d never had it before and it was so delicious.
Andrew: Yeah, that’s the home of the hot honey. They were the first place to feature it in a pizza context and the rest is history. I mean, everyone now has hot honey.
Learn the one secret to better pizza
Jack: So, we’ve covered a LOT of great pizza advice and I already know I want to rethink my entire pizza game now. For our readers, if there was just one takeaway they could apply to their home cooking, what would be the most impactful change they could make?
Andrew: I’ve spent so much time going through all of the elements that I don’t know which is the one gateway switch to make. I would say getting things as hot as possible is a good place to start. Getting your stone, or steel if you can afford one, as high as possible in the oven, doing all the preheating, and making sure your oven is as high as it’ll go. That’s pretty key because that gives you that “the faster it cooks, the better it is” result. But then…I still want people to have a dough that’s super relaxed and crisp. So there’s a lot to it. But [the heat]’s a good place to start.
Aside from the tricks that I talk about, practice is key. The worst that’s going to happen is you’re gonna have an ugly-looking pizza or whatever. It took me thousands of pies to get good at it and confident about it. You know, it’s still going to be pizza, so just practice. The worst that’s gonna happen is you’re going to have pizza to eat, and it’s still going to be great.
Jack: And there’s worse things to do than eat a whole bunch of pizza.
Curious to learn more about enhancing your bread- and pizza-baking game? Subscribe to Andrew Janjigian’s email newsletter, Wordloaf, learn about his upcoming “breaducation” class schedule, and hear him disclose secrets to making sourdough. And if you simply want to start making pizza right now, simply choose from one of these pizza recipes as well as some of Andrew Janjigian’s Favorite Kitchen Things.