1.3. Pizza

If there’s one stereotypical geek food, it would have to be pizza: ubiquitous, cheap, and cheesy. But the stuff sold in your local strip mall is far inferior to what you can make at home. It’s like the difference between canned fruit and the fresh thing: both can be good, but the fresh version is distinctly more nuanced.

Start by making pizza dough. You can also buy pizza dough at your grocery store, although I find I get better results when I make it from scratch .

Set out a large cutting board and sprinkle a handful of flour in the center area. Preheat your oven to at least 450°F / 230°C. Take about 1 lb (450g) of the dough and form it into a ball between your hands, kneading and folding it over. The dough should be just slightly sticky, but not so much that it actually remains stuck to your hand. If it’s too sticky, add more flour by dredging it in the flour on the cutting board. Continue to work the dough until it reaches a firm consistency and has good elasticity when stretched. Begin to work the dough into a flat, round disc, and then roll it into a round pizza shape.

Par-bake the pizza dough by baking it on a pizza stone in a hot oven. You can transfer the pizza dough by carefully picking it up and laying it onto the stone; don’t burn yourself! If you don’t have a pizza stone , you can use a cast iron pan, upside down, to similar effect. Let the pizza bake for three to five minutes, until the dough has set. If the dough puffs up in one place, use a chef’s knife to poke a small hole in the bubble and then use the flat side of the knife blade to push the puffed portion back down. Par-baking the dough isn’t traditional, but it’ll help avoid soggy, undercooked dough and also makes transferring the topped pizza into the oven a heck of a lot easier. It simplifies the cooking of the pizza, too: cook the dough until it’s effectively ready, and then cook the toppings until they melt and fuse, as opposed to trying to get both to occur at the same time.

Once the pizza dough has been par-baked, remove it from the oven and place it on your cutting board. Add sauce and toppings. The sauce can be anything from a thin coating of olive oil to traditional tomato sauce. For toppings such as onions and sausage, sauté them before placing them on the pizza. Cooking the dough and toppings separately removes all the constraints associated with the various ingredients needing varying cooking times, leaving just three goals: melting the cheese to fuse the ingredients together, browning the edge of the crust, and browning the top surface of the toppings. Finish cooking by transferring the dressed pizza into the oven (using a pizza peel or, in a pinch, a piece of cardboard) and baking it until any cheese is melted and the pizza has begun to turn golden brown, about 8 to 12 minutes.

Jeff Varasano on Pizza

Jeff Varasano moved from New York to Atlanta, where a lack of New York–style pizza drove him to years of experimenting—to the point where he clipped the lock on his oven so that he could bake pizza in a super-hot oven set to its cleaning cycle. He eventually quit his job as a C++ programmer and opened Varasano’s Pizzeria in Atlanta.

How did you go from C++ programming to making pizza?

I moved from New York to Atlanta. Like a lot of people transplanted from the Northeast, I started to seek out the best pizza. A lot of places claim to be like New York, and you go there and you’re like, “Hmm, have these guys ever been to New York?” So I started to bake at home. At first I would just call up all of my friends and say, “Look, I’m making pizza tonight. It’s going to be pretty terrible, but why don’t you come try it?” And it really was pretty bad.

I started experimenting. I did all the flours. I experimented with different methods of heating my oven. I tried to do it on the grill. I tried to wrap my oven in aluminum foil to keep all the heat in. Then I moved to a new house and I had an oven with a cleaning cycle. I didn’t really know what a cleaning cycle was. I had never had an oven with a cleaning cycle, but I ran it and I realized that it was basically just incinerating the contents. It was like, “Aha, I’ve got to get in there!” So that’s where the whole idea of clipping the lock came from.

I threw up this website (now at http://www.varasanos.com/PizzaRecipe.htm). I really didn’t think too much about it. For a year and a half the counter was at about 3,000 and in a day it jumped from 3,000 to 11,000 and crashed my server. I realized that people were pounding that page and pretty much from that day forward I started to get email. That’s what started me down the whole tunnel of thinking about giving up the software stuff and going into pizza.

In the process of learning how to do your pizza, what turned out to matter more than you expected, and on the other side, what turned out to matter less?

Well, clearly what mattered less was the flour. Everyone is looking for the piece of equipment or secret ingredient that they can buy which will all of a sudden transform their pizza into something great. It’s not that. This is one of the things I realized early on. There is no magic bullet. If you look at the top five pizzerias on my list, you’ll see they use five different ovens: gas, wood burning, coal burning, electric, and believe it or not, an oil burning oven. Not only do they use different fuels, they’re different shapes, they’re different temperatures, some bake their pizza for two minutes, some seven. So what is it then? The answer is that it’s an art, it’s everything all together at that one moment. That’s what I realized, learning the basics and the fundamentals, you come into style and artistry and that’s much more difficult to define. It’s not going to be a single secret.

A lot of geeks who are learning to cook get hung up on the very small details and miss the big picture of just getting in there and trying something and playing with it.

Yeah. I’ve always been an experimenter. But I’ve always had sort of a different way of approaching problems. I don’t make very many assumptions about the way things should be done. Most people assume that knowing how things should be done is the best way, so they keep struggling within a very small circle, whereas I have a tendency to just try a much wider variety of things that may work and may not work.

So when you get stuck on one of these problems even though you’re working in a wider circle, how do you go about getting unstuck?

That’s an interesting question. Let me deviate from that slightly and then I’ll come back. Most people are familiar with the scientific method, which is holding everything exactly the same and changing this one thing. This reminds me of people trying to do one side of the Rubik’s Cube. Most of the good methods don’t involve getting any side. That’s the last thing you do. So people get stuck because they don’t want to toss in the towel on the progress they think they’ve made so far. So if you want to make it past one level, you may have to scrap your whole methodology and just start over. And you see that with pizzas.

Art begins where engineering ends. Engineering is about taking what’s known and carrying it to its logical conclusion. So what do you do when you have exploited everything you know, but you want to go to the next level? At that point, you have to start opening your mind up to completely random ways of thinking through something. That might involve taking multiple steps at a time. It might be that you don’t abandon one thing, but you have to abandon five things.

As an example using pizza, as soon as I switch flour, I can’t just keep the same hydration because if I change the flour then I may also have to change the water, or the dough may have a different consistency. Well, guess what, when I increase the hydration then the heat penetration into the dough is going to be slower because more of that water has to boil off. So now all of a sudden I might have to change the oven temperature, too. I’d love to conduct a controlled experiment that would conclude that Flour B is better than Flour A, holding all other variables constant. But in the real world such a test is somewhat meaningless. This is why it’s an art.

This makes a lot of sense. I think a lot of geeks out there would say that this would be a multivariate approach to finding one of these optimal points of pizza recipes and techniques.

That’s right. And you have to work on the underlying forces and begin to understand them independently, but in the end the results are not going to be a set of independent things, they’re going to be a set of interdependent things.

In the first stage of working a problem or trying to master a skill, you find that everything seems totally dependent and that’s when you have the least power. The next stage is to make things independent and to break things down and classify them. The whole idea is to segment things into finer and finer individual techniques. The ultimate stage is learning how to reconnect all of those parts that you separated out and now reorganizing them into something where the pieces are interdependent rather than a collection of things that are independent.

I am at the middle stage myself, so I don’t quite see how all the pieces fit together. For example, if we don’t leave the heater on in the restaurant, then the dough warms up overnight at a different rate than it did a couple of days ago. I think, well, there really doesn’t seem to be that much difference but I know there was that two-degree difference, so I’ll correct for it. I’ll think I’m back where I started, but I am not. And then sometimes you don’t even know what’s different and then you just literally scratch your head. In a year it will be obvious what was different.

Can you give me an example?

One of the ingredients I had given pretty minimal thought to—and didn’t realize how important it was—was oregano. I have a little herb garden in front of my house and I grow some oregano. I didn’t like the strain I had. One day I found a better sample in an abandoned herb garden. I dug it up and I put it in my front yard and used it.

So now I’m ready to launch the restaurant and I’m going to all my suppliers looking for oregano. Thirty-three oreganos later, I’m still sitting here saying none of them tastes like the one that I grew in my garden.

You don’t realize that there is a difference to be worked on, but that’s when you’re caught with your guard down. The oregano that I really, really like is a year away from production quantity so now I’m experimenting; maybe there’s a better way to dry the oreganos that I have. If I get a fresh one, maybe I can dry it differently and maybe it’s the drying process will give me something closer to what I want. So now I’ve gone down the tunnel trying five, six, or seven ways of drying it; heated drying using a dehydration machine that blows a fan and a little bit of heat over it using dehumidifiers and all these different things.

So it sounds like your method for overcoming this is to try a lot of different things?

It really is, and you know it’s funny because I like to say, well, how do you know? I tried everything and a lot of people think, wow, it’s amazing you figured this out! People think there is some sort of secret magic, but the problem is that when you get to the end of what’s known, when you get to the end of engineering, you’re left with hunch and trial and error, but those carry you much farther than people often give them credit for.

Pizza Dough—No-Knead Method

This makes enough dough for one medium-sized pizza with the crust rolled thin. You’ll probably want to multiply these quantities by the number of people you’re cooking for.

Weigh into a large bowl or plastic container:

1 ⅓ cups (170g) flour

1 teaspoon (5g) salt

1 tablespoon (10g) instant yeast

Using a spoon, mix together so that the salt is thoroughly distributed. Add:

½ cup (120g) water

Mix in the water using the spoon so that the flour and water are incorporated.

Let rest on counter for at least four hours, preferably longer. You can mix the ingredients together at breakfast time (for example, before running off to that day job at Initech or wherever) and the dough will be ready by the time you get home. It’s the same principle as the no-knead bread: the glutenin and gliadin proteins will slowly crosslink on their own.

You can cut and serve pizza directly off the peel. If you don’t have a pizza peel, you can use a piece of cardboard to slip a pizza into and out of the oven.


  • I have a confession to make: when it comes to pizza dough, I’m lazy and don’t worry about exact hydration levels, proper kneading method, ideal rest times, and controlling temperature to generate the ideal flavor.

  • If you want to experiment, order some sourdough yeast culture (which is actually a culture of both the well-known sourdough strain of yeast and the bacteria lactobacillus). The ratio of yeast to bacteria in the dough will impact the flavor. You can control that ratio by letting the dough mature for some amount of time in the fridge, where yeast will multiply but bacteria won’t; and some amount of time at room temperature, where the bacteria will contribute flavors. If you want to explore these variables, read Jeff Varasanos web page on pizza—see the interview with him in Jeff Varasano on Pizza for details.

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