All Up in My Grill
The secret to great pizza is hot, hot heat
Published: June 29, 2011
Anytime I’m out with my buddy Josh from New Jersey and we are drunk and hungry, which I just decided will be known as “drunkgry,” and the idea of getting pizza is even hinted at, Josh invariably reacts with the whole Tristate-area pizza supremacy thing, all “Gitdafuggahdaheyy, that ain’t pizza, you want real pizza you come wit me up to Sciortino’s, that’s real pizza, dis fuggin’ guy” (and yes, that is exactly what he sounds like). That’s not to say there isn’t any good pizza here, because there is; it’s just that there’s pizza, and then there’s Pizza, and if you’re talking about the latter, as much as I hate to admit it, old Joshy-boy is right.
Normally about now is when I’d go into all the expository nerd stuff like general history, etymology, etc. But pizza is such a huge topic, and frankly I don’t possess enough expertise to relate much first-hand experience on all the regional variations out there. What I do know is that I’ve had at least a thousand slices of pizza in my lifetime, and of those I can probably count on my digits the ones I’d consider to be Pizza of the highest order. And none of them have been from within a hundred miles of Baltimore.
Now I am definitely not a snob—hell, I’ll eat some Stouffer’s French Bread Pizza or Celeste Pizza for One all day (“Supreme” only though), and would choose them over many retail pies in the area. Reason? Crust, man—it’s all about the crust. I seriously want an autographed 8x10 of whoever invented those silvery cardboard crisping things.
I grew up eating the same pizza as everyone else stranded in suburban cul-de-sacs: Domino’s. If you’re too young to remember early Domino’s pizzas, you dodged a bullet—they were unspeakably bad. But over time I developed a technique to deal with flaccid, wan, bland pizza crusts. Instead of tossing them out, I’d age them in the refrigerator, shaking the box a couple times a day, listening for that telltale hollow rattle. That’s when I knew the remnants had dessicated just enough to provide some interesting texture, and thus be somewhat palatable. Also, I realized eventually that while reheating in a microwave was worthless, pan-fried leftover slices were significantly superior to the original product. Again, crust.
It wasn’t until I made it to NYC (where else) that I discovered what Pizza really could be. Asymmetrical, uneven, peppered with dark freckles, with little islands of white (?) cheese and leaves and shit, and no pepperoni—I honestly didn’t know what the hell I was looking at at first. But then the crust, man, the crust! A sort of crunch-encased pillowiness that collapses down into a smoky, rich-tasting bite with slight to moderate chew and a bit of punctuation courtesy of some nubbly gossamer dome structures, aka bubbles. I don’t remember anything about the sauce or toppings, other than that they thankfully didn’t detract from the awesomeness of that crust. That for me, and I suspect many here in the Northeastern United States, is what Pizza, the real stuff, is.
Others have delved far more deeply than I ever will as to what goes into making real Pizza, most notably Internet Pizza Guy, or more formally Jeff Varasano (varasanos.com), and indeed the crust is key. Varasano goes into great detail about the actual composition of the dough, and although a dough made from a quality starter or yeast and handled properly every step of the way is no doubt superior, I find store-bought to be perfectly acceptable if it’s cooked properly. Many pizza places will sell you raw dough if you ask nicely, usually for around two bucks for a large. You can also find it at nicer supermarkets and most Italian delis.
Then it all comes down to heat, and you need a lot of it to get a good crust. Coal-fired ovens are the standard, because of the very high temperatures they can deliver—up to 1,000 degrees Fahrenheit or more. This is obviously not an option for home cooks. Most home ovens get up to only about 500 degrees, but one way to circumvent that limitation is to use the “clean” cycle, which can get up to around 800 degrees, sufficient for a decent crust. Varasano goes into great detail about how to do this. You have to disable the safety latch that prevents the door from being opened when the oven is that hot, but in this way, even an otherwise useless electric oven can be made to produce really good pizza.
What other commonly available device is capable of producing sufficient heat? Hell yes, the backyard grill. As I pointed out in my steak-cooking tips (“Pan Labyrinth,” Eat Me, July 11, 2007), a charcoal grill can get up to 1,000 degrees, just like a coal-fired oven. Along with the massive amount of heat, grilling allows for the introduction of other flavors, namely smoke in the form of burning hardwood, fruitwood, or herbs, as well. And no, you don’t even need a pizza stone—I’m talking about straight dough-on-grate cooking, though I did sacrifice a lot of dough to the ashes before I figured out how to keep the dough in one piece. The other problem with grilling is the relative lack of radiant heat, which makes browning of the top surface impossible. But the superlative end result will have you reluctantly nodding in agreement the next time some dude wearing a goddamn tilted Yankees hat tells you how Baltimore sucks because there’s no real Pizza here. But if you have a grill, you can have a reasonably good facsimile.
Fresh pizza dough keeps in the fridge for up to a week, covered. Starting from a cold dough will help keep it in one piece during grilling. The crust will be smaller than a restaurant pie, since it needs to be slightly thicker to withstand the rigors of being moved around on the grill.
Pillsbury pizza dough: Cheap and readily available (from a tube, even), but very flimsy, prestreched but impossible to keep in one piece, and too buttery and bread-y (9-by-12-inch). Poor.
Premade supermarket/deli crust: Usually frozen, it had good crunch, decent char, and low bubble formation, but was a bit too fragile, easy to tear holes in, and hard to stretch (14-by-14-inch square). Good.
Specialty pizzeria dough: I tried this fresh dough because Iggie’s has sturdier than average dough (cost: $4). It had good flavor and char and stretched easily, but had low bubble formation and was a bit small (11-by-11-inch). Very good.
Standard pizzaria dough. I got fresh dough from Krispy King, which proved fairly resistant to tearing and provided good char, crunch, and flavor, and excellent bubble formation, plus they even threw in a free pizza box (14-by-14-inch). Excellent.
Light enough coals to underpin the area of your crust in one layer, which should have enough heat for two or three pizzas before they run out of energy.
Get all of your toppings ready (suggestions follow). If anything needs cooking, do it before you start your pizza, as the radiant heat will only be enough to maybe melt the cheese.
While the coals are ashing over, stretch your dough into a square shape (easier for grilling). Gently push out the edges, tugging gently as necessary, making sure to not leave any overly thin spots in the crust. I find using a cutting board or sheet pan helps—you can shape it more easily by using the edges of the board or pan to hold the edges of the dough. Lube the top side of the dough with olive oil or spray oil.
When the coals are ready, spread into an even layer larger in area than your dough. Make sure your cooking grate is clean, and lube the grate with oil. Carefully drape your dough, oiled side down, onto the cooking grate and lube the now top-facing side with oil as you did with the other side.
In about a minute, your dough will begin to bubble. At this point, it should be stiffening up—lift and inspect underneath for uneven cooking. If you see that a portion is cooking faster than the rest, rotate or shift the dough to offset. After about two minutes, or when the dough is medium-brown, carefully flip it.
Brown the other side for just 1 minute, and flip back over. I do this to get some char; smoke can get on the bubbled surfaces, and so provide a heated surface to aid in cheese melting.
Quickly add cheese and other toppings, and drizzle or spray with a bit of oil.
Throw some hard-/fruitwood twigs or chips or rosemary or thyme sprigs on the coals and close the lid. Cook for a minute and remove from grill.
I like to add sauce now as a final step, if at all. Room-temp sauce will be warmed by the pizza by the time you put it in your mouth. I actually prefer having the sauce in a bowl on the side, to dip the crust into.
I find with this type of pizza, less is more. If made properly, the pizza component hierarchy gets totally inverted so that the crust is at the top and the toppings are almost an afterthought.
Fresh mozzarella: It is traditional, and tasty, and is now fairly readily available. Slice into easily manageable little units, like one per pizza slice, and distribute evenly over the pie. If the cheese is packed in water, drying the slices with paper towels aids in melting.
Fresh herbs/greens: If you match up fresh basil with tomato sauce and fresh mozz, you’ve got a Margherita pizza. I keep basil leaves whole as chiffonade can dry out , and with individual leaves you can portion out per slice more easily. Otherwise oregano is good, but I find rosemary and thyme to be overpowering if put directly on the pizza—they’re better at contributing flavor via their perfumed smoke. I like spinach and arugula, but note that it’s better to wilt them slightly beforehand—the radiant heat from the grill may not be enough to do so, and uncooked greens tend to move around and fall off the crust too easily.
Sauce: As long as you do the double flip I describe above, a bit of sauce shouldn’t make the crust too soggy. But note that if cheese interfaces with sauce instead of crust directly, it may not melt as well and will have a tendency to slide around. Also, I like my pizza sauce uncooked.
Easy pizza sauce recipe
1 large can diced tomatoes
2 cloves garlic
2 tablespoons good olive oil
salt and sugar to taste
Purée ingredients in a blender. Done.
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