Do it Detroit style

Detroit-style pizzaRegional pizza makes its
way cross-country

Once virtually unknown outside of the Motor City, Detroit-style pizza has rapidly become a popular dish at several notable pizzerias across the country and has earned its makers top honors in both domestic and international pizza competitions. The style’s recent emergence on the global pizza scene is encouraging, but it has yet to match the ubiquity enjoyed by its New York and Chicago counterparts. That’s about to change, as more and more pizzerias are finding out how much their customers love Detroit-style pizza; a style that’s poised to become a staple menu item for pizzerias the world over. The Detroit secret is out, so here’s what you need to know to make Detroit-style pizza.

In order to bake a truly authentic Detroit-style pizza, it’s important to understand its history and tradition. Detroit-style pizza was first made in the mid-1940s. Troops returning from World War II longed for the European dishes they sampled during the war, and many of Detroit’s bar owners began serving fish ‘n’ chips to satisfy that demand. Others, however, chose to offer an Italian dish in an effort to differentiate themselves from competitors; thus, Detroit-style pizza was crafted. This is why the style features a thick Sicilian crust today.

One of the most unique aspects of Detroit-style pizza is its square shape due to the fact that it is prepared in square steel pans. Detroit was experiencing a boom in automotive manufacturing in the 1940s, and the pans used to bake the first Detroit-style pizzas were also used as small parts trays at auto plants. The square steel pans are still used to prepare authentic Detroit-style pizza today.

The dough and the pans are two of the most critical elements for baking authentic Detroit-style pizza; no matter where it is served, Detroit-style pizza packs Detroit history in every slice.

Like most pizzerias, Detroit Style Pizza Co. has proprietary secrets that prevent me from offering a detailed step-by-step recipe for Detroit-style pizza; however, I can offer the foundation for baking your own authentic Detroit-style pizza. Through trial and error, you’ll be able to make your own pizza both authentic and uniquely yours.

Consider:

• The dough. Detroit-style pizza features a medium-thick crust that’s light and airy on the inside, yet crispy on the outside, a signature of authenticity that’s achieved by a high moisture content (between a 68- and 72-percent hydration level) and the proofing process. Preparing your Detroit-style pizza dough takes care and attention to detail.

Prepare your water by bringing it to a temperature between 95 and 100 F. Next, mix in about 50 percent of the yeast and sugar from your recipe. Stir well and then let it sit for 15 minutes to activate the yeast. You should see some foam on top of the water.

Pour into your mixing bowl. Finally, mix in the rest of your dry ingredients (flour, yeast, sugar and salt). Once mixed, make dough balls by weight according to the size of pizzas you’ll be making. For us, that’s 10 ounces for a small (8 inches x 10 inches) pizza and 18 ounces for a large (10 inches x 14 inches) pizza. The dough balls can then be refrigerated for later use, or you can immediately press into the pans and leave out to proof in the pans. I use pans with lids, which allow for more even heat and humidity distribution and a more thorough proofing process. The pans can be stacked for more efficient storage.

• The proofing process. There are two ways to proof Detroit-style pizza dough. For the first method, you refrigerate the dough for a 24-hour cold fermentation period, which can enhance taste and texture. After 24 hours, you can press the dough out into the pans, making sure it is consistently even throughout the entire pan. Once fully pressed out, let it rise to a thickness of between one inch and one and one-quarter inch. At this point, the dough is ready to bake.
For the second proofing method, press your freshly mixed dough into your pans right away, then let it rise at room temperature (again, about halfway up the side of the pans). Once the dough has risen, you can bake it immediately or store it in your cooler until it’s ready to use.

Managing your dough during the proofing process is very important and can be challenging. If you leave it out too long your dough can blow out. Or, if doesn’t rise enough, you will not get the texture this style is known for. It’s important to note that most of the rising takes place during proofing, not baking. Proofing time depends on your recipe, temperature and humidity; it can be as quick as 30 minutes during the summer, but just a 10-degree drop in temperature can prolong the process to 120 minutes. The best practice is to have a room or proofing boxes that allow you to control temperature and humidity to yield a consistent, perfect proof every time.

pizza pans• The pans. As mentioned, Detroit-style pizza is baked in square steel pans. We season our pans through a multi-step process that protects the pans and makes pizza more flavorful with each bake. Over time, the oils from the pizzas you bake will lend a natural seasoning to your pans. Like an old friend once said, “Like fine wine, Detroit-style pizza pans improve with time.”

• Toppings and cheeses. Traditionally, a layer of pepperoni lines Detroit-style pizza crust. Next, cheese is spread evenly across the entire pizza, edge to edge, covering the pepperoni. Brick and mozzarella cheese blends are the most authentic, and brick cheese can be blended with other cheeses as well. However, there are substitutes that can be used in areas where brick cheese is difficult to obtain or extremely pricey. After the cheese is applied, any additional toppings can be placed on top.

• The sauce. Ladling red sauce on last is one of the signatures of Detroit-style pizza, which is why it has earned the nicknames “red top pizza” and “upside down pizza.” You can craft your own red sauce recipe, but it’s best to begin with ground tomatoes as the base. The sauce is simmered until it’s ready to use, and it’s traditionally applied to Detroit-style pizza after baking. Some pizzerias apply it before baking, which does not jeopardize authenticity — but it can affect the bake due to high moisture content.

• Deck oven baking. Detroit-style pizza is baked in deck ovens, which admittedly take some time to master. Training your kitchen staff to properly use deck ovens is critical to consistent baking. Natural gas-fired deck ovens with stone or steel decks are fired from the bottom so they don’t dehydrate vegetables and other toppings like forced air conveyor pizza ovens tend to do.

Deck oven baking results in melted edge-to-edge cheese that caramelizes to the crust (a signature feature of authentic Detroit-style pizza) and seals in the natural flavor for a better-tasting pizza. Recent oven technologies claim to accurately mimic deck oven baking and I haven’t ruled them out; but for now, we’re sticking with deck ovens.

• Importance of authenticity. Baking authentic Detroit-style pizza is an intensive process, but the results are well worth the effort. More and more customers today appreciate a slower-baked, flavorful pizza. The only way to offer your customers such rich texture and robust flavor is to ensure you follow the steps necessary to bake authentic Detroit-style pizza. Passionate pizza chefs know this and it’s the reason they’ve traveled from as far away as Europe and Asia to enroll in our Authentic Detroit Style Pizza Maker Training Program. When you care about authenticity, you’ll serve a better product, and your customers will reward you for it.

Authenticity is critical to Detroit Style Pizza, but that doesn’t mean you can’t add your own unique twists. Jeff Smokevitch of Brown Dog Pizza in Telluride, Colorado, parbakes his Detroit-style pizzas. The Hunt brothers of Via 313 in Austin, Texas, bake a Cadillac Detroit-style pizza that features gorgonzola cheese, fig preserves and Balsamic glaze. As long as you build an authentic foundation, there’s no limit to the ways you can craft an authentic Detroit-style pizza recipe that’s uniquely yours.

Shawn Randazzo  owns Detroit-Style Pizza Company in St. Clair Shores, Michigan. Catch him at International Pizza Expo this month, where he’ll lead a seminar on maximizing delivery profits.

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