2011 March: My Bad

We all make mistakes (ever forgot a birthday or anniversary?). Usually we can make amends in some fashion (roses? dinner out?) and life goes on. In the business we are in, mistakes can cause a deeper problem –– like a customer not coming back –– so we strive to get it right the first time and every time.

Here are some common mistakes that I have experienced in my many years of pizza making and instruction. The point, of course, is to examine how to fix those mistakes once and for all.

Mistake: the soggy crust syndrome.

Solution: It probably has to do with too much water in the tomatoes (canned or fresh) or using more tomato than is called for. Don’t treat a pizza shell like a pond. Know your tomatoes. Topping overload can result in a soggy crust. Vegetables with high water content (bell peppers, mushrooms, spinach), if used too aggressively, can result in a soggy crust, too. Oftentimes, less is better.

Mistake: pools of fat on top of the pizza.

Solution: use a sausage or pepperoni with less fat. Or use precooked sausage crumbles. And don’t overload.

Mistake: Underbaked pizza.

Solution: Oven is not hot enough, or pizzas are placed in the wrong part of the oven. Example: the hot zone for a deck oven is toward the back. For conveyor ovens, check the finger location (impinger fingers). In a wood-fired oven, you are probably not rotating the pizzas closer to the fire. In true Neapolitan fashion, the pizzaiola will finish off a pizza in wood-fired ovens this way: Slide the pizza peel under the fully baked pie, then raise the peel and the pie so that the pizza is almost touching the dome of the oven (because that’s where the oven is the hottest). Finito! Perfetto! Know your oven.

Mistake: overbaked pizza (finished product is too dry and crunchy, no flavor).

Solution: I will say it again –– know your oven. Know where to place (or not) pizzas, especially when using a deck or wood-fired oven. Rotation of pizzas is the key to putting out the perfect pie. Too close to the heat is okay, especially with a wood-fired oven where you sometimes want to present a blistered crust that exhibits some charring.

Mistake: crust is dry, no texture, cardboard syndrome.

Solution: Try using a higher ratio of water to flour. For example, generally speaking, the old benchmark was 20 pounds of flour to 10 pounds of water (50 percent). Try this using 10 pounds of flour and 6 pounds of water (60 percent). The dough will be a bit wetter and a little harder to handle, but it’s worth it. Also, in this situation, use a flour that has a protein level of 13 to 14 percent.

Mistake: miserable veggie pizza (soggy, no flavor).

Solution: Sauté the vegetables –– bell peppers, onion, mushrooms, etc. in olive oil and garlic (that’s the prep). Or, in the case of mushrooms, don’t slice fresh mushrooms too thinly. Also, bury some of the mushrooms under the cheese. Mushrooms are almost 100-percent water, so excessive heat will dry them out and turn each slice into a piece of flavorless cardboard.

Mistake: finished pizza is puffy and bland.

Solution: A puffy and bland pizza shell is the result of rising time and temperature. To avoid a puffy crust, do not let the dough rise at room temperature. After mixing and balling the dough, get it into the cooler as soon as possible. Now let it undergo cold fermentation for at least 24 hours. Give the pizza dough a bench proof time (out of the cooler) of one hour before rolling or stretching. And, this method makes it easier to shape and stretch the dough (it will not shrink or get “bucky”).

Mistake: no flavor fresh basil.

Solution: Don’t chop the basil; rather, tear or snip it using scissors. Also, add the fresh basil after the pizza comes out of the oven. Alternatively, put the fresh basil leaves under the cheese. Keep the fragrance. Add some more basil after the pizza comes out of the oven for the perfect presentation.

Mistake: pizza looks sloppy (tomatoes and cheese running together, because too much of both –– tomatoes and cheese –– were used).

Solution: This happens more often than not when using fresh mozzarella. Don’t use more cheese than is necessary to put out a great tasting pie.

Mistake: dried oregano and dried basil with no flavor or fragrance.

Solution: No, I don’t have a problem with dried oregano and basil. What bothers me is when over-the-hill dried herbs are used. Or a poor brand of either is used. In either case there is no flavor. You might as well be throwing dried grass on the pizza. Use top-drawer Greek oregano, and never use any dried herb that has been sitting around the kitchen or pantry for months on end. u Pat Bruno is Pizza Today’s resident chef and a regular contributor. He is the former owner and operator of a prominent Italian cooking school in Chicago and is a food critic for the Chicago Sun-Times.

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