We’ll say it: Pizza is one of the world’s most perfect foods. But some of the things we love best about a good pie—charred crust, chewy dough, and oh! the toppings!—are the hardest to nail in our home kitchens. We spoke with Bon Appétit senior food editor Dawn Perry and assistant food editor Claire Saffitz—two women who know a thing or two about a good pie (after all, they’ve made plenty in the BA test kitchen). Here’s the good news: You can bake a pizza parlor-worthy pie at home. But first, ask yourself this: Are you making these common pizza mistakes?
When It Comes to Salt, a Pinch Is Plenty
“Without salt, flour doesn’t taste like much,” Perry explains. And since pizza dough is made from, um, flour, it’s imperative you season the dough well; most home cooks err on the side of caution when it comes to seasoning, leaving the dough as little more than a vehicle for the toppings. That’s a mistake according to Saffitz, who insists that a good pizza is all about the crust. Most store-bought doughs are also lacking in sufficient salt, says Perry, so you should just make your own. (If you do go the store-bought route, Perry likes FreshDirect’s and Trader Joe’s doughs.) Of course, keep in mind the saltiness of your toppings. You can scale back the amount of salt in your dough—though not too much—if your pizza is about to get hit with anchovies, olives, and Parmesan.
At Last, a Chance to Break Out My Rolling Pin!
Look, no one’s saying you have to become a master pizza twirler. Only the best of the best should let that dough fly high above their heads. But we do insist on one thing: Do not roll out your dough. The bubbles take a beating under a rolling pin, leaving the finished product dense and tough. Instead, think light and gentle, and work with your hands to pull and stretch the dough out to your desired size. Worried your pizza won’t be a perfectly round circle? Free yourself from the stress: “Your pizza can be an oval. It can be a square. It can be any shape you want it to be,” says Perry. If the dough proves impossible to work with—snapping back when stretched, for instance—it’s either been overworked or is too cold. Let it sit at room temperature for a full 15 minutes to let the gluten relax and the temperature rise before trying again.
SEE MORE: 3 Steps to the Best Pizza Party Ever
But My Mom Always Used Jarred Sauce!
You’re not using store-bought dough (right?), so why bust out the jarred marinara? Premade tomato sauce is too sweet—it’s loaded with sugar—and has a distinctly “store-bought” taste that’s hard to ignore. But don’t take things to the opposite extreme either: Both Saffitz and Perry advise against fresh tomatoes on pizza. Placed on the pizza post-cooking, they’re too watery for a satisfying topping, but they won’t have time to cook down properly in the oven, either. (“It’ll just be a warm tomato,” says Perry.) Instead, make a simple sauce by cooking a can of crushed tomatoes with garlic, basil, salt, and pepper. Or make things even easier and make a raw sauce: The BA test kitchen likes puréeing tomatoes, garlic, basil, and anchovy in a blender before spreading on pizza. The same goes for cheese—pre-packaged, pre-shredded cheese has a lot more in it than, well, cheese. Saffitz says the point of making a pizza at home is that you have the opportunity to use quality ingredients. Embrace the chance to get the good stuff.
More Is More
This is not the place for a meat lover’s dream pizza, or whatever other combination of 10 different sausage and cured pork products you can order at a chain restaurant. For those hefty pies to work, they need an ultra-sturdy crust and a really, really, really, really hot oven. Leave it to the pros and go simple. “You don’t need seven ingredients,” says Saffitz. Instead, choose a handful of complementary flavors and use restraint (remember, it’s all about the crust). No to black and green olives, peppers, mozzarella, ricotta, Parmesan, chicken wings, pepperoni, mushrooms, and broccoli. Yes to mozzarella, a simple tomato sauce, and a loose fennel sausage. A drizzle of olive oil once the pizza comes out of the oven is a very good thing.
SEE MORE: No-Knead Pizza Dough
It Ain’t Pizza Without a Pizza Stone
That’s not true. You don’t need to use a pizza stone. Sure, preheating the stone in a hot oven (more on that in a minute) will help achieve the crispy, just-charred crust of your dreams, but it’s not necessary. You can make pizza on a regular old baking sheet just fine. Either preheat it in the oven as you would a stone, or else rub it down with oil and build the pizza directly on the sheet; the oil will help the crust fry; it’s ultimately just another brilliant way to achieve a crunchy, charred crust. If you are using that stone, great! But make sure to really give it some love in the oven: It should preheat for at least 45 minutes, says Saffitz. A baking tray doesn’t need as much time, but whichever one you choose to bake on, both Saffitz and Perry say fuggedaboutit when it comes to pizza peels for transferring the pizza from your cutting board to the oven. Do you have a pizza peel? Because we don’t. They’re not really commonplace in most kitchens; instead, you can build your pizza on a sheet of parchment paper, then carefully (carefully!) transfer it to your hot stone or baking sheet. And not to harp on this whole pizza stone thing, but it must be properly taken care of after the pie is done, too. Turn the oven off and leave it there until it has cooled down completely. It’s screaming hot and dangerous to handle, and besides, an extreme temperature change—like from 500 degrees to your kitchen’s breezy 68—can cause the stone to crack and break.
One Shot Is All You Got
Far too many of us forget about the art of the par-bake, but it’s a handy trick that keeps crust from getting soggy. If you’re topping your pizza with something that’s moist or wet (like fresh mozzarella), you want to partially bake the crust before proceeding with the add-ons. Bake it until it’s just firm enough to stand up to the extra weight, then make your pizza pretty. Saffitz and Perry offer a genius tip for how to tell when the crust is perfectly cooked: Use tongs to carefully lift the pizza and peek underneath it—in the center of the pie, not the quicker-cooking edges. Oh, and P.S.: If it’s a thin, crispy crust you’re going for, you will definitely want to par-bake, every time.
Slow and Steady Wins the Race
Is your home oven as hot as the wood-fired one at your favorite pizza place? No. But that doesn’t mean you shouldn’t give it your best effort. High-heat cooking can be intimidating, so many people bump down the temperature and go for a slow bake. But 350 degrees will get you nowhere on your quest for pizza nirvana—you’ll wind up with a limp crust and overcooked toppings. Go hot and fast: Crank that oven temperature to 500, or as high as you can go without broiling, and keep your eye on the pie. Don’t be boxed in by recipes and predetermined cooking times that can be affected by altitude, weather, and a variety of other factors. “If your cheese is melty and bubbly, and your crust is golden brown, that’s when it’s done,” explains Saffitz. “Pizza is a wild animal. Give it time to do its thing,” adds Perry.