Baking Your Pizza    

The best pizza comes out of a clay-lined, wood-fired oven. That being said, the sad reality for most of us is that we don't have this type of oven in our kitchen. Don't worry--you can still get a fantastic tasting pizza using your regular oven at home.

The key to baking a great pizza at home is to crank up your oven. Pizzas are best when they are cooked quickly, so the crust can brown to perfection at the same time the cheese has melted. A pizza stone in your oven will help give your crust a crunch and let it brown to the right color and flavor. To prepare for your pizza, place your pizza stone in a cold oven. This is important to help prevent the stone from cracking. Your bottom oven rack should either be removed or placed on the last rungs. If you have a flat surface on the bottom of your oven (no coils), you can place the stone right on the floor of your oven. Otherwise, set it as low as possible by moving the bottom rack all the way down. The reason for this is to get it as close to the heat source as possible. Most oven heat from the bottom up, so this will help get the stone as hot as possible.

Then shut the door and turn your oven on. You should set it to heat to 500 or more degrees Fahrenheit. If your oven goes over 500 degrees, experiment to find the right temperature. What you are looking for is a temperature that allows the crust to cook correctly while keeping the toppings and cheese from browning too much. I have found that 500 to 510 degrees Fahrenheit works great in my oven. One essential trick to preparing your oven is to let your oven heat for at least an hour before baking your pizza. In fact, letting your oven heat for a full hour is even better. The reason for this is to let your entire oven and the pizza stone heat up as much as possible, giving you a very hot surface and air temperature in which to cook your pizza. If you skimp on this, you may not end up with the same results. In general, I turn the oven on when I have about 20 to 30 minutes left of the final rising of my dough. When I finally get the dough rested, rolled, and topped, at least an hour has passed and we are ready to go.

If you do all of this, when you do finally get your pizza in the oven, it will only take 5-7 minutes of total cooking time. Watch it carefully, since it can go from perfection to overdone in just a minute or so. I gauge the doneness of my pizzas through the window in my oven door, so I don't have to open and close the door numerous times, letting the heat out. As one pizza is baking, you can get the next one ready to go. By doing this in our home, we have a quick turnover and everyone gets their pizza in just five or so minutes.

Prepare your pizza on a cornmeal dusted pizza peel. The cornmeal will help it move from the peel to the stone in your oven without any problem. The cornmeal acts like little ball bearings, allowing the whole thing to slide without sticking. You can dust the peel with cornmeal, lay on your dough, and then top your pizza right on the peel. When it is done, use the peel to move your pizza to the oven and slide it on the stone. When your pizza is done, use the peel again to get it out of the oven. If you have multiple pizzas going in, it might be wise to have a couple of peels, so you can be using one to assemble a pizza, while using the other to remove the first pizza from the oven.

Although I love using a pizza stone, pizzas can also be cooked with good results using pizza pans or even sheet pans. The texture of the crust is somewhat different using a pan, not getting quite as crispy. You also tend to have less of that deep browning that comes from using a stone. But some people truly prefer this type of texture. If you are unsure which to use, I would suggest trying both. When using a pizza pan, you do not set your oven at such a high temperature. In general, pizzas in a pan would be cooked at about 425 degrees Fahrenheit.