Friends Don’t Let Friends Buy Frozen Pizza
What I learned from my pizza-making COVID hobby
For the Aspen Times Weekly
While I’m willing to cook just about anything, for me, pizza and sushi fall into a special classification of “things best made by others.” At least, until the pandemic. While sushi’s status remains the same, I’m pleased to report my pizza game is getting stronger. Turns out a major factor to making drool-worthy ‘za is having the right equipment.
I’m also a fan of carry-out pizza and, of course, we have many great local options. But living many miles from Highway 82, much less a pizza restaurant that has both the traditional and gluten-free offerings needed to suit my family, forced me to get creative. We started with zhuzhed-up frozen pizzas cooked on a pizza stone and moved on to frozen crusts with our own toppings cooked both on and off the pizza stone. The results were less than stellar and, while my pizza stone currently retired, to be fair, I don’t think I ever got it hot enough to produce a crisp crust.
After trying dozens of combinations, the basic but far from boring margherita pizza wins every time. All you need are crushed, canned tomatoes (San Marzano if you can find them), fresh mozzarella, salt and good-quality olive oil and fresh basil to put on top once your creation comes out of the oven.
The game changed when I received a pizza steel, digital scale and the “No Gluten, No Problem Pizza” cookbook for Christmas. I tend to wing it in the kitchen, and these recipes are very precise. Once I committed, though, the recipes were easy enough to follow and I worked my way through the entire book throughout the months of COVID at-home dining. I got restaurant-quality pizza almost every time (user error is real). Preheating your oven to 550 degrees (make sure it’s clean beforehand) for an hour is not a big deal in the winter. Once the exterior thermometer started rising though, my family and I lost our enthusiasm for the process.
And that is when I was lucky enough to test a stand-alone Ooni Koda 16 Gas Powered Pizza Oven. The oven, which is meant to be used outside (whether that means your backyard, while living your best van life, or camping) gets blazing hot, to 950 degrees, and cooks pizzas in 60 to 90 seconds. It’s so easy, we’re now making homemade pies several times a week, sometimes even just for appetizers, or as inspiration for writing this article. This method has a bit of a learning curve: less sauce is better than more (as I discovered when I decided to add some extra sauce and all toppings went sliding to the back of the oven, leaving my crust sadly denuded); drier ingredients are better than wet; have all ingredients prepped before you begin; make sure your crust isn’t stuck to the peel before sliding it into the oven; and, whatever you do, don’t leave a cooking pizza unattended.
The experiment has been such a success — at least in flavor, though not always appearance —that on a recent road trip, I specifically did not order pizza. That’s because we didn’t go to any great pizza joints, for one, and for two, there were tacos, but also because the ones we make at home are that tasty.
The Ooni pizza oven in action. | Allison Pattillo
Ready to try making your own pizza? Here are some tools to set you up for success.
A basic piece of steel turns your regular oven into an impressive pizza cooker. Look online and in kitchen shops for a size that fits your oven. I’ve been using one that has a hole in one corner to make it easier to move about because it is a bit bulky. For the best crust, preheat the steel in your oven for about an hour before baking.
This is the giant spatula-looking gadget you use to get a pizza in and out of the oven. I’ve used a wooden one with my regular oven for years. Metal ones tend to be thinner and better able to stand the high heat of some pizza ovens (see below) and come perforated or not. The non-perforated Ooni 12” pizza peel is made of aluminum ($39.99, ooni.com). Miners Building True Value Kitchen Store in Aspen sells a 14-inch pizza peel made from pine ($26.99).
Digital kitchen scale
I’ve come to find out that baking is much more successful when you measure ingredients by weight versus mass. That’s even more important when making pizza dough that doesn’t require much in the way of ingredients, making exact measurements critical. I now use this technique with all baking recipes. You can get a Zwilling Digital Kitchen Scale at the Miners Building True Value Kitchen Store in Aspen. ($65)
‘No Gluten, No Problem Pizza’
This cookbook by Boulder-based cookbook authors Kelli and Peter Bronski covers gluten-free adaptations of the favorite styles of pies (from New York style to Neapolitan, Chicago deep-dish to cauliflower crusts, grilled crusts to California-style and many more), and they taste so yummy that your gluten-eating friends and family won’t complain. That said, if you can eat gluten, do! Since the authors are from Colorado, recipes come complete with high-altitude adjustments. You will need a digital scale, parchment paper, pizza steel and a wide variety of flours for these pizzas. ($24.95)
Antimo Caputo Chef’s Flour
While you can certainly make a good pizza with all-purpose flour, Italian 00 Flour is recommended for making homemade pizzas due to its fine texture and protein content. If you’re gluten-free, Caputo’s also makes a Gluten Free Pizza Flour, which yields delicious results. ($11.40 for 4.4 pounds of regular flour/$14.13 for 4.4 pounds of gluten free flour, amazon.com)
If you want the homemade experience without the hassle of making your own dough, local grocery stores (City Market, Clark’s Market, and Whole Foods Basalt) have you covered with ready-to-use dough in their refrigerator or freezer cases. For another shortcut, look for refrigerated or canned pizza sauce or canned crushed tomatoes.
Ooni Koda 16 Gas Powered Pizza Oven
No doubt, this is a splurge. But, if you consider what dinner out costs and add in the entertainment value of doing it yourself, this investment pays off quickly. Plus, the ovens are beautiful to look at, work like a dream, and can be used to cook other things. I confess to not being a fan of kitchen gadgets and tend to keep things streamlined (I don’t have a toaster, by choice), and I certainly never thought I would have a pizza oven. But I’m glad I do! Ooni also makes ovens fueled by wood, wood pellets and charcoal, as well as multi-fuel ovens in a variety of sizes, so you can get the perfect fit. ($499, ooni.com)
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