The Zen of Grilled Pizza (Pizza Alla Griglia). There Is No Equal.
Let's get some things straight right at the top:
1) Pizza is not not not junk food and it makes my blood boil every time I hear it so called. OK, some of the crap sold at pizza joints might be, but a real pizza, especially a home-made pizza with fresh ingredients, is a wonderful well balanced meal. You've got your crust, which is really a loaf of flat bread, and the toppings are mostly fresh veggies and herbs with just a little cheese and meat for protein. Now that's healthy!
2) A great pizza is incredibly easy to make from scratch at home, even the dough, whether you cook it outdoors or in, but beware, once you get the hang of it, you'll never be satisfied with eating pizza in a restaurant again. It has happened to me. Don't bother asking me if I want to go get some za.
3) Grilled pizza comes closer to the brick oven pizza (shown below) than anything you can do indoors, and it beats the snot out of the stuff that arrives steamed and soggy in the cardboard box. The heat and hint of smoke from the grill elevate grilled pizza into the stratosphere. I'll show you how (with a lot of help from my Italian-American wife, the resident pizza maker).
4) To make grilled pizza you do not have to cook the dough on both sides before you add toppings. You can do it the way they do in the best restaurants. Make the dough, top it, and bake it, but you have to set up the grill properly.
5) Any recipe you read here can be cooked indoors in a regular oven.
About the dough
The dough is the canvas upon which pizza is painted. It should not dominate the toppings, but it should not be innocuous. That's why I prefer Roman-style dough to Neapolitan. Neapolitan contains flour, water, yeast, and salt, and that's all folks. There is olive oil in Roman dough, and that gives it more crunch, more body, more rigidity, and more flavor. I find the Neapolitan dough a bit bland. Click here for more on the different styles of pizza.
My wife has taught me how to make her unbelievably simple no-knead Roman-style pizza dough. Yes, you can make pretty good pizza with frozen dough from the grocery, and some pizzerias will sell you a ball of fresh dough, so if you have fear of flour, those are a good way to go. For cooking on the grill, start with a thin crust, about 1/4" thick to make sure the crust cooks all the way through. As you learn how your unique grill/oven behaves, you can play with thicker crusts if you wish.
A reader, Mark Davis, recommends using Naan bread dough. Naan is the bread they serve in Indian restaurants. He says "It stands up to the heat and cooks evenly with the toppings." Naan bread is made by slapping the raw dough against the side wall of a large ceramic or clay charcoal oven called a tandoor.
Another option is pre-cooked pizza dough like Boboli, but I don't recommend it. Because it is pre-cooked it tends to dry out.
But I'm here to tell you, it is worth making pizza dough from scratch and it is far easier than you think. And the smell is almost beerlike. I especially like that part.
Stoned or not
There are two commonly used surfaces for cooking pizza: Pizza stones or pans, and both work very well, but there are other options.
The pizza stone. The pizza stone is an attempt to replicate the floor of the old fashioned Italian pizza oven. It is slow to heat up, but it is good at distributing the heat evenly reducing hot spots. This makes it especially well suited for grilling. Once hot, it holds the heat very well, so putting a room temp pie on it barely impacts its temp. This makes it a great surface for serving your pie. It will keep it hot while it sits on the table. When we put a stone on our oak dining table, we put about 2" of cloth placemats under it or it will ruin the finish on the wood it is so hot. I do not recommend a standard pizza stone designed for indoor ovens placed on the grates of a grill. I have cracked one and heard other cooks say they have done the same. If you wish to use a stone, put the cold stone on a cold grill, close the lid and preheat the two together. This is no problem on a gas grill, and it is not much of a problem on a charcoal grill if you use a chimney to light the coals. There is a pizza stone designed for the grill called The Grilled Pizza Stone that is a good choice. To use a stone properly, you need a pizza peel, that large flat paddle they use in pizza joints. The pie is assembled on the peel, usually with a dusting of flour or cornmeal, and then you slide it off onto the hot stone. The cornmeal grains add flavor and texture, and they act like ball bearings that help it slide off the peel more easily.
Metal pans. We usually cook our pizzas on a thin metal round pan about 14" diameter. You can even use rectangular sheet pans or cookie pans. They are very good at transmitting heat to the pie and you don't need a peel. Once the dough is ready, put a thin layer of olive oil on the pan to prevent it from sticking and to aid browning. If you wish, dust the pan lightly with cornmeal. Roll out your dough, lay it in the pan, shape the edges so they don't hang over, and add the topings.
Other options. The ZaGrill Pizza Cooker (right) is a clever device that holds the dough above the grates and above a metal heat plate that absorbs and radiates heat to the crust. I have also seen perforated pans, but I don't see the need for the holes.
Toppings for pizza
I am a believer in creativity in pizza design, remember my motto is "no rules in the bedroom and dining room", but I also believe in simplicity. If you want to use apples, nuts, and blue cheese, go for it. But don't go crazy. Use just a few ingredients, don't pile them on too thick, and spread them out evenly. We want everything to have a chance to cook properly.
Salt & Pepper. Depending on the other ingredients, you may want to add salt and pepper. If you use salty cheeses like parmesan, anchovies, or canned sauce, you won't need much salt. Skip it the first time. You can always add salt at the table, but you can't take it away.
Olive oil, pepper oil, and garlic. We often paint the bare dough with a thin coat of olive oil to help keep water from the sauce and other ingredients from making the crust soggy. It also adds flavor. Some pizza joints use a pepper oil which you can replicate by adding 1 teaspoon of red pepper flakes to 4 tablespoons of olive oil, and then simmer them together on low for about 5 minutes. You can make garlic oil the same way. Crush 3 cloves of the stinky stuff into 4 tablespoons of olive oil and simmer them gently for about 1 or 2 minutes max. Make just what you need when you need it and don't try to store it, there is a safety hazard in home-made flavored oils (for more see my article on food safety).
Tomatoes & tomato sauce. Beware of wet ingredients. If you use tomato sauce, use just a little. Don't make it so thick you can't see the dough. Put a few tablespoons in the center and swirl it outward towards the edges with the back of the spoon. Too much sauce makes the crust soggy and it can overwhelm other ingredients. Keep the sauce simple, right from the can. In the picture you can see a pizza maker in Rome assembling a pizza margherita, simply sauce, basil, and a little fresh cheese.
You can use plain old tomato sauce from a can, and there's nothing wrong with that if you add herbs and other flavorings on top. Or you can go for the gusto and add a rich home made marinara.
Herbs. Dried herbs are fine right on top of the sauce so they can reconstitute themselves, but fresh basil, oregano, or thyme really add a dimension. My wife adds a tablespoon of pesto to the sauce before putting it down and boy does that work well. We freeze pesto in the summer and that way we have some all year round. Spread the sauce all the way to the edge. The sauce on the edges not only tastes good, but it gives the whole pie a deeper color.
One way to elevate your pies over the storebought is to use fresh tomatoes when they are in season. No pink rocks in January. Often we use fresh tomatoes in place of sauce. The problem is that tomatoes are so full of water that they make the dough soggy. Choose meaty tomatoes like Romas. Then remove the seeds and jelly from the tomatoes. Do this by slicing off 1/4" or more of the stem end so that the knife reveals the compartments in which the jelly lives. Then stand over the trash can and with the cut-end facing down, gently squeeze the guts out of the tomato. You can then slice the tomato or chop it by quartering it and then cutting the quarters into chunks. Another fun way to go is with cherry or grape tomatoes, cut in half.
Cheese. Go easy on the cheese, especially the standard indigestible grocery store mozzarella, which is one electron this side of wax. Yes, I know it is stringy and that's fun. If you must have stringy, use whole milk mozz. The lowfat versions don't pull well and brown badly.
Far better is fresh mozzarella which is usually sold from the deli counter with the milky water in which it is kept. Buffalo mozzarella is not from bison buffalos, but from the milk of domesticated water buffalos, and it is especially prized for its delicate creaminess by pizza lovers.
For a change of pace, get some Parmigiano-Reggiano, provalone, and asiago into the mix. My wife often uses a blend of all three and skips the mozz. Pecorino Romano or Grana Padano can be used as substitutes for the parm. Fontina or Gruyere are good, too. I like creamy goat cheeses like chevre lightly dotted on some pies.
Green stuff. Leafy greens like spinach are good. Arugula and other lettuces are especially good scattered on pies just before they are done so they retain some crunch. If you use leafy greens, pat them thoroughly dry.
Onions & garlic. I find room for onions on almost all our pizzas. For a thrill, try a Provençal Pissaladiere (Caramelized Onion Pizza). You can use raw garlic if you wish, but beware, it is going to be strong. You may want to roast it, microwave it, or boil it in water for about 15 minutes to defang it. And here's a trick: Put it near the center. Then you will get it in the first bites and the flavor will remain in your mouth as you progress.
Meats. Pepperoni and Italian sausage are old standbys, but try branching out. Everything from Chinese duck sausage to Mexican chorizo is fair game. Try bacon and all thin sliced cured hams like prosciutto or Canadian bacon. Capicola is my all time fave pizza meat. If you want ground meat, go for the leaner grinds so they don't make things too greasy. Popcorn shrimp are a pleasant surprise. Just go easy on the meats. Make them an accent not the star. A good pizza has several ingredients all playing together as a team with no stars. Meats should be the last thing to go on so they get plenty of heat from above.
Other toppings. Sundried or smoke dried tomatoes are super. The first time you taste smoke dried fresh tomatoes on a pizza you will weep.
Sweet red peppers are also among my favorite toppings. Thin sliced fresh mushrooms (not canned) are very popular. Try stylin' with some of the exotic shrooms. I love oil cured olives such as Niçoise, sliced in half. Try thin sliced zucchini or yellow squash. For the Californians out there, how about preserved artichokes, capers, eggplant, avocado, pine nuts, salmon, squid, and brie? Anchovies anyone?
When it is done. After you finish cooking, a thin drizzle of really good extra virgin olive oil is a nice finishing touch. A lot of people like to sprinkle hot pepper flakes on their pizza. Try chipotle powder to amp it up to 11.
The trick is to get the dough and toppings cooked properly without incinerating the crust or leaving it uncooked in the center. Some recipes call for you to pre-bake the crust on on the top side, then flip it, take it off the grill, put the toppings on the pre-baked side, and then put it back on the grill. There is no need for flipping if you do things properly.
Thin crust is easier to cook on the grill because it bakes all the way through and is never doughy. Thick crust takes longer to bake and it must be cooked at a lower temp or with a 2-zone setup using indirect heat to prevent the bottom from burning.
Another cool solution is the KettlePizza adapter for the Weber Kettle grill. The kit is a special pan, and a ring that raises the lid with a cutout for sliding the pizza in and out. I've never used it, but I'll bet it works fine.
When cooking in a tight cooker like a Weber Kettle, preheat the oven so the dome is hot and reflecting heat down. Get the pizza in quickly so little heat is lost and make sure none of the dough is over the coals. Always cook pizza with the cover down and, to amp up the flavor, toss on a few wood chips or dried herbs on the fire before you put the pizza in for hint of smokiness. CHeck the color of the dough every 5 minutes by lifring it a bit with a spatula and peeking underneath. Pay close attention to the color of the crust nearest the heat. It can burn easily. Every 5 minutes rotate the pizza 1/4 turn so the edges don't burn. Depending on your cooking temp and the thickness of the crust, you will be ready to eat in as little as 20 minutes. It is done when the crust starts to brown on the bottom. A little spot charring is OK.
If the toppings are not done when the crust is finished the first time you try, next time slow the cooking of the crust by turning down the heat or use a pizza stone under the crust. One trick that helps the toppings cook is to put the pizza stone on top or two bricks and slide the pizza in a pan under the stone!
Until you see how fast your grill and dough cook, pour a beer and stick close to the grill to keep an eye on things. In the words of Tammy Wynette, Stand By Your Grill! OK, maybe that's not exactly her words, but click the link to see my version of the song...
Here are some good videos of pizza making
This page was revised on 12/20/2010
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