The Elusive Crispy Crust – Tips on Getting a Snap

Reader Aimee writes:

“So how about you tell me why my pizza won’t friggin’ get a crusty bottom!  It tends to be a wee bit on the floppy soggy side.  The top seems to cook the quickest. I tried drying my fresh mozz for a bit and using less sauce, didn’t work. Do you still use pans or do you use a stone now? I use a stone.”

Great questions Aimeee! I think this is probably a big issue for a lot of home chefs for many reasons. Let’s talk about some of them now.

  • Temperature – this is, of course, the obvious first tip to getting crispier results out of your pizza. Many recipes you see – maybe even some recipes on this very blog. Yikes! – will have you preheat the over to 400, 425, 450, something like that. ALWAYS DISREGARD this advice. Commercial pizza ovens operate in the neighborhood of 800 to 1100 degrees, so in order to get even remotely close to the pizza you know and love, you need to crank your oven up to the highest possible setting! For me, this means setting it to 550+. I saw “+” because my oven has a knob which allows me to select “bake” or “broiler” as well as a temperature dial which goes to 550 and then continues on to “broiler.” The double up in terms is a bit confusing, but I think what I’m doing what I set it to “bake” on the mode knob and “broiler” on the temperature knob, I’m asking the oven to try to keep the heating element on as long as it possibly can at the highest temp it possibly can. Goal achieved. Now, because you are running your oven hotter than before, hopefully more liquid will evaporate off your pie and out of your crust which will equal a crispier end product.
  • Preheat – Preheat your oven and let it sit at full temperature for at least 45 minutes to an hour before trying to bake in it. Especially if you are using a pizza stone, this will allow the stone to absorb all the heat it possibly can, as well as the sides of the oven, ensuring that you get the hottest bake out of your oven as possible. I know that my general theme on this blog is that time is the most secret of all ingredients and here it is again – don’t rush pizza, and as Alton Brown says, “your patience will be rewarded.”
  • Baking Stone – This is a big must for a crispy pizza crust. Again, commercial ovens have stone floors in them, not metal, so we can all take a tip from the pros and duplicate this scenario at home. Baking stones are beneficial for two main reasons:1) Baking stones absorb and store heat, so while your oven can only generate so much heat, the stone will store much of that heat and radiate it back out to the surrounding oven space. This will not only allow you to achieve temperature higher than what your oven would normally be capable of, but will also regulate heat loss when you open the oven to check on progress. In addition, it will also regulate how wide of a temperture swing occurs as your oven sycles the heating element on and off. Think even heat.

    2) Baking stones absorb water. They have small holes in the surface unlike metal baking pans, so they have the ability to capture and dissipate water. This is a good thing.

    The quick science behind a baking stone (or pizza stone – same thing) is as follows. The stone is both intensely hot and moderately porous. When the dough hits the stone, the water in the dough instantly wants to turn to steam and get the heck out of there, and since there are small air pockets in the stone, the steam has a space to move into. In essence, the stone both causes, and then absorbs, the steam trying to escape from the dough. Again, less moisture, more crispy. Solid petal pizza pans give the water nowhere to go, so the water is either retained in the dough, or must make its way to the surface of the pie before escaping.

  • Dry your ingredients – This may sound funny, but it really really helps out a lot. Especially when you are trying to make a pizza with a lot of fresh veggies! Vegetables and wet cheeses are notorious for releasing a ton of water once they hit the oven, so simply chop everything up before hand, lay it down on a kitchen towel, and fold the towel over so the water from the fresh cut veggies has somewhere to escape to before it hits your crust. I do this with my fresh mozzarella as well and I even take this theory a step further: One I’ve got everything sliced and drying in towels, I place the towels on top of the range where the radiant heat of the pre-heating oven moves up into the veggies and gives them a more thorough drying. Be careful with oven-drying the cheese though. I got a little careless last weekend with some cheese in a towel on the top of a hot oven and when I went to open up the towel, I found that I had glued it together very thoroughly with six dollars of nice fresh mozzarella! Never got that damn towel clean either!
  • Use less stuff – It is always tempting to over top your pizza, but here is a tip: don’t. In general, take whatever your natural instinct is for topping pizza is, and then consciously dial that bake 30%-40%. Pizza is a balancing act between bread, cheese, sauce and toppings, but zen philosophies aside, you’ll find that if you give everything a little breathing room, your cheese will stick to your crust better (no sliding off with the first bite), your pizzas will be crispier, and most importantly, you won’t be as full after eating a slice which means you can eat more! Who can argue against that??

Finally, let’s address one of Aimee’s specific problems she has had trying to combat the floppy soggy crust syndrome.

  • The top seems to cook the quickest – pay attention to how your oven cooks your pizzas and where you are putting your oven racks. If Aimee seems to always have an overcooked top, and an undercooked bottom, she should consider moving her pizza stone down to the next lowest baking rack. Even though we’re talking about the interior of a 550+ degree oven, the laws of thermodynamics still apply: heat rises. A too-quickly-cooked top means that her pizza is too high in her oven and the heat that pools at the top of it is cooking the top of the pizza faster than the bottom. To learn an oven, I would start the stone at the lowest possible rack setting, and then based on how the bottom of the crust turns out, I might move one or two spots up the next time around.Interesting technique: many home pizza chefs bake with their pizza stones as low in the oven as possible to get the stone as close to the heating element as possible, then, when they have checked the bottom and it is looking nice and crisp, they move the pie to their oven rack which has been positioned at the very highest spot in the oven to finish off the top. This gives you precise control over how done the bottom and top of the pie are when it finally comes out of the oven. I personally use this technique often, but if I could find that sweet spot in my oven where I didn’t need to do it, I wouldn’t

I hope this has been enlightening and helpful and I hope to see photos of reader Aimee’s improved crispy crusts real soon! Please submit any other questions you guys may have and I’ll answer as best I can. If there is any last tip I could leave you with, I would simply repeat myself in saying that time is the only secret ingredient. So many people are looking for quick eats and dinners in 30 minutes or less, but when compared to dinners that took you 3-4 days to prepare, they all start to taste like fast food!

Spend some time with your food.

Talk soon,

Ryan

Ryan is a graphic designer, avid home cook, surfer, and musician living with his wife in sunny Northern California. He is the Webmaster, desiger, and composer at Fuze Group, a creative agency based out of Laguna Beach. He also teaches Adobe Flash at California State University, Chico.

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One comment on “The Elusive Crispy Crust – Tips on Getting a Snap
  1. Joe Gamelin says:

    Thanks for that. We’re having a big potluck party next month, kind of for Xmas I guess and I’ve been trying to find something special to take.. found some awesome ideas at this potluck recipe site. You know, someone should invent a website where you can write what you’ll be taking, and it would check no one brings the same thing!

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