Ingredients

Pizza purists may argue, but in the 21st century there's wide latitude regarding acceptable ingredients for pizza. The only thing everybody agrees upon is quality. To make good pizza, you must start with fresh, good-quality ingredients. Beyond that, the choice is yours.

Crust

Bread flour, which is an unbleached, hard wheat flour with a high protein content, generally makes the best pizza crust. It rises easily and bakes up crusty and chewy. Whole-wheat flour and flours with a variety of whole grains mixed in also make a substantial crust, and have the added benefit of being “good,” high-fiber carbohydrates.

Semolina flour, the granular flour that gives the best dried pasta its bite, makes a firming addition to pizza crust. Rye flour adds substance and flavor, making it a great addition to crust being prepared for the grill.

A special Italian flour known as OO or Caputo flour is often used to make a soft dough for authentic Neapolitan crust. It can sometimes be found in specialty stores and from mail-order sources.

ESSENTIAL

Wild yeast spores exist on the surface of plants and often travel in the wind, causing organic compounds to ferment. Long before packaged yeast existed, bakers maintained a supply of live yeast by keeping a crock of fermenting dough “starter.” Adding the starter to fresh dough allows the yeast to multiply.

Sauce

Anything that can add moisture and flavor to your pizza crust can be used as a sauce. Thick tomato sauce or olive oil with garlic are the two classic toppings, but substitutions can range from chopped tomatoes or herb pesto to ground olive or pepper pastes to barbecue sauce or teriyaki glaze. Creamy salad dressings, nut butters, cream sauces, and vegetable purèes can work as well.

Experiment with your own sauce combinations. The important thing to remember is proportion. Too much of a good thing can make your pizza a soggy mess.

Cheese

Water-buffalo milk mozzarella cheese — a fresh, dense, creamy-tasting mozzarella — is the preferred topping for Neapolitan-style pizza. Cow's milk mozzarella is the most common substitute. Provolone is a smoke-flavored version. But most modern pizzamakers use a combination of cheeses.

Try pairing strong-flavored cheeses like sharp Cheddar, aged Romano and Parmesan, Asiago, or aged Manchego with a mild buttery cheese like mozzarella, Butterkase, Gouda, or Monterey jack. Intensely flavored blue or green-veined cheeses should be used as accents, rather than full layers.

Depending on the effect you want, cheeses can be added in dollops, cubes, slices, or shreds. Just remember that thinly shredded cheeses melt, and sometimes burn, more quickly than larger shreds or cubes.

Toppings

The sky's the limit on pizza toppings. Virtually any meat, cheese, vegetable, fruit, herb, nut, or seed can become the star of your homemade pizza. However, it's important to remember that raw ingredients release moisture and possibly fats during cooking, which can turn your pizza and your oven into a nightmare.

Always fully cook raw sausage, meats, fish, and seafood before adding to pizzas. Spinach and other greens should be well-drained, and oily ingredients used in moderation.

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