The one thing that really makes a difference on how your homemade pizzas will taste is a good pizza stone. The main purpose of the pizza stone is to provide an extremely hot baking surface. Pizza pans, even if pre-heated are not massive enough to maintain their temperature when a pizza dough full of moisture is placed on them. The temperature of the pan will quickly drop and the pizza dough will not bake at high temperature.
(from Peter Reinhart's Napoletana pizza recipe):
"It has long been my contention that it is the crust, not the toppings, that make a pizza memorable. I've seen some expensive, wonderful ingredients wasted on bad crust, or, even more often a decent dough ruined in an oven that was not hot enough to bake it properly. For many years, cookbook instructions have been to bake at about 350F or maybe 425F. Rarely do you see instructions that suggest cranking the oven to its fullest capacity, but that's what you have to do to make a great pizza at home.
Baking pizza at low temperatures ruins the crust because it takes so long to brown it that all the moisture evaporates, leaving a cardboard-dry shell behind. The key to great pizza is an extremely hot oven and baking surface. The race between browning the pizza crust and melting the cheese is one of the great culinary dramas, and if they converge at the same time you will have a memorable pizza experience."
If the idea is to provide a hot surface, so why not use a thick slab of metal instead of a pizza stone? The answer is that the stone has an additional property which is useful for baking pizzas, namely that it is porous, and capable of extracting the moisture from the pizza dough.
Cleaning the Pizza Stone
However, since it is porous and absorbent, it is recommended to not use any kind of detergent to clean the stone as the absorbed chemicals will come out onto your next pizza. Try to use only water and/or a brush to clean your pizza stone. If after cleaning the stone, it still looks dirty. This is often because the minerals in the stone change colors but the stone's surface is actually clean.
Using a Pizza Stone
In order for the pizza to bake on a hot surface, the pizza stone must be pre-heated. When things are heated they expand. If the stone is heated too quickly, the outer part of the stone will be hotter than the inner part and the pressure from the different expansion may cause the pizza stone to crack.
Be careful of pizza stones with low temperature ratings. Try to find a pizza stone which is rated for very high temperatures (over 1000F) as these are usually much stronger.
Pre-heat the stone on a lower oven rack as it's easier to work with. The pizza stone should be place in a cold oven and heated slowly. After pre-heating the stone, it is recommended at this stage, to remove any children from the kitchen and get close to the oven only when equipped with gloves, preferably long, or a pizza peel with a long handle, to help you to check the pizza without having to approach too close. Do not touch the pizza stone directly, even with gloves! It is solid fire.
The pizza should bake quickly on the stone. Often, less than 10 minutes. Every pizza you bake on the stone lowers its temperature, so you may need to preheat again if baking many pizzas in quick succession.
After use, the pizza stone should be allowed to cool down slowly inside the oven to avoid thermal shock. This means it could stay hot for an hour or more.
Getting the Pizza on the Stone
One will quickly find out that this is no easy task. Use a pizza peel dusted with cornmeal which act as tiny ball bearings to slide the pizza on the stone. Some people prefer to use a baking sheet to bake the pizza as it is much easier to transfer on the stone. After a few minutes, the sheet can be removed with gloves and a pizza peel. There is also an interesting gadget here that many find useful.
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