The Institute of Culinary Education (ICE) is one of the largest culinary schools in the world, offering both professional and recreational programs in New York City. Here, ICE’s Content Manager Caitlin Raux shares with PEOPLE essential pizza-making tips from ICE’s Best Homemade Pizza course, plus a tried-and-tested recipe from ICE Chef Jenny McCoy.
Give a girl a slice of pizza (plus garlic knots) and you’ll feed her for a night. Teach her to make homemade pizza and she’ll be able to host spontaneous dinner parties and feed all of her pizza-loving friends for a lifetime. Because with just a handful of ingredients — flour, water, salt, yeast and olive oil — you can throw together a pizza using what’s already in your cupboard, adding a few fresh toppings to give it that gourmet touch.
But not so fast: making a crust with just enough chewiness and crispiness, and sturdy enough to act as a vessel for your tasty toppings, can be tricky — but with a few tips and the simple recipe below, you’ll be serving up pro-level pizzas in your own kitchen. The only challenge will be choosing whom to invite to your excellent pizza parties.
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Know your ingredients: Always review your recipe and ingredients before you begin mixing the dough. As I quickly learned during my first attempt at homemade pizza, if you mistake cornmeal for yeast, your dough is not going to rise. Period.
- Use the Windowpane Test: Kneading your dough develops gluten, which gives dough the elasticity needed for stretching and rising. (Like getting up in the morning — you knead to stretch and rise… ba-dum-chh.) To know when your dough is sufficiently kneaded, use the windowpane test. Break off a hunk of dough, roll it into a smooth ball, gently stretch the dough and hold it up to the light. Gluten-full, elastic dough will be transparent in the center — like a “windowpane” — and you should be able to see the light pass through.
- Start from the middle: Once the dough has risen, it’s time to stretch it. To begin stretching, place your dough ball on a lightly oiled surface, and, using your fingertips, gently prod the dough beginning in the middle and pushing outward. Work your fingers around in circles to slowly stretch the dough in all directions. Continue until your dough is a large, mostly flattened circle, slightly thicker on the edge and not too thin in the middle. If your dough is too thin in the middle, it won’t be able to support the toppings and may burn if you try to bake it anyway.
- Brush on the olive oil: To get that crispy, crackly crust, use a brush to slather on some olive oil. A flavorful extra virgin olive oil will score you maximum flavor points.
- Cornmeal the peel: You know how the bottom of your pizza is always dusted with those golden speckles? That’s cornmeal! Sprinkle some on your wooden peel before spreading your dough on it. Once the dough is on the peel, give the peel a little shake to make sure the pizza dough is not sticking to it. Later, that cornmeal will help you shimmy the dough off the peel and into your oven.
- Easy with the sauce: I know what you’re thinking — It’s my pizza and I’ll sauce if I want to! But too much sauce makes for a soggy, weak crust. To ensure your pizza will have a sturdy base, especially if you eat your pizza New York-style (grab, fold, devour), go easy with the sauce.
- Hide the herbs: How do you achieve a Margherita pizza, with basil baked into the pizza, without burning those lovely herbs? Sure enough, laying fresh leaves atop your cheese and baking them in a 500+ degree oven will singe those babies and render them bitter herb crisps. The answer: add the basil on top of the sauce and then top with cheese. The cheese layer will protect your herbs from burning.
- Let your finished pizza chill: When pizza comes out of the oven, it’s so tempting to channel your inner Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtle and wolf down a few piping hot slices. Unless you prefer soggy crust, resist the urge — letting the pizza cool on a cooling rack will prevent soggy crust. Once it cools until just warm enough to handle, cut and serve immediately.
Pizza making is an art. Prepare it yourself and you’ll appreciate your next corner slice more than ever.
Pizza Dough Recipe
Makes 3 individual pizzas
NOTE: For the best crust, prepare this recipe the day before you plan your pizza party – the dough should rest overnight in the refrigerator.
2 cups warm water
2 ½ teaspoons (¼ oz. envelope) active dry yeast
¼ cup extra virgin olive oil, plus more for coating
1 tbsp. granulated sugar
2 ¼ cups all-purpose flour, plus more for dusting
2 ¼ cups bread flour
2 tsp. salt
Cornmeal, for dusting
Pizza sauce and toppings, as desired
1. In a large bowl, combine the water, yeast, olive oil and sugar, and stir to combine. Add the all-purpose flour and bread flour, followed by the salt. With a rubber spatula or a wooden spoon, stir the dough until all of the flour has hydrated and it begins to form into a ball.
2. Turn the dough onto a lightly floured surface and begin to knead the dough, adding more flour as needed. The dough will become sticky, but keep kneading — as the gluten develops, the dough will tighten up and begin to seem drier. Once the dough has been kneaded into a tight ball, about 10 minutes of kneading, transfer to a large bowl coated with olive oil, cover, and let rise at room temperature until doubled in size, about 1 hour. Transfer the dough to the refrigerator and let sit overnight to chill.
3. Place a pizza stone or upside-down baking sheet on the center rack of the oven and preheat oven to 300° F (or higher if your oven allows). Once the oven reaches 300° F, increase the heat to 550°F (or as high as your oven allows). This gradual increase in temperature will prevent your pizza stone from cracking or your baking sheet from warping.
4. On a lightly floured surface, cut the dough into 3 pieces. Gently knead a piece of the dough a few times until it’s smooth. With your hands dusted in flour, gently stretch the dough outwards using your fists, to begin making a circle of dough. Once the dough has stretched to about ¼-inch thick circle, place the dough on a lightly floured surface and stretch any areas of the dough that are thicker. (If you pizza isn’t a perfect circle, don’t fret — that’s what chefs like to call rustic.)
5. Lightly sprinkle a pizza peel with cornmeal. Slide the circle of dough on the peel and reshape as needed.
6. Add sauce and toppings to the pizza as desired, but take note: less is more with artisanal-style pizza dough. Drizzle a bit of extra virgin olive oil onto the edge of the dough to give it a crispier crust. Carefully place the peel in the oven and slide the pizza onto the stone or baking sheet. Bake until crust is deep golden brown and the cheese is bubbly with some browned spots. Depending on the thickness of the dough, the amount of toppings, or how hot your oven is set, the baking time can take anywhere from 8 to 14 minutes.
Ready to learn how to make pizza — and much, much more — like a pro? Click here to learn about ICE’s culinary and pastry career programs.