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Generally Recognized As True: The pizza / cast iron experiment

Thursday, December 18, 2008

The pizza / cast iron experiment

I'd been wanting to try this idea for a few weeks because, when I thought of it, it seemed like such an obvious solution to a familiar problem: how to get enough heat in a home oven to cook a good bread-based creation. While obvious, I hadn't heard of the idea elsewhere before, although I'm sure I'm not the first to have thought of it.

My idea was quite simple: stop fighting with baking stones and try the cast iron skillet that I like so much for cooking certain other meals!

First, the picture, so that you can tell whether you're interested or not:

I was determined that this wouldn't be a palaver, though, else it'd take up the whole day. I used cheap mozarella cheese (Black Diamond cheese that was on sale, whereas in the past I have bought a stretched mozarella ball for the purpose). I didn't make my own tomato sauce, choosing to use a bit of Classico pasta sauce instead And here's another thing: shredded cheese on pizza is stupid. It's probably done that way in the pizza restaurants for consistency of distribution and compatibility with a process, but at home you can just cut the cheese into small chunks and distribute it as you would any other ingredient, which is all cheese is -- just another ingredient -- in a good pizza. What else? Not much: a bit of green pepper, a couple of mushrooms, and some leftover frozen pepperoni from the last time I made pizza a few months ago. It went on the pizza frozen.

I've almost always made the pizza dough by hand from scratch when doing pizza, but this time I let the bread machine do the work. Bread machines only fall down in the baking stage. For kneading, they are actually pretty good. I am using a Zojirushi BB-HAC10 bread machine -- an excellent machine, and one of the few I've seen that spends time warming up the ingredients before kneading. This is the dough recipe I used:
  • 160g semolina flour: specifically, the bulk stuff from Foodstuffs in downtown Georgetown
  • 160g bread flour: specifically, some really old Bob's Red Mill bread flour that is probably almost 2 years old
  • 1 cup water
  • 1 tbsp. olive oil
  • 1 tbsp. sugar
  • 1 tsp. salt
  • 1 tsp. active dry yeast
The method was the traditional bread machine method: water in first, then flour, then all but the yeast sprinkled around the edges and a dry well made in the middle of the mound of flour for the yeast. I put the machine on the dough setting. Once it had started mixing, I kept an eye on it and adjusted for proper dough consistency by adding flour sparingly until it wasn't too sticky. At that point, I left it and went out to get some more semolina flour from Foodstuffs, only to find that it was more than 2x the price of the old bag I finished off above. Actually, the main reason I went out was to go for a walk, but a walk to Foodstuffs and back is just about the right amount of time for a walk!

Once the bread dough was done, I put my cast iron skillet in the top rack of the oven and turned the oven up to 450F. Then, I dusted the counter with flour and shaped the dough into a floppy round ball. At this point, I noticed I had enough dough for two pizzas so I cut the ball in half, rubbed it with oil, and put it in a freezer bag for another time. You can do this and, when ready to use it later, thaw it and let it come up to room temperature.

With the other half, I reshaped it into a ball, redusted with flour, and rolled it out into an approximately round pizza shape (I haven't yet the skill to toss the pizza around in the air to make it perfectly round, as you sometimes see in shop windows). I then rubbed the now-flat pizza base with olive oil, covered it with a tea towel, and let it sit for about 15 minutes. The oven continues to pre-heat during this time, which is good because it should be very hot (and so should the cast iron).

After 15 minutes, I took the cast iron skillet out of the oven, put it on the cooktop, and lay the dough into the skillet. It started to bubble almost immediately, which is a very good sign! I put the skillet in the oven and let it cook for about 2-3 minutes. My idea in doing this was to give it a bit of a seal and make sure I had some room to take the dough out when the toppings are just done without worrying about the dough being undercooked. It also makes the dough hold its shape a bit better, seeing as it's very elastic when it goes in (part of the funny shape of the pizza in the picture is due to my not being able to get it into the skillet perfectly evenly).

So, once that bit of pre-baking was done, I took the skillet out again and put the toppings on the pizza: a thin layer of Classico roasted garlic & onion pasta sauce, some small chunks of cheese, sliced green pepper, sliced mushrooms, and a few pieces of sliced pepperoni. Then, back in the oven. It was in the oven for perhaps 8-10 minutes after this, and was done as you see in the picture after this time. I only judged it by eyesight based on how cooked the toppings were, really.

This method gave a very nice amount of oven spring -- a fast last-gasp rising of the dough in reaction with the oven heat when the yeast get hyperactive from all the warmth before they realize they're being cooked and are killed. The crust was crisp and the inside was soft and very lightly chewy, which is how I like it:

I was very happy with this result. Also, note that there was no sticking to the cast iron at all. Properly pre-heated and cooked, there should not be.

The skillet I used was a Lodge Logic 10.5" basic pre-seasoned skillet. Nothing fancy -- it cost me $20. I have started collecting cast iron pieces because the value is so great. I even found a cast iron biscuit pan not too long ago -- similar to a muffin pan, but a bit taller.

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Richard said...

The crust looks good - lots of air pockets.

Sadly, I have always been a failure with yeast recipes (though my mother was excellent at them).

mattbg said...

Thanks, Richard. It does take some time to build up the experience to reproduce a predictable result. When I started, I had no clue of the relationship between what I was doing and the result but, over time, it becomes more obvious and you get ideas about how to make small changes here and there to improve the result.

One of the challenges with yeast baking is that it's difficult to write a prescription for it because so much depends on room temperature, humidity, flour age, etc. During rising, if the room temperature is too low then rising will take longer. In a warm room, it'll take less time. As an example, old flour + too much water + room too warm + too much sugar + not enough salt may lead to a collapse loaf. But try having the patience to figure out which one(s) you did wrong after you just spent hours getting it ready :)

Bread machines are a big help because they control the rising temperature to some degree. They're not foolproof, but for the temperature aspect alone, they are very useful. Without that, you'd have to resort to tricks like letting the dough rise in an oven that had been very briefly warmed for a few seconds to raise the air temperature above room temperature slightly.

Dough has a certain feel to it that tells you when it's ready that's hard to describe. You have to do it by feel and by sight... once you've felt "right" dough a few times, you'll never forget it. You may not be able to describe it, but you'll just know it's right as soon as you touch it :)