pizza basics – dough, sauce, topping ideas

My family used to make pizza at home from time to time when I was growing up, but it generally involved one of those Boboli pre-cooked crusts, and pizza sauce from a jar. Making one’s own crust and sauce seemed incredibly intimidating then, but I am here today to tell you that it is really not. A homemade pizza that is made literally from scratch (starting with just flour, yeast, and water) will make you feel deservedly proud of yourself. Pizza is one of those things (like quiche, for me at least) that looks truly impressive when it comes out of the oven – the finished product looks just that, finished, and nothing like the pile of raw ingredients you started with.

I’ve broken the process down into several steps, and one good thing is that the dough and sauce recipe make enough for several pizzas. So once you get around to making the second pizza, it will feel almost as easy as starting with pre-made crust and sauce, because they will already be made – by you, and not by some food factory that adds lots of weird, unpronounceable ingredients.

The recipes follow below the fold. Got any delicious topping ideas of your own? Feel free to share in the comments! Sometime soon I want to try a white pizza with goat cheese, caramelized onions, and possibly some prosciutto slivers myself…

Pizza Crust

If you want a slightly less involved crust, my older version has similar ingredients, but involves a lot less kneading – it also only makes one crust, but you could easily double it. I switched to the new recipe because the old one was giving me trouble – namely, it kept tearing when I was stretching it, and I thought that a crust with a stronger gluten structure might not have that problem. The tearing may not have been the crust’s fault; it may have been the heat (this was back in the summer), the humidity, my own ineptness at crust stretching. In any case, I find the kneading step in this recipe to be kind of fun – sometimes slamming a ball of dough onto the counter over and over is just what you need after a long day/week/semester. I haven’t had any problems with tearing thus far.

Makes enough for two 12-inch pizzas (depending on how thin you stretch your dough – I stretch mine as thin as I can)


1 1/2 teaspoons active dry yeast
1 cup lukewarm water
3 1/4 cups all-purpose flour
1 tablespoon + 1 teaspoon extra virgin olive oil, divided
1/2 tablespoon salt
Cornmeal (optional)


In a large bowl, whisk the yeast into 1/4 cup of the lukewarm water until fully dissolved. Add in one cup of the flour, and stir with a wooden spoon until well blended. While still stirring, add the 1 tablespoon of olive oil and 1/2 tablespoon of salt. Alternate with 1 cup of flour and 1/4 cup of the water until you have used all of both (this means that your last addition of flour will be the 1/4 cup). Continue stirring until the dough has come together, then turn the dough onto the countertop.

Pat the dough into a ball (you may have to knead a few times to get all of it to incorporate into a ball). Slap the dough down onto the counter a few times until it has spread out to a piece about 10 inches long. Take the edge of the dough farthest away from you and fold it towards you a short distance. With the heel of your hand, push the dough back away from you. Continue folding it towards you, and then pushing it away (this all sounds like a very unhealthy relationship), until it is rolled up. Rotate the dough a quarter turn, pick it up and slap it down again on the counter. Repeat the same folding and pushing process until the dough has rolled up again, then turn it, slap it down, and so on. Continue this process for 10 minutes. The dough will be pretty taut and won’t be so easy to push around once it’s done.

Form the dough into a ball. In a large, clean bowl (I usually quickly wash and dry the one I’d already used), pour the 1 teaspoon olive oil. Place the ball of dough in the bowl and turn to coat with the oil. Cover with plastic wrap and leave in a warm, draft-free place to rise for 3 hours (it can sit a bit longer if necessary). At least 30 minutes before you are planning to bake the pizza, preheat your oven to 450F. If you have a pizza stone, put the stone in the oven from the beginning (it needs to heat up too); if, like me, you don’t have a stone, take your largest baking sheet, turn it upside down, and let it preheat in the oven. Before the dough has risen, it will look like this:

A small, sad lump, tired of being pushed around by you. After its three hours in a warm, safe space, it should be twice its original size. Like this:

It’s alive!!

Remove the dough from the bowl and place onto a lightly-floured countertop. Cut the ball in half (a bench scraper is especially good for this if you have one). Unless you are planning to make both pizzas, you can store the extra dough in one of two ways: 1) If you are making it later that day or the next day, return it to the bowl, cover it with plastic wrap, and leave it in the refrigerator. It will rise a little more if stored overnight (I know this from experience), but it will be fine – it even has a bit more flavor the second day. If you’re not planning on using the dough for awhile, wrap it in plastic wrap or parchment paper, put in a freezer bag, and store in the freezer.

To stretch the dough, form the piece you are using into a round disk, and roll it out just a few times with a rolling pin. There are a few ways to stretch the dough from here – the way the professionals do it is to twirl it around on both of their upraised fists, and bounce it every once in awhile to turn it over. Needless to say, I have not mastered this technique just yet. You can stretch it more slowly, alternating between working the dough out with both of your fists underneath it, and holding it around the edge (where you want to crust to be) and turning it quickly, letting the dough’s own weight stretch it out. I posted this video from Melissa Clark of the New York Times in my last pizza post – she shows you how to stretch a crust, so I recommend watching it if my instructions don’t make any sense. I haven’t yet managed to stretch my crust into a circle, but I can do a pretty good rectangle:

Once your dough is stretched, if you have a pizza paddle, sprinkle some cornmeal onto it, and place your dough on top. You can also use the bottom of an extra baking sheet for this step. Once you’ve topped the pizza (we’ll get to that in the next sections), you’ll need to slide the pizza from the paddle/baking sheet onto the stone/baking sheet (this is why the cornmeal is important; it will keep the dough from sticking). This concept seriously scares me, so I have taken to assembling the pizza on parchment paper, and sliding the whole thing onto the baking sheet in the oven.

Basic Pizza Sauce

Pizza sauce can really be as simple as spreading some tomato puree onto the uncooked crust. This sauce has a few extra ingredients to add flavor. If you’re using leftover sauce, there’s no need to reheat before baking; just spread it on the dough cold, and it will get plenty hot in the oven. If you want, you can freeze leftover pizza sauce; just pour it into a freezer bag, and freeze away.

Makes enough for 4-5 pizzas


1 28 oz. can tomato puree
2 tablespoons extra virgin olive oil
3-4 garlic cloves, minced
Pinch of red pepper flakes
A few splashes of white wine
1 teaspoon sugar
1 1/2 teaspoons salt


In a medium saucepan or skillet, heat the olive oil over medium-low heat. Add the garlic and cook for about 30 seconds, stirring constantly. Add the red pepper flakes and cook for another 30 seconds-1 minute – you don’t want the garlic to brown. Add the tomato puree (warning: the oil will splatter), a few splashes of white wine, and the sugar and salt. Bring to a low simmer and stir until the olive oil is no longer separated from the tomatoes. Simmer for about 10 minutes, stirring occasionally. When the sauce is finished, spread onto pizza – I generally use a little less than 1/2 cup per pizza, but use however much you want. Store the rest in the refrigerator for up to one week (or freeze).


Finally, the toppings. Those listed below are just inspirations. I never measure exactly, I just add until it looks like enough to me. If you are making a thin crust, you’ll want to go light on the toppings and sauce so you don’t weigh the crust down. The first time I made pizza from scratch, I couldn’t decide on a single theme for the pizza, so I used different toppings on different parts of the pizza to see which I liked best. I liked all of them, and I liked the variety, so I’ve kept up the habit. You’d sound like a really annoying person if you ordered pizza and asked for different toppings on different thirds of the pizza, but at home you can do whatever you want! I find that one pizza serves two people for a light dinner.


Fresh mozzarella, torn or chopped into small chunks
Fresh basil leaves, torn into pieces or whole (whatever you prefer)
Pickled jalapeños
Goat cheese, crumbled
Kalamata olives, chopped coarsely
Freshly grated parmigiano
Extra virgin olive oil, for drizzling

For classic margherita pizza, scatter chunks of mozzarella and basil over tomato sauce. If you want the basil to look fresh and green, add it after the pizza comes out of the oven. Sprinkle with freshly grated parmesan, if you like, and drizzle with just a little olive oil.

Another combination I like is goat cheese and kalamata olives – simply crumble chunks of goat cheese over the sauce, scatter some coarsely chopped olives, and drizzle with olive oil.

I also love pepperoni and hot peppers together. For this combination, start by placing mozzarella chunks on the sauce. Add a few slices of pepperoni on top, and then as many pickled jalapeños (or other hot peppers) as you like. Sprinkle some grated parmesan, and drizzle some olive oil.

Once you’ve arranged all your toppings, slide the pizza onto the preheated baking surface in whatever way you feel most comfortable. Bake for about 15 minutes at 450F – the crust should be lightly browned, the cheese browned and bubbling, the pepperoni crisp, and any vegetables mildly charred. Pat yourself on the back, sing a celebratory song, demand that everyone come and see your beautiful work of art. Cut the pizza into slices, and serve immediately – preferably with a glass or two of wine. A green salad will round out your meal nicely.

Crust adapted from Marcella Hazan’s Essentials of Classic Italian Cooking. Sauce adapted from SmittenKitchen


11 Comments on “pizza basics – dough, sauce, topping ideas”

  1. emmycooks says:

    My current favorite pizza is roasted butternut squash, caramelized onions, garlic, rosemary, red pepper flakes, a little mozzarella, and chunks of goat cheese. While it’s baking, reduce balsamic vinegar to a syrup and drizzle it over the finished pizza. Enjoy!

  2. Anastasia says:

    I LOVE goat cheese in my pizza! This one looks delicious!

  3. Michelle says:

    Bobolis—hadn’t thought of them in ages, but we used to have them all the time, too! Your pizzas look grand.

  4. Chef Pamela says:

    Your post has declared today Pizza Day for us! I like goat cheese, caramelized onions topped with arugula that has been dressed in a light balsamic/ olive oil dressing.

  5. I am simply in love. I LOVE this pizza dough and this recipe. This simply looks amazing and so darn delicious. Great post

  6. […] batch pizza dough 2/3 cup pizza sauce 1 cup freshly grated pecorino 2 teaspoons extra-virgin olive oil, plus extra […]

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