Forming and Topping your Pizza
To use the dough, turn it out onto a floured surface and to shape your pizza. A larger recipe will make one large pizza, divide into two or more smaller balls to make individual pizzas. If you divide the dough, either do it before the rise (each one rising in separate bowls) or to save bowls, divide using a bench scraper, then fold and form the dough back into ball shapes. If they seem too elastic to form balls, let the dough rest a few minutes before shaping your dough balls. You can let your dough balls relax in the fridge, laid out on an oiled sheet pan and covered with plastic wrap or a floured kitchen towel before use. Take them out a few minutes before forming your pizzas.
There are many ways to shape a pizza. If you want a really thin crust you can use a floured rolling pin--a simple log shaped one is best to ensure an even thickness. A tapered French pin will not roll out dough evenly. One of the easiest ways to form a pizza is to use all of your fingertips... pressing down and pushing out to flatten and then widen your dough into a round.
To make it easier for you, you can shape your pizza on a sheet of parchment paper and then when done, slide your peel under the paper for topping off. I tend to shape it on a floured surface, then transfer by hand (draped over my floured forearms) onto my peel which has a sheet of parchment covering it.
You can also transfer using a "booking" technique. Once you have your dough shaped on your work surface, get your peel ready, placing it next to your work surface with a sheet of parchment paper on top. To "book" your dough, lightly flour the top of the round, spreading the flour over the top with your hands. This will ensure the dough doesn't stick to itself when you start folding it over onto itself. You want to fold into thirds--the two side thirds fold in toward the center third. Fold one over the center first, then the other. Quickly (to prevent sticking), transfer to your peel and carefully unfold your dough round and adjust its shape.
A more advanced technique is to shape your dough like pizzaioli do in Italy. Below is one of the most instructive videos I've found on this technique...
A wood surface gives you "grip" for shaping pizza dough. Marble, granite or Formica surfaces can make the dough stick, so be liberal with bench flour while kneading and forming your artisinal dough. I use a bread board (like the one pictured above) that sits on top of your counter.
Don't forget your best tools--hands. I mainly use my hands when shaping pizza. Since I'm really making a more delicate, artisanal style pizza dough, you really can't throw it like in a commercial pizzeria. First, make sure you have a decent amount of flour on the workbench. Now, toss more flour on top of the dough before you start. Basically, you want the dough to have enough flour under it to slide easily when working it. You also to flour your hands so your hands don't stick to the dough.
Basically, I tend to leave a slight mound in the middle, then press with the sides of my hands to form a thicker crust edge (I like a thick crust on the perimeter of a pizza). Pat the middle with your flat hand, or use your finger tips (all of them) to push down the high spots of the dough until you make the diameter the size you need. As you press, push outward to where you need more width. If the dough won't move or slide, lift up and dust some more flour underneath.
If you make a hole, tear a little dough off the side and patch it. If you aren't using the parchment paper underneath, gently lift one side of the dough round and lift it on top of your floured forearm. Then with the other hand, help to lift and slide it onto your pizza peel on top of the waiting parchment. Pull the edges of the dough to fill your peel or into a circle, whichever you prefer. Rustic shapes are fine too.
By the way, instead of using parchment, you can also sprinkle a good amount of coarse corn meal on the peel and put the raw shaped pizza on top of that. The corn meal acts like little ball bearings making it easy to slide your pizza onto the stone. I've switched to using parchment simply because it's a bit neater... some corn meal winds up at the bottom of the oven and tends to burn, messing up both pizza stone and the oven.
I never would recommend topping off the dough while it's still on the work counter. I've even seen TV chefs do this and then have some trouble when trying to slide a metal peel underneath, pulling and tugging the loaded, wet dough. Just have all your toppings ready beforehand, place your dough on your parchment lined peel, and top-away! You can use my Basic Pizza Sauce Recipe or any jar sauce, as long as it's not too thick. Pizza sauces tend to be on the watery side. (Click Here for our Basic Pizza Sauce Recipe.)
As for cheese, while most home pizza makers will use supermarket mozzarella, don't forget to try others:
Sharp provolone, burrata, Italian Fontina, smoked or fresh mozzarella, buffalo mozzarella, bocconcini, mascarpone, ricotta, ricotta salata (or feta), Gorgonzola, cacciacavalo (our favorite sheep cheese), asiago, Parmigiano reggiano or formaggio fresco (called basket cheese in some Italian neighborhoods).
Depending on the type of cheese, it can be sliced, diced, grated or simply dolloped on top of your pizza. With mozzarella, cut it into thin slices with a knife or grate it with the 1/4 inch holes on a typical cheese grater. Mozzarella is easier to grate if you place it in the freezer for 15 minutes first. When using fresh mozzarella, try pinching off rough pieces and dropping them randomly on your crust. You might even try partially baking your crust first and then adding cheese and toppings for the final few minutes of baking. This is a method used in Italy when using very fresh cheeses like buffalo mozzarella, fresh ricotta or burrata.
As for the rest, live it up and experiment. If you want a simple Pizza Margherita, all you need is sauce, basil leaves and some mozzarella, with perhaps a drizzle of extra virgin olive oil and sprinkle of oregano (we grow our own in summer). We love olives (buy pitted and just squish them in your fingers and drop them on), smoked or Virginia ham, prosciutto, speck (Italian smoke-cured prosciutto), leftover bacon from Sunday breakfast, paper thin (cut on my mandoline) slices of dry sausage or zucchini, caramelized onions, fresh heirloom tomatoes, smoked turkey, home made meatballs... whatever suits your taste.
After Thanksgiving we use leftovers for a Thanksgiving Day Pizza--turkey, stuffing, cheesy mashed potatoes, fresh cranberries and for the sauce, turkey gravy. Recently, I even made a Chicken Marsala pizza. Lisa likes a white pizza--easy to do (without red sauce), smeared with ricotta cheese (she makes it fresh) and drizzled with olive oil finished with grated Romano and oregano.
TIP: Don't let your topped off pizza sit too long on the peel.
Get it in the oven quickly or it could stick to your parchment or peel (making it difficult to slide off into the oven), or the wet ingredients might soak too far into the dough.
After you've topped it off, slide it into your oven onto your preheated stone/steel. Place the leading edge of the peel about 1" from the rear edge of your steel, then give a gentle slide at first to touch the rear edge of pizza onto the surface. Next, give a quick thrust backwards, pulling your peel out from under your pizza. This should land the pizza perfectly, but practice carefully at first. Just be careful not to allow the edge of the pizza to droop over the edge of your stone!
True confession... when rushing one Saturday night to get my pizza into the oven, I swung the oven door open, slipped it from the peel into the oven and suddenly realized I forgot to put the steel into the oven! With the help of my metal peel and a large metal spatula, I managed to get it out, folded it into a pan and made a fairly presentable stromboli. Dinner saved!
If your oven is around 510-515 degrees a pizza should cook between 3 and 5 minutes. You can try using a higher temperature (my oven goes to 550F) but that might cook the bottom crust before the toppings.
Use a metal spatula or peel to check under your crust to make sure it's browned. (The sugar added to the dough aids browning). After the timer goes off, use the peel to slide under the parchment and pizza (or your pan pizza), lifting out and transferring to a wooden serving board or serving pan. Use a pizza wheel shears to cut your slices. If you've made thin crust individual pizzas, place them directly on large plates and eat them Napoletano style... either with a knife and fork, or da portare via (take out) style and fold them in half or quarters and eat it like a sandwich.
The world is your pizza, when you just stop and think about it... but, don't stop... make pizza!
--Jerry Finzi, la Pizzaiolo di Famiglia Finzi
If you enjoyed this article, please SHARE it with your friends on Social Media. Grazie!
Now that you've gathered together a basic pizza making toolkit, let's start actually making one...
My "Measure Water First" Method
First, I'd like to explain my basic concept that I've developed over the years. Most pizza dough recipes will give you precise measurements for flour in either cups (in the U.S.) or by weight (Europe). I don't really measure flour. Instead, I focus on measuring the water, depending on the type of pizza, style or size that I'm making, and then judging the look and feel of the dough as more flour is added while mixing or kneading. You can and should learn what a good dough for a particular type of pizza should look like. Making any type of dough for bread, pizza or even pasta is not precise like pastry or cake recipes. It's all about the look and feel.
There are many advanced pizzaiolo's recipes as ratios by weight of all ingredients, especially the ratio of flour to flour. They talk in terms of "60% hydration", sometimes more, sometimes less. This is true, but it's a complex, fussy method for beginners who just want to learn how to make great pizzas easily.
Still, they are correct in that the hydration of a particular dough gives each type of pizza its unique characteristics. Hydration also governs how light and airy a crust can be--or how dense. Of course, as you get more advanced you'll learn that other things also contribute to each type of crust: mixing types of flour; using honey versus sugar; using salt or not; olive oil or not; and how long and how many rises the dough is given. Often a subtle change makes a big difference in texture, taste and structure.
Water & Yeast
The first thing I do is place warm water (110-115 F) into a glass measuring cup, and ensure the measurement is correct for the size and type of pizza I'm making. For example:
1 - 1/4 cups water for a 12"-14", basic pizza, baked on parchment, on stone or steel.
1 - 1/2 cups water for a 14-16" basic pizza, either on stone or in large pan.
1 - 3/4 cups water for half sheet pan focaccia or "Grandma's Pizza", or 2-4 personal pizzas.
For now all you have to learn is how your dough should look in the mixing bowl. Some basic things to look for in the bowl of a stand mixer after adding the first 1 -1/2 cups of flour and pouring in the water/yeast mixture:
So, if you understand my method, the water measurement is critical for the type/size pizza being made, but the amount of flour added will always vary depending on if it's a rainy day, if it's in the middle of a hot humid, summer's day, or if it's the middle of a dry winter with your heat drying out the air in your house.
Remember, you can't remove flour if you add too much. Add flour slowly and use your eyes to see when it's getting thick like a pliant, damp, sticky putty... but NOT as dry as a child's Play Dough. If you add too much flour, your pizza will be dense and heavy. When a dough is dense, it makes it difficult for the yeast's gasses to lift and rise the dough--in other words, if there are no air spaces, all you have is a dense bread.
Ingredients for Three Types of Pizza Dough
Proofing the Yeast For a 12-14" pizza...
1 - 1/4 cups warm water (about 115 degrees F)
1 packet "instant" yeast (or 1 tablespoon packaged/dry yeast)
1 tablespoon honey or sugar
Use 1 to 1-1/2 cups All-Purpose flour to start, then use Bread Flour for the rest.
Proofing the Yeast For a 14-16" focaccia or pan pizza...
1 - 3/4 cups warm water (about 115 degrees F)
1 heaping tablespoon packaged/dry yeast
1 tablespoon honey or sugar
Use only Bread flour.
Proofing the Yeast For a 3-4 individual, thin crust pizzas...
1 - 1/2 cups warm water (about 115 degrees F)
1/2 tablespoon dry yeast
1 tablespoon honey
Use only All-Purpose flour.
Proofing the Yeast 2 Neapolitan style, individual pizzas...
1 - 1/4 cups warm water (about 115 degrees F)
1/2 tablespoons packaged/dry yeast
1 tablespoon honey
Use only Italian style "00" Flour.
Mix the yeast and honey (or sugar) with the warm (115 degrees F) water in a medium size measuring cup. Set aside for 10-15 minutes to "proof" (foam up). If the yeast doesn't show "proof" that your yeast is alive and growing, you should shouldn't use it. Yeast should be alive.
To understand what's going on, the honey (or sugar) feeds the yeast and as it grows, it produces gasses that will lift the dough. After you make your dough, the yeast is still working during any successive rise periods and and will lift the dough (puff it up).
Pizza dough is a leavened crust (more akin to bread). A dough without yeast (or less yeast) makes more of an unleavened bread--like a cracker. If you want a bread-like dough (focaccia, sfincione or Grandma's style) use more yeast. If you want a thin, crusty pizza, use less.
TIP: In case you don't have a thermometer, here's a method I've come up with to ensure the water is the right temperature... Turn your water on HOT and then try to hold the inside of your wrist in the stream of water coming from the faucet. At first it'll be way to hot to hold it for even a second. Start turning down the temp (add cold or turn the valve toward the cold side if it's a mixer valve) and try holding your wrist there again. When you can comfortably hold your wrist in the stream of hot water, it's hot enough without being too hot, killing your yeast. I've tested this method with a thermometer and it usually lands me around 110-115 degrees F.
Preheating the Oven, Pizza Stone, Temps and Times
First, place your pizza stone/steel in the oven on the center rack, and preheat your oven.
For a basic pizza baked directly on the stone/steel, set your oven to 515 F and preheat for 30 minutes/stone, 60 minutes/steel. This pizza should bake within 3-6 minutes, depending on your home oven. Do not use convection! If the toppings need a more time than the bottom, place the oven to Broil for 1 more minute. Thin crust and Neapolitan style pizzas should also be baked at 515F.
For pan pizzas, the rule is low and slow... less heat, more time. Preheat your oven & stone/steel to 425-435 F. Most pan pizzas in dark, heavy pans should bake in about 15 minutes.
Ingredients for the Dough
1-1/2 cups all-purpose flour (all-purpose is needed to create a more crisp crust)
1 - cup bread flour (bread flour makes pizza more bread-like, I recommend King Arthur's)
1 - tablespoon sugar
1 - teaspoon salt
1- tablespoon extra virgin olive oil
Making the Dough
The photo on the left needs more flour but is almost there.
The center one has the right amount of flour--it's still a bit sticky.
The third shows the dough as it looks on the bench before kneading.
After kneading, you can do a "window" test as in the above photo. Stretch the dough until it gets paper thin and translucent without tearing. If it tears easily, there isn't enough gluten development.
TIPS: You want to mix the dough until it separates from the bowl--but it should still be a bit sticky. Go slow with adding more flour. A dough that's too dry will make a tough, leathery crust. You want it soft and a bit sticky. One more tip... I use mainly King Arthur's flours for my pizzas. I've done tests using others like Gold Medal or Pillsbury and never got good results. The protein level of King Arthur's is higher, resulting in better gluten development. For Neapolitan style, I'll use 00 type flour (doppio zero, double zero), either Caputo or Anna brand.
How much flour to add really depends on the humidity... on a rainy you might have to add more flour, while on a dry winter day you would add less. Making pizza dough, or bread for that matter, is a "feel" craft. It's not as precise as cake or pastry baking.You really have to learn the "feel" of a dough that works well for you. This will come with time and after having made many pizzas.
Learn to recognize the stages:
wet (not ready), very sticky (almost there), a little bit sticky (best), too dry or rubbery (you've added too much flour).
Just remember that you can always add more flour, but you can't take it out once you've added too much. Go easy on adding flour toward the end of mixing. You can always add a bit more when it's on the work table.
Why Mix Different Flours?
When using bread flour, the body of the pizza softer, breadier and heavier--more like a focaccia or a deep dish pan pizza, but the crust bottom might be too light. Adding some all-purpose flour makes a barker bottom crust.
If you use only all-purpose flour, it will be leaner, thinner and often crustier--as with a thin crust pizza.
I find using both types is a good compromise between the two types for most pizzas I make. Experimenting with this ratio is a good way to learn how to control what type of crust you need. After gaining experience, you'll experiment with adding 1 cup of whole wheat flour, rye, corn flour or even buckwheat into the mix. However, if you use only a heavy flour, like wheat, your pizza will be tough and leathery and hard to roll out.
I tend to use all bread flour or bread flour mixed with wheat or rye flours when I do pan pizzas, Chicago style and focaccia This gives a thicker, more luscious bready texture. When adding heavier flours (like wheat), I also tend to add a touch more yeast to help rise the heavier dough. Use less yeast with a bread-wheat flour mix and you can have a thin wheat pizza crust.
Kneading the Dough
Turn the dough out onto a floured surface and knead by hand. Flour both your hands and flour the top of the dough on the board. Fold the dough over toward you, push forward with the heel of your hand, then turn 1/4 turn and keep repeating until the dough looks smooth, soft and slowly bounces back when you stick it with your thumb.
Some say you must knead the dough for 5 or even 10 minutes or more, but I think this produces too much stringy gluten--the glue in dough--and can cause the dough to be tough. Gluten development happens even without much kneading. Besides, I'd rather be eating my pizza sooner rather than later.
Tuck in or pinch together the bottom of your dough round and shape into a flat, round shape, then put it in the oiled bowl to rise. Oil both sides of the dough.
Cover the bowl with plastic wrap and let it rise at room temperature for 45 minutes. On dry days, I usually help along the humidity a bit and lay a damp paper towel on top of the plastic wrap. You could even use a damp cotton chef's towel.
There are two ways to proceed now. One is the quick way--a single rise--the other is longer... a double rise. Typically, for our weekly, Saturday night pizza, I'll do a short, single rise, unless I'm trying something a bit different:
If I'm trying to make a special artisan pizza or focaccia recipe I'll do a double rise:
The longer the rise, the more complex flavor develops in the crust... something I think is unnecessary for a quick "get dinner on the table" pizza. But if you like to experiment, let your dough rise overnight before making pizza. A longer, cold rise will develop better flavor!
When I starting making pizza about 20 years ago, I made a lot of terrible pies... doughy, pale-looking, tasteless, flat, oily, floppy, burnt--you name it. Lots of mistakes. But that's the part of life I love--learning from our mistakes and really fine-tuning a craft, talent or skill. You have to crawl before you walk or run. On guitar, one must pluck before you strum and then learn chord changes before making really beautiful music. On my penny whistle, I squealed like a pig before I could play a tune that my wife wanted to sit and listen to. My love of carpentry started when I was 5 years old... with me holding the board while my father sawed it through. Now, I can built pretty much anything I set out to build.
Learning to make truly great Pizzas requires the same attitude--learning from mistakes--and successes, as they add up. I would say that it took me about a year to learn how to make a really pizza deliziosa. It was perhaps another few years until I could make pretty much any style of pizza... crispy thin crust, bready focaccia, steamy Chicago deep dish, Detroit style, Grandma's pizza, Sicilian sfincione, a classic Neapolitan or even variants like pizza rustica or pizzagaina during the holidays. I'm not saying it will take you a year, especially since you have me to help you along! You have to start somewhere, and with that simple fact, you need a simple dough that works. I am going to show you how to make my all-around, Basic Pizza Dough...
What Tools Do I Need to Make Great Pizzas?
First, a brief mention of tools...
To start with, you need a large enough work counter to make your pizzas on. Hopefully, this won't be too far from your oven. The work-space can be anything: marble, granite, Formica or wood. Personally, I like using a wood surface. I use a large board designed for making breads and pie crusts that always sits on my work counter. Keeping it well floured keeps dough from sticking, but when I need it, the texture of wood can be an aid when kneading. A bench knife (or bench scraper) is also a must-have too, used when dough does stick, for scraping and cleaning the counter and cutting dough into smaller portions.
Processing: A large capacity food processor (with a dough blade) can work well, but I prefer a stand mixer with dough hook. I use a Kitchenaid unit and love all the accessories that can accomplish many specialized tasks. If you really want to go "green", don't plug anything in and learn how to make your dough using the old-school technique of starting with a fontana (fountain, or volcano) shaped mount of flour, with the wet ingredients added and mixed in a well in its center. You can also make your dough in a large bowl like many nonne would do using just their hands and a large wooden bowl. Still, a stand mixer speeds things up. After all, this is Old World quality with modern technology. When making pizza in your home, think of it as making artisanal pizza--not pizzeria pizza.
To make a good crust, you really need a rectangular pizza stone... or better yet, a baking steel. A baking steel transfers heat to the crust or pan much more quickly. The size should be at least a 16" rectangular or square to make virtually any type or shape of pizza (or bread). Round stones are limited and difficult to slide loaded doughs onto without overshooting and dropping dough over the back edge. A rectangular stone/steel can efficiently bake pan pizzas, regardless of shape. Remember to preheat your stone in the oven before baking. With a baking steel, preheat for 45 minutes to an hour before baking.
Baking pan pizzas on a pizza steel or stone a stone affords shorter bake times and a crispier bottom crust. Placing a pizza in a metal pan directly on a stone speeds up the transfer of heat from the stone to the pan. On a rack, the air in between the rack's wires insulates most of the metal and slows down this transfer of heat from the rack to the pan.
TIP: A dark pan will brown your pizza faster, brown better and gives a crispier bottom crust.
You should also pick up a pizza peel to prep your pizzas on and to remove pizzas from your oven. You might have seen a TV pizzaiolo on occasion loading up their dough rounds with toppings right on their floured, marble work surface, and then drag it onto a peel. Don't even try this. Your dough could stick, you could tear it and heavier toppings will go all over the place. (Because of the way it's made, commercially made dough is often tougher than home-made, artisan pizza, which can be very delicate.)
Also, don't be tempted to toss your pizza round up in the air. This is a very advanced skill that requires technique and a stronger dough.
While I shape my pizzas on a wooden peel I use a metal peel to remove them from the oven. if space is a premium in your cucina, a wooden one can also do double duty. If you plan on using a wooden peel to remove your pizzas form the oven, select one with a longer handle to make lifting heavily topped pizzas more manageable and make sure it has a tapered front edge. In my opinion, a long handled metal peel for removing pies from the oven is a lot easier to slide under finished, loaded pies. For most kitchens, a 30" long peel will do fine.
TIP: In case you have a small, galley style kitchen, make sure you have room to back a long handled peel in or out of the oven before buying one!
When planning to bake pizzas directly on the stone, I recommend using parchment paper on top of your wood peel when shaping your dough.
The process: cover your wood peel with parchment; after kneading the dough on your work counter, shape the dough on top of the parchment; next, add the toppings. An alternative method is to shape your pizza round on the work counter on top of a sheet of parchment, then slide the round and parchment onto your peel.
Parchment does two things: It helps slide your pizza (with the parchment underneath) onto the baking stone (even with heavily loaded pies); and it helps keep your stone and oven clean. When I first started making pizzas, I used to use stone ground corn meal on the wooden peel (some use flour). You can do this, but I've found that some always falls into the oven itself, gets burned and makes a mess on both the oven and stone.
For serving, buy flat, round 16-18" pizza serving pans (the larger size can also fit 16" rectangular pizzas with a little ovehang). Do not use this type of pan to bake pizzas on, simply because they are usually silver and won't crisp a crust bottom that well.
You might also consider a large wooden pizza serving board for serving--and cutting--your pizzas on. Finally, don't forget to buy a decent, large diameter pizza wheel (cutter).
Another good addition to your pizza toolkit is a pair of pizza shears. Common kitchen shears are too short, plus its best to have offset blades for slipping under loaded pizzas. When making pan pizzas, a pizza wheel can cut across the pie, but a scissor can be used to go back and cut the edges the wheel missed.
You might also be interested in:
My Recipe for Pizza Rustica, or Double Crust Pizza
Our Secrets for Making a Great Pizza Sauce
A Brief History of Wood Fired Ovens
This is the time of year when tomatoes are ripening on the vine in both the U.S. and Italy. Even if you don't grow your own tomatoes, this can be also the time to make your own Italian style passata di pomodoro--a basic tomato sauce that has all the skins and seeds removed, with all the flavor left behind.
Here in the states, the closest canned product is called "tomato puree". Many families in Italy make the processing and canning of passata a yearly event--a family event--making enough jars of passata to last the entire year, often enough for extended famiglia. If you're not growing enough of your own paste style tomatoes, you can always buy a bushel or two or three from your local farm stand. Some Italian families will process up to 500 pounds of passata each year!
Think of passata as a basic tomato sauce which you can use in all sorts of recipes, or even as a base to make other tomato-based sauces, such as Puttanesca, Amatriciana, Bolognese (ragu), Vodka sauce, sugo ("Sunday Gravy") or for pizza sauce. The word "passata" (passed, screened, smashed) refers to the processing with a special food mill that removes the seeds, pulp and skins, leaving only the tomato sauce behind. Other family recipes might just use a common food processor or blender, but this can't really give you a genuine passata.
The cleaned, ripe tomatoes are cut up, boiled and processed to remove the skins and pulp, and finally canned in a traditional manner using a hot water bath and canning jars. Some family recipes might also add other spices or flavorings such as garlic as they boil the tomatoes, but since passata is a base to make a wide variety of sauces, you might want to add them at the time of cooking the final sauce. It is traditional, however, to add one large basil leave into each jar canned.
The Method of Making Passata
Although you can make a passata in very small quantities, we will look at how to make a large volume for the purposes of canning and storage. We would love to promote this time honored, annual ritual here in the United States. Wouldn't it be better to have a yearly stock of your own tomato passata rather than buy supermarket sauces filled with chemical preservatives and other additives?
What Type of Tomato is Best?
In Italy, the best for this is San Marzano tomatoes (used in the best imported canned tomatoes), which have DOP protection and are only grown in the area of Naples surrounding Mount Vesuvius. Of course, many varieties are grown in the U.S. calling themselves "San Marzano", but they are only a similar variety. (You can't match San Marzano tomatoes because of their uniqueness of being grown in volcanic soils.)
In reality, any good-tasting, full-bodied paste type tomato will work well. The tomato you select should have sweetness, depth of flavor, but also a touch of acidity--which benefits long preservation. Most paste tomatoes are thick fleshed and have a similar shape to San Marzano--that is, an elongated plum shape. You can also use larger cherry tomatoes or horn-pepper shaped varieties. Again, if it has a great taste, it will make a great passata. Leave the larger, beefsteak varieties for slicing and eating fresh.
If you want to grow your own heirloom canning tomatoes from seed, we can highly recommend Striped Roma (horn shaped, sweet), Jersey Devil (horn shaped, very meaty), Debarao (plum shaped, juicy) and Martino's Roma (classic plum tomato). If you want to plant enough for lots of passata, plan on planting a minimum of 10 plants of one single variety that you earmark for canning.
How Many Tomatoes?
This really depends on how ambitious you are. if you use lots of tomato sauce in your recipes each year, then start with more tomatoes. You will also need more canning jars, lids and other varied supplies and tools. Having a very large pot or cauldron to boil the tomatoes helps prevent tedious, repeated boiling/canning sessions. I highly recommend doing it the way most Italians do it--using a tomato processing mill. I also love the way Italians use a very large pot to boil their jars and to do the final canning process--they use kitchen towels to layer in the glass jars to protect them from rattling around against each other.
Here are some guidelines:
3 pounds of tomatoes to make 1 quart of passata.
21 pounds of tomatoes will make 7 quarts of passata.
One bushel of tomatoes (about 53 lbs per bushel) will give you 15-18 quarts of passata.
You will also be using sea salt and placing basil leaves into each jar.
Things You will Need
(For a large volume...)
You can use a standard hand-cranked food mill or a manual tomato milling machine to process the tomatoes, but if you're doing a large volume, you should consider investing in a powered tomato mill. The more power the unit has, the faster your processing will go. You might need to set up your milling machine on a low table, with bowl on the table to capture the pulp and a large container on the floor to capture the passata.
What About Canning Whole Tomatoes?
In Italy, whole canned tomatoes are called pelati, referring to the process of peeling the skins off before canning. In the area of Naples, many families invest in crates of locally grown San Marzano tomatoes, but any pear/plum shaped past tomato will do fine.
Before caning whole tomatoes, the best way to prevent spoilage is to remove the skins. Canning peeled tomatoes also affords more options for use in recipes that might call for crushed tomatoes. Skinned, whole tomatoes are easy to crush by squeeze by hand or pulsing in a food processor.
Don't forget to label your Passata and Pelati with the month and year. (Order oval Avery labels HERE on Amazon). Store them in a cool, dark place. They will last for as long as three years.
Read this article carefully, watch the videos below and by all means, work safely! Make this a yearly event for your extended famiglia. I've read about families who take gather large teams together to process as much as 500 pounds of tomatoes! I would suggest starting small until you get used to the process. You can also make small volumes of passata or pelati right in your kitchen with a large stock pot, colander and tools you have lying around. And whether you use a manual tomato mill or powered, I'm sure you'll be successful and enjoy a fully packed cantina (pantry) all season long.
--Jerry Finzi, GVI
If you are new to canning, you can study the principles of safe canning HERE.
Useful Processing Tools on AMAZON...
The video below is one of the best I have found covering many aspects of making Passata and Pelati. There are some titles in English,
but it might also help to click the gear icon on YouTube
to turn on Closed Captions and Auto-Translate to select English...
These are about 6 pounds worth of just a few of the 11 varieties of heirloom tomatoes we are growing in nostro giardano this year...
The Large yellow beefsteak is Regina, the horn-shaped one is Jersey Devil, the small yellow grape shape is Olivette Juane, the large pink globe tomato is Giant Belgium (not so giant this season), and the smaller pink ball shape is Eva Purple Ball. All long lasting friends that I have grown for a couple of decades. All absolutely delizioso.
Happy pesto season, tutti!
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The "Silly" Pizza from Abruzzo
Some people called my Dad acting "silly" as a negative, but not me. Anything silly, I love. Something offbeat, oddball, out of the norm, and I'm automatically drawn to it. The time Dad wore vampire teeth at a fancy wedding's cocktail hour was wonderful. My discovery of this interesting pizza is also wonderful: pizza scima ("silly pizza") from the cucina povera traditions of Abruzzo. It's authentic and offbeat.
Why is it called "silly"? To understand the name, we have to get into the evolution of the Abruzzese dialect word "scima". This is an unleavened bread, and the Italian word azzimo (masculine) or azzima (feminine) in Italian means unleavened, referring to any bread that's made without yeast. In dialect the word is ascime. Southern Italians tend to shorten words, in this case the word was simplified to scima (SHEE-ma). Scema in Italian can mean either stupid or silly, perhaps in this case referring to someone silly enough to make bread without leavening...
The history of this pizza evolved from the 13th century Jews who settled in Abruzzo and made unleavened bread. Traditionally it is baked directly on an open wood fired hearth, common in many country homes even today. After coming up to temperature, the wood coals are cleared to the sides and the dough round is placed directly on the brick base. Next, the dough is covered with a 5" tall dark steel coppo (like a large pot cover) and coal embers are placed on top. This baking method is similar to the Colonial American method of baking bread in a cast iron Dutch oven in an open fireplace.
The baking method below tries to mimic the open hearth by baking on a pre-heated pizza stone (to cook the bottom) with a dark pan placed over the top of the pizza (to create a moist, but hot baking environment). You might even try to make this pizza using a baking cloche.
Common in the southern towns of Casoli, Roccascalegna, Altino, Lanciano and San Vito Chietino, this pizza is characterized by the addition of extra virgin olive oil and wine. Each year there is even a pizza scima sagra (food festival) in Casoli.
Useful Tools on Amazon...
The History of Pasta
Interesting Pasta Facts
Cooking and Making Pasta
Useful Pasta Tools on Amazon
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I'm not a gullible man. Even as a boy, I wasn't one to believe everything I was told. I always asked questions... "Why? Where? When? How?" I read lots of books, including my entire encyclopedia set and my Atlas. I loved science and the arts. I used both sides of my brain. But as a 12-year-old watching the old Jack Parr show in 1963, I tended to to go by the old adage, "Seeing is believing"--especially if you see it on TV!
What I saw was a very legitimate sounding short documentary film with a very scholarly, British voice talking about the spaghetti harvest in Switzerland, and mentioning the "tremendous scale of the Italian's... (harvest)" and the "vast spaghetti plantations in the Po valley". From that point on, until I was in my early twenties, I actually believed there was some sort of special tree or bush in Italy that produced some sort of spaghetti... fruit, pod or otherwise. It wasn't until I saw Jack Parr himself talking about the hoax on the Tonight Show in the early 1970s that I learned the embarrassing truth--a "truth" that I would argue about with my non-Italian friends growing up... "Real Italian spaghetti grows on trees!", I would insist.
Parr claimed they didn't get a single call about the segment and most people bought it hook, line and sinker. OK, so maybe I was a bit gullible. But it was a very convincing documentary film, produced originally as a serious film for, of all things, a British news show... and besides, I was only 12!
On April 1, 1957, on April Fool's Day (Pesce d'Aprile in Italian), the BBC television show Panorama aired the short "documentary" about the "spaghetti harvest" in Ticino, Switzerland, on the border of the Italian Alps. The film shows spaghetti trees ripe with long strands of spaghetti and a farming family harvesting by hand, putting the spaghetti into baskets and then carefully laying them out to dry in the "warm Alpine sun."
Some viewers bought it entirely and called BBC to find out where they could buy some of the "real spaghetti". Many British gardeners wanted to know how to buy a spaghetti bush for their own garden. Others were very angry that a joke was portrayed as a serious subject on a real news program.
Still others--like me--just tucked this into their knowledge banks, unquestioningly and carried it as a "truth" through at least part of their lives, being even more convinced every time they heard the expression "fresh pasta"... of course, that must be referring to the real stuff fresh picked from the trees! What did I know. After all, neither my Mother or Grandmother made fresh spaghetti, because spaghetti trees probably didn't grow in our climate. All I ever saw growing up was dried, boxed spaghetti--you know, the fake stuff.
The following video is the original broadcast in 1957 in England...
The following video gives a behind the scenes take on
the Spaghetti Hoax story from a member of the Panorama
production team who came up with the idea...
The next video shows a further chapter of this hoax broadcast
in 1967 in Britain explaining how the spaghetti crop was being ruined by a terrible pest--the spag-worm, or "troglodyte pasta".
("Troglodyte" refers to a person so stupid because he lives in a cave).
In 1978, San Giorgio Pasta produced a remake of the
Spaghetti Hoax for one of their TV ads.
Finally, cooking know-it-all, Martha Stewart (I'm not a fan) got into the act
in 2009 with her own little spoof about her Spaghetti Bush,
"spago officinalis" ("official string") trees.
Well, I've had a lot more culinary education since being misled by that little April Fool's prank when I was young and impressionable: my Mom and Dad taught with every loving dish they put in front of me; Grandma taught me her authenticity; having home and studio in Manhattan for so many years where varied cuisines are around every corner also taught me; In my 30s, I finally learned how to cook from Julia Child, Craig Clairborne, Marcella Hazan, Mary Ann Esposito and Pierre Franey. I now make fresh pasta with my son, Lucas from time to time. And during our Voyage throughout Italy, I never saw a single strand of spaghetti on a bush, tree or vine. Ever. (OK, so I did look, just to be sure.)
However, I have since learned that there are actually spaghetti alternatives that grow from Madre Terra. I even grew 2 foot long "snake" beans a few years ago that came pretty close. Here are a few veggie spaghetti alternatives...
If you want to make your own, fresh "veggie spaghetti" at home, pick up a Premium Vegetable Spiralizer from Amazon or the attachment we use for our stand mixer, the Kitchenaid Spiralizer Attachment. It's a lot easier than picking the spaghetti from the trees, collecting in baskets and spreading them out in the sun to dry...
(Damn you, Jack Parr and your dry sense of humor!)
Most Italian-Americans have heard of basket cheese, that light, soft, fresh cheese (similar to ricotta) sold in Italian specialty stores every Easter which is used to make the traditional pizzagaina or pastiera di grano (wheat grain pie) recipes. In the U.S. it is rarely seen year-round and is mostly used as an ingredient. In Italy, basket cheese is is called formaggio fresca (fresh cheese) and is readily available all year long for use as both recipe ingredient and as a table cheese, just as ricotta is eaten, but with a less salty and milder flavor.
Basket Cheese Ingredients
1 gallon whole milk (or, if you can find some, use goat's milk)
1/4 teaspoon rennet
1/4 teaspoon salt (basket cheese is less salty than ricotta)
You will need:
You can now use your basket cheese fresh as an ingredient in recipes, such as the traditional Easter pizzagaina. If you want to eat it fresh (the same day is best) you can turn the baskets upside down onto a serving plate and remove the basket. This is a mild cheese, but if you like you can sprinkle with a little sea salt or fresh ground pepper. You can also spread it on bread or crostata and drizzle with honey or balsamic and serve with with figs or fresh berries. Although it should be eaten the day it's made, you can keep it for several days by keeping the basket in a plastic container along with with an inch of milk.
Making Ricotta from the Leftover, Fresh Whey
Although my wife Lisa's ricotta recipe is great, technically, it's not a true ricotta made from whey. Making true ricotta (re-cooked, or cooked twice) is incredibly simple once you have whey leftover from cheese-making using rennet. The whey has to be fresh from the cheese-making process above.
Making Ricotta Salata
Ricotta salata is basically a firm, saltier version of ricotta cheese that is very similar to feta. While feta is made with rennet, ricotta salata is made from the whey leftover from cheese-making, just as normal ricotta is made. Ricotta salata needs more salt than normal ricotta and is pressed it to release any extra moisture. You need a fine mesh cheesecloth or butter muslin.
Ricotta salata is beautifully paired with sliced apples, pears, fresh figs or crumbled on pizza, pasta or salads.
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This year we decided to make our Pizzagaina recipe once again. We loaded up my Kindle with our recipe on GrandVoyageItaly.com and got started getting the ingredients together. As usual, my son Lucas helped with the mise en place. He is a great sous chef but nowadays is also cooking a lot of his own dishes.
With the coronavirus limitations of shopping, and certain things in our fridge missing, we decided to use up some smoked gruyere in place of the mozzarella but still used ricotta and fontina (I love its creaminess). That's the way of the Italian cucina--not letting anything go to waste. Otherwise, our recipe was the same. And each time I make this treat, I'm amazed that I got the ingredients perfectly proportioned--a difficult thing to do when writing up a recipe for other people to duplicate. This crust is just wonderful to work with and fits the spring pan perfectly, with even a little left over after making the lattice strips.
In the end, we made the pizzagaina a couple of days after Easter since we had a huge ham that we baked for Easter dinner, along with roasted potatoes, carrots and onions and garlic, along with home made apple and cranberry sauce. There was plenty of leftover ham for soup, sandwiches and the pizzagaina.
Try this recipe if you get a chance. If you prefer a more solid filling, add two more eggs when making the filling.