Heating is Not the Same as Cooking

Nothing clever or funny to say, today.

I only want to share last night’s learned lesson with you, briefly.

Prior to moving to Houston, we made it a habit to make pizza at home on a fairly regular basis. I’m quite picky about pizza, and since moving away from the Philadelphia/New York/New Jersey Shore area far too long ago, I’ve felt a bit in exile when it comes to finding a good slice out in the world. Now, I’m not claiming what we make at home is anything like a proper slice, but the way I figure it, if I’m going to eat mediocre pizza, I might as well make it at home where it is cheaper. Especially if we’re going to pile on the toppings, which we usually do.

The only hindrance is that I’m pretty lazy, and we don’t own a stand mixer, yet. They’re pricey and bulky, and despite looking at them with longing on many occasions, we’ve just never justified the plunge. Pizza dough needs a lot of working. It needs to have a lot of gluten and be very plastic before finally throwing it into your crust. And, not having a stand mixer with a dough hook, and being too lazy to do this by hand, we were in the habit of buying fresh (raw, not frozen) dough at either Whole Foods or Trader Joe’s. Take it home, let it come up to room temperature, throw it into a big circle, cover, and cook.

The key when cooking pizza at home in your pedestrian oven is two pronged. Firstly, you need to be like Scotty on Star Trek (if I may mix geek metaphors briefly here on Dungeons & Kitchens) and miraculously find heat and speed your oven never knew it had. Crank the thing “up to eleven” (yet another geek reference that doesn’t belong here). But not only do you need to get the thing as hot as a glassman’s kiln, you need it to stay that way when you open the door. Now, we all know that pizza stones are expensive, fragile, and not nearly big enough or dense enough to serve the purpose for which they’re sold. We do all know that, right? Slightly more generic “oven tiles” have a few advantages in that they are not round (which really doesn’t work well in a rectangular oven) and are slightly cheaper. This is what I have, because I found them on clearance in a kitchen shop one day and I just leave them along the bottom of the oven at all times to help regulate the oscillations in heat cycles. They slow pre-heat times substantially (you have to ignore the beep on your oven, because the added mass throws off all the fancy calibrations), but they radically shrink the deltas once they come up to heat. The truly hardcore option, though, is to go to a landscaping supply (or mega-hardware) shop and buy those mustard colored patio bricks and put those in the bottom of your oven. True disciples of Alton Brown will already have done this, and I would have if I hadn’t found the other option so cheap.

When cooking pizza, french fries, or large pieces of meat, I put the pan directly onto the stones to encourage a bit of browning along the bottom of the food items. For “slow and low” items, I use a rack above the stones to avoid browning/burning/sticking.

Here’s the problem. There are no Trader Joe’s in Texas, and none of the local Whole Foods (or any other grocer we can find for that matter) sells fresh pizza dough. So, for a good while, we’ve been without our homemade goodness. A few weeks ago, on a lark, I bought a large, long, ciabatta style bread loaf from a local shop I could trust (we rarely eat bread, so we don’t have a home set up for cranking out daily bread) and we used it to make something like the childhood “French bread” pizza.

The results were shockingly good. But, it was a bit of a struggle to heat through the pile of veggies and cheese we’d put onto the bread the first time we tried it. I used an exclusively “broiler” style heating approach, thinking “the bread is already cooked, I just need to heat this through on top”. Well, this worked pretty ok, but you risk scorching the cheese pretty badly if you aren’t careful.

So this brings us to the lesson. Last night we went for round two. And attempting to learn from last time’s struggle I said to myself “Let’s just treat it like pizza. Crank the oven all the way up, and go for it.”

The result was tasty, but the outer most bits of bread on the sides were blackened almost to the brink of that un-salvageable evil — carbon.

Heating up is not cooking.

The thing with raw pizza is you need to cook the crust, which is under everything else, all the way through, while covered in wet stuff, before the stuff on top burns. This is why that layer of hot stones is so important and an overall high heat level is also crucial. But, with these bread pizzas, you don’t need to do this.

My intent next time is to try a more typical 375 degree oven in an attempt to heat them through slowly. Clearly the “give it all she’s got” approach is not correct.

I will keep you posted.

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4 thoughts on “Heating is Not the Same as Cooking

  1. This sounds yummy. I’ll be very interested to hear what the final verdict is on how to cook it.

  2. I don’t think we prioritize pizza in Texas the way people do in other places, which is probably while your Whole Foods doesn’t carry the raw dough, I don’t think mine did either.

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