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Pizza Part Two: Kneading, Shaping, Toppings, and the Bake!

Pizza Part Two: Kneading, Shaping, Toppings, and the Bake!
By Kevin McQuade

(For wood-fired oven recipes and more see


Ok, you are going to try some new flours and different hydration and you have mixed everything together, flour, water, yeast, salt, and olive oil. Kneading it of course depends on the hydration. I knead all my dough by hand. I could say that it’s the “Artisan way”! But quite frankly, I hate cleaning a mixer. It’s much easier for me to wipe out my single large stainless steel bowl. Plus, I must admit there is something therapeutic about working with the dough, and you do get a nice feel for different stages of dough development. So you can use a mixer if you must, but it is in no way necessary. Anyway, the key to kneading is to move the dough in your hands quickly not allowing it to stay in contact with your hands too much. This minimizes flour sticking to your hands. Use the least amount of flour as possible. A little flour on the side can be used to dip the palm of your hand in. Dough hydrations of 55-65% are stiff enough so that they are easy to knead by hand, 70% and up require special wet dough handling techniques that we will not go into right now. I suggest you start with stiffer dough (alternatively for the higher hydration dough you can use your mixer – Blasphemy)

If you are going to cold ferment your dough for one or more days, you don’t need to work it that much anyway. My sweet spot time is ~5 min continuous good kneading. Now scoop up your dough (I buy 4” putty knives at Home Depot rather than expensive “bakers” scrapers), put it in an airtight container in the fridge over night up to a couple days.


Two hours before you want to actually make your pizza, remove it from the fridge and let it come to room temp. After about 1 to1.5 hrs. remove the dough from the container and using some flour on the counter, shape it into a ball – start by pressing it into a small square, then pull all the corners into the center and grab them like you are pinching them all together creating a bulb, put the pinched corners together on the table and using some friction of the dough on the table pull and roll until the seams are closed and a ball is made. Dust your ball with flour, cover it with a towel, and let it rest another 20-30 min until you are ready to make your pizza. Now is the time to get all your ingredients in order.

Ok, you can see many magnificent pizza tossers and some super pizza shapers on YouTube, and yes, it does take practice. The single biggest challenge is to avoid getting the center of the pizza so thin that it tears. As I write this I see how it is impossible to explain this in writing, so in another post we will put up a video with a couple standard techniques. Also you can just search YouTube for tons of video demos.

I will just say one thing. Using a roller is certainly possible, but it really compresses the dough and reduces the aeration and rising during cooking. (Unless you want a cracker bread crust – then roll away!) If you try to shape and stretch the dough and it is resistant – keeps springing back – just let it rest 15-20 min and come back to it.

The sky’s the limit here, but there are just a few basic principles. The main one is “less is more” don’t try to load up your pizza like it’s a dump truck. Go for well-seasoned, high quality ingredients. A few other points:

  • Avoid overly wet toppings – you will get a soggy pizza – mushrooms for example, hold a lot of water that water can leach out and sog up your pizza easily
  • Sauce. The thing here is that while its possible to put anything on as a sauce, if you are cooking in high temp wood fired oven, it’s so hot that using a pre-cooked sauce will super cook and dry out. This is the main reason authentic wood fired pizzas often call for fresh sauce made from quality tomatoes like San Marzano – A fresh sauce will cook on the pizza – so you really don’t need to pre-cook it. I am not going to go into making sauce – too many variations, but don’t forget that you really do not need a sauce – a basic olive oil seasoned with garlic, oregano, thyme, chili pepper flakes and salt – is a great way of doing many types of pizza.
  • Burning stuff – if you put fresh basil or arugula etc.… on your pizza and put in in a high temp oven you will end up with crispy critters. Wait until the pizza comes out of the oven then garnish – the residual heal of the pizza is sufficient to wilt the fresh herbs or leafy greens. The same with fresh cut tomatoes, I prefer to put them on after I pull out the pizza. Speaking of burning stuff, if you use grated soft cheese in a wood fired or high heat oven it will also burn. But hey, you might like that.

Speaking of cheese, the reason why the fresh mozzarella cheese works nicely in high temps is that the water content helps prevent it from burning. Also you see many examples where the cheese is just blotched on in clumps – the bigger clumps also keep it from burning. You can actually over heat cheese and cause it to denature and get gummy too. Experiment with cheese mixes, try asiago, provolone, etc..

One final topping note worth mentioning is the pairing of sweet and salty, savory or pungent. These can do quite well, For example one of my favorites is sweet pear slices, and caramelized fennel paired with pungent Gorgonzola cheese. There are many other nice examples.

Do not, I mean DO NOT – forget the garlic ! And good quality olive oil – Usually a drizzle of olive oil right before putting it in the oven or sometimes right after removing it .

My last comment regarding the Bake, is that your cooking time depends on everything from the thickness of the dough, toppings, and hydration. It’s done when it is done – do not leave your pizza unattended ! You can cook a pizza very hot ( ~800 deg F) in 1.5 min. It will end up super tender, but you will you will need to eat it with a knife and fork – if you want a crust that is a bit more firm for holding in your hand , lower temps can be used. Also higher hydration increases the cook time resulting in a firmer crust – that is if you have not loaded it up with too many wet toppings 🙂 The key baking issues are really the temp and the cooking surface which I discussed in Part I.

Now go make a pizza.

Buon appetito from Los Angeles Ovenworks!

Dr. Kevin McQuade is a scientist by training, a self-taught bread baker and metal art sculptor. He began with a search for superior pizza crust, which developed into Artisan bread baking about 5 years ago as a hobby. He has an experimental approach to baking and pizza making, always trying different combinations of flour and ingredients. He is a bread recipe formatter for the Bread Bakers Guild of America (BBGA), where he takes professional recipes and helps convert them into standard bakers’ math based formats to be published by the Guild. He lives in Seattle with his wife, (a gourmet cook from NY, who taught him how to cook) along with two dogs, and two cats. Kevin says, “After living in NY, I got spoiled by two things: NY pizza and NY bagels. We enjoy foods from all over the world, having traveled in many different countries including time working in Brazil and Spain. We tend to eat a Mediterranean style diet, low on meat, high on fish and vegies. In cooking, spices are our friends.”

For more on Kevin’s breads, pizza, wood burning oven recipes see his blog Flour, Water, Yeast, and Steel: A Wood Fired Addiction

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