May is Grilling Month at Tasting Table.
Think you need a wood-fired pizza oven to achieve chewy, crispy restaurant-style pizza? Think again. Austin chef Andrew Curren gave us his tips for making easy, delicious, restaurant-quality pies in your own backyard.
A passion for pizza is what brought Curren into the kitchen in the first place. A college job at an Italian restaurant led the young cook to a formative trip to Italy, and later, culinary school and years of cooking across Texas and New York. Recently, Curren opened Italic in downtown Austin, a rustic Italian restaurant with a gas-fired Wood Stone oven for cooking pizzas and other dishes.
To Curren, the consistency of his ceramic hearth is more important than the subtle effect of wood smoke on his pie. "Pizza in America is about the toppings," he says. "As a cook, pizza is about the dough. But in the end, the toppings and the dough don't matter if you don't have a good, hot oven."
Home cooks can effectively simulate the convection effect of a pizza oven with a grill, Curren explains. "A grill is a little oven," he says. "When you put a lid on top of a grill, it becomes very hot, and when you have that concentrated heat, you get quick lift on your dough, and heat from the top. And that's what you need to cook a great pizza."
Turn your next backyard barbecue into a pizza party with these five easy tips:
The grill: Almost anything goes. "When you cook a pizza on a grill, you have this wicked hot heat coming from the bottom, plus reflective heat coming off the top of the grill," explains Curren. "So a closed grill—whether it's a Weber with wood or charcoal underneath it, or just a gas grill—can help you achieve a really nice, crispy crust with a little bit of color on the top." While charcoal alone will work just fine, you can also supplement with wood chips, though Curren recommends moistening them first to prevent flare-ups.
The peel: When making pizza in an oven, two peels are typically used—a semolina or flour-dusted wooden peel upon which the pizza is built, and then a smaller, perforated turning peel, which is used to slide the pizza in and out of the oven. But when grilling pizza, Curren recommends investing in a larger, aluminum peel which can serve both purposes. "You could actually sprinkle it with flour, make your pizza on it, slide it off, then dust it off, and when you're ready, you can take it out," he says.
The stone: While a pizza stone is essential when using an oven, it's optional on the grill, where you can also choose to place the dough directly on the grate. "I'm a stone guy," says Curren, who recommends placing a stone on the grill before closing the lid and letting it preheat for 20 to 30 minutes. "I think the stone gives you consistency, thanks to its even, flat surface. Pizza directly on the grill will get grill marks, which is cool, but I think that the stone gives it a nice buffer between that direct flame and the pizza itself. If you get some flare-up, it's less likely to engulf your pizza or (burn) it too much."
The sauce: Curren's sauce consists of a can of San Marzano tomatoes, a clove of garlic, olive oil, oregano and salt, all pureed in a blender. "It's very thin, very powerful and very raw," he says. "And when you cook your pizza at a 600-degree ambient temperature, that's going to cook your sauce. You get these bright, fragrant flavors of garlic, oregano and tomato."
The toppings: Be sure to cook your toppings ahead of time—blanch your broccoli rabe, sauté your mushrooms, roast your garlic. Keep in mind, the pizza will cook in 4 to 5 minutes on the grill, so eggs are the only raw ingredient you should be adding in the last three minutes. At Italic, Curren's pies range from egg, Parmesan, arugula and prosciutto to squash, salsa verde and lemon ricotta. "There are no rules to pizza-making," he says. "Rules just limit us. There are standards that we have to uphold, but when it comes to rigid guidelines, pizza is not that way."
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