4 tips for making the best at-home pizza, according to an expert
- David Kay makes and sells New York-style pizza out of his own kitchen.
- After lots of testing, he's gotten the technique down to a T.
- Though he plans to continue experimenting, he shared his best tips to date on how to make a near-perfect pie at home.
David Kay started making pizza for his neighbors in Brooklyn after getting laid off from restaurant jobs during the pandemic. Since April of 2020, he's perfected his craft and started churning out 12 pies a night, two nights a week, under the Instagram moniker Pies Upstairs.
Though Kay's background is in restaurant work, he told Insider that he knew it wasn't a sustainable career for him long-term.
"The lifestyle of the restaurant and of the restaurant owner was not something that I aspired to," he said. The day-to-day schedule, weekend hours, and holidays spent working instead of with family were all things Kay wanted to avoid in his "end goal life's work."
He's still unsure of what lies ahead for him as a food industry professional, but for now, he's happy running Pies Upstairs, experimenting, and selling his pizza to anyone willing to go pick it up (there's currently a 300-person waitlist).
Kay says his pies are New York-style, with puffy crusts and thin layers of cheese and toppings. He said his greatest challenge from the onset was figuring out how to make these iconic pizzas in his regular, comes-with-the-apartment, two-rack oven.
Through his rounds of trial and error, Kay has developed a set of tips for other home cooks who find themselves in the same situation: wanting to make pizza without a pizza oven.
1. Get your oven as hot as possible
The thicker your cooking surface (Kay recommends a pizza steel or stone), the better it will retain heat, Kay said.
"If you can get to 600 degrees [Fahrenheit], that's great," he said. "I'm just cracking like 580, which I found to be pretty ideal [for New York-style pizza]."
Kay says you can still get a good pie at 520 degrees, so it's really just about getting your oven and surfaces as hot as you can. "The goal should be anywhere from 550 to 600 degrees," he said.
2. Assemble your pizza on the peel and use a barrier
"I think you should always build your pie on your peel," Kay said.
After shaping his dough on the countertop, Kay coats his peel (the tool used to move your pizza into and out of the oven) with a layer of flour or semolina, which acts as a shield that stops the dough from sticking to it.
The Pies Upstairs cook doesn't dress his dough with sauce, cheese, or toppings until it is on the peel and all holes have been pinched closed. Trying to transfer a fully-loaded, raw pie from the counter to your peel is an annoying step that can be avoided, he says.
3. Use a low-moisture cheese
How ingredients perform on the pie is very important, Kay said. He cautions home cooks against loading your crust with too much of a wet cheese or other moist toppings.
"For example, the best buffalo mozzarella might be, on its own or with balsamic, very delicious," he explained. "But I've found that if it's super fresh and super moist, it leaks and sogs up the pies."
Kay has found success using a mixture of low-moisture mozzarella, a small amount of fresh mozzarella, and other hard, aged cheeses, which he is now getting delivered from Wisconsin.
4. Be creative with the tools you have
If you have one pizza stone, Kay says ideally you'll cook the pie most of the way on the stone and then finish it under the broiler "to get caramelization and finish the crust." For Kay and his two-rack oven, that wasn't an option.
Instead, he started out using two stones, one as a cooking surface and one on the rack above to act as a top heat source.
If you have a pizza steel, he recommends cooking the pizza directly on the steel on the lower oven rack and using the stone as a top-down heat source sitting on the higher rack set in the center of the oven. "That has been really working for texture, and crust, and color," he said.
But, if you have none of the above - which is understandable for any first-time pizza cook - use what you have and get it hot. Kay said before he was gifted pizza stones and steels, he used his cast-iron skillet. For that, Kay would heat it up in the oven first, remove it to build his pie, and put it back in for cooking. It's not ideal for making several pizzas multiple nights per week, but he says it works perfectly fine for an at-home pizza night for one or two people every now and then.
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