I think everyone should have a good set of default recipes – the sort of thing that you can keep in your back pocket to make on those days when you get home from work and need to make dinner on autopilot. This easy, weeknight pizza dough fits the bill.
This is the dough recipe I grew up with – my mom has been making it for years, and it has made appearances at everything from frisbee sidelines to mock trial state championships. If I didn’t have such a hard time remembering numbers, I could make it in my sleep.
Pizza, at its most basic, is a lean dough, that is, it contains only flour, water, salt, and yeast. The thing that makes this type of dough flavorful is time. As the yeast reproduces and multiplies throughout the dough, it releases carbon dioxide, which is what causes the bread to rise. It also produces a whole bunch of flavorful byproducts, like alcohol, organic acids and amino acids – and the longer the yeast is working, the more of these compounds are present in the finished dough. That’s why classic Neapolitan-style pizza doughs can have rise times as long as six days.
It’s 5:30 on a Tuesday, and ain’t nobody got time for that.
We’re going to cheat those flavors by adding olive oil and sugar – which also has some other benefits.
The magic of sugar
There are four fermentable types of sugar available in wheat flour – fructose, glucose, sucrose, and maltose. Baker’s yeast will eat any and all of them, though it seems to prefer fructose, glucose, and sucrose – maltose is consumed only towards the end of fermentation.
We can use this to our advantage. By adding a little sugar (sucrose) when we dissolve the yeast, we can give it a bit of a leg up on its life cycle – if we feed it right away, we kick off reproduction earlier, which means our bread is starting with a (slightly) larger colony of yeast when it’s time to rise. In general, the more yeast you have, the faster your bread will rise – and speed is of the essence when it comes to weeknight pizza dough.
Sugar plays another important role in this dough – it promotes browning. Commercial pizza ovens can reach temperatures of up to 800°F (900°F if they’re wood-fired), which means your dough will brown regardless. Your home oven, by comparison, can only get to about 500°F (550°F if you’re lucky), which means it might need a little extra help to get the crust golden before the inside starts to dry out – or the toppings start to burn.
Plus, that extra browning equates to extra flavor, something our quickly-fermented dough needs.
Messing with timing
Over the years, Mom has optimized this dough to be ready in 30 minutes, because all of us get cranky when we’re hungry and sometimes family harmony is more important than authenticity.
However, if you want to experiment with longer fermentation times to see how it impacts flavor, this dough is flexible. You just need to change the amount of yeast or the temperature.
Yeast reproduces most quickly at around 95°F – which is why recipes recommend proofing dough in an oven with the light turned on, or in a closed microwave with a cup of hot water. We can slow this reproduction down by dropping the temperature. A dough that takes two hours to double on the counter will typically take all day to double in the fridge – which means that if you don’t feel like messing with the recipe, but need to make your dough over lunch, you can just pop it in the refrigerator and it should be ready and waiting for you by dinner time.
If you don’t have the fridge space for a cold ferment and still want to extend the rise time, just reduce the amount of yeast. It requires using some baker’s percentages (for a quick tutorial, check out my sandwich bread recipe), but TXCraig1 has developed an incredible table over at the Pizza Making Forum that will allow you to figure out exactly how much yeast you need to use to hit a certain rise time based on the ambient temperature.
If you don’t want to do that much math, however, here’s a rule of thumb. At room temperature:
- 30-minute rise – 1 tablespoon instant or active dry yeast
- 2-hour rise – 1 teaspoon instant or active dry yeast
- 6-hour rise – ½ teaspoon instant or active dry yeast
- 12-hour rise – ¼ teaspoon instant or active dry yeast
Topping it off
Pretty much no matter what you do to it, though, this weeknight pizza dough always comes out great – chewy but not too chewy, with a crisp bottom and a little softness in the center of the crust and a mild richness from the olive oil. Is it the best pizza dough I’ve ever made?
But it’s the one I make most often – it’s fast, tasty, foolproof, and, for me at least, a little bit nostalgic, and on a weeknight, I can’t ask for much more than that.
“All About Yeast.” King Arthur Baking Company, https://www.kingarthurbaking.com/learn/resources/yeast
Lopez-Alt, J. Kenji. “The Pizza Lab: Three Doughs to Know.” Serious Eats, 01 November 2019, https://www.seriouseats.com/the-pizza-lab-three-doughs-to-know
“Saccharomyces cerevisiae.” Wikipedia, the Free Encyclopedia, https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Saccharomyces_cerevisiae
Codina, Georgiana Gabriela, et. al. “Multivariate Analysis of Wheat Flour Dough Sugars, Gas Production, and Dough Development at Different Fermentation Times.” Czech Journal of Food Science, vol. 31, no. 3, 2013, pp. 222-229. https://www.agriculturejournals.cz/publicFiles/216_2012-CJFS.pdf
Mom’s weeknight pizza dough
Yield: 1 12-14 inch pizza Time: about 50 minutes Source: Adapted from my mom, who tells me she got it from the Tightwad Gazette
As written, I’d classify this as a medium-to-thick crust pizza – think Mellow Mushroom or standard-crust Papa Johns. For a thinner crust, divide the dough in half and stretch it into two rounds – if you’re struggling to get it as thin as you’d like, you may need to give it a 10-minute rest in the middle of shaping to let the gluten relax.
I’ve recently discovered that this freezes brilliantly – so now I almost always double this so I can have a ready-made pizza waiting for nights I just can’t even with dinner. To do this, I par-bake the crust as follows:
Stretch and shape the weeknight pizza dough as normal, but don’t add toppings yet. Poke the entire center of the dough (where you’d put sauce) thoroughly with a fork – we’re trying to create vent holes for steam to prevent big air bubbles in the toppings zone. Bake for about 5 minutes in a 500°F oven – you’re looking for a dry, set surface, and some structural integrity in the round, but no browning. Once par-baked, top as you normally would, then lay the pizza out on a flat surface in your freezer (I like an upside-down sheet pan) and leave it alone until it’s frozen solid, an hour or two. Wrap tightly in two layers of plastic wrap (or a layer of plastic wrap and foil, or a really big ziplock/reusable zip-top bag), and it’ll keep for a month or two – though the longer it’s in there, the more likely it is that the crust will dry out and get really crunchy.
To bake your frozen pizza, preheat the oven to 450 with a pizza stone or upside-down sheet pan inside. Unwrap your pizza and slide it, still frozen, onto the stone. Let it bake until the cheese is bubbling and it is warm all the way through, 20-25 minutes.
- 220 grams (1 cup) lukewarm (105-110°F) water
- 9 grams (1 tablespoon) instant or active dry yeast
- 1 teaspoon dark brown sugar
- 360 grams (2 1/2 cups) all-purpose or bread flour
- 1 teaspoon salt
- 18 grams (2 tablespoons) extra-virgin olive oil
Preheat your oven to 500°F (or as hot as it will go) with a pizza stone or upside-down sheet tray inside.
Dissolve the yeast and sugar in the warm water in the bowl of your stand mixer and allow to stand for 5-10 minutes – until you no longer feel grainy pieces of yeast when you rub your fingers together after brushing your fingers along the bottom of the bowl and you’re starting to see light foam on the surface of the water. If you have used your yeast recently and know it’s active, you don’t need to wait for foam. Just get the yeast completely dissolved and you’re good to go.
Add the flour and salt and mix on medium-low speed until a shaggy dough forms, about a minute. As the dough continues to knead, slowly stream in the olive oil. Keep kneading until your dough looks smooth and elastic, and you can stretch a small piece thin enough that light shows through (the windowpane test), 5 minutes.
Scrape the dough out of the bowl and form it into a ball. Grease the inside of the bowl (no need to wash), then plop the dough back in and cover with a damp towel or piece of plastic wrap.
Allow the dough to rise, undisturbed, until doubled – about an hour.
Once the dough is doubled, punch it down and stretch it into a circle of your desired thinness and diameter. Brush the whole surface down with olive oil, and season with salt and cracked pepper before adding sauce and cheese and whatever else your heart desires.
A quick aside on toppings: in general, the drier your ingredients are when they go on the pizza, the better. This generally means it’s best to pre-cook vegetables, especially ones that expel a lot of liquid when cooked, like mushrooms and spinach. This isn’t a hard-and-fast rule, of course, but I find I’m much less likely to get either topping soup or the “all the cheese and goodness came off in one bite” when I take the extra time to prep the toppings.
Slide your pizza onto the stone or sheet tray and bake until the crust is deeply golden and any cheese is bubbling, 8-10 minutes.
Once baked, your pizza will keep for about 5 days in airtight containment – though mine has never lasted that long.