International Pizza Day is coming up on the 9 February, and since we’re mostly staying at home, what better year to celebrate this underappreciated holiday? If you are a pizza novice, there is plenty of time to practise so that you can enjoy the most amazing homemade pizza on the 9th.
In 2019, the US pizza market had a revenue estimated to be $47 billion. According to IBIS World, this equates to 4.1 billion pizzas priced at $11.23 each. Pizza is clearly a beloved food for America, but why is it so hard to mimic the taste at home?
Many people who have attempted to cook pizza will know the heartbreak at a soggy pizza base. This is often caused by undercooked pizza dough, but how do you fix and prevent this from happening? Are there any health issues with undercooked dough?
Undercooked pizza dough is not the nicest thing in the world, but can it actually be bad for your health.
What health issues could be caused by undercooked pizza dough?
The main ingredient in pizza dough is flour. There are many pathogens in flour. When it is cooked these pathogens are killed and become relatively harmless. However, if they are heated incorrectly then this can create the perfect environment for bacterial growth.
Raw flour contains many bacteria such as Escherichia coli, more commonly known as E. coli. This is because it has not been treated to kill the bacteria, as flour is meant to be cooked prior to consumption. You should avoid consuming raw flour wherever possible.
There have been instances as recently as 2019 and 2016 where over 80 people have become infected with E. coli as a result of consuming contaminated raw flour.
There is an ideal temperature for the fastest rate of bacterial growth and replication, referred to as the danger zone. This is the temperature range between 40 and 140 degrees Fahrenheit. This is the reason why you should always check that the internal temperature of your pizza has reached 140 degrees Fahrenheit before consuming.
This gives you the least chance of developing food poisoning as it is likely most, if not all, of the bacteria has been killed off at this temperature.
What are the symptoms of food poisoning?
The severity, duration, and type of symptoms that you will experience will depend on the type of bacteria you ingested.
Typically you will begin to present with symptoms of E. coli infections about 3 or 4 days after you have eaten the bacteria. Your symptoms are likely to be very severe stomach cramping, vomiting, and often bloody diarrhea.
These infections usually clear up on their own within a week and you make a full recovery. In some rare cases, the individual can develop a disease known as hemolytic uremic syndrome. This can lead to strokes, kidney failure, and death.
Salmonella symptoms can show up anywhere from 6 hours to 6 days post consumption. The symptoms are similar to E. coli - diarrhea and stomach cramps, although Salmonella also presents with a fever too.
Most people suffering from a Salmonella infection will make a full recovery within 4 to 7 days without the need for medication. If you suspect an infant has been exposed to Salmonella, contact a pediatrician for advice. Likewise, immunocompromised people and adults aged 65 or over should seek medical advice. This is because Salmonella can be much more dangerous to people in these groups and may require additional treatment.
What are the common reasons for pizza dough being undercooked?
The first reason that your pizza dough might be undercooked is due to a cooking temperature that is simply too low. Another reason is that you may not have cooked the pizza for long enough.
An undercooked base may be as a result of placing too many toppings onto your pizza, or simply that your dough has been rolled out too thickly.
Why does a low baking temperature affect the pizza dough?
In a pizza oven, the heat is radiated and reflected from the top of the oven, and there is intense heat on the base. A regular home oven will not replicate this effectively and so there are additional steps that you will need to take.
Many home ovens will have a grill, or broiler, element at the top. This will become your best friend when baking pizzas as it replicates the reflected heat in a wood-fired pizza oven. Try to place your oven shelf around 2 inches below the heating element - without scraping the toppings off onto the ceiling of your oven.
This seems very close, but the heat from the grill does not reach very far and so it is vital to place your pizza close. The closer the surface of your pizza to the grill element, the hotter the temperature will be. This will cause the toppings to melt really well at a very fast speed.
To generate the intense heat on the base, you will need to place a surface in the oven to bake the pizza on. You cannot put a baking sheet in the oven once it has preheated as it will not get up to temperature. Instead, you must purchase a pizza steel or pizza stone.
These are built to retain more heat than thin, aluminum baking sheets. They conduct the heat well and transfer it directly to the pizza base. You will need to place your pizza stone or steel into the oven before you turn it on. This will allow the base to preheat in line with the oven and will mean your base cooks evenly.
Why does the baking time affect the pizza dough?
If your oven temperature is lower, it will take longer for your pizza dough to bake and for your toppings to melt. If you leave it in the oven for too long you can end up with a hard crust. If you do not cook it correctly, your pizza dough becomes doughy and potentially makes you ill.
Pizza cooked at a high heat for a short period of time will give you a crispy exterior to the crust with a soft interior. Generally speaking, you should play around with increasing the temperature before beginning to increase the cooking time.
Why do the toppings affect the pizza dough?
Pizza dough becomes crispy in the oven as the moisture evaporates in the form of steam. If you put too much pizza sauce, cheese, or any other wet ingredients on the top of your base, this adds a lot of moisture to the dough.
This means that not enough moisture can evaporate from the dough to make it become crispy. Insead, moisture seeps into the dough and makes it chewy and soggy.
Why does the thickness of the pizza dough matter?
In order for the base of your pizza to become crispy, water must evaporate. The thicker the dough is, the higher moisture content. This means that more steam must escape from the dough to make it become crispy.
If you do not cook the pizza for long enough it will retain a lot of moisture and there is no chance that the base will become crispy. Thicker dough will also mean that it is harder for the heat of the oven to permeate the dough. This could potentially result in your dough being raw or undercooked in the center.
This is the reason that most wood-fired pizzas have a thin crust. They are cooked at a high heat for a short period of time - the method used to make Neapolitan style pizza. If the dough was thicker there would be no chance it would cook in time and the outer edges would burn before the dough is cooked through.
How to prevent undercooked pizza dough
The first thing to do is during the construction of the pizza. Ensure the base is very thin. If you are using a good dough recipe, this should not be too hard to do.
If you are struggling to handle your dough, look for a recipe that specifically states it is for a Neapolitan style pizza. These are designed to stretch thin and this dough should be easily capable of that.
Be reserved when you are adding sauce and toppings to your base. It’s tempting to pile the pizza high with all of the tasty treats under the sun, but this will not turn out well. If you wish to add lots of toppings, try to opt for things with low moisture contents.
You can even purchase low-moisture mozzarella cheese if this is something you wish to play around with. Many Italians are likely to see this as sacrilegious however. Some people opt to saute any vegetable-based toppings before adding them to further reduce the moisture.
Oven temperature is the next element to be aware of. Before turning your oven on, move the shelf to the correct position and place the pizza stone or steel inside. Turn your oven to the highest temperature setting and leave to preheat for between 45 and 60 minutes.
A few minutes before the pizza needs to be cooked, turn on the broiler element. This will mean that you have the perfect thermal environment to cook a delicious, crispy pizza.
You should also ensure that the pizza dough is at room temperature before placing it in the oven. A cold pizza dough will have to heat up much more compared to one that is already at an ambient temperature. This means that in the same cooking window, the dough will cook less and may be undercooked when you take it out of the oven.
How to fix an undercooked pizza
If the toppings of the pizza have cooked perfectly, but you still have a soggy and raw base, what can you do?
We recommend turning down the temperature of your oven by about 70 degrees Fahrenheit. At the same time, you should lower the shelf the pizza is on by one level and allow the pizza to cook for 3 more minutes.
If this is still not working for you, your best option is to accept defeat. Once you have messed up a pizza like this, there is not much you can do to help if cooking for longer does not fix the issue.
Start again, following the steps that we have detailed above for the best results.
On the rare occasion that these tips do not solve your problem, here’s a bonus idea to try. Stretch your pizza base out, but do not add any toppings. Place this dough on your pizza stone or steel in the oven. Cook the naked dough for a couple of minutes. Remove from the oven, add the toppings. Place the pizza back in the oven to cook normally.
Pizza stone v pizza steel
Pizza stones are often made of ceramic, meaning that they do not have a flat surface which can make them hard to clean.
As they are put into an incredibly hot oven, anything that spills onto the stone will burn quickly, making it even more difficult to clean. This is likely to result in you needing to replace the stone fairly regularly.
Another major downside to pizza stones is that they are prone to cracking due to thermal shock. To avoid this, preheat the oven with the stone inside and allow it to cool completely before cleaning.
Pizza steels are flat and smooth, making them exceptionally easy to clean. It is a steel slab and is very durable in comparison to pizza stones. They conduct heat much faster, resulting in faster cooking times and a crispier base.
They also retain heat better than a pizza stone and so you can cook multiple pizzas one after the other with no deterioration in quality.
The only real downside to a pizza steel is that they have a tendency to rust if left to sit wet.