Grilling pizza is like learning a new computer program. Those who know how to do it always say it’s easy. But it’s easy only if you know how to do it.
The good news is that the learning process is tastier. The first few times I tried to grill pizza, the crust came out as burnt and hard as the charcoal I had poured into the grill. I ate the top (and threw the rest away). Try that with a computer program.
In addition to being able to eat your mistakes, pizzamaking enjoys another benefit. Compared with other grill tutorials, it’s cheap. Ruining beef briskets or racks of pork ribs gets costly fast.
Still, no one enjoys fouling up. Errors are largely avoidable if you don’t succumb to know-it-allism, an affliction I suffer from. Having eaten at some of the best coal- and wood-fired pizza joints in the country, I thought I knew what to do in my own back yard. Crank up the heat and grill, baby, grill.
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Wrong. More like burn, baby, burn.
“Every time I see a recipe for high, high heat, I wonder if they even tested it,” says Elizabeth Karmel, co-author of “Pizza on the Grill” (Taunton Press, second edition 2014), “because if you do that, the dough will burn in a New York second.”
Karmel knows fire. She is the executive chef of Hill Country Barbecue Market and founder of the Web site Girls at the Grill. “Pizza on the Grill,” written with Food Network’s Surreal Gourmet creator and host Bob Blumer, features more than 60 pizza recipes, plus recipes for crusts, sauces and side dishes. Originally published in 2008, the updated version includes a recipe for gluten-free dough.
Her recommendation is to grill pizza over an indirect fire. “You have more control,” she says.
The indirect method works like this: fire on one end of the grill, dough on the grates at the other. After a few minutes, the dough is rotated 180 degrees because the side closest to the fire will get done more quickly than the side farthest away. Rotating the crust assures it is evenly cooked. The crust is then removed from the grill and inverted. The toppings are put on and the crust is returned to the indirect-heat side of the grill, uncooked side down.
It’s a method I have come to rely on for traditional sauced pizzas, such as the classic margherita, made with tomato sauce, mozzarella and fresh basil. The process lets the mozzarella slowly melt into the sauce while the crust browns evenly and blackens in spots.
However, grilling directly over the fire can yield good results, too, depending on how it’s done. When I told cookbook author Judith Fertig about my early dough incinerations, she went straight to diagnosis: “Your heat was too hot or your grill grate was very close to the flame.”
Like Karmel, Fertig is well versed in the art of live-fire cooking. She and co-author Karen Adler operate a blog called BBQ Queens and have written nine books on grilling and smoking, including their latest, “Patio Pizzeria: Artisan Pizza & Flatbreads” (Running Press, 2014), which features 100 recipes.
Fertig promotes direct-grilled pizza, with caveats – the main one being that timing is everything. “You have to work fast,” she says.
I have come to use the direct-heat method for pizzas that don’t call for tomato sauce, such as my version of Frank Pepe Pizzeria Napoletana’s masterpiece, the white clam pie. Pepe, an Italian immigrant who died in 1969, founded his namesake restaurant in 1925 in New Haven, Conn., where long lines form before it opens each day. Nowadays, family members operate it.
The clam pizza finds itself on “best” lists in USA Today, Huffington Post, Esquire and more. It is thin, chewy and crispy, pocked with char and topped with olive oil, fresh-shucked clams, a little oregano and a sprinkling of grated pecorino Romano. Its briny, garlicky flavor evokes superlatives while the crust inspires longing. In short, it’s a wonder.
I use a medium to medium-low fire (350 degrees) when grilling my version of the pie, which provides assurance against a blink-of-the-eye burn. The method blisters the crust beautifully; I use it when I make a sliced tomato, feta and olive pie – a favorite for this time of year when tomatoes are at their peak.
One thing I don’t worry about is the shape of my grilled pizza. Seems heretical, I know, but perfectly round is for pizza chains. Irregular connotes rustic authenticity. The shape matters only when cooking indirectly; then, an oblong is more desirable because it fits better on one side of the grill.
What did make me worry was the dough. When I began grilling pizza, I fretted so much about the dough that I came thisclose to bagging the whole thing. I just couldn’t get the crust to my liking.
Then I discovered packaged dough at import stores, pizzerias and even supermarkets. The balls might not possess all the characteristics of what you want, be it thin and chewy or dense and buttery. But a perfect crust should not get in the way of a good one. Packaged dough has come a long way and eliminates hassle, which may allow you to focus on turning out a fine product overall.
Eventually, though, you will want to achieve the perfect dough. For that, there are a zillion recipes. I like the artisanal one in Karmel’s book. It is easy, foolproof and comes off the grill just the way I like pizza dough - thin, crisp and chewy.
The main thing is to roll it out fairly thin, a quarter-inch at most. Flour the work surface to keep the dough from sticking as you work, and dust the pizza peel – a must – with raw cornmeal, grits or polenta, which will help ease the dough onto the grill grate. (If you don’t have a peel, you can use an inverted baking sheet.)
Novices might think the dough will sag or, worse, fall through the grate. In all the pizzas I’ve made, even the early ones with their many defects, that never happened. Even though their recipes often suggest the same sliding technique, both Fertig and Karmel agree that using a plancha on top of the grill grate, such as a pizza stone or cast-iron baking pan, provides even heat and more control.
A backyard pizzaiolo can also buy a pizza oven insert for the grill to help create a higher temperature and presumably, then, a more top-notch, pizzeria-like product. But the kits can be expensive and add yet another wrinkle to the learning curve.
Over-complicating pizzamaking seems like a contradiction in terms. The way I see it, if you stick with the basics, grilling pizza is easy. At least once you know how.