Better pizza at home with steel and paper

The last 20 months of enforced home cooking have allowed me more opportunities than usual to make one of my favorites, pizza. I’ve made my dad’s recipe, I’ve figured out deep dish–and lately the unlikely combination of a slab of metal and parchment paper has figured into my pizza adventures.

Pizza just out of the oven and still on the parchment paper, topped with sausage.

It all started years ago when my wife gave me a Baking Steel, a quarter-inch-thick steel plate that addresses a major weakness of baking pizza at home: Your oven can’t get hot enough to yield a crispy crust. Metal this thick, however, both soaks up heat and conducts it to whatever’s touching it–so preheating this slab in a 500-degree oven for 45 minutes ensures that pizza dough will get much closer to the crispy, lightly charred crust of a legit pizzeria.

The catch with this technique is that you need to transfer a fully-assembled pizza to this furnace of a surface as quickly as possible. But sliding a pizza off a wooden or metal peel risks part of the raw dough getting stuck halfway through–an anxiety-inducing scenario after you’ve sunk a couple of hours into this culinary project.

That’s where the parchment paper comes in. After finally thinking to look up if the 420-degree maximum temperature listed on the box meant all that much, I saw that Cook’s Illustrated pronounced parchment paper safe for up to 20 minutes of 500-degree heat–and pizza on a Baking Steel needs just nine minutes.

This belated insight radically simplified the whole production. I flatten out the dough and top the pizza right on a piece of parchment paper, slide a metal peel underneath that, have the pizza slide effortlessly off that onto the steel, and then retrieve the finished product. Bonus: The steel stays clean, requiring only a just-in-case swipe with paper towel after this heat sink cools off… some two hours later.

Home cooking when you don’t leave home

When I used to say “I love to cook,” I was saying that with the understanding that I’d only be cooking half the dinners in the week. Work events and social outings would have me out of the house most of the rest of the time, so I would never feel stuck in a rut.

Well, I’ve now gone three and a half months in which I’ve had every single dinner at home. And while we have treated ourselves to takeout or delivery once a week or so, I’ve cooked most of the other dinners.

What have I learned, aside from profound respect for my mom who did that work for far longer and for a larger family?

The importance of leftover-friendly recipes–soups, stews, chili, stir-fries, risotto, quesadillas–is even more obvious. But cooking a main course that can become a side (risotto, again) helps a lot, and so does making sides that I can use up later on.

It’s also important to have one extra-easy-but-still-homemade option, which for somebody of Italian ancestry like me means pasta. This time of year, that becomes a canvas for whatever herbs I can grab out of the garden and throw into a garlic and olive oil sauce.

But the one thing I didn’t quite expect was how much I would still want to try something more challenging once a week–in terms of ingredients I haven’t used, a cooking technique that’s new to me, or a particularly challenging set of directions. So I’ve tried my hand at deep-dish pizza, hollandaise sauce, and chicken parmesan, among other recipes from which I’d shied away in the Before Times.

And I still look forward to that challenge, which suggests I’m not burned out on home cooking. That would be good, because a return to my old lifestyle seems farther off than it did three and a half months ago.

After the jump: Some recipes from the Post’s Food section that I’ve found particularly useful since March.

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