Over the Christmas break my daughter took a pizza cooking class. I watched the kids in her class trying to shape their pizza dough. It was a little comical. Try as they might, their dough remained thick. They pulled, they rolled, they stretched, but it didn’t matter. All their pizzas came out of the oven with at least 1- inch thick crust shaped like funky amoebas. Yum!
The funny thing is, that I’ve seen lots of adults go through the same gyrations trying to shape dough.
I happen to be pretty good at shaping pizza dough. It is a talent that has gotten me exactly nowhere. (Unless you count having a blog, that only you and your mom read.) So I’m gonna help you out (I mean you Mom, since there is perhaps no one else.)
Assuming you are starting with a viable pizza dough recipe, like this one, here are my 6 tips for shaping pizza dough to make a beautiful thin and even crust.
#1 Start With a Soft, Tacky Dough.
This is the biggest mistake I see beginners make with all doughs: bread, rolls, pizza. Believe me, I went through this phase, I’m speaking from experience.
Firm dough can’t stretch. It just can’t.
Most dough recipes come with a range of measurement for the flour. Add the flour slowly and always start with the smallest measurement. Add more judiciously. It is WAY easier to add a little flour to the dough, then to add water.
Your dough should be tacky. Tacky means when you touch it and pull away, your fingers stick for a moment, but ultimately pull away with no dough on them. While you are mixing the dough, it should just barely pull away from the sides of the bowl and probably stick a bit to the bottom of the mixing bowl.
When you press the dough, it should give way easily, then spring back. Imagine poking the belly of a sumo wrestler. (The dough has already risen in this clip.)
When you shape the dough into a ball and set it on the counter top, it should NOT remain a perfect sphere, but should droop a little into a blob-ish shape. Not flat, but not perky either.
#2 Develop Your Gluten Properly.
This could be a post unto itself. Gluten is the protein in flour that allows dough to stretch without tearing. But before it is ready to do its job, it must be worked into the proper configuration or developed.
Bread flour contains more gluten than AP flour. You can use AP flour, but not pastry or cake flour! More gluten in the flour means stretchier dough.
There are two main ways to develop gluten. The first is by kneading. Knead the dough using the dough hook for several minutes first. Then turn out the dough onto the counter and knead it for a few more minutes until it forms a smooth ball. The dough should be satiny and like a baby’s bottom when you are done. Use just enough flour so that it doesn’t stick to the counter top. You may be tempted to add lots of flour, but don’t.
Gluten is also magically developed as dough rises. The dough stretching helps to align the gluten strands. So if your dough isn’t super stretchy after first kneading it, don’t give up.
When the dough is done rising, you should be able to form the “baker’s pane.” This means you can carefully stretch the dough so thin that you can see light through the dough. If you can form a baker’s pane, you are in business, gluten-wise.
If you can’t form the baker’s pane, then you need to knead some more (or your dough is too firm.) Knead for several more minutes, then let it rest before attempting to create the baker’s pane again.
#3 You’ve Got One Shot At It- Sort Of.
This is probably the most important secret tricky tip. I’ve watched so many people fail because of this…
After the dough has risen, when you pick it up from the bowl and start shaping it, it will stretch beautifully. You will be on top of the world. However, if you aren’t careful and you tear the dough or drop the dough or get a fold in the dough, you can’t just roll the dough back into a ball and start over. Or if you take it out of the bowl and start manhandling it, it won’t stretch nicely anymore. This is because when the dough is stretched and handled, the gluten starts to get annoyed and becomes uncooperative. It contracts and doesn’t stretch anymore.
This is dough that I played around with and then tried to stretch. See how it just tore and didn’t actually stretch? It looks like an uncooperative-gluten-teenager
So be careful. You will have the best results if you only stretch it once.
All is not lost if things go awry. You will need to shape the dough back into a ball, cover it, and leave it alone for a few minutes. 10-15 minutes. This will allow the gluten to calm down and stop being annoyed.
Now you can try again.
Don’t mess with your dough and then try to shape it. You will fail. Let you dough be, then shape it. I imagine Yoda was going to get to this at some point with Luke.
#4 Smaller is Easier.
A small pizza crust is much easier to shape than a huge party size pizza. Seems pretty logical right? Start with personal size pizzas and work your way up.
#5 Pads of Fingers to Base of Thumb.
When stretching the dough, you don’t want it to tear. So you want to use the most surface area of your fingers/hands. I’ve found that holding the dough with the the fingers folded down to the base of the thumb with the thumb being left out of the grip works best.
First pat the dough into a disk shape on a lightly floured surface. Then pick up the dough (using this grip) like a steering wheel, hands at the 10 and 2 o’clock position. Stretch a little then rotate the disk. Continue stretching and rotating, focusing on any area that seems thick. Gravity will help to stretch the dough when you hold it vertically, like a steering wheel.
Stretching in this manner focuses on the outer rim of the dough.
#5 Switch to the Back of Your Hands.
Once you’ve stretch the dough like a steering wheel, it will start to get too big to handle. Laying the dough on your knuckles will, again, increase the surface area and decrease the chance to tear through the dough.Form your hands into two “c” shapes. The “c’s” should be looking at each other, like hand puppets talking to each other. Now extend the thumbs backward.
Lay the dough on the backs of the hands/knuckles and gently stretch the dough by spreading your fingers and thumbs. Rotate and continue stretching. This is also the point in time, where you can, if you’re feeling adventurous, give the dough a spinning toss. Be prepared, however, to use the tips in #3 if and when you try.
Stretching on the back of the hands focuses on the inner portion of the dough. Switch back and forth between #4 and #5 depending on where you dough is thick and needs to be stretched.
#6 Finish the Shaping on a Floured Surface.
You may reach a point where you want to put the disc down onto a floured surface and let it rest a little. If the dough seems to be resisting the stretch or keeps springing back, give this a try.
If you end up with a small tear, no worries. Just put your disc on the floured surface and pinch the tear closed.
When you are finishing up and perfecting the shape of the dough, place it on a floured surface and give it a few final touch ups to get your dough into a nice circle. Ideally you do this on your pizza peel or parchment or whatever you will ultimately transfer the pizza to the oven with.
Need More Visuals?
Now, if none of the descriptions made any sense, here’s a little video to show you how it’s done! (Notice my sad lemon tree in the background? I’ve been keeping that alive (barely) for years and no, it never grows lemons.)
Go to it! Make your dough! Shape your dough! Impress your people!