How To Make Pizza (From Scratch): A Beginner’s Guide

Making pizza from scratch is reasonably straightforward and inexpensive, but also not. On the one hand, it just involves buying a bit of flour, yeast and salt, plus having access to water and a few bits of kitchen equipment.

On the other hand, it can also mean becoming totally obsessed with pizza and allowing four basic ingredients to take over your life, not to mention all sorts of pizza gear emptying your bank account (a good pizza oven being the main thing needed to get the best results).

There’s always the alternative options of just ordering a pizza, or heading out to find a decent pizzeria. But if you’d rather cook up your own pizza at home, from scratch, then this groovy beginner’s guide is for you.

Making Pizza From Scratch

There’s making pizza from scratch, and then there’s making pizza from scratch. The first option involves finding a simple dough recipe and making your pizza base, preparing and applying your sauce and toppings, before cooking the pizza in a regular home oven and then just enjoying your pizza.

To make pizza from scratch, these are the key steps:

  • Get your hands on some flour, salt, yeast and water
  • Weigh the ingredients out
  • Mix the ingredients together
  • Knead the dough until smooth
  • Rest / proof the dough
  • Shape the dough
  • Add sauce and toppings
  • Cook the pizza

Another option involves becoming ridiculously committed to learning how to make the best pizza possible (while accepting that you probably have some form of lightweight addiction). In other words, you find yourself getting all the gear and some idea, by buying the essential pizza ingredients and equipment, before learning the very basics of pizza making (ideally, you’ll do it the other way around!)

On that note, the main purpose of this guide is to provide you with as much beginner pizza-making knowledge as possible, all so you can make some truly groovy pizza.

Pizza-Making Basics

Cooking top-notch pizza from scratch really starts by understanding some key basics, before simply practicing making pizza after pizza (not too much of a problem when you can’t get enough of pizza). So, let’s cover the basics that professional pizzaiolos know as the “secrets” to making great pizza (like most things, it’s relatively basic once you know).

These “basics” include things like the amount of gluten in different flours, pizza dough hydration, and oven temperatures. If this already seems like too much faff, there’s still those options of just getting a pizza delivery, finding a top-notch pizzeria, or, using a simple dough recipe with your regular home oven.

Otherwise, here’s the basics of making your very own pizza from scratch:

Different Pizza Styles

It’s worth starting by saying that the history of pizza means there’s a bunch of different pizza styles that can be made, and you’ll probably want to pick a style to get started with. The different types of pizza range from the original Neapolitan pizza from Naples in Italy, the Romana pizza from Rome, through to American ‘pies’ such as the New Yorker, or Detroit-style pizza (to name just a few).

As we’re covering the topic of making pizza from scratch, you might want to start by learning how to make a classic Neapolitan first, before moving on to other pizzas from around the world. But you do you. Whatever you choose, this guide should give you a good starting point to work from.

How is Pizza Traditionally Made?

In its traditional Neapolitan form, pizza is made with flour, water, salt and yeast like most other types of pizza, except it has a distinctive puffy yet crispy crust and thin-ish base. The most traditional type of Neapolitan pizza is the Margherita, made with the classic toppings of just tomato sauce, mozzarella cheese and basil.

Understanding Pizza’s Ingredients

The Dough

Pizza dough is made from four main ingredients: flour, water, yeast and salt. Some dough recipes may have olive oil and/or sugar/honey added for extra flavour (and in the case of the sugar/honey, to give a boost to the yeast), depending on the type of pizza being made and personal preference.

These basic dough ingredients are simply mixed together by hand in a bowl, container or on a work surface, or by machine (a dough mixer). Once mixed together, the dough is left to rest for a while and then kneaded (basically, folded over on itself), before being left to proof or ferment, and lastly, shaped ready for cooking (usually into a circle, square or rectangle shape).

Flour 

Flour is the main ingredient used to make a pizza dough, being the product of milled grains; most often wheat grains in the case of pizza. While different types of flour can be used to make pizza, it’s widely accepted that the best pizza uses a strong white flour with a high protein / gluten content. A high-gluten flour is usually considered to contain around 12 grams or more of protein, per 100 grams (i.e. 12%+). The protein / gluten content is usually shown on the bag of flour.

It’s also well known in the world of pizza that flour comes in different levels of fineness, which give varying results when it comes to the final pizza dough. What is known as ‘00’ (zero-zero) flour is widely considered to be the ‘best’ flour to make pizza, this being flour that’s been milled into the finest powder, although plenty of pizzas are made with coarser flours.

Water

You might think there’s not much to say about water when it comes to pizza, besides it being one of the ingredients in the dough. But water plays a big part in determining how pizza dough turns out, mainly depending on how much is used, and some say, what type of water is used. Pizza dough hydration is a whole topic of its own, but it basically refers to how much water is used in a pizza dough recipe, when compared to the weight of the flour (expressed as a ‘baker’s percentage’).

For example, a recipe with 1kg of flour and 700ml/g of water would create a dough with a hydration of 70%. The more water used (up to a point), the lighter and fluffier the pizza crust will be, but the more sticky the dough becomes to handle. The less water used, the crunchier the crust and easier to handle. Different levels of hydration is largely what gives us different styles of pizza (e.g. a classic Neapolitan is usually 55-60% hydrated, whereas a Detroit pizza is more like 70%).

Yeast

The next essential ingredient needed to make pizza dough is yeast, which can either be natural yeast, found in a sourdough ‘starter’ (used to make sourdough pizza), or commercial yeast (also known as cultured yeast or baker’s yeast), which is what’s used to make traditional Neapolitan pizza. Yeast is a kind of fungus and an actual living organism, which acts as a fermentation agent to basically help give pizza dough its rise.

Natural yeast, or a sourdough starter, is made by mixing flour and water and leaving this to ferment for several days, while adding more flour and water each day to ‘feed’ the starter. This is then mixed with more water and flour, plus salt, to create your pizza dough. Commercial yeast provides the quicker way to make pizza and comes in three different forms: 1. fresh yeast. 2. active dried yeast. 3. instant yeast.

All versions of commercial yeast enable you to make pizza, although you’ll want to lower the quantity of grams used if opting for active dried yeast or instant yeast over fresh yeast. Typically, compared to fresh yeast, you’d want to use about 50% active dried yeast and around 30% if using instant yeast. Aside from the type of yeast being used, the exact amount of yeast to use for pizza dough is dependent on things like the weather, and how long you plan to proof your dough.

Salt

Salt is firstly necessary in pizza dough to avoid bland and tasteless pizza, but it also helps to develop the gluten in the flour. It’s important that a suitable amount of salt is used in a pizza dough recipe, to allow its flavour enhancing abilities to act, but not so much that you get an overly salty pizza where the yeast has been killed in the process. As a rule of thumb, anywhere from 1-3% of salt is used in pizza dough, when compared to the flour weight.

Note about baker’s percentages: Like water, the quantities of salt and yeast are also expressed as baker’s percentages (salt usually between 1-3% of the flour weight, and yeast typically anywhere between 0.05% and 1%, depending on yeast type and other factors like temperature).

Honey / Sugar

Some pizza dough recipes have a small amount of honey or sugar included as an optional extra, usually added alongside commercial yeast, because this is believed to help speed up the yeast’s activation. It can also have an impact on the final flavour of the pizza by adding a touch of sweetness. The use of sugar or honey is more common in certain styles of pizza (e.g. The New Yorker), but in general, not necessarily essential to use.

Olive oil

Olive oil is another optional extra ingredient that can be added or left out of a pizza dough recipe. Some types of pizza may be more suited to having olive oil added to the dough, again, like the New Yorker, or maybe a focaccia-like dough, whereas others might just benefit from a drizzle of oil on top of the finished pizza. Olive oil partly comes down to tradition, and partly personal preference.

Semolina, Polenta & Cornmeal

Semolina is a coarse form of flour made from durum wheat (the yellow stuff you might’ve seen through the window of your local Domino’s), which is often used in pizza making, especially to stop pizza dough sticking to work surfaces or your pizza peel. It’s also sometimes used alongside flour to make the pizza dough itself. Polenta and cornmeal are similar to semolina but made from corn rather than wheat, and can be used to help avoid sticky situations too.

Dough Starters / Pre-Ferments

We’ve already touched on the sourdough starter (a mixture of flour and water left to ferment for several days), which leads to sourdough pizza. Other types of starters or ‘pre-ferments’ made with flour, water and commercial yeast (and sometimes honey/sugar) can also be used to make pizza dough. The two most common types of pre-ferment are called Poolish and Biga:

Poolish: Poolish is a wet pre-ferment made with a high water to flour ratio, when compared to a biga. The flour to water ratio is typically 1:1 for a poolish (i.e. the same quantity of each). Despite the home of pizza being in Italy, poolish is French in origin and is used in bread baking generally.

Biga: Biga is Italian and so is perhaps better for making pizza (at least from a traditional / sentimental point of view). Biga is a drier pre-ferment than poolish, containing more flour than water. The ratio is typically 2:1 (i.e. double the amount of flour to water).

Starters or pre-ferments typically provide pizzas with more complex (tastier) flavour, although they do add to the time it takes to make pizza (usually made at least several hours before the pizza dough itself, if not the day before). Alternatively, a simple pizza dough can be made by just combining and kneading flour, water, salt and yeast, before leaving to proof for at least a few hours.

The ingredients used for a poolish or biga are taken from the pizza dough recipe itself, so you’re basically using a portion of the flour, water and yeast that would go into the pizza dough anyway. You’re really just combining some of these three ingredients ahead of time to maximise the flavour you can achieve from the fermentation process.

Pizza Sauce

The sauce that almost always goes on pizza is a tomato sauce, unless you’re trying out a Pizza Bianca (“white pizza”), Nutella pizza, etc. Ideally, canned San Marzano tomatoes from Italy are the ones to use (simply crushed or puréed with a touch of salt added), if you’re making proper Neapolitan pizza. Other canned tomatoes or passatta also work fine.

There’s also the option of sprucing up your pizza sauce (or unnecessarily complicating things, depending on how you look at it), by adding ingredients like onion, garlic, herbs, or whatever else you might fancy. Some people decide to thicken their pizza sauce with tomato purée, but this is against the pizza rules if you’re a professional Neapolitan pizzaiolo.

Pizza Toppings

Cheese

Most pizza has cheese added as the first topping after tomato sauce (Pizza Marinara being one exception), which is arguably the best thing about pizza. In the same way that there’s no such thing as pizza flour, “pizza cheese” doesn’t really exist, although mozzarella cheese (or ‘fior di latte’ in Italy) is known as the go-to cheese for pizza, and is most traditionally used in Naples and everywhere else.

Cheese can be torn, grated, shaved or cut before being added to pizza, depending on the style of pizza and type of cheese being used. With the classic Margherita, parmesan cheese (Parmigiano Reggiano) is finely grated and sprinkled on first, before fresh mozzarella follows. Clearly, there’s thousands of different cheeses in the world, most of which are worth trying on pizza.

Other Toppings

From basic basil leaves on the traditional Margherita, to anchovies on a Marinara, and pineapple on a Hawaiian pizza, topping combinations for pizza (beyond cheese and more cheese) are practically unlimited. For that reason, there’s just not enough time to cover all pizza topping tips here, so let’s move on to how you actually start making pizza.

The Pizza-Making Process

These are the main steps in the pizza-making process:

Weighing Ingredients

Once you find a suitable pizza dough recipe, it’s useful to weigh out all the dough ingredients into separate bowls or containers before anything else. This’ll won’t by itself help you to become a pro pizzaiolo, but it’ll help to avoid a weighing disaster if your scales decide to play up halfway through combining the ingredients.

A few tips when it comes to weighing out your ingredients:

  • Weigh everything in grams, not ounces, and definitely not cups. This includes the water.
  • If you see a recipe showing water in millilitres (ml), the same amount of grams apply (i.e. 100ml of water = 100g of water).
  • Very small amounts of yeast are needed to make pizza dough. It can be worth it to get a set of precision scales so you can weigh quantities between 0.01-1g (regular kitchen scales usually start measuring from 1g).

Mixing Dough Ingredients

Mixing refers to the initial process of combining the pizza dough ingredients together, along with the pre-ferment/starter (if using). Believe it or not, there’s a lot to be said about the mixing stage of making pizza, although the main aim is to just blend the ingredients together to form what will be the basis of your dough.

For example, traditionally in Naples, it’s understood that the flour, salt and yeast get added to the water, whereas the rest of the pizza world seems to mix their pizza dough ingredients in no particular order (some people even add the salt last, once the other three ingredients have been mixed and the dough has started to come together).

The main thing to be aware of when mixing your dough ingredients is salt’s ability to kill yeast. To avoid this happening, it’s best to keep these two ingredients apart, e.g. by putting them on opposite sides of the container, or adding the salt to the water and the yeast to the flour before combining all, or, in any other way that gets the salt and yeast into the mix separately.

Then again, sometimes a recipe will tell you to dissolve the salt and/or yeast in the water first (especially if using active dried yeast). Hence there being a lot to be said about the phase that is simply mixing the dough ingredients together. But basically, once the flour, water, salt and yeast have been mixed to the point where you’ve got a loose, shaggy dough, it’s time to start kneading.

Kneading The Dough

Kneading is basically a term that means you rough your dough up a bit (for several minutes, by hand or kitchen mixer), which helps to develop / strengthen the gluten in the flour, and depending on your level of hydration, turn what might be a bit of a sticky mess at first, into a smooth ball of dough. There’s no set amount of time that you need to knead dough for (it’s best to know by touch, which you’ll get from experience), but as a guide, you’ll often hear 10-15 minutes as an example timeframe.

Proofing (a.k.a. Fermentation)

Proofing (or proving) is the part where you leave your pizza dough to rest, or to put it another way, put the yeast to work. Proofing the dough, also referred to as the fermentation process, allows the yeast to do what it does best, ferment. In other words, proofing enables the yeast to produce carbon dioxide which gives pizza dough it’s air bubbles and causes it to expand.

Pizza dough can be left to proof from anywhere between 1-72 hours (generally speaking, the longer the proof within that timeframe, the more airy the texture and better the flavour of the dough). Similar to the topic of how much yeast to use, how long to proof dough is subject to several things, including the weather, the style of pizza you want, and as it happens, how much yeast you’ve used.

Balling Your Dough

Shaping The Dough

Shaping is the bit where your pizza starts to actually look like a pizza, when you turn the proofed dough ball into a circular base with your hands (unless you’re going for square or rectangular pizza, obviously). There’s a few different techniques when it comes to shaping pizza dough, from the simple finger press, to the slap and twizzle, all of which work fine with a bit of practice.

Shaping is the only part of the pizza-making process that doesn’t really affect the flavour of the final pizza, so the main thing is that you end up with something that actually resembles a pizza, although learning a good shaping technique will also make sure you have an even base to add toppings to, and which will be cooked evenly.

Topping The Pizza

Topping a pizza involves spooning your pizza sauce onto the dough base, usually before some cheese and then lobbing (or carefully placing, however you want to do it) your chosen topping ingredients onto the base of the pizza. What goes on first? Tomato sauce usually. Followed by the cheese, then whatever other toppings you decide (it’s obviously impossible to list all the pizza topping combinations here).

Cooking Pizza

Finally, you get to cook your pizza. But just when you think pizza can’t get any more complicated, there’s the options of cooking pizza in a regular home oven, an indoor pizza oven, the bbq (don’t bother IMO), or a proper pizza oven, which might be fired by wood, gas or charcoal. Whatever option you choose, it’s important to understand two further factors when making pizza: temperature and time.

Temperature & Time: Pizza’s Secret Ingredients

A quick special shout-out to the two so-called “secrets” of making good pizza: temperature and time. Not only do temperature and time need to be considered when cooking pizza, but most pizza pros refer to time and temperature as secret ingredients for a reason; they play a massive role in how each and every pizza turns out, for example:

Temperature

  • Storing flour at room temperature helps by giving the pizza dough a regular starting temperature.
  • Using warm water will speed up the fermentation process, which means quicker pizza, but also less flavour (be aware that hot water, at around 45C, will begin to kill the yeast altogether).
  • Using a machine to combine the dough ingredients (rather than your hands) will add extra heat to the dough – not ideal if your aim is super slow fermentation for more flavour.
  • The temperature of the room/atmosphere in which pizza dough is left to proof (e.g. cold room, hot room, fridge, etc) will largely determine how quickly the dough reaches its ideal level of fermentation.
  • When it comes to cooking your pizza, clearly different oven temperatures will have a direct impact on how the pizza looks and tastes. Pizza ovens are specially designed to reach much higher temperatures than home ovens.

Time

  • The length of time spent mixing and kneading the dough ingredients will dictate how well the ingredients blend together and how smooth a dough you end up with.
  • Proofing dough for only a short amount of time will limit how much the yeast can ferment, whereas proofing for two or three days will allow more fermentation and flavour to develop.
  • The quicker you shape and top your pizzas, the less likely they are to stick to work surfaces or pizza peels. 
  • Cooking pizza in a purpose-built pizza oven can take just 60-90 seconds, whereas a regular home oven will take several minutes, sometimes more than ten.

Equipment Needed To Make Pizza

If you’ve come this far and still want to make your own pizza from scratch, it’s probably worth considering at this point the essential equipment needed to make pizza, before just getting started and making some pizza. A list of these essentials would typically include the following:

  • A pizza oven
  • A pizza peel
  • Kitchen scales
  • Prove thermometer 
  • A temperature ‘gun’
  • A special dough container
  • Dough proofing tray
  • A pizza cutter
  • Pizza serving boards

While it’s true that you can’t really make pizza like the pros without a pizza oven (and a few other bits of equipment), it’s just not the case that you need to start out by buying every pizza gadget on the planet (including a pizza oven). Being completely honest, you could start by just having your dough ingredients and some kitchen scales, which actually are kind of essential.

The truth is, there’s not necessarily a need to buy a pizza oven right away, and most other pizza equipment are ‘nice to haves’, especially while you’re getting your head around the basics of making dough and understanding things like baker’s percentages and dough hydration, which is more important. Then again, if you just can’t wait to buy a pizza oven, that’s groovy too.

In Summary 

Believe it or not, there’s a lot to learn when it comes to making your own pizza (if you really want to do it properly). It’s not just flour, water, salt and yeast, but it also kind of is. Pizza can be as simple or as complicated as you choose to make it, but if you love pizza and like the idea of being able to make it from scratch, you might just find that it starts to overtake your life.

As a quick recap, the essential* ingredients needed to make pizza generally include:

  • Strong flour (high protein, and ‘00’ flour is popular)
  • Yeast (natural, fresh, dried or instant)
  • Fine sea salt
  • Water 
  • Optional: Honey/sugar, olive oil.
  • Canned tomatoes 
  • Cheese (e.g. Parmeggiano Reggiano, Mozarella, etc) 
  • Your choice of toppings

*Subject to personal diet / allergies / preferences.

Then there’s the pizza making process to go through, which involves weighing, mixing, kneading and balling the dough, before fermentation takes place (ideally as long as possible, up to 2/3 days is optimal, but shorter durations also work fine). Then comes the shaping, topping and cooking the pizza, all while using groovy ingredients like tomatoes, cheese and your choice of topping combos.

Certain equipment can help improve your pizza game, and there’s some other slightly more technical stuff to grasp, like dough hydration, time and temperature, but once you understand these things and start practicing your dough skills, you’ll be well on your way to making some seriously groovy pizza, from scratch, every time.

Stay groovy. Eat pizza.