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  • Writer's pictureMatt Swieton

Circus-Tenting Under the Pizza Stone and the [gastronomic, platonic] Keys to Bottoming

Updated: Sep 3, 2022

A few weeks ago I was at an event in Wallingford, CT (just North of the Pizza ‘Havens’ of the eponymous pizza style) that celebrated all things witchy and woo-ey (the event was hosted by Woogle). This gave me a chance to chat with a friend about local pizza places.

Believe it or not, talking about pizza is a feature that comes standard with my think-organ. (What’s the real name of that enlarged scrotum-looking mass behind my eyes again?) I always want to know what drives someone’s pizza clit nuts! Ha! Pizza clit, nuts. BRAIN! That’s what it’s called.

Mulberry Street Pizza; Mulberry; Manchester; pizza; apizza.
Sometimes mixing methods is the best way to keep your pies from sticking. Taken at Mulberry Street, Manchester CT.

My friend mentioned that an indication of great pizza, for him, is the addition of cornmeal on the bottom of the pie. I found this to be an interesting preference because growing up I found that many of the slices with corn meal also had sauce with way too much oregano. My brain implicitly made the association between corn meal and cheap-tasting sauces. This implicit assumption was changed as fascination in the technical parameters of producing pizza took over. I’ve worked in kitchens where corn meal was the preferred bottoming (as opposed to topping)–sprinkled on top of the pizza peel before laying the stretched dough down atop the corn meal.

Flash-forward several weeks: I was making a series of pizzas for my childhood friend (who was in town around the time of his birthday) and decided that I was going to change the temperature in my oven. Usually my stone is heated to 500ºF but for these pies I went up to 550ºF. The first pie, a classic cheese pizza, for the first time in a long time stuck to the pizza stone. The understanding escaped me at first…

I was thinking about the nature of the sticking; thinking about the trajectory of the peel underneath the stone. It slid about 4 inches under the pie totally uninhibited. I started working the peel underneath the stone coming in from different angles and trying to establish a faceted shape to the stuck surface underneath.

But why didn’t the pie stick around the crust?

That’s when I thought about corn meal having a functional dimension to slice production for the first time in my life. I’ve always known the pizza stone is porous and that its porosity draws water of the stone to create crisp (the crisp also comes from the sheer application of heat but is not exclusively established that way). Most of the moisture was in the middle of the pie; that’s where the sauce slides into after the crust starts rising.

Think about how much bigger a single particle of corn meal is relative to a single particle of bread flour (or even 00 flour, for that matter). If the dough is elastic and sheet-like, and is draped over a planar surface (the pizza stone), there is a broad continuous surface making contact with a porous moisture-absorbing surface. This is what caused that fucking sticking. High-moisture area laid upon moisture-absorbing stone. Now, imagine the breadth of this contact interrupted by intermittently dispersed particulates of corn meal–causing the dough to rest on top of the apex of each particulate. This is a kind of ‘circus-tenting’ that breaks up the interface between the dough and the stone.

In my 550ºF oven, corn meal would ‘cut the mustard’–it would satisfy the functional requirement for not sticking in a home oven. But what about instances where corn meal is used in 950ºF ovens. Like in cases, for example, where traditional Neapolitan pizzas are being made. The cook time at those temperatures is less than 90-seconds and the cooking ‘behavior’ is different than that of any style of pizza. In these cases, corn meal works. An ex- co-worker of mine once described the cooking of Neapolitan style pizzas as the ‘sauté’ of pizza making. Between the short cook time and the behavioral necessities in making Neapolitan pies, there’s no chance of sticking with the particulate-size of corn meal. But what about pies that are cooked at higher-than-normal temperatures? I’m thinking about coal-fired ovens.

New Haven style is traditionally cooked in a coal-fired oven at temperatures closer to 780ºF and they do not utilize the same behavioral demands as Neapolitan style. The pie might be rotated once during the cook but it is not danced around like Neapolitan style pizzas. In these cases you’ll often find that breadcrumbs are used underneath the crust rather than the corn meal.

Think about the size differences between the following particles: flour, corn meal, breadcrumb. Now, think about prolonged contact with the stone over different methods: home pizza stone, commercial gas oven, coal-fired oven. New Haven style pizza sits on the stone for the longest at the highest temperature; thus the circus-tenting required to break up the surface area on these pies is much greater. A bread crumb is massive relative to a flour particle. So when that dough is draped over a breadcrumb-laden surface, it won’t become a stuck-on mess that’ll fuck your night up.

Without sounding mean or accusatory, there are pizzerias that do not understand the functional dimension to these bottomings (again, relative to toppings). These pizzerias do not tend to be recognized for their product, if you know what I mean…This is because they haven’t thought about pizza critically or honestly. But you should.

What should you take away from this little essay?

If you’re making pizza on the stone in your house at 500ºF, you can probably get away with not using corn meal and not having the pizza stick to your stone in a devastating or destructive manner. If your oven goes up to 550º, maybe you use a little bit of corn meal on your peel after stretching so your dough won’t stick to the stone. Lastly: if you’re grilling pizza, use the bread crumb. Now that you’ve read this and have this essay in your scrotum-thinker (wait, I mean brain) you should have no structural issues in removing your pies from the stone.

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