Heston’s Perfect Pizza recipe, from the In Search of Perfection series, sounds like utter simplicity with just a few main ingredients. It’s not all that simple, but it is very very good.
Everybody loves pizza. It’s no surprise that it was included in the first series of In Search of Perfection. Since there’s so few ingredients in this simple dish the show spent most of its time dealing with the origins of pizza and tracking down the best quality ingredients.
Its relatively uncomplicated to try at home. Provided you can lay your hands on three key bits of pricey kitchen kit and a couple of obscure ingredients. Hee’s how it looks in Heston’s recipe book In Search of Perfection:
We’ve also made a simplified version of this recipe a couple of years ago to tie in with the Channel 4 series, Heston’s Mission Impossible. We had a go at replicating Heston’s worm pizza recipe from that episode.
We served this at our usual 10pm Supper Club (at the staggeringly early time of 9pm) along with Heston’s Tiramisu recipe as a dessert.
Heston’s Perfect Pizza recipe is based on the classic Naples pizza. So the toppings are restricted to a tri-colour combination of tomato, mozzarella and bay-zill. Obviously add other toppings at your own discretion (everyone likes some kind of cured pork, and we’re huge fans of pineapple too. Live with it). For this recipe we’ll be sticking to Heston’s choice.
Here’s Heston making his Perfect Pizza recipe in the TV show In Search of Perfection:
Recipes: Heston’s Perfect Pizza recipe
Special Equipment: Food mixer, pressure cooker, cast iron pan or baking steel.
Special Ingredients: “00” pasta flour, Malt syrup, Smoked Salt
Time: 2 days
Serves: 4 -5
If you tried making Heston’s Perfect Pizza recipe did you manage to get hold of some malt syrup? Do any of us know what the hell it even is? The contents of this jar are more of a mystery to me than the origins of Ifalna and the Cetra. As the label says “Warning: contains gluten”, and what with gluten being a key factor in Heston’s Perfect Pizza recipe, I guess that’s why we’re using it.
We first tried this recipe out four years ago, when we picked up a 340g jar in the closing down sale at Julian Graves. This recipe uses less than a teaspoon of the stuff. It seems to last forever, so we’re probably supplied with malt syrup for the next two decades. If any of you can think of other uses for it please, please let us know in the comments section below.
Step 1: Pre-fermented Dough
Or “Poolish”, to use its technical name. This is a bit of dough that’s been left to ferment overnight, giving it really strong bread flavour. This supercharged dough will be added to the main batch to boost the taste.
Without this stage we could tell you that the recipe takes just (just!) 4 hours. But, since this bit needs to be done at least 12 hours ahead, it’s a two-day endeavour. (They day before is also a good time to start Heston’s Tiramisu recipe, which needs at least six hours in the fridge as well)
As with all baking recipes measurements need to be very exact. Weigh out your flour and water (weighing liquids is more accurate than measuring). Stir the malt syrup into the water and then mix this into the flour.
The instructions for Heston’s Perfect Pizza recipe are based on you using a countertop food mixer, a Kenwood or Kitchen Aid type of affair. We don’t have the room or money for one of these, so our £15 Russell Hobbs hand mixer was used for this first step.
After this first mixing the instructions say to leave the dough to rest for anywhere between ten minutes and an hour. Longer resting periods are claimed to yield better results, which makes it puzzling that an hour isn’t mandatory – we are searching for “perfection” after all.
We did wait the full hour, then began the second mixing stage where yeast and salt are added. You only need to add half a sachet of the former. Luckily we have these jewellers / drug-dealer’s scales to weigh out an accurate amount, but if you don’t then just empty the sachet on the counter and carve the yeast into two equal lines.
The resulting dough was quite tough and sticky, so this was the point at which the motor of our handheld mixer finally burnt out. To be honest the smell a couple of minutes earlier should’ve been a warning to us.
Our advice: don’t use a cheap handheld mixer for this recipe. This is our 4th breakdown with this particular model – we’re probably gonna have to stop pulling the sly trick of getting a refund on our “defective” purchase since they’re starting to recognise us at the Argos returns counter.
The resulting ball of dough can now be popped into a bowl in the fridge for its flavour to develop over the next 12 hours. (That’s 12 hours according to the book. The TV show contradicts this with an instruction to leave it to prove for 24 hours. Confusing).
Step 2: Pizza Dough
Identical to the last step, just with larger quantities: mix malt syrup into water, mix with the flour and then rest for an hour. Rather than engage in some humiliating charade at Argos to replace the hand blender I remembered there’s a dough attachment for our Magimix™. Using this meant we couldn’t stick to the exact mixing times in Heston’s Perfect Pizza recipe as the Magimix™ only has one speed setting (i.e. fast enough to create a Higgs-Boson particle).
After the hour’s resting is up add more salt, more yeast and the pre-fermented dough. The recipe book says this pre-ferment needs 12 hours in the fridge, but the show contradicts this with a request for 24 hours of proving. Our dough hadn’t developed all that much, so if you’re making Heston’s Perfect Pizza recipe yourself we’d recommend the full 24 hours.
NOTE: If you think you need to add extra flour or water do so very sparingly. Teaspoon amounts each time, as very little of either can radically alter the consistency of the mixture.
Once fully mixed take your lump of dough…
… roll it into a log…
…and divide into portions each roughly 150g.
The recipe will make 5 of these. Oil some clingfilm, cover the dough and leave it to rise. Instructions say “at room temperature” but in colder northern climates (like Leigh) we’d advise a warm place. We usually put the oven on for ten minutes then leave the tray in the warmed grill above it.
Step 3: Preparing the Tomatoes
We are now going to skin cherry tomatoes. One of our least favourite kitchen chores. (We had to do this for our first go at Heston’s Perfect Spaghetti Bolognese recipe). Be sure to keep hold of the vines.
Heston’s Perfect Pizza recipe calls for 45 large cherry tomatoes. We could only get hold of the regular sized ones, so to make up the volume skinned a gruelling 50 of them. Start by cutting a shallow cross into each tomato…
… boil a few at a time, for 10 to 20 seconds…
… then plunge immediately into ice water to stop them from cooking. At this point the skins should peel away easily. “Should”.
Twenty frustrating, slimy-fingered minutes later you’ll have a bowl full of peeled tomatoes and a load of leftover skins.
The skins have no use, throw them away. Reserve about half of the tomatoes for the pizza sauce, and half to make oven-dried tomatoes with.
Step 4: Oven Dried Tomatoes
On reflection it might have been better to begin this step before the pizza dough, as the slow-roasting of the tomatoes can take anything up to 4 hours, much longer than the dough needs to prove for.
Begin by halving your tomatoes, then scooping out the watery seeds. You want your tomatoes to be as dry as possible.
After this palaver sprinkle them with salt, sugar, olive oil, thyme, bay leaves, chopped bay-zill and thinly sliced garlic. This step alone practically doubles the ingredient list for the recipe.
They now need to go in the oven at 110°C – not a particularly low temperature by Heston’s standards, especially compared to the requirements of Heston’s Perfect Roast Chicken recipe or Heston’s Perfect Steak recipe.
The tomatoes need 2 – 3 hours (according to the recipe book, again the TV show contradicts by suggesting 4 hours). The time will be entirely dependent on your oven and the moisture content of the tomatoes. Our slightly smaller tomatoes, and fan oven, caused a few unwanted scorched edges.
Step 5: Pizza Sauce
The remaining tomatoes need to be cut into 8ths (fiddly), sprinkled with a teaspoon of salt and then left to stand over a bowl, until 5 or 6 tablespoons of liquid have collected.
In the TV show the justification for this is to give enough liquid to prevent the tomatoes from sticking inside the pressure cooker (next step) while not introducing any extra liquid (which will make the sauce too runny).
We might have risked a runny sauce but, in a rebellious deviation from the published recipe, added the juice and seeds removed from the oven-dried tomatoes earlier. Those bits have loads of umami apparently, so it seemed a logical step.
Throw all this juice and the salty tomatoes into a pressure cooker, bring up to full pressure and then set a timer for 15 minutes.
HINT: to cool a pressure cooker down once you’ve finished run the lid under warm tap water, you won’t have to wait ages before you can open it.
Now reduce the sauce on the hob for a bit until you get the right consistency, then cool and leave to infuse with the vines, which you did remember to keep hold of, right?
Heston says these vines hold a lot of the fresh tomato fragrance, but heat destroys this. By adding the vines at the end their vibrant flavour is preserved. (No info about what the searing 500°C heat of a pizza oven will do to those fragile flavour-compounds though).
Step 6: Assembling the Pizza
Dough-stretching time! By now your lumps of pizza dough should have risen up to at least twice their original size, and be full of air desirable pockets.
To preserve these air pockets Heston asks us to flatten the dough out by hand, using a particularly involving method where you keep turning the dough while pushing at it with your fingertips, stretching it further and further with each rotation. Ideally leave a lip of 1-ish inches around the edge.
This step is described as requiring a lot of practice to get right, which we’d agree with after our experience. It’s awkward and we failed to get much more than an 8” base, even with multiple attempts. This was because our elastic dough would either spring back to its original shape or be at the point of ripping. I was sorely tempted to break out the rolling pin.
The pizza will be cooked under excruciatingly hot conditions, which makes it a good idea to use a pizza peel to slide it in. That’s one bit of kitchen clutter too much for us (and thanks to Heston our kitchen is very cluttered useless junk. I’m looking at you, basting syringe) so we opted for Heston’s Plan B: A baking sheet.
Dust this with flour (the fancy 00 stuff if you have any left) but be sure to tap it on a surface to remove any excess. If you don’t do this last bit then each bite of pizza will be accompanied by a mouthful of raw flour.
Also, be certain to assemble the pizza toppings on your peel / baking sheet. The pizza will be too heavy and fragile to lift once the toppings are on.
Step 7: Cooking the Pizza
Heston’s Perfect Pizza recipe, like all the In Search of Perfection recipes from Heston, has several aims: provide a definite version of each dish, take the recipe forward using techniques perfected in the Fat Duck’s kitchens and preserve the authenticity of the dish.
In Heston’s Perfection Pizza recipe the authenticity is accomplished by replicating authentic Italian pizza ovens, which in both book and show are discovered to operate at a frightening 450°C or above. The reason for this is all that D.O.P. business: certain methods or ingredients are required for the dish to be considered truly “authentic”. For the Naples pizza this means a cooking time of about 2 minutes. You’re not going to achieve that with a domestic oven.
Instead we’re using a cast iron pan (although Modernist Cuisine would advise a Pizza Steel). Leave it on the highest hob setting for twenty minutes and it will soak up a daft amount of heat. Combine that with your grill, also on the highest setting, and you have something close-ish to a furnace-like Italian pizza oven. Or the Ifrit Hellfire Summon.
You won’t want to get anywhere close to this phenomenal heat, which is where the pizza peel / baking sheet technique comes in handy. Shaking the pizza onto the cast iron pan doesn’t require the precise skills of dough stretching, but it can still be tricky. A metal spatula to help shift it off will be your friend here.
This set up is meant to cook your pizza in the prescribed 90 seconds-to-2-minutes, but we found it took us a good four-and-a-half to fully cook the pizza. Even then ours was missing the extra-authentic blistering on the underside. Here’s a video of our first attempt, watch it only if you are very patient.
(Note: the original audio to this video is just me and Ben talking about how the heat from the grill is melting our faces off, but I thought that instead you might enjoy King Joe’s “Kung-Fu featuring Red-Roc” from the soundtrack to the 2004 South Korean film Arahan.)
Once the pizzas are done they just need sprinkling with oak-smoked salt – which Heston says will replicate the smoky flavours of the authentic San Marzano tomatoes grown on the slopes of Vesuvius – and then they’re ready to serve.
People can be awful snobs about pizza. Yes, Domino’s is revolting. But I grew up eating at Pizza Hut, so I still have a huge soft-spot for those. A lot of you might also sneer at Pizza Express, but I’m perfectly happy eating their food too (save for that bloody awful goat’s cheese one).
Does this make me qualified to pass judgement on Heston’s Perfect Pizza recipe? Probably not, but put Heston’s Pizza next to a Goodfellas or Dr Oetker job and you’ll see its infinitely better. And, since this is a relatively cheap recipe to make, then a serving for four is probably about the same price.
Our main fault was with the tomato sauce. Thanks to that teaspoon to help draw out the moisture it really is unpleasantly salty. If you’re finishing the dish with oak-smoked salt as well then it becomes overbearing. Some of the oven-dried tomatoes became badly burned during the grilling, but we put this down to our own clumsiness.
Also, the cooking method is ideal for a lone diner or couple, less so for a group. We cooked 2 pizzas under the grill and 2 in our oven on the hottest setting (as an experiment). Our oven pizzas turned out more or less the same, although they did need about ten minutes rather than five.
The big drawback here is that a 5-minute cooking time means pizza number 1 will be ready 15 minutes before pizza number 4. So unless you keep them warm in the oven (risking overcooking) then somebody is eating cold pizza.
We couldn’t manage the 2 minute cooking time, and our pizzas weren’t authentically blistered, but this was still an exceptional pizza recipe and a fantastic result. If you’re going to the trouble of making pizza from scratch at home, make it this way.
An odd note: Heston’s Perfect Pizza recipe asks you to add the bay-zill before the pizza goes under the grill. We worried this might lead to some ugly, burnt herbs so we tried this recipe with and without. Here’s how a comparison of grilled and un-grilled herbs:
Chck out this shot of Heston’s Perfect Pizza recipe taken from the In Search of Perfection TV show:
Not only does it look like a right mess (especially for a 3-star chef who gets multiple takes when making each programme) but you can clearly see the herbs are badly charred and wilted. If you’re doing this at home we’d say add the bay-zill or other herbs after cooking. Anyhow, we were chuffed ours looked better than Heston’s.
There’s very little that needs changing in Heston’s Perfect Pizza recipe. We will definitely be making pizzas this way again, but with a few alterations for convenience:
- Skip the preferment – unless you go the full 24 hours it doesn’t add much flavour
- Make a sauce using canned tomatoes slowly reduced on the hob – good quality ones would be better year round than weak-flavoured fresh tomatoes from the supermarket. Less hassle too
- Use deli-counter sun-dried tomatoes – also for convenience
- Add the herbs after cooking – to preserve their freshness and appearance
- Cook in an oven preheated for an hour – a good alternative if you don’t own a cast iron pan
Are you a pizza snob, or do you have a view about what makes the perfect pizza? Hate Pizza Express? Love Domino’s? Tell us in the comments section.