A slice of pizza

How to hand stretch pizza dough

By BBC Maestro

Step-by-step guide to hand stretching pizza dough

Do you love pizza, but are too intimidated to try making it at home? Many beginner bakers are put off by the thought of rolling out pizza dough, not to mention the fact that it needs to be stretched.

If you’ve never tried it before, or if you’ve attempted it and ended up a sweaty mess with flour all over your face, there’s no need to worry. We’ve got a step-by-step guide to stretching pizza dough, so your next attempt is sure to end in success.

What type of pizza dough should you hand stretch?

Not all pizzas are created in the same way – and we’re not just talking about toppings. Some pizzas are traditionally hand stretched, while for others, the dough is rolled out instead.

Neapolitan pizza has a thin, soft crust that usually has lots of air bubbles. This type of dough is traditionally hand stretched to create a thin centre with a raised, puffy outer crust.

New York-style pizza dough is also stretched, but it’s not usually done so by hand. Instead, it’s rolled out with a rolling pin or tossed to achieve a large, thin, round pizza with a crisp crust. And Chicago-style pizza isn’t stretched at all. Instead the dough is pressed into the pan and up the sides to make a deep, bready crust.

So, if you’re a fan of Neapolitan pizza and want to make it at home, you’ll need to learn how to hand stretch it for the best results.

Why is stretching pizza dough so challenging?

Stretching pizza dough can be challenging for beginners – but trust us, it becomes easier with practice. There are a few different factors which can affect how difficult it is to stretch your dough, including:

  • Gluten content: The gluten content of your dough can affect its elasticity. If it has a high gluten content, the dough can be more elastic, which can make it harder to stretch without it springing back.
  • Quality of dough: If the dough has been properly proofed and punched down, it’ll be easier to work with – but if it’s been overproofed, you may find it more difficult to stretch.
  • Dough consistency: It can take some practice to get the perfect consistency. If the dough is too dry, then it might crack while you’re trying to stretch it, while if it’s too wet, it can be slippery and hard to handle.
  • Resting time: Allowing the dough to rest before stretching is crucial. This relaxation period gives the gluten time to relax, making the dough easier to work with.

Experienced pizzaiolos can quickly stretch dough, making it look effortless – but it’s a skill anyone can learn. After all, practice makes perfect.

Why does pizza dough need to be stretched?

There are several reasons that you need to stretch your pizza dough:

  • Consistent thickness: Stretching the dough ensures that the base of the pizza is the same thickness throughout, with a thicker crust. If it’s too thin in some areas and too thick in others, it can lead to uneven baking.
  • Texture: It also helps to get a chewy texture across the pizza dough, and particularly the crust. If it’s not stretched, then it can end up being too dense and doughy.
  • Aeration: When you stretch the dough, it incorporates air into it – and this is essential to help you achieve a light and airy crust. When you put your pizza in the oven, the air will expand as the pizza bakes, creating a bubbly crust.
  • Uniform size and shape: Stretching your dough allows you to shape it into a round or oval shape – or a square or rectangle, depending on your preference.

Stretching pizza dough tips

Before you get started stretching your dough, there are a few things to remember that can make it easier.

First, remove any rings or other jewellery, as these can cause rips or tears in the dough. Also, while it can be tempting to reach for the rolling pin, it’s important to resist. Using a rolling pin can knock out the air bubbles, when you want to encourage them for a lovely, bubbly crust.

You may assume that you need to cover your hands – and your work surface – in flour to work with your dough, but this can make your dough more difficult to work with. In his BBC Maestro course, Bread Making, Richard Bertinet explains:

“I know your natural instinct will be to cover your hands and your surface with flour in order to counteract the stickiness of the dough, but resist the urge, as you could easily end up adding several hundred grams more flour to the mix without even realising it, which will cause the dough to stiffen up instead of becoming supple and elastic.”

You can instead add a thin layer of olive oil to your work surface, or use a sheet of parchment paper.

Richard also advises that you “use your head before your hands” – in other words, that you should spend time familiarising yourself with how to make dough before you start doing it:

“Familiarise yourself with the technique and run through it in your head, before you plunge in. That way you won’t find yourself with your hands inside ‘gloves’ of sticky dough as you stop and try to remember what it is you are supposed to be doing next.”

Finally, he recommends that you adopt a power stance when rolling out pizza dough:

“It is important to get your whole body behind the movement, not just your arms. By standing correctly you channel the power through your legs and core, so you can work with big quantities of dough, without tiring.”

With these tips in mind, here’s our step-by-step process for how to get pizza dough to stretch.

Pizza dough

How to hand stretch pizza dough

1. Prepare your dough

Before you start working with your pizza dough, make sure that it’s been properly proofed and rested. It should also be brought to room temperature, making it easier to work with and less likely to tear.

2. Prepare your work surface

Add a little olive oil to your hands and rub them together. You can also add some to your work surface, to prevent the dough from sticking.

3. Press the dough into a disc

Before stretching, you need to flatten your ball of dough into a disc. Use your fingertips to knead the dough from the centre of the ball outwards. The ball should widen into a flat, round circle. Try to keep the shape as round as possible, as the shape you make now will influence the shape of your pizza once it’s been stretched out.

4. Define the crust

Define the crust of your pizza by leaving around 1 cm of dough untouched around the edge of the circle.

5. Start stretching the dough

Once the dough ball has grown in circumference – but isn’t too thin – you can start stretching it. Put both hands flat on the disc of dough and rotate the dough as you pull your hands away from each other. Your hands should be pulling in opposite directions as you turn the base around, helping to increase the size of the pizza base and smooth out any lumps and bumps.

6. Let gravity do the work

You can get your pizza base even bigger and thicker by getting gravity involved. Pick it up by the edge and let it hang down, then gently pinch along the edge of the dough as you rotate the base around. Imagine you’re turning a wheel as you rotate the base around. For a standard pizza, you’ll want to stretch it until it’s around 11-12 cm in diameter.

7. Check for holes

Hold your stretched base up to the light to check whether you can spot any holes. A Neapolitan-style base should be thin, so you should be able to see quite a lot of light through it.

8. Fix any mistakes

If there are any holes, you can press the dough around the holes together to close the gaps. If there are any thicker areas of dough, then gently press them out until you have a consistent thickness.

Once you’ve done all that, you’re ready to add your toppings. Your toppings will weigh down the centre of the pizza while your crust will puff up in the oven, giving you a lovely light and crispy crust. Pop your pizza in the oven, and enjoy the fruits of your hard-earned labour!

Perfect your pizza dough

Making the perfect pizza can take some trial and error – but once you’re got the hang of it, it’ll be a skill you’ll have for life. For the ultimate pizza dough recipe, check out Richard Bertinet’s Bread Making course – as well as 25 other easy-to-follow bread recipes, from focaccia to sourdough.

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