My father-in-law spent the summer building an outdoor kitchen. He did everything himself: carefully pouring the concrete foundation, painstakingly placing each brick by hand, running water and electricity to multiple outlets and faucets, cutting and constructing the cedar pergola that now frames and shades the entire kitchen. There is also a pizza oven, and the implicit understanding that I could use this kitchen, as long as I made lots of very good pizza for everyone. Given that the kitchen required four months of hard labor and the lifting of a thousand-pound stone countertop, baking some pizza seemed like the least I could do to show my appreciation.
I didn’t have a ton of pizza-making experience. I wasn’t worried about sauce or toppings, though. What did stress me out was the idea of making dough or, more specifically, perfecting dough. So I began with what seemed like a holy trinity of pizza cookbooks: Franny’s, Roberta’s, and Bianco. I wanted crust that was puffy yet crisp. Chewy but tender. Noticeably fermented, but not overwhelmingly funky. And I didn’t want to deal with a sourdough starter. We have a toddler; we don’t need the added stress of keeping a starter alive, too.
I ended up using the Bianco recipe — active dry yeast, warm water, bread flour, a bit of salt at the end, mixed and kneaded by hand — as a base. Then, after a couple successful attempts, I began messing around: adding some whole-wheat flour to the mix. Seeing if I could get away with more salt, or even some sugar. Letting it rise for 24 hours, as other recipes advise, instead of Bianco’s suggested three to five.
Now, every time I make it I think, “there is probably still a way to improve this,” though I don’t know what that way is, exactly. A good friend of mine, who cooks for a living, lets his dough rise for three to five days. What will happen if I use a food processor, or a stand mixer with a dough hook? Maybe fresh yeast is the better way to go? Should I track down some vaunted “00” Italian flour, or try to find local flour that’s as fresh as possible?
Regardless of what I do, I’ve convinced myself that there is some pizza-master secret — or worse, multiple secrets — that I have yet to unlock, techniques that can turn good dough into god dough, and that I’ll possibly never discover them. Will I ever get to a place where I feel fulfilled?
I thought about my own existential concerns as I read J. Kenji López-Alt’s first column in the New York Times. López-Alt is, of course, the master of recipe optimization, and the Sisyphean task he has given himself is to figure out the one true best way to hard-boil an egg. He has been rolling this ovoid rock up a hill for far longer than I’ve been messing with pizza dough, and he’s been much more diligent about documenting his successes and failures. It’s possible nobody has spent more time thinking about this than he has, and if anyone is going to unlock the true secrets of the world’s simplest recipe, it will be him. Now, López-Alt has conducted, in his words, “the largest-ever double-blind egg-boiling-and-peeling experiment in the history of the universe.” 700 eggs! Reams of notes. 90 people to peel and taste.
He’s got lots of data, folks, and the latest results are definitive … ish.
After all the shells were peeled, he found what is, it would certainly seem, optimal egg technique. He suggests cooking the eggs with steam, instead of fully submerging them in boiling water, and ditching the post-steam ice bath completely. (“An ice bath also did not help reduce the incidence of the sulfurous green patina around overcooked egg yolks.”) I have not tried this yet — I’m busy with the pizza and the toddler! — but I am convinced it will work, and work well. I am also convinced this is not to be the last story I’ll read about the best way to cook an egg.
Similarly, I doubt that, for example, Robert Simonson’s very thorough new book, The Martini Cocktail, will offer much closure for people who want to find the best way to make that recipe. And, I am convinced that somewhere, right this second, a talented home cook is working on an advanced hack to make crispier, even juicier roast chicken.
This is the beauty of the Very Simple Recipe. Within the framework of something that has, like, three ingredients — or, in the case of a cooked egg, one ingredient — there are infinite variables to assess, and there is no way to really know if one will become the secret that makes everything click just a little more perfectly.
Something that’s already good can probably be turned into something that’s more good, after all. This is how we ended up with no-knead bread, and “reverse-seared” steaks (said to cook the middle more evenly than the classic, but still effective, hard-charging sear-first approach). It’s why we have Instant Pot hacks for perfect rice, hyper-decanted wine, and endless scrambled-egg tutorials, each just a bit different, each promising life-changing results.
But there is only one recipe that everyone agrees is impossible to improve — Marcella Hazan’s tomato sauce — and the wise home cooks, the ones who don’t want to drive themselves and their loved ones slowly insane, don’t bother with a ceaseless quest for (likely unattainable) perfection. Instead, they find ideas that work well enough, make food that tastes good with minimal fuss, and move on with their lives.
This is, obviously, the smartest approach, and one that we might all want to adopt. I, however, need to start on another batch of pizza dough, because I might bake some next week and I want to make sure it has enough time to rise.