To Grill It Just Right, Go Easy on the Toppings

Food writer Tony Rosenfeld shares the secrets of perfectly grilled pizza.
By Tony Rosenfeld
Special to The Washington Post
Wednesday, May 28, 2008; Page F01

Each year I like to add new techniques to my grilling repertoire, and for the past few summers pizza has occupied my attentions. It's not that grilled pizza is difficult, but it can be more involved than your basic baked pie.

So why bother? Well, for one thing, there's the weather. It's only natural to want to cook outdoors (and not bake indoors) on a warm summer night.

My real motivation, though, is the result. For my money, a grilled pizza comes about as close as most homemade pies can get to true pizzeria quality. The intense heat of an open fire replicates the power of a commercial-grade (if not a wood-fired brick) oven, producing a beautifully crisp, lightly smoky crust.

But what's this about the process being involved? Not to worry. I've already experienced all the charred crusts and unmelted cheese on your behalf and have perfected a method that is about as complicated as grilling a burger: Yes, it's a little work, but, no, it's not hard. The dawn of grilling season makes this the right time to add pizza to your arsenal.

The real trick is, not surprisingly, the grilling itself. Once you start a baked pie cooking, the task is all but complete, but with a grilled pizza, that's when your real work commences. I sort my technique into three parts: sear, top and cook (covered).

The initial sear of the bare dough ensures that both sides of the crust get fine grill marks. You can't just throw a topped pizza onto the grill; the top would never cook through before the bottom started to burn. So you sear one side over a hot fire: a gas grill set to high, or a charcoal grill loaded with a two-zone system of glowing embers. Once the dough starts to bubble and puff and get good grill marks, it's time to flip and top.

I'm as guilty as the next Tony of wanting to load most everything I can find on a pizza, but with grilled pies, that is problematic: The cheese won't melt, the dough will sog out, and the glut of flavorings will weigh down the pizza. Instead, restraint is the way to go. The grill's convection heat is not as uniform as that of an oven, so add only that which can warm through or properly melt. That means avoiding bulky pieces of sausage and hefty raw vegetables. Instead, think light and delicate: thin strips of cheese; cooked meats and vegetables, preferably grilled. (See the topping suggestions.)

Because you can't really turn your back on the pizzas once they're on the grill, have the toppings prepared before you head outside. Arrange them in small bowls along with staples such as olive oil, salt and pepper on a large, rimmed baking sheet to tote to the grill.

The transition from initial sear to topping highlights the importance of the preparation's two-zone fire. If you were to keep cooking the pizza over the hot zone, the bottom crust would start to burn before the toppings melted, cooked or warmed through. So pull the pizza to the cooler zone to top it and gently finish cooking it. That takes the pressure off, and you can avoid burned fingers and the temptation to engage in a mad rush to sprinkle on your cheese before the crust gets blackened.

I like to cover the grill for that final cook, leaving the vents open if using charcoal so things don't get too smoky, to help replicate the convection heat of an indoor oven.

Even though the grill is covered, you're still on the clock. Check in every minute or two to rotate the pie 90 degrees and to look for burning on the undersides or anything out of the ordinary. A healthy dose of paranoia is okay, at least until you get to know your grill, the heat of the fire and the technique. Just cook until the top of the pizza looks properly warmed and the crust is pleasantly crisp and chewy. If the bottom crust isn't properly browned (use tongs to peek underneath), slide it over to the hot part of the fire for a minute or two. Then transfer the grilled pie onto a large cutting board, drizzle with a tablespoon or two of good olive oil and salt and pepper if you like, let cool for a minute, then slice and serve.

That's the basic method for grilling pizza, but then there's the question of how to serve it. Grilled pizza is best suited to a casual get-together with friends or as a weeknight treat for the family. Depending on the size of your grill, you'll probably want to cook these pizzas one at a time. So set the table outside, offer guests a cooling drink or cocktail and an abundant green salad, and allow them to get involved in the process, picking out their own toppings for a corner of a pie.

And make sure everyone saves some room for the later pizzas. Maybe it's because you've gotten used to the fire and the technique, or maybe it's because the dough has gotten to rise for a few more minutes, but somehow those always seem to be the best ones.

Even if your first pizzas aren't as good as the later ones, you'll look really cool doing it, and that's a worthy byproduct of any good grill technique. And if you start grilling pizzas now, by the time you hit the real heat of summer you should be a pro.

Tony Rosenfeld is a contributing editor at Fine Cooking magazine and author of "150 Things to Make With Roast Chicken" (Taunton Press, 2007).

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