It wasn’t long ago that pan pizzas were dowdy pies associated with chain restaurants, but I like to think that those of us who grew up savoring these thick-crusted pizzas always knew they had more potential. And now they’re getting their due: Respected pizzaiolas are finally giving these pies the same attention they’ve always lavished on thinner, more austere styles, and Americans are (re)acquiring a taste for them. Even Pizza Hut wants a better slice: The iconic chain recently revamped its signature pan pizza for the first time in decades.
If you ask me, the appeal of pan pizza is obvious. The crumb is thick, plush, and encased in a golden, crispy crust. The red sauce is thick and has a bright taste. And there’s plenty of gooey, stretchy cheese. My favorite versions include a rim of fused-to‑the-crust fried cheese called frico, a bonus feature that’s borrowed from Detroit-style pies. It’s also the easiest, most home cook–friendly pie you can make. In my recipe, there’s literally 1 minute of kneading and no rolling or stretching. And because it’s baked in a pan, there’s no dicey transfer of the topped dough to a hot baking stone. In fact, it doesn’t require any pizza‑specific equipment at all. Here’s how it works.
What makes a good pan pizza crust so different from other styles is the distinct textural contrast between its crispy, golden, rich-tasting edge and its tender, plush, airy interior. One good way to achieve that soft, light interior structure is to make a high-hydration dough: The more water that’s in the mix, the bigger the bubbles and the airier the crumb. I found that a ratio of 8 ounces water to 11 ounces bread flour (the best choice of flour for building structure in dough, since it contains more gluten-forming proteins than all-purpose flour) produced a dough that was supple but not soupy.
All that water came with a few other perks, too. First, it helped the dough come together really easily; all I had to do was mix it into the dry ingredients with a wooden spoon or spatula. Second, it allowed me to almost entirely skip kneading as long as I let the dough rest overnight in the refrigerator. When given enough time, water can facilitate gluten development by helping the proteins in the flour find each other, enabling them to align and form the cross-links necessary for good structure. Third, the long fermentation in the refrigerator produced a dough with great flavor, since the cold temperature slowed the remaining yeast activity and allowed for the development of more complex-tasting acid by‑products. (I did, however, need to start with warm water so that there was an initial burst of yeast activity to create lots of bubbles in the dough.) The upshot: As long as I kneaded the dough for just 1 minute after mixing, the water and the overnight rest did the rest of the work for me.
On to that crisp, golden edge, which forms as the pie bakes—or more truthfully, fries—in a well-oiled pan. Some recipes call for baking the pie in a round cake pan, but I opted for a 12-inch cast-iron skillet. I slicked the pan with a generous 3 tablespoons of extra‑virgin olive oil before baking the pie on the lowest rack so that the crust was as close as possible to the heat source. Using a cast-iron skillet allowed me to move the baked pie from the hot oven to the stovetop for the last few minutes of cooking; that way, I was able to give the underside of the crust a direct blast of heat without overbaking the interior or the toppings. (I did find that a greased round cake pan or pie plate was ideal for preshaping the dough before it rested; by the time the rest was over, all I had to do was press the dough gently into the skillet—no rolling or stretching required.)
“It’s all about the crust” is an old pizza adage, but with pan pies, it’s about the cheese, too. There’s the usual top layer of gooey, stretchy mozzarella that you find on most pizza, and on the best versions there’s also the frico: the lacy, crispy rim of fried cheese that forms where the cheese meets the side of the pan.
Shredded mozzarella was great for the top of the pie, but I found it too wet for frico; not enough moisture evaporated by the time the cheese browned, so the result was tough and bendy, not crispy. I experimented with drier options and landed on Monterey Jack. Not as dry (nor as salty) as Parmesan and more neutral than cheddar, it crisped up into a rich, savory ring. The trick was applying the cheese just right: I sprinkled the shreds over the 1/2-inch border of dough I had deliberately left unsauced and pressed them up the side of the pan so that they formed a mini cheese “wall.” By the time the pizza finished baking 30 minutes later, it had deeply browned, crispy frico.
To offset the richness of the oil-fried crust and the abundant cheese, pan pizza sauce should be bright and fresh-tasting but also thick enough to stay put. I started with canned whole tomatoes and crushed them by hand in a fine-mesh strainer so that most of their juice drained away. (This would produce a thicker mixture than using commercial crushed tomatoes.) Then I turned them into a no-cook sauce by pureeing them in a food processor with extra-virgin olive oil, minced garlic, dried oregano, a pinch of red pepper flakes, and some sugar and salt for balance. The sauce came together in a flash and was packed with flavor.