Let’s have a pizza party.
Guests are assembled. They’ve blown through every snack in the house. Staring at the empty oven, they comment, "He said he was going to make pizza … ?” Finally, you’re ready. With a trumpet fanfare, you part the crowd like the Red Sea and process through, peel high, carrying your stretched and topped pizza. You open the screaming hot oven and with a prayer (“don’t stick, don’t stick, don’t stick”) you attempt to deftly launch the pie from peel to baking stone.
It’s a tense moment. One mistake and your pie flops, smearing sauce and cheese in a twisted eruption of steam and burnt toppings. Are you even a baker if you haven’t done this?
I have. In fact, I’ve messed up more pizzas than you’ll ever bake. So let me share a couple of tricks to ease the anxiety of transferring pizza from peel to oven. From using parchment to tips for the launch, let’s find our groove.
Parchment is my BFF
The greatest liability in the loading (or “launching") phase of pizza is sticking dough. Whether caused by a thin spot from stretching, sauce leaking onto the peel, or not enough dusting flour, when dough sticks, you’re done. But there’s an easy fix: parchment.
As part of your tool placement, prep, and setup, decide what your pie size will be and cut appropriate circles of high-quality, heat-rated parchment to ride under the dough. (Our Neapolitan-Style Pizza recipe suggests 10” circles, for example.) Not only will the rounds serve as a stretching guide to help you avoid pizzas shaped like Texas, but parchment will also solve sticking.
To use the parchment, stretch your dough on a well-floured surface, then transfer it to the parchment-lined peel. (Parchment will work with either metal or wood peels.) Top the pizza then load it, parchment and all, onto the baking surface with a slow forward and quick backward motion (more on this below).
If you stretch your dough slightly larger than the parchment, you can avoid burning the paper’s exposed edges. With this method, you can reuse your parchment at least one additional time, or more, depending on your oven. (One note here: The maximum temperature rating for parchment paper is below 500°F; at temperatures between 450°F and 500°F, parchment’s exposed edges begin to char. To be safe, keep a close eye on anything being cooked at temperatures above 450°F, especially anything on an upper rack). If you’re baking at very high temps, skip the parchment and read on for tips related to working directly on the peel.
Choose a wooden pizza peel
If you’ve been using parchment but it feels like training wheels, or if your baking method is too hot for parchment, I recommend using a wooden peel. I know that pizzaioli often use metal, but wood is a more forgiving medium; the coarse grain holds flour and resists dough stick, whereas metal seems to invite it. To see wood in action with one of my favorite professionals, have a look at @juangppizza.
To use the wooden peel, stretch your dough on a well-floured surface, then sprinkle the peel with semolina or cornmeal (more on this below). Adjust the dough as necessary on the peel and give a quick jiggle to ensure the dough is floating, not stuck, then add your toppings and slide into the oven.
One note here: For unloading I do like a metal peel. I know, another tool??? Listen, the thin blade is perfect for getting under the edge crust (as opposed to the blunt edge of most wooden peels) and removing a pie, calzone, pita, or even pans of roasted vegetables; it’s durable and essential. If you don’t have any peels, start with a wooden one and pass the hat for a metal one at the next party you throw.
Semolina or cornmeal: the ball bearings of baking
Like ball bearings, cornmeal or semolina on the peel prevent dough from sticking and make it easier to slide the uncooked pizza off the peel. They also add an element of flavor and crunch as they toast.
While either will work, I use semolina. I’ve found it doesn’t burn as easily as cornmeal, and the finer grind allows me to use less and distribute it more evenly.
But why not flour? Flour is mostly starch, so when it gets wet, it’s very sticky (think papier-mâché). Semolina and coarse cornmeal are composed of larger pieces of milled grain and bran. They don’t absorb water like powdery flour, helping to keep dough floating on the peel.
To use semolina, sprinkle on the peel and smooth with your flat hand to distribute. Evenly is the key. Not too heavy, not too light, covering every place on the peel where dough will rest during topping. When you’re still getting the hang of transferring pizzas from peel to oven, use more semolina, as insurance. With time and practice, you can use less (which means less mess in your oven and less sweeping of your baking stone during the party).
Embrace the jiggle
The jiggle is a motion, like a shimmy, that ensures my pizza is floating unattached on the peel. If the pie doesn’t free itself and move independently of the peel, stop and fix it. (If you watch a pro like Juan Perez, you’ll see him give almost every pie a little jiggle or hop to confirm that it’s floating.)
Sometimes a stuck dough can be fixed with a bench knife and a little extra semolina; using the bench knife, lift the parts that are sticking and throw some more semolina under there. But if the pizza has thoroughly adhered, you may need to remove it from the peel and transfer it to parchment, or consider folding the pie like a letter and baking it as is (like a weirdly-shaped calzone or stromboli). It’s not the end of the world (even if it feels like it). Breathe. Turn up the music. Jiggle something else. Get your mojo back.
To get the feel for the jiggle, stretch your dough, then place it on the prepared peel and give the handle a short forward and backward shake. This will get you accustomed to the motion and cannot be over-practiced. After saucing and topping, give another jiggle. Then, on your way to the oven, give another jiggle. What’s with all the jiggling? Well, the jiggle is the foundation of what comes next ... the launch.
Initiate countdown. Let’s launch.
Now that every part of you is jiggling and your family has given up on stifling their laughter, it’s time to load.
The motion to get pizza from peel to stone, steel, or hearth is not unlike the tablecloth trick of old. The arm moves forward slowly, generating momentum and then POP! It snaps back, removing the peel and depositing the pie.
But before you try the tablecloth trick, let me suggest the jiggle that you’ve already nailed. Knowing that your pie isn’t stuck to the peel, proceed to the oven and place the point of the peel where you want the pizza to land on the baking surface. Physically place the peel on the steel, stone, or masonry hearth of the oven at a downward angle. The pie will slide down the ramp of the peel as you jiggle continuously, slowly scooting the peel backward out of the oven and depositing the pie in the process. In time, your motion will become fluid and less herky-jerky.
I hope these tips lessen the anxiety that can come with loading, ensuring beautiful, picture-perfect pizzas and stress-free baking. For more tips and additional pizza how-tos, be sure to have a look at our guide to pizza night, perfected. And y’all, keep jiggling.
Cover photo by Kristin Teig.