Almost every time I see someone making a pizza on TV or in a movie, someone somewhere is using a rolling pin. It makes sense, after all. You’re trying to make a round ball of dough flat, so why not use a rolling pin rather than stretch it out by hand?
In most cases, rolling out pizza dough with a rolling pin will give you an inferior crust compared to stretching it out by hand. This is because a rolling pin will pop all the pockets and bubbles of gas that are created during fermentation within the dough. Without all the air and gas trapped in these pockets, your pizza will bake into a flat and dense pizza crust.
But while it’s usually a better idea to stretch your pizza dough out by hand, it isn’t always better. A prime counter example is when you’re aiming for an extra thin crust pizza.
Let’s go over why stretching by hand is better, how to stretch by hand and then go over some examples of when using a rolling pin is actually beneficial.
A Pizza Dough Should Be Stretched By Hand To Preserve Gas & Air Pockets
The best way to handle a pizza dough is very gently so as to preserve as much of the network or air and gas pockets as possible. In fact, we’re looking to push and press the air from the center of the pizza dough into the outer edges of the crust. This is what gives pizza its characteristic puffy crust, especially in a Neapolitan style pizza.
Remember that when we let a dough rise after kneading and then proof before stretching, what we’re doing is allowing the yeast to feed on the sugars within the flour of the ingredients. When this happens, the yeast gives off gasses such as C02 which filled the small air pockets that occur naturally inside the dough.
When this gas is heated in the oven, it expands the air pockets and gives us the puffy and soft crust we all love.
A rolling pin, in most cases, is too large and will crush the outer crust while causing all the air and gas to escape. This defeats the entire purpose of letting the dough proof before using it and will almost always leave you with a dense and hard crust.
Stretching the dough by hand is the best way to preserve all of this air and gas within the dough because we can avoid touching the outer crust entirely.
How To Stretch pizza dough without a rolling pin
Stretching a pizza by hand without a rolling pin can seem like an impossible task at first, but that’s usually because the pizza dough hasn’t been prepped correctly. In fact, stretching a pizza dough by hand is actually incredibly easy.
To stretch pizza dough without a rolling pin, start with a room temperature dough on a bed of semolina flour. Gently push and press the air from the center of the dough out into the outer edges of the crust.
Let Your Dough Proof To Make It Less Elastic
The biggest problem people run into when stretching pizza dough by hand is when the dough is overly elastic. This happens when the gluten network within the dough is too strong which causes it spring back to its original position every time you try to stretch it.
The easiest way to get around this is to simply give the dough time to rest at room temperature. When a pizza dough is prepared correctly, it will be given time to proof as dough ball at room temperature for approximately 1-2 hours. This gives the gluten in the dough a chance to relax which will make it much easier to stretch.
Hydrate Your Pizza Dough To Make It Softer
We all know that adding extra hydration to your dough will make the crust softer after it bakes, but it will also make the dough itself softer and easier to work with as well.
A highly hydrated dough will have a slightly weakened gluten network due to being flooded out by excess water. This will help to make the dough much easier to stretch by hand. If baking in a home oven, aim for 65-70% hydration for best results.
Stretch The Pizza Dough By Gently Pressing And Pushing It By Hand
Place your proofed dough ball on a thick bed of semolina flour before you do anything with it. You want the dough to be completely coated in flour so when you begin to push and press it, it won’t stick to your hands or your countertop.
To stretch your pizza dough by hand, start by gently patting down the middle of the dough to flatten it slightly. Then use the flat side of your fingers to slowly work the air from the middle of the dough out into the outer crust, but never touch the outer crust itself. Try to leave as much air in the dough as possible for a soft crust.
Slowly rotate the dough as you do this to get an even level on all sides. Flip the dough over occasionally as well and dust with semolina to make sure all of the sticky parts are coated and dry.
Repeat this process as many times as needed and when you’re done the middle of the dough should be shaped like a pizza with a flat middle and puffy rim.
The Neapolitan Slapping Technique Will Stretch Your Pizza Dough Very Quickly By Hand
The Neapolitan slapping technique is a method for stretching pizza dough perfected by pizza masters in Naples over the centuries. This method starts off the same as the method above, by gently pressing the air from the middle to the edges, but is sped up considerably by pulling and slapping the dough against the countertop.
Basically what you do with this technique is to hold the dough against the countertop with one hand while pulling gently with the other. Then the dough is flipped onto your open plan and “slapped” down on your work surface. This has the benefit of pressing the air from the middle to the edges while also shaking off any excess flour before baking it in the oven.
While this method is extremely effective, it’s not for beginners. Without practice, you can very easily destroy your pizza dough by tearing it or accidentally folding it over onto itself. In fact, this is a method I’m still trying to get good at myself and I’ve been practicing it for years.
But because it’s such an iconic and efficient way of stretching pizza dough, I’ve included here. If anything, it gives you a good idea of what you’re trying to accomplish when stretching pizza dough by hand.
Tossing Pizza Dough Into The Air Is Mostly A Gimmick
You’ve most likely seen movies and TV shows where the pizza maker is twirling and flipping the dough up in the air. This is especially prevalent in shows set in New York City.
But stretching pizza dough by tossing it in the air is mostly a gimmick and comes with quite a few risks. For one, even an experienced pizza maker can drop the dough and ruin it. When this happens the only place the dough will be tossed again is in the trash.
This is why it’s best to keep with the traditional method of pressing it gently to displace the air from the middle to the edges.
With all that being said, tossing the dough and spinning it in the air technically does get the job done. It’s basically taking advantage of gravity and the spinning causes everything from the middle to work its way evenly out to the edges like a planet spinning in space.
But it’s simply too risky and takes up too much space in a crowded kitchen to be done effectively. This is mostly done by expert pizzaiolos as a kind of party trick to impress the cameras, who will then go back to stretching it the normal way when they’re gone.
A Pizza Roller Can Be Used As A Safe Alternative To A Rolling Pin
The main reason why using a rolling pin is bad is because most are simply too big. This means you can’t roll the middle of the dough without also rolling the sides of the crust and crushing it.
But there are some alternatives you can think about trying, such as a “pizza roller” like this one.
A pizza roller is essentially a miniature rolling pin that can roll the middle without disturbing the air and gas in the edges too much. You would use this the same way you would stretch it by hand – by starting gently in the middle and working the air out into the edges of the dough.
And while this can work well, I personally would just recommend doing it by hand. I think the slightly uneven and bubbly middle of the crust add sometime to the finished product when it comes out of the oven. Doing it by hand is also free.
But don’t hesitate to give pizza roller a try if you think it will help you!
Pizza Dough Should Be Proofed For 1-2 Hours Before Hand Stretching
The key to stretching your pizza dough effectively relies on properly prepared dough. And the way to do this best is to let the dough proof for enough time before even touching it.
Your pizza dough should be prepped into balls with taught skin and an even composition. This is a bit of a skill in itself and does not mean simply rolling a piece of dough between your hands into a rough ball and leaving it.
Once the ball has been formed and placed into a covered container dusted with semolina flour, it needs to proof for at about 1-2 hours at room temperature (depending on the temperature of your room).
This proofing process is so crucial because it’s what gives the pizza dough the gas and air we want to preserve by hand stretching it. Proofing also gives the gluten bonds in the dough, what gives it its strength and elasticity, a chance to relax
A Rolling Pin Can Work Great With A Thin Crust Pizza
Some styles of pizza actually work well using a rolling pin, such pizza with an extremely thin crust. This is because these styles of pizza are not supposed to have puffy edges but instead have toppings going from edge to edge.
I typically don’t bother with thin crust very much because my favorite styles, Neapolitan and NYC style, are both quite thin as it is. But there is one style of thin crust pizza that I really love.
“Bari Style” Pizza Is Very Thin Crust & Rolled With A Rolling Pin
In the pizzerias in and around Bari, Italy there is a popular thin crust style of pizza. The dough is only about half the sized of a normal Neapolitan pizza (around 120g each) and is rolled out extremely thin using a rolling pin. The pizza is then topped from edge to edge with only minimal crust showing.
This pizza is delicious and is basically a thin crust version of your traditional Neapolitan pizza margherita. It works because while the dough is extremely flat, it’s also not very much dough either so it doesn’t become dense. The super-hot oven also cooks it very quickly so the thin crust still retains some moisture.
If you want to see more about this “Bari style” pizza, check out Bari’s own pizza master Vito Iacopelli gives you a look at what it’s like and how to make one yourself.
NYC’s Lucalli Pizza Is Extremely Popular & Rolled With A Rolling Pin
If you’ve been paying attention to the NYC pizza scene for the last several years, you’ve likely heard about the rise of Lucali, an extremely highly rated pizzeria out of Brooklyn, NY.
Lucali’s pizza is also a great example of a style of pizza that proves the exception to the rule about hand stretching your pizza dough. This pizza’s crust bakes extremely thin while still maintaining a small amount of air in the crust.
Lucali’s pizza recipe manages to pull this off by rolling out the dough with a rolling pin to initially open it up, but then switching to a manual stretching method to maintain that last bit of air in the outer crust. This is helped by not extending the ingredients to the outer crust which lets the crust puff out a bit.
This pizza is the creation of the owner, Mark Lacono, but is actually remarkably similar to the “Bari style” pizza I described above. The biggest difference is the size, with a Bari style pizza being no bigger than a standard Neapolitan pizza at around 10 inches, and Lucali following the NYC standard at around 18 inches.
Ultimately, if you need to use a rolling pin because you’re apprehensive about hand stretching, that’s fine.
But you should know that with a bit of practice you can start making more varied kinds of pizza with hand stretching, especially kinds with light and airy crusts.
If you need help getting started making and working with high hydration pizza dough, be sure to check out my recipe.