While Neapolitan pies or New York-style thin slices were long considered the gold standards of pizza, lately, there’s a new kid on the block. Judges for national pizza competitions began to take note a few years ago of a regional delicacy the Motor City has loved for decades: Detroit-style pan pizza.
Deep, thick, and square, but with a shatter-crisp bottom crust and cheesy-brown edges, these pies began cropping up outside of their home city at meccas like New York’s Emmy Squared and Telluride, Colorado’s Brown Dog. His first encounters with these pies years ago left pizza judge and renowned bread baker Peter Reinhart entranced.
His new book, Perfect Pan Pizza, is a collection of his accrued wisdom on baking square pies from Roman to Sicilian to Detroit-style to grandma pies and focaccia. He speaks about these pizzas with shameless, unchecked enthusiasm, like he’s a proud dad talking about his kids’ hockey trophies. Our conversation pinballs from sauce techniques to gluten structures to favorite pies he’s tasted. In the end, though, Reinhart promises almost anyone can nail a great Detroit-style or other pan pie: “Give yourself at least three shots; it’s rare that you nail it on the first time. But the learning curve is so quick on pizzas that usually by the third time, you’ve got it down.”
We spoke by phone so I could absorb his pizza-making wisdom before I attempted my very first Detroit-style pie, using the Classic Red Stripe recipe from his book. Not to ruin the suspense, but guys, it ruled.
This interview has been edited for clarity and length.
The Takeout: Why the recent boom in popularity for pan pizzas, Detroit-style specifically?
Reinhart: Detroit-syle pizza has been under the radar for 60 years. It was invented in the 40s by a guy, Gus Guerra, working in the auto industry, who’d take the nuts and bolts pans from the auto factory where he was working, and he opened a bar making pizzas in these steel pans because he liked the way they heated things. In Detroit, they just called them pizza or square pizza. They were Detroit’s secret.
They’re sort of the opposite of a Neapolitan margherita, which is minimalistic. These are maximalistic. Then, like a lot of other products, the Detroit pizzas migrated out of the origin center and somebody took it to New York and somebody took it here and there. Chefs got a hold of it; Emmy Squared opened in New York a few years ago doing a great version of it. A couple places do it in Chicago, too, but I think they just call it square pizza because they’re not going to give credit to Detroit.
TO: What makes Detroit-style so appealing?
Reinhart: The key is that crust, just like the key for any great pizza is still the crust. With Detroit-style, what makes it memorable is the undercrust should get this beautiful amber color, so it looks like hot buttered toast, and when you bite into it, it shatters in your mouth like toffee. It’s soaked up the oil from the pan, and the side walls should have some of the cheese melt over them so you get this little cheese crisp called the frico.
Then, the top is fairly generous with the cheese and whatever other toppings you’re going to use. Most of the [Detroit-style pies] I’ve had that aren’t memorable are too bready. If you get a Detroit pizza from a chain, like Dominos or Jet’s—they make a fine version—but you’re conscious that you’re eating too much bread. But with our recipes, because that cheese is baked into the bread, when you bite into it, the internal part of the dough, called the crumb, is going to have a creamy, custard-like texture. You can’t help yourself but say “wow.”
TO: What’s the case for making your own dough at home and taking time to refrigerate it overnight, when I can buy decent fresh pizza dough at the grocery store?
Reinhart: The pre-made doughs you buy in the store, what makes those doughs good is overnight fermentation. It’s part of the nature of the wheat, they have dormant enzymes that activate when mixed with water. The enzymes begin to act upon the starch chains and release the natural sugars in those chains. The enzymes make the proteins relax a bit, too.
Starch is not that digestible, it’s too complex, so you can’t taste all the sugar in it. But once the sugars begin to ping free through those enzymes, it becomes accessible to your palate and to the yeast. The yeast eats the glucose and helps create flavor in the dough. If you time it right, you’ll have enough residual sugar left in the wheat left for our palate and enough left for caramelization. It’s that balancing act that makes baking so fun: the time, temperature, and ingredients balancing act.
If you find a pizza dough that you like, in the store, then don’t have to apologize. But it’s not going to be hydrated to the degree of the doughs in this book. Probably a regular pizza dough you buy at the store could work to make a Detroit pie but it’s going to be a little denser, a little tighter. The hydration of mine allows it to rise and puff more. Plus, a lot of people just like the process of making dough.
TO: What’s your sauce philosophy?
Reinhart: My philosophy is that the tomatoes are already cooked once in the can so I don’t believe there’s any reason to cook the sauce. It’s going to be cooked again in the oven again anyway.
I like my sauce flavors to be bright and explosive. I find that people who cook the sauce, it tastes good but doesn’t have that brightness. Going back to what makes pizza such a perfect food, 80-90% of that is in the crust, and just 10-20% is in the topping. A bad sauce can ruin a pizza but a good sauce is not going to turn a mediocre crust into a good pizza. The cheese and the sauce are part of the gestalt of the pizza, but it’s mostly the crust.
TO: I’m cooking my first Detroit-style pizza tonight. Any words of wisdom?
Reinhart: Know that the dough is very springy and it doesn’t seem to want to spread out in the pan. If it’s too springy, let it rest. The gluten is a coiled spring and it will relax in a few minutes. If it takes an hour and a half to fill the pan, let it be. The dough itself is very forgiving.
Second, don’t be afraid of the wetness of the dough. It should be wet and sticky. Use an olive oil slick on the table when you’re folding the dough to keep it from sticking. It’s going to make it much easier to deal with and handle.
The final thing is: With Neapolitan pizzas, we tell people to get their oven as hot as they can get it. With this pizza, you don’t need that. It takes longer to bake because it’s thicker. Just keep your eye on it; every oven is different. Let the pizza tell you when it’s ready. You want to see this golden caramelized cheese, the edge of the cheese might start to just get a little char. Lift the side up with a spatula… once you start to see the crust on the edge or bottom—we want it caramelized but not carbonized. Then you’re pretty much there.