May 26th, 2013 by Mike Fulton

You’re doing your grocery shopping, and you’re in the aisle with all the frozen foods when you notice that there are like a billion different choices for frozen pizza.  Different varieties, different brands, different sizes, they all have one thing in common.  They’re not as good as fresh pizza.

But, sometimes, they’re good enough.  Sometimes, you don’t want to wait 30 minutes to an hour for delivery.  Or you don’t want to get dressed and leave the house.  Or maybe you just don’t want to pay Dominos $15.00 or more for a medium pizza.  Sometimes, that $4.00 frozen pizza you picked up at the supermarket frozen foods aisle is going to do the trick.  Even if it’s not quite as good as fresh pizza, it can still be fairly decent.

How I Learned To Cook Pizza

Way back in my school days, I worked at three different pizza places within a few years of each other.  The first one was “Big Daddy’s Pizza”, which was within a few hundred yards of my house. My mother, my sister, and I were on our way home from the DMV when I got my driver’s license, and we stopped there to celebrate.  The window had a “help wanted” sign so I asked the owner about the job, which turned out to be for delivery driver.  About 90 minutes later I was taking out my first delivery.

While I started as a delivery boy, it wasn’t long before I started learning how to make pizza. One of the perks of the job was getting a meal at some point in the shift, and one day the boss told me to go ahead and make my own pizza ‘cos he didn’t want to get up from his comfortable position in the back booth with his girlfriend. He was about 60 and she was maybe 3-4 years older than my own 16. I would have wanted to stay in the booth too, I guess.

Anyway, I had been watching him make pizzas for a few weeks at that point and I figured I could handle it, so I went to it.  Making a pizza isn’t brain surgery, but it’s not easy if you’ve never done it before.  The dough was already made, of course, and had already been given time to rise, so the first step was to roll it out into the proper size and shape.  We had a machine that was sort of an automated rolling pin.  You’d put the dough in one side and it would flatten it out and push it out the other side.  Then you’d stretch it into a more or less circular shape and push it through again.  This process would repeat until the dough was reasonably close to the desired size.  Then you’d stretch it out again.

For experienced pizza cooks, this last part is where you’d throw it spinning into the air, although that’s not all really necessary.  It’s really just showing off.  The ultimate goal is to get the dough into a circle and have it be reasonably uniform thickness.  If you’ve got thick dough in one place, it won’t cook through, and if it’s too thin somewhere else, it might not support the weight of the toppings.

Once you’ve got the dough shaped and on a sheet of cooking paper, the next step is adding the sauce.  You might like a lot of sauce on your pizza, but what looks like just the right amount of sauce at first can turn out to be entirely too much later.  The amount of sauce can affect how the dough cooks, so it’s best to take it easy until you have a little experience in what works.

Certain toppings like ground beef or Italian sausage can go on the pizza before the cheese, if you prefer.  You might like the way they cook when they’re under the cheese instead of on top.  It’s a matter of personal preference.

Next comes the cheese.  Mostly you use grated Mozzarella, or maybe a blend with Cheddar, and another variety or two like Provolone or Monterey Jack.  One thing to consider is that cheese made from skim milk will release less grease during the cooking process. This is the main source of grease on a pizza so if you don’t like it, definitely use cheese made from skim milk. But on the other hand, the flavor isn’t quite as rich. I don’t personally find it to be a very noticeable difference but you may be different.

Now you put your toppings like pepperoni, ham, onions, etc. on top of the cheese.  Again, be careful about loading too many toppings on the pizza until you have a little experience.  Note also that the more different toppings you use, the less you use of each.  If you like a “supreme” style pizza with a lot of different toppings put together, it may take a bit of practice to get the mix down right.

Just before placing the pizza in the oven, you might want to put a last sprinkle of cheese over the toppings.  Another thing that comes down to personal preference.

I worked at Big Daddy Pizza for about a year, and over that time I gradually shifted from making deliveries to cooking and running the counter.  By the end I was essentially filling an “assistant manager” role, which I always had mixed feelings about because delivery drivers can make some pretty good money with tips and all.  I usually made at least $50 and sometimes as much as $100 a night, and for a 16-year old in 1980 that was awfully good!

Over the next few years I would work at two other places as a pizza cook, learning a somewhat different style of pizza cooking each time.

Making Pizza At Home

I’ve occasionally made pizza from scratch at home. Cheese and toppings are pretty easy, but the challenge has often been scaling down the recipes for dough and sauce from restaurant scale. I learned to make dough in a big restaurant mixer where one batch would be enough for 50 pizzas. When making sauce, we’d use three gallon-sized cans of tomato sauce and three of tomato paste. Spices were measured by the cup, not tablespoons. At that scale, it’s relatively easy to tweak the mix. Sauce needs more salt? Add half a cup and you might barely taste the difference. When making smaller amounts, adding half a tablespoon can be too much.

If you want to simply use a pre-made pasta sauce on your home-baked pizza, that can work out fairly well. Just be aware that what works OK with pasta might be a bit different when you taste it on a pizza. Some experimenting may be helpful.

Figuring out how to make the crust was a bit easier. Pizza dough is basically a kind of bread dough, and even before the web was around, you could easily find all sorts of recipes for bread or pizza crust that are pretty easy to make at whatever scale is needed.  I made dough from scratch ingredients at home a few times, and while the results were good, it can be a lot of work if you’re only making one or two pizzas.

Back in the early 80’s there was another option. I don’t think it’s still available, but back then someone made a pizza dough mix that was basically a powder where you’d add water and stir. I think it was from Chef Boyardee but it’s been 25 years at least since I last saw it. Right out of the can, the results were close, but not quite right. After I’d tried it a couple of times following the instructions on the can, I experimented a bit and discovered that by adding an egg and just a touch of baking powder to the mix, and by letting it rise for an hour or so, it came out pretty decent.

These days, probably the most popular option for homemade pizza is using a pre-cooked crust. While there are other brands out there, Boboli is perhaps the best known, and they have several different varieties available.  They also have a lot of recipes for different kinds of pizza on their website.

Pre-Made Uncooked Pizza

In recent years, many supermarkets have started selling pizzas which are freshly made, not frozen, and uncooked.  My experience is that these are often pretty good.  They are usually made from fresher, higher-quality ingredients and the ones I see are attractively priced.

These can be a great option. The store usually sells basic varieties like cheese, pepperoni, and italian sausage but they’ll also occasionally have a BBQ-Chicken pizza too.  The cheese variety is popular because if you like if you like other toppings like onions, olives, peppers, etc., it’s really easy to simply add your own.

The one problem seems to be that they are available in limited quantity. It’s not unusual for the store to be out of stock if you do your shopping later in the day.  Also, be aware that for best results, you will want to cook the pizza within a day or two of buying it.

While these pizzas can be pretty good right out of the box, you can also apply some of the tips in the next section.

Improving Frozen Pizza

A few easy extra steps can make a big difference in the quality of frozen pizza.

I think the most important part of selecting a brand of frozen pizza is the crust. Find a brand that has a crust you like, or at least which you dislike the least, and the battle is halfway won. That’s not to say the sauce, cheese, and toppings aren’t important too, but they’re usually not as far off the mark as the crust can be.

I find that most frozen pizza is a bit light on sauce. With some brands, I think they paint it on with a brush and then wipe it down with a paper towel so that the dough is just kind of stained.  So one of the things I like to do is add a little extra sauce before the pizza goes into the oven. I usually keep a jar of basic red pasta sauce in the fridge, so I take a spoon and dab a little across the top. Not a lot but maybe like 3-4 tablespoons’ worth. Then I take the spoon and spread it around more or less evenly.

Some frozen pizza brands put a decent amount of toppings on, but not all. I usually go for pepperoni or a combo with pepperoni, so I keep a small bag of sliced pepperoni on hand and when I cook a frozen pizza, I’ll sometimes add a few extra slices.  You can do the same with other toppings, if you like.  Note that some fresh, unfrozen toppings may want to be added partway through the cooking process, rather than at the beginning.

Lastly, I always try keep a bag of grated mozzarella cheese in the fridge.  I use it for making garlic bread and it also comes in handy to give frozen pizza a little boost. I’ll sprinkle a little bit on after adding extra sauce, and again after any extra toppings. Again, not a lot. It doesn’t take a whole lot to make a decent improvement.

Other than some varieties having a sucky crust, the biggest problem with frozen pizza is that they sometimes tend to be kind of greasy, and if you’ve added extra cheese that’s even more likely. You may want to pull the pizza out of the oven once or twice while cooking and use a paper towel to blot some of the grease off the top.  Be careful not to squish the toppings around too much… just dab at it gently.

Put It In The Oven!

If you’re cooking a frozen pizza in the microwave using one of those little goofy cardboard cooking sheets that they come with, you’re best off just following the instructions on the box. If you’re cooking using a regular, non-microwave oven, those instructions are a good starting point but may need some tweaking.

The cooking temperature and time for pizza varies quite a bit. Most frozen pizza boxes say you should set your oven to 400 degrees or so, but a typical pizza oven at a restaurant is usually set to 600 or even 700 degrees! Why the difference? Can you cook your frozen pizza at home for 12 minutes at 600 degrees instead of 18 minutes at 400?

Maybe. It depends on your oven. A home oven’s 600 degrees may not be the same as a restaurant oven’s 600 degrees. When you’ve cooked a lot of pizzas in a variety of different ovens, you come to realize that there are several factors of oven design that affect pizza cooking.

When you cook something like a roast, selecting the proper cooking temperature is important.  Too high, and the outside of the roast may sear and burn before the inside is cooked. Too low, and there’s too much time for the juice to leak out and and it turns out dry.  The trick is finding the right balance.

With pizza, all other things being equal, boosting the temperature will simply reduce cooking time. Because of the flat topology, there really isn’t any issue with “inside” cooking at a different rate from “outside”.  But in a typical home oven, all other things aren’t always equal when you boost the temperature.

A home oven typically has two or three large wireframe shelves raised up at intervals between the main burners at the bottom and the broiler burners at the top. When the oven is set to 400 degrees, the heat may be obtained solely through the bottom burners, but if you crank things up to 600 degrees, if it even goes that high, it may require that the broiler burners at the top be used, at least part of the time.

At higher temperatures when the top burners are used, the top of the pizza is receiving more direct heat than it does at lower temperatures with just the bottom burners. So maybe the bottom cooks 135% faster at the higher temperature, but the top cooks 175% faster. This means the top could burn before the bottom is completely cooked.

In comparison, a big restaurant pizza oven usually has either a large fixed metal shelf with the burners underneath, and vents around the perimeter, or else there’s a large circular rotating shelf.  The position of the heat source relative to the food doesn’t change when the temperature changes, so when you crank things up to 600 degrees, the food cooks faster, but the top and bottom still cook at the same rate relative to each other.

You can mitigate this problem with a home oven by placing a cookie sheet or some aluminum foil on another shelf above the pizza.  This will block some of the direct heat from the top burners and hopefully even things out a bit.  If your oven has a convection feature, that can also help. This is the process of circulating hot air throughout the oven.  It makes the heat more even, less directional.

Almost Ready To Eat

Regardless of what kind of oven you’re using, other than microwave, you have to pay attention while cooking your pizza! This is especially true if you’ve cranked up the cooking temperature to get shorter cooking times. At least the first time or two, you should babysit the entire process. Once you have a good idea of how long it takes, then you can slack off for all but the last few minutes.

One exception to that “slack off” idea is if you’re using fresh dough, because you need to be on the lookout for bubbles forming while cooking. You don’t need to watch the oven like it was a TV set, but every few minutes you may need to open the oven door and pop a bubble with a fork.

It depends on the thickness and type of dough, but as a general rule, the bottom of the pizza is done when the perimeter has become bread-like and has browned just a bit. Use a knife or fork to lift up the edge so you can peek at the bottom. If it’s still uniformly the same color as the dough started out, it’s not quite done yet. Start looking at how the top of the pizza is doing. You want the cheese to have browned at least a little bit. Check any exposed toppings. You may not be able to tell much with something like black olives, but onions or peppers should be browning a bit.

Hopefully, the top and bottom will cook at the same rate, but you have to be ready to take action towards the end if that’s not the case. If it seems like the bottom is done but the top still has a bit to go, take out that cookie sheet or foil, move the pizza to the top shelf, and crank up those top burners for a minute or two.

If it seems like the bottom still needs more time but the top is pretty much done or getting close, move the pizza down a shelf if you can, and change the temperature to make sure the top burners remain off.  You might also put a sheet of aluminum foil directly over the top of the pizza.

Ultimately, after you’ve moved things around, added foil, etc., if the top and bottom aren’t quite in sync, you just need to eyeball it and pull the pizza out when it seems like there’s a reasonable compromise.

Once the pizza is ready, take it out of the oven and let it sit on the counter or other safe, flat surface for a minute or two before cutting it. If you’re using a pizza slicer, I recommend cutting firmly and slowly, making sure that the toppings don’t get pulled out of place during the process.  Make sure you cut all the way through and that the pieces separate properly.

If you’re using a knife, then carefully put it down, find your car keys, drive to the store, and buy yourself a real pizza cutter. Seriously. They are not that expensive.

Sigh. OK, if you must use a knife, make it the biggest one you can, and try to cut the pizza by pressing the knife into it, rather than using a sawing action or trying to slice across the top.

Once you’ve sliced the pizza, you probably want to let it cool off for at least another few minutes before eating.

To eat the pizza… aw, never mind.  You got it from here!

March 2nd, 2012 by Mike Fulton
Posted in Food & Travel

Carl’s Jr. is probably best known at the moment for its recent TV commercials featuring Sports Illustrated swimsuit cover girl Kate Upton, but like many fast food giants it had a fairly modest beginning. The company got its start in 1941 when founder Carl Karcher started selling hot dogs from a one-man cart in Los Angeles. Success led to more carts, and after about 5 years, the first drive-thru restaurant, Carl’s Drive-in BBQ. The name “Carl’s Jr.” arose a few years later when a smaller restaurant, sans drive-in was opened.

The company grew and grew, with Carl’s Jr., soon becoming a familiar part of the Southern California landscape and then growing to the whole southwest. In the early 1990’s, they expanded the menu at many locations by partnering with the small Southern California based Green Burrito chain, which they eventually took over in 2001.

The company took steps towards becoming national in 1997 with the acquisition of Hardee’s, a fast food chain in the midwestern and eastern seaboard states with a similar menu and demographic. The original Hardee’s menu was initially maintained, but the two menus have been converging ever since. Today, the combination of Carl’s Jr. And Hardee’s is the 5th largest fast food restaurant chain in the US with over 3100 locations in 47 states.

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I’ve been eating at Carl’s Jr. since I was in elementary school. My family didn’t really consume a lot of fast food in those days, and when we did it was usually a quick trip through the drive thru at Jack In The Box or maybe McDonalds. But when I started playing sports, Little League baseball and Parks & Rec basketball, we started going to Carls’s Jr. sometimes after my games. There was one close to the baseball park where I played and it had the virtue of ALMOST being on the way home.

I remember that the inside seating and decor was a major step up from most fast food places. When we first started going there you had to go inside because there was no drive-thru in place. One was added at that location a few years later when I was in high school, but it was always a pain because the store’s layout meant the drive-thru window had to be placed on the passenger side.

What I remember of the Carl’s Jr. menu back was that it was fairly straightforward. Burgers. French fries or onion rings. Shakes & soda. They had a really good steak sandwich that I miss. They may have had a basic fish sandwich or chicken, but I never had either. My main choice was usually either the Famous Star burger or the two-patty version, the Super Star.

The introduction of the Western Bacon Cheeseburger in the mid-80’s was really the first step towards a major expansion of the menu, and today there are several dozen burgers, chicken sandwiches, turkey burgers, and more. Not to mention the Green Burrito options at many stores.

One new addition a few years ago was the Six-Dollar Burger (SDB). The name referred to the idea that it was comparable to the more expensive offerings from upscale sit-down restaurant chains. While there is a basic SDB, it’s really more of a style of burger where the traditional CJ quarter-pound beef patty is replaced by a single large, double-thick Black Angus beef patty. The basic SDB is similar to the Famous Star in preparation and condiments, but there are SDB variations of most CJ burgers.

When I first heard of the SDB, I thought it sounded interesting and I looked forward to trying one. However, when I got that chance, I found myself disappointed in it, and not quite able to articulate the problem. I didn’t hate it, but I just didn’t love it either. I didn’t try another right away, but over the next few months I did eventually try it a few more times, including other variations. However, it didn’t get any better. On the the other hand, I did get a handle on why I didn’t like it.

It’s the meat.

I know… Duh. No big surprise, since that’s really the only difference from the non-SDB versions, but I figured out the specifics of the matter.

CJ’s regular patties have always been cooked well-done, but not so much that they get dried out inside. They’re always nice and juicy. The SDB meat patties, on the other hand, always seem over-cooked and dry. I didn’t really notice this at first because there’s always plenty of sauce on CJ burgers, but after trying the SDB a few times I realized I had never seen any juice from the meat. The meat doesn’t seem burnt… It’s more like they never really had much juice in the first place.

I think the way the SDB is cooked must be somehow different from other CJ patties. The flame-broiled regular CJ meat patty is typically nicely seared on the outside, but still somewhat juicy inside. The SDB patty seems to be both less seared on the outside, but also more well done and dried out inside. If these were going through the same flame broiler setup, I’d expect about the same searing outside, but the inside to be less cooked since the patties are thicker. Maybe CJ is doing something extra in the cooking process to avoid that and it’s not quite working? It’s almost like the SDB patties are… I dunno… Baked? Flame-broiled first, then baked? Vice-versa?

The texture of the SDB meat patties also seems off. The regular CJ meat patties appear to be made from finely ground beef, firmly packed when formed into patties. The meat is finely ground, but not so tightly packed that there’s no room for juices to flow during cooking. The SDB patties, on the other hand, don’t seem to be made from finely ground beef so much as maybe molded from some kind of meat powder. The usual texture of ground beef seems missing from the interior of the patty. Maybe this ties into the over-cooking idea? Maybe a freezing issue?

Some may want to point out that Angus beef is somewhat different in texture and suggest that’s what I’m noticing. I don’t think so. I’ve had plenty of “Angus Beef” hamburgers at other restaurants and they did not have these issues. There’s more to it than that.

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