Skillet pizza without the oven

Last week I returned from camping and hiking in the Eastern Sierra with a mission. Inspired by earlier forays into grilling pizza at home, I had decided to make the Italian staple in a skillet on the propane stove after hiking up to Ruby Lake. But something had gone wrong and I wasn’t ready to give up on the idea of hot, yeasty pizza outdoors.

The crust I made at camp was thick, doughy and a little too black on the bottom to pass off as nicely charred. My companion – who I now know will eat almost anything after a long hike – pronounced it delicious. I ate it glumly, cringing every time I bit into an undercooked pocket. When you’re camping, there’s little choice but to eat your mistakes.

I had cooked pizza in a frying pan while camping before and it had turned out far better.  It’s clear to me now that the cast iron frying pan I used at the time made all the difference. But I’d prefer not to take my ancient cast iron pan camping. Cleanup is problematic outdoors and I don’t want to worry about it rusting if I don’t get it absolutely dry. Plus it takes up a lot of room.

At home, I set up the camp stove, brought out my trusty nonstick skillet with the folding handle, and tried again. The dough was part of the same homemade batch that I had taken to the Sierra and kept chilled in the cooler. The toppings were virtually identical: homegrown tomatoes, fresh mozzarella, basil leaves, and sausage.

This time, though, I rolled out my crust with a wine bottle on a flexible plastic cutting mat rather than patting it out by hand. I got it as thin as I could handle easily, about 1/8-inch thick. Then I poured a couple of tablespoons of extra virgin olive oil into the skillet, more than I had used at camp, and kept the heat at medium instead of medium high. When the oil started to shimmer, I carefully slipped the disk of dough into the pan and let it sizzle for a few minutes until it turned a crisp golden brown on the bottom. Because the skillet is large and sits a little offset above the burner, this time I also rotated the dough in the pan after a couple of minutes to make sure it was cooking evenly. When big bubbles rose from the crust, I pushed them back down with the tongs.

Once the bottom was browned, I flipped the crust over, and took the skillet off the burner just long enough to scatter tomatoes, cheese, basil and thin slices of peppered salami over the top. The skillet went back on the burner and was covered for a couple of minutes to help the cheese melt. I removed the lid and let the bottom crisp, watching to make sure it didn’t burn this time.

When I slid the finished pizza onto the plate, it was everything I had wanted after that strenuous hike. The olive oil contributed nice flavor and the crust had a good, crisp bite without any annoying, undercooked spots. The toppings were warmed through and the mozzarella had melted evenly. Even the slightly rustic shape was appealing.

A couple of subsequent smaller pies proved even better. The optimum size for my stove and skillet seems to be about 6 inches in diameter.

At last, I had pizza with a minimum of equipment. An impressive new camp dish had just joined my repertoire

This simple technique, similar to cooking pancakes, would work just as well at home. It’s not appropriate for a heavily laden pizza – the toppings would never cook through and it would be tough to get the pie out of the pan. Still, you could make the crusts in the skillet, add the toppings, and finish by passing the pizza under the oven broiler to melt the cheese. Jamie Oliver suggests this approach – with much more oil – in his charming new cookbook, Jamie at Home: Cook Your Way to the Good Life (Hyperion, $37). Mark Bittman offers a video on the New York Times web site.

A thin crust is essential, but most pizza doughs will work. I like the refrigerated dough from Trader Joe’s in a pinch. Bring it to room temperature for about an hour and let it rest for a few minutes after you pat it into a circular shape before rolling it out.

If you don’t have a favorite recipe, this one from Pizza on the Grill: 100 Feisty Fire-Roasted Recipes for Pizza & More by Elizabeth Karmel and Bob Blumer (Taunton Press, $16) is easy and quite good. Made with a food processor or stand mixer, the dough can be frozen for up to a month and thawed at room temperature before using.

Makes two 12-inch pizza crusts

1 cup lukewarm water
¼ cup olive oil, plus extra for oiling bowl
1½ teaspoons sugar or honey
1 package rapid-rise yeast (2 ¼ teaspoons)
3 cups all-purpose flour
1½ teaspoons kosher salt

Pour water into work bowl of a large food processor or stand mixer. Sprinkle oil, sugar or honey and yeast over the water and pulse several times until mixed. Add flour and salt and process until the mixture comes together. Dough should be soft and slightly sticky. (If it is very sticky, add flour 1 tablespoon at a time and pulse until smooth. If too stiff, add water, 1 tablespoon at a time and pulse until smooth.)

Turn dough onto a lightly floured work surface and knead by hand to form a smooth, round ball. Place the dough in an oiled, clean bowl, turn it over several times to coat with oil, drizzle a little more oil over the top, and cover tightly with plastic wrap. Place in a warm spot and let rise about 1 hour, until doubled in size. Divide into two equal size balls for 12-inch pizzas, or smaller balls as needed. Use immediately, or refrigerate or freeze for later baking.

“Pizza on the Grill,” by Elizabeth Karmel and Bob Blumer

Oh, and if you’re thinking about a fall hike in the Sierras, check out this view of Little Lakes Valley from the trail to Ruby Lake. Only the most confirmed couch potato could resist. Pizza in camp afterwards is just a bit more incentive.

5 thoughts on “Skillet pizza without the oven”

  1. homemade pizza in the wildnerness?! shoot, i might even be able to get my husband on board with a hike like that. and the wine bottle/rolling pin is magnificent.

  2. That reminds me of something we used to make at summer camp in a dutch oven, although ours was fairly thick. Oil on the bottom, then dough, then tomato sauce and cheese. Cover with a few coals on top of the lid and a pile underneath, and wait a half hour or so. It came out something like a Chicago style deep dish pizza.

    Congrats on the new blog, I’ve been enjoying all the ex-merc food blogging recently 🙂

  3. Thanks so much Josiah. Your comment means a lot to me.

    I never seem to plan far enough in advance to bake in a Dutch oven. Food is important to me when I’m camping, but I don’t like to sacrifice too much trail time. This technique is pretty quick if you make your dough at home.

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