Before you behold your first perfectly baked, oozy-cheesy slice, and before you wait in hungry anticipation for the doorbell or oven timer to ding, come decisions, decisions... Picking the perfect pizza has been known to end friendships. There's the seemingly infinite variations in toppings, sometimes a choice in sauces, and then the most fundamental choice of all – hand-tossed or pan? These terms, which really refer to families of pizzas rather than individual types, are pretty self-explanatory. Hand-tossed pizzas have a crust formed by stretching and tossing dough into the air by hand, whereas pan pizzas have a crust made by pressing dough into the pan in which they're cooked. Both techniques result in pizzas with quite different characteristics.
Differences in Dough
The terms pan and hand-tossed refer to preparation techniques rather than specific recipes for pizza dough, so there are no definitive differences in dough between the two styles of pizza. Your local pizza place most likely uses the same batch of dough for its hand-tossed and pan pizzas, and at home you can happily use any pizza dough recipe or pre-made dough for both styles.
If you want to get into the nitty gritty of authentic pizza recipes within each style, though, there are some slight differences in the dough. A genuine (hand-tossed) Neapolitan pizza, for example, uses a lean dough made with just flour, yeast, salt and water. Chicago-style (pan) pizzas often use a dough with a higher hydration, meaning it has a more water for a softer dough. Some recipes include a little sugar and oil for better browning.
Differences in Tools and Techniques
When you're making your own pizza at home, consider the differences in tools and techniques necessary for hand-tossed versus pan pizza-making. Pan pizzas are certainly easier to prepare for an inexperienced pizza-maker, and unlike hand-tossed pizzas, they don't call for any special tools. Preparing a pan pizza involves simply pressing and poking oiled dough into a pan – a cast iron skillet, cake tin or any deep-sided baking dish will do – using your fingertips. If your dough is soft enough, you can also set it in the oiled pan and wait for it to spread out itself.
Hand-tossing pizza dough, in contrast, is a tricky technique that takes some time to master. Without practice, a hand-tossed pizza base is likely to end up lumpy and misshapen. In home ovens, a hand-tossed pizza is best cooked on a burning-hot pizza stone or steel, and you'll also need a pizza peel to transfer the uncooked pizza to the oven. You can, however, substitute a baking sheet for the stone/steel and prepare the pizza on parchment paper instead of using a peel. You can approximate a hand-tossed style pizza by stretching the dough without tossing it into the air or even using a rolling pin, but it won't technically be hand-tossed.
Differences in Texture and Taste
The most noticeable difference between hand-tossed and pan pizzas is the thickness. Hand-tossed pizzas tend to have a thin or medium crust because the tossing action bursts air bubbles in the dough, reducing its rise in the oven. Pan pizzas have a thick, bready crust, usually at least 1 inch deep. Both should be crispy, but pan pizzas have a crust that's fried and golden due to the oil in the pan, whereas hand-tossed pizzas tend to have a drier, blistered crust. Another difference is that hand-tossed pizzas have a distinct edge to the crust without toppings, while pan pizzas have cheese, sauce and toppings spread all the way to the edges. A pan pizza's sturdier crust also allows for more liberal amounts of sauce, cheeses and toppings than hand-tossed pizzas, which tend to have a more minimalist approach to their adornments.
Different Types of Hand-Tossed and Pan Pizzas
Most generic pizzas described as thin-crust or wood-fired are of the hand-tossed variety. The pizza purist's favorite, Neapolitan, is a hand-tossed pizza with a very thin crust, cooked in a scorching hot, wood-fired oven. The similar New York-style pizza has a slightly thicker crust than the Neapolitan.
The pan pizza family is a big one, and many of its most famous members are named for the U.S. cities that claim their invention. There's the Chicago deep dish resembling a true pie with its extra-deep crust loaded with great volumes of sauce, cheese and toppings, and the Detroit-style pizza, another thick crust loaded with cheese underneath the sauce. Back in Italy, although it's arguably more popular on the East Coast, is the Sicilian pizza, cooked in a rectangular pan and served in squares.