Photo: avlxyz, Flickr
Selecting the appropriate cheeses for a pizza involves finding the perfect balance of textures and tastes between all the ingredients, whether vegetables or meats. Apart from the standards like mozzarella, the options are limitless, ranging from Swiss Gruyère to Italian Gorgonzola Dolce. We spoke to pizza masters Jim Lahey, owner of Co. and NYC's renowned Sullivan St. Bakery, and Andrew Feinberg, owner of Franny's and Bklyn Larder, to find out where to begin.
The first step when choosing cheeses to melt on pizza is to consider whether or not their flavors will be enhanced once cooked. "I want the food to express some common sense as far as the relationship of flavors and textures are concerned," says Lahey. "For example, some cheeses do not improve from being baked and actually express themselves as nasty and off once cooked or cooked too severely; this is most certainly the case with Stracciatella." A Pouligny Saint Pierre aged to perfection, for instance, should never be baked. In other words, make sure to know the cheeses' specific melting requirements.
Goat cheeses do not melt in the same way as mozzarella or Gruyère; instead of becoming runny, the outside (the rind) turns crispy and the interior becomes warm and fluffy. To appreciate the rich creaminess of Stracciatella, for example, it's important to not over-cook it, and also not to pair it with heavy ingredients, such as meatballs, which would take away from the cheese's delicate flavor.
To optimize the cheese's distinct tastes, pick one that will not be completely lost amongst stronger meatier ingredients. For instance, those interested in making a pizza with sausage should select a stronger cheese, like Parmigiano-Reggiano, that will stand up to and complement more pungent flavors. "When we make a meatball pie, we use Fior di latte because using buffalo mozzarella would be a waste," says Feinberg. "You would never get the nuances of the buffalo with meatballs on the pie." And, Lahey's Popeye slice, containing pecorino, Gruyère, mozzarella, spinach, black pepper, and garlic, is an excellent example of how several different cheeses can work well served on the same pie. It's all about calculating exactly how all the flavors will interact when mixed together.
"I think that flavor of spinach with the relationship to the mozzarella, the punk of the Gruyère, and the nuttiness and sweetness of the Parm – the cheese is really dialed back so that it is in a supportive role," says Lahey about the Popeye slice.
Of course, the quality of the cheeses also plays a major role in the overall taste of the pizza. Check out Feinberg's top three suggestions: "Use Parmigiano-Reggiano to finish most any pie. It will add that extra perfect flavor. Use Fior di late or cow's milk mozzarella if you have more than two toppings. And, use ricotta for adding creaminess -- just make sure you add salt to it as it's usually bland."