Get creative with a quintessential element of the holy trinity of pizza
Whenever I go to a new pizzeria, the first thing I order is a classic cheese slice or pie. Not only is it my daily go-to slice, but it is also how I determine just how a place measures up. In my mind, if you can’t get the basics right, there isn’t a very good foundation to be creative with. The mozzarella, and if you’re getting fancy, Pecorino or Parmigiano Reggiano that a pizzeria chooses says a lot about them. Once you do master your perfect plain slice, there are so many options to explore with cheese.
The type of cheese you decide to use can really make or break a pizza. It can add tons flavor and texture depending on what direction you want to take. Certain cheeses, such as ricotta, can be paired with a wide range of things. It’s creamy, light texture is a fantastic vehicle for everything from seasonal fruits and greens to garlic, caramelized onions, olives and salty meats. Then there are cheeses with more distinct flavors like the blue veined variety. They pair great with sweet or slightly salty things. Think prosciutto, dried cherries and fig jams. Here are a few of my current favorite pies:
- Stracciatella, mozzarella, peaches, arugula, prosciutto and extra virgin olive oil
- Roquefort, mozzarella, honey and pistachios with fresh flowers
- Cotija, mozzarella, Anaheim green chiles, fresh corn, red onion and cilantro
- Manchego, mozzarella, Iberico ham and olives
- Ricotta, spinach, garlic, olive oil, basil, mozzarella, Pecorino and Castelveltrano olives
Before deciding on a cheese to use, it’s important to understand what makes each type of cheese unique. Moisture levels play an important role since cheese is categorized by its firmness. Higher moisture content results in a softer cheese and lower moisture content results in a firmer, densely packed cheese. While there are thousands of types of cheese, they can be broken down into six categories: fresh cheese, soft cheese, semi-soft cheese, semi-firm cheese, hard cheese and blue-veined cheese.
A few important things to keep in mind when choosing a cheese:
• Type of milk. Milk is always the base of cheese but what animal it comes from drastically changes the flavor of it. Cow’s milk tends to have a creamy, sweet flavor and is usually the mildest. Sheep’s milk is tangier and grassy, and goat’s milk has a gamey flavor to it without the buttery sweetness of cow’s milk.
• Aging. Depending on how long cheese is aged can radically change its flavor. A perfect example is Parmigiano Reggiano. While all true DOP versions of this cheese have a sharp, complex flavor, a 12-month Parmigiano Reggiano will be lighter in flavor and smoother in texture than a 36-month-old wheel. The longer it’s aged the more intense the favor and more granular the texture becomes.
• Country of Origin. Many cheeses can only bear a certain name if they are produced in a certain region using strictly controlled methods. Manchego is a good example of this. It is produced from the milk of the Manchego sheep in La Mancha wilderness of Central Spain.
• Best Uses. Especially when it comes to pizza, I like to use different cheeses at different stages making a pie. Certain ones are fantastic base cheese and others the perfect finishers.
Deciding when to add a cheese will also affect how it interacts with other ingredients. If you want the flavors to meld with your base, then add them before the pie goes in the oven. However, if you’re looking to have them round out the pizza or shine on their own, add them after they come out of the oven. One of my favorite finishing cheeses is Stracciatella. I love this post-bake because you can really discern the creamy, rich flavor and texture as opposed to adding it before where those elements are simply baked out. Another is Piave. Piave is an Italian cow’s milk cheese kind of similar to Parmigiano Reggiano but with a smoother, nutty flavor. Pecorino is also a great finisher. I know a lot of pizza makers who finish every single pizza with this hard cheese. It rounds out the pizza and adds a little sharp flavor that perks your taste buds and combines really well with tomato sauce. Then there are some cheeses which go great at any stage: Gorgonzola, goat cheese, ricotta and feta.
So, what are great base cheeses? Mozzarella is of course my top pick. Not only because it is the classic pizza cheese, but a mozzarella offers up the perfect flavor and texture to build upon. It is creamy with a slight hit of saltiness that allows you to build upon without getting in the way of other more dominant flavors. With mozzarella as a base, you can make everything from a Street Corn Pie to S’mores Dessert Pizza.
When choosing a mozzarella for your base there are a few different options. You can go with straight up whole milk, my personal preference. Whole milk mozzarella offers a rich, creamy mouth feel with a little extra grease. Personally, I think it bakes better on the pizza and I love how it mixes with our sauce. Part skim has a lower butterfat content, melts evenly and has a fantastic stretch. So, if you’re looking for the Insta-worthy cheese pull, part-skim is for you. Then there is what a lot of cheese companies identify as East Coast blend which is comprised of 50 percent whole milk and
50 percent part-skim.
Blends are also a great option. Some of the more popular are mozzarella and provolone, mozzarella and Asiago, and mozzarella and cheddar. Different regional pizza styles use specific base cheeses or blends which will change the base flavor profile.
Detroit pizza uses Wisconsin Brick cheese. It is a semi-soft cheese with a high fat content that is similar to cheddar with a mild flavor. Coal-fired or New Haven-style pizza traditionally uses dry mozzarella. On St. Louis style pies, it is typical to find Provel, which is a processed white cheese consisting of cheddar, Swiss and provolone. Neapolitan pizza is made with fresh mozzarella or Buffalo mozzarella.
As you can see, it’s always fun to experiment outside of your comfort zone. Find whatever base cheese you love and build your pizza from there. You have countless options. Don’t be afraid to reach out to local cheese makers, it’s most likely just as good as any imported cheese depending on what you’re looking for and where you’re located.
Summer Corn Pie
This pizza features Cotija cheese, which is a Mexican cow’s milk cheese. It is crumbly, salty, moist and very addictive.
Get the Summer Corn Pizza recipe.
Audrey Kelly is the owner and pizzaiola at Audrey Jane’s Pizza Garage in Boulder, CO.