Learn how to use the five basic tastes to create knockout topping combinations
The perfect pizza crust results from flour, water, yeast and time. There is a science to it.
The key to why pizza tastes so good also lies in science. Topping a pizza, more science. It’s the melding of the five basic tastes — sweet, sour, salty, bitter and savory (or umami).
In layman’s terms, the taste receptors in one’s mouth are able to distinguish between the tastes and perceive them in different ways. They send alerts and stimulate brain neurons.
If you want to see the balance of the five tastes on pizza in action, look no further than the International Pizza Challenge. Pizza makers spend several months perfecting the pizza topping combinations. We’ve seen such interesting combinations as:
- spicy garlic sauce, red onions, white cheddar crown, Portobello mushrooms, prime aged fillet mignon, red peppers, scallions and finished with a balsamic glaze
- apple, bacon crumbles, peanut butter and jalapeño
- figs, bacon, caramelized onion, arugula, goat cheese, shredded mozzarella and balsamic glaze
- mozzarella/provolone blend, Italian sausage, cup and char pepperoni, creamy ricotta, shaved Manchego and oregano.
In Tony Gemignani’s Trending “The Missing Ingredient”, he narrowed the tastes down to four: sweet, salty, savory and acidic. He wants every pizza to have at least three of the four profiles.
He’s not alone in the various interpretations. A few years ago, some scientists from Purdue University even introduced a sixth taste: fat (also called oleogustus). There has also been a contingency that wants spicy added to the list. Capsaicin in spicy ingredients causes a burning sensation. While many love the “flavor”, spicy does fit the criteria to be a basic taste. However, the five other tastes are well defined and point to why pizza tastes so good.
Think of the five tastes as the pillars for flavors in recipe development. Each has a role to play to create the ultimate pizza combination. They are there to stand out from, complement or counterbalancing each other. Let’s break down each taste:
- Sweet. Sweetness plays a powerful role on pizza. Red sauced pies automatically have an element of sweet from the tomatoes, which also happen to fit into salty and Umami, as well. Sweetness can be used to bring out the flavor in ingredients or calm spicy toppings. Usual suspects include sweets like fruit, sugar, honey, maple syrup and agave nectar. There are other ingredients you may not classify as sweet. But they are, like caramelized onions, sweet potatoes, squash, basil and balsamic vinegar.
- Sour. Looking for that punch of flavor. That’s where sour comes in. It can counterbalance sweetness or heat. When it comes to sour, think most vinegars, citrus and tart fruits, pickled vegetables and cultured dairy products.
- Salty. Saltiness is very important to pizza perfection. It enhances everything else. It also counterbalances bitterness. Cured meats, anchovies, olives and most cheeses fall into the salty category.
- Bitter. This is one that may not resonate at first glance. Although it is used to send a warning that something has surpassed its expiration or is toxic, a “good” bitterness can cut the sweetness or richness. Some common bitter ingredients include parsley, kale, arugula, escarole, radicchio and Brussels sprouts,
- Savory (Umami). This is the taste that completes the profile with that perfect savory component. This is the newest of the tastes. Umami was identified by scientists in 1908. Mushrooms, tomato sauce and most cheeses, especially Parmesan, hit the umami notes.
Mix and Match
Creating the perfect pizza topping combination is a game of mixing and matching flavors. You take the component of each taste to find the right balance. Toppings are endless. Many pizzerias offer 40 or more options. You know you have a perfect pizza from taste. Instead of listing ingredients, balance that next specialty pie using the five tastes.
What if a combination is…
- Too bland? Explore ingredients that are sweet, salty or savory.
- Too salty? Hit it with a sweet topping.
- Too sweet? Finish it with a bitter green or a sour ingredient.
- Too tangy? Sweeten it up or add an umami element.
- Overpoweringly savory? Add sweet, sour or bitter ingredients.
Mushroom Umami Pizza
Mushrooms hit high marks on umami. Label this pizza a savory, comfort food.
Get the Mushroom Umami Pizza recipe.
While a Margherita pizza with sopressata hits all of the tastes. Let’s explore a different variation.
Get the Sopressata Suprema recipe.
Denise Greer is Executive Editor at Pizza Today.