Veggie toppings often get put into two categories: very simple or overly complicated. I find that pizzerias either offer the most basic vegetables, such as sliced mushrooms or raw bell peppers, or make things that sound extremely time consuming. When I’m designing vegetable-centric pies, I try to land right in the middle of the two. I do this by utilizing the veggies in their raw, uncomplicated form but with an added flavor bomb.
There are many ways to go about this. It can be as simple as prepping vegetables in different ways, like pickling, roasting, frying or pureeing them or you can get fancy with a pesto or sauce. Whether you are making a vegetarian or a meat-heavy pizza, the most important thing is to have a balanced pie. This means not only how it tastes from incorporating elements of sweet, salty, bitter and umami but also by employing varying textures. Shoot for using a few different ones such as chewy, crunchy, soft, creamy and firm.
There are many ways to go about constructing a dynamite vegetation pizza. Here are a few good guidelines:
Add something decadent. Just because there is no meat doesn’t mean you can’t feel indulgent with vegetables. Whether it is finishing the pie with burrata or adding a vegan pesto (if you’re also nixing dairy), give your pie that extra up level.
Don’t over sauce. Pick one sauce and stick to it. You don’t want to overpower flavors, nor do you want to end up with a soupy pizza since most vegetables naturally contain a lot of water.
Make sure you have a salty star. I think a lot of people gravitate towards meat-heavy pies because they want to satisfy their salt-cravings. Done right, veggie pies can also accomplish this. Think roasted Brussels sprouts (just give it a try, I don’t think you’ll be disappointed), fried eggplant and olives.
Add texture. I mentioned it above and I’ll say it again, not only is it important to have a balanced pizza flavor wise, but also texturally. You can achieve these textures by preparing your vegetables different ways. I think that this is an important element for any pizza but especially for veggie pies. I love to combine fresh vegetables with roasted, sautéed or pickled ones to elevate the mouth feel of the pizza. Take onions for example. A simple red or yellow onion will taste completely different if you dice it, slice it paper thin, roast it or pickle it.
Look for inspiration seasonally. Not all vegetables are good year-round. Sure, you can most likely find tomatoes in the middle of January, but it doesn’t mean that you should use them. The flavor you get from a fresh tomato in peak season simply can’t be replicated.
Don’t forget about your post-bake finishing toppings. These can really make a pizza. It’s the first thing that will hit your tastes buds and can be visually stunning. Finishers are also a great place to add some crunch to your pizza. Use ingredients like pumpkin seeds, candied walnuts, shaved raw asparagus, sweetie drops or snap peas.
Don’t overcook the vegetables. If you are using good quality produce, let the flavors speak for themselves. I know a lot of people will sauté spinach or mushrooms before adding them to their pizzas, but I feel this isn’t always necessary. If you’re sautéing them with other items such as garlic or herbs and the point is to create a specific flavor profile, then go right ahead. If you are doing it just to cook them down, then I would say it is unnecessary as most vegetables will cook in the time it takes to bake your pizza. There are of course exceptions, a few being: if you are using a wood-fired oven and the pie cooks in 90 seconds or certain vegetables like beets or eggplant take longer to cook.
Add some heat. I’m a huge fan of spice. I would say that at least half of my menu has an added heat element whether it is roasted jalapeños, crushed Calabrian chiles or spicy honey. I love how spice interacts with the other elements of the pizza and always leaves your taste buds reaching for more. Heat is also a great way to offset sweeter or saltier toppings.
When I’m creating new vegetarian pizzas at my shop, I try to keep all of these ideas in mind. Usually I start with one vegetable or flavor profile and build the pizza from there. For example, one of our most popular pizzas, the Green Mountain, is based off a spinach and ricotta calzone that my mom used to make. The pizza is basically a deconstructed version. We start with a mountain of raw fresh spinach, shredded mozzarella, chopped garlic in extra virgin olive oil and dollops of ricotta. After these ingredients get cooked down on the pizza in the oven, we pull it out and top it with cold, sliced Castelveltrano olives, shaved Parmesan and fresh basil. To me, this has all of the elements a pizza (veggie or not) should have. The cooked down spinach and ricotta creates a creaminess, the garlic adds a punch and the post-oven olives provide a salty, crunchy burst. Another seasonal pizza that I love highlights fresh peaches. Made with sliced jalapeños for added heat, mozzarella and finished with juicy, sliced peaches, creamy burrata, fresh arugula for some crunch and a drizzle of extra virgin olive oil.
Sauce is also a fantastic way to create an intriguing veggie pie. You can use simple veggies on top of a more complex base to build a flavorful pizza. If you’re looking for a tomato-based sauce, try vodka or an arrabbiata. If you prefer more of a white pie, you can embellish on a béchamel or play around with different pestos. There are tons of different flavor combinations you can make with pesto depending on the nuts, greens and herbs you use.
Some Veggie Pizza combinations to get you started:
- Assorted wild mushrooms, mozzarella, Gouda, roasted garlic, pickled garlic scapes and finished with burrata.
- Shaved summer squash and zucchini, ricotta, mozzarella, drizzled with pesto and finished with toasted pumpkin seeds.
- Marinara sauce, roasted eggplant, garlic, mozzarella, finished with stracciatella and fresh basil.
- Purple potatoes (thinly sliced), fresh mozzarella, thyme, rosemary, extra virgin olive oil.
- Roasted chiles (hatch green, jalapeños, or whatever else you have on hand), Brussels sprouts, mozzarella, roasted sweet onions, finished with queso fresco and cilantro.
When you are designing your veggie pizza options, I encourage you to have at least a few toppings that are both interesting to the palate while being easy to prep and execute. One of the beautiful things about pizza is that you can take simple ingredients and when you combine them on a pie, they all come together. You don’t have to over think it or over-prep them. The pizza does the work for you with the sauce and cheese acting as a cohesive element.
Audrey Kelly owns Audrey Jane’s Pizza Garage in Boulder, Colorado.