A celebrity chef busts Free The Pizza's chops for using parmesan that’s only $20 a pound. What about you?
“Why are you using this garbage!?”
“Garbage? It’s 20 bucks a pound.”
“I’ve got cheese here that’s 40 bucks a pound and you can use it for free!”
“Part of the whole Free The Pizza ethos is about how anyone anywhere can make great pizza with ingredients from their local store.”
“This is a local store!”
Well, now we’re dancing on the edge of silly. And this conversation was all in fun. But it belies some philosophical challenges in the highly opinionated world of pizza making, to wit: don’t let anyone tell you that you need to use the most expensive or most difficult ingredients.
Chop Shop Park City is not just any local store. It’s a farm-to-butcher specialty shop with a wood-fired oven. It’s run by John Courtney, a celebrity chef who has Michelin-star cred and wrote the foreword to my book, Free The Pizza. We were about to have a pizza party. That’s why I was bringing my relatively pedestrian ingredients into his shop, knowing full well that I might end up in a conversation like this.
If you’ve at all followed the fun of the pre-release party for our book, you know that I was more than happy to avail myself of chef Courtney’s morel stash. He had a huge box of morels, and he offered them to me freely. He's a generous man. I added the morels to a pizza topped with wild boar salami (which I’d brought with me). If you’ve never had wild boar, it’s darker and richer than domesticated pork. Morels are noted for their earthy, woodsy, nutty flavor.
Morels and Wild Boar Salami make for a pizza that’s neither pedestrian nor cheap. But it’s still a pizza that would be fun to make and eat at home. And if you wanted to do that after learning the pizza basics, you certainly could.
But I would never suggest that a neophyte with no experience whatsoever should go out and start slapping $30 a pound mushrooms and $40 a pound salami onto their first pizza. Yes, some guys can go out to buy and ride a Ducati Streetfighter as their first motorcycle and live to tell about it.
And while there’s unlikely to be a skid mark or cranial trauma resulting from someone’s first pizza, it’s still a good idea to give yourself permission to make mistakes. And using basic ingredients is part of what’s written on that permission slip.
So, do you have the basics down? Are you comfortable slinging pizza without fear? That’s a great time to start thinking about what you can do to raise the bar. I love using San Marzano tomatoes—even though they’re about 500% more expensive than the store brand. I use organic flour at 300% more expensive than the store-brand flour.
But I didn’t start there. Just like I didn’t start taking photographs with a $1,300 Nikon and I didn’t start racing in triathlons with a $2,000 bike. The first camera I bought was a Polaroid point and shoot. The first “real” camera that was given to me was a 20-year-old, 35mm rangefinder camera. My first racing bike was a used, $300 road bike.
I also have a dirty little secret: I go by taste, not by price. So many people love pepperoni that I feel obliged to make pepperoni pizza. And I have done side-by-side taste tests with more expensive brands against a certain supermarket house brand. The certain supermarket house brand wins every time. (Instead of pepperoni, I prefer Spanish-style chorizo for my own pizzas. Better flavor, I think.)
More expensive doesn’t always mean better taste. But there are things that are outside the mainstream and are more exotic and that one might by tempted to try. Take morel mushrooms, for example. They’re hard to come by. They are almost by definition a foraged product. They can be grown by specialists with specialized equipment. But usually, morels are wild. Hunting them is a cutthroat venture undertaken by serious, well-armed people who laugh in the face of danger. I’m seeing fresh morels selling online right now for $45 a pound.
Maybe you want to start using $40 a pound Parmigiano Reggiano on your pizza, or $16 a pound mozzarella di bufala like they use in Naples’ VPN pizzerias. Go crazy—as long as it’s what you want to do. Nobody should be telling you that it’s a requirement to be building $50 pizzas in your own kitchen.
When I began planning my pizzas for the big Free The Pizza at Chop Shop, I told John about some of the things I was planning. He said, “Don’t worry about it. You do you.” And I did. And it was good. Even if it didn’t always cost more.
Pizza elevated is a fantastic thing. And when you feel like you’ve got your basic pizza nailed, elevate the hell out of it. Or don’t. First and foremost, use ingredients that work. The right flour. Water, salt and yeast. Tomatoes, herbs, oil and cheese. Those are the things that get you started. Once you find that you’re making actual pizza and not a PLO (pizza-like object), feel free to push your boundaries. Find influences. Splurge on fancy toppings. Make a white pizza with bechamel sauce to see what you’ve been missing. Like a great philosopher once said, Man cannot live by store-brand pepperoni alone…
FREE THE PIZZA! The #1 New Release book in Pizza Making is now available on Amazon.
If you told me I could pick only one cheese for my pizza for the rest of eternity, the answer would be simple. It’s going to be mozzarella. BUT…not the lovely, high-moisture fresh mozzarella of the Neapolitan pizza Margherita fame, no siree Bob.
I pick the lowly, low-moisture mozzarella of commercial pizzeria ignominy! Why? Three simple reasons.
1) Low-moisture mozzarella has a longer shelf life than its fresh counterpart. Fresh mozzarella, as it ages, can begin to taste bad—and that process begins the second you break the seal on that little plastic bubble. Low-moisture mozzarella, on the other hand, always tastes bad—until you melt it on a pizza. That is where it becomes glorious.
2) It’s melty, not moist. The moisture content of fresh mozzarella is significantly higher than its low-moisture counterpart. It can turn a pizza into a soupy mess—especially when you don’t have a 900-degree oven. And who needs a soupy mess?
3) It’s what all my pizza-loving friends are used to. Yes, the American pizza landscape is overwhelmingly populated by low-moisture mozzarella pizzas. It’s what Americans have come to know and love. More important, it’s what they’ve come to expect. Some of the nation’s most famous pizzas are made with low-moisture mozzarella. And frankly, if it’s good enough for the gods of American pizza, it’s good enough for me.
I have nothing against fresh mozzarella, and I use it often. But it is not my cheese of choice. It is a special-occasion product used selectively with discretion.
Do I have a favorite low-moisture mozzarella? I do not. As long as the cheese is a whole-milk product and not part-skim, all brands I’ve tried have been acceptable for the job of making pizza at home. Based on the reports of third-party blind taste tests I’ve read, this is pretty much the norm. There are a few lousy outliers. But overall, taste testers agree that the rubbery, provolone-like cheese that comes in the one-pound pack is uninteresting until it’s given a chance to shine under the synergy high heat with the tomato and toppings of a composed pizza.
Free the pizza!
Blaine Parker is the award-winning author of the new, unusual and amusing how-to pizza book, Free The Pizza. Also known as The Pizza Geek and "Hey, Pizza Man!", Blaine is fanatical about the idea that true, professional-quality pizza can be made at home. His home. Your home. Anyone's home. After 20 years of honing his craft and making pizza in standard consumer ovens across the nation, he's sharing what he's learned with home cooks like you. Are you ready to pizza?
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