Midweek Modernist Pizza Report: Are you flinging toppings at your pizza in the most humane way possible?
The Ongoing Modernist Pizza Review, Volume 2, Chapter 10, "Toppings"
Written by Nathan Myhrvold and Francisco Migoya
Published by The Cooking Lab; First edition, October 19, 2021
Hardcover: 1708 pages, 32.7 pounds, 13.78 x 10.24 x 15.94 inches
List Price: $425.00
Amazon discount price as of 03/08/23: $294.99
Order of assembly. Distribution. Weight. Preparation. Payload. Are we making pizza or going to the moon? Well, if the pizza is good enough, maybe both. But the word on the first page of “Toppings” lets you know that there’s real science going on. The word is: "biteability."
“Even though it’s a made-up word, we’re pretty sure you know what we mean: The ability to bite cleanly into a slice without dragging off all the toppings. Important, right?” Don’t try to tell me Mhyrvold & Migoya don’t cover the important stuff.
And right away, they make it pretty clear that we’re going to be covering all possibilities related to topping a pizza. My personal preference is for a composed pizza with evenly sized and distributed pieces of whatever’s happening on top. I’d like to think they’d appreciate that. But let’s see if I can disappoint them.
“The Science Of Pizza Toppings” is a section that comes as surprise. They run through a litany of topping problems and how those problems affect the eating experience. They also refer to biteability again, and contrast it with eatability. “For example, you can technically bite through a soupy pizza, but the overall eatability isn’t great. The amount of toppings and how messy they are will also impacted eatability.”
They also point out that “the best way to fix a problem is to avoid it in the first place.” And they give us a problem/solution chart that voters toppings that drag, are tough, burn, are excessive, and fall off. Yay, charts.
And yay, payload! It’s probably a guy thing. I don’t know a lot of women who will find amusement in a section entitled “Topping Payload.” The also Modernistas explain it right away. “Payload is a term used in aviation and aerospace to describe the amount of stuff a vehicle can carry given the amount of fuel it has. In other words, payload is the capacity to carry the weight without compromising flight functions. We think the term also applies to pizza. How much stuff can I put on before all the toppings spill off or the slice buckles under its own weight.”
There a brief discussion of the mechanics of topping weight. There’s with some stunning illustrative photography of different topping problems, from “poor distribution” to “wet toppings.” The photo for overtopped is bordering on comical. The only way you can know it’s pizza is from context. It looks like the cheese monster that ate Cincinnati.
And being Mhyrvold & Migoya, they’ve given us a chart of actual, recommended topping weights. Each of the eight styles of pizza get an ideal weight for, respectively, sauce, cheese, weight of toppings added before and after baking, and total payload.
They also admit to some subjectivity in the chart. And there’s a warning to keep in mind the flavor intensity of the ingredient. “If you topped a small, thin crust pizza with 135 g of arugula, after baking, it would engulf the pizza, and 135g of anchovies would overwhelm the other flavors on the pizza.”
In the section “Topping Application,” they’ve used one of my personal favorite dicta. I take that as a sign that this really is the single most important rule in topping a pizza: “Less is often more when it comes to toppings.” As mentioned earlier, I’m a fan of a well-composed pizza. I always have been. And while they don’t use that phrasing specifically, they do say, “ if you apply them evenly, you can probably get away with applying less. If you are sloppy with the topping application, you’ll tend to apply more.” Do not be a sloppy pizzaolo!
“When To Apply Toppings.” Yes, timing matters. There’s one sentence that really helps illustrate the significance of this matter: “For instance, some cured meats are best added at the end of a bake rather than the start. If you bake a high-end Serrano ham or duck prosciutto on your pizza, you’ll wind up with an identifiable leathery, salty crisp.”
Timing matters, as does whether the topping is raw or cooked before applying. And some things you may not have anticipated are brought to the fore, e.g. there are cured meats that are best applied after baking. And is it better to slice your pizza before adding toppings? Maybe it is, if you’re adding slices of mortadella…
And there’s even a quick note about food safety issues you’re probably not worrying about at home. Will you poison your guests? (They don’t do that. I do. And so far, no.) WHAT?
The tips regarding applying toppings halfway through baking or after baking are quite useful. And there’s a bonus tip for me personally. I love an egg on a pizza, and I often screw it up. They offer salient tips. The insight here is useful.
“The Ubiquitous Shakers That Let You Customize Your Slice.” Didn’t see this one coming, but should I be surprised? This is perhaps THE authoritative text about pizza. And the Modernistas will thoughtfully school us in all aspects of the craft—right down to the challenges of shaking crushed red peppers or Parmesan on our pizza. And get ready to be disillusioned: “When it comes to the Parmesan, Shakers, we are sorry to inform you that the cheese is not, and has never been, Parmigiano-Reggiano. Rather, it’s Parmesan, a very different cheese..” There are even a few words to let you know more about dried oregano than you ever imagined possible.
Here’s another fun section: “Matching Textures With Bite Strategy.” I’m already imagining the football-play diagram that goes with this strategy. “Have you ever tucked into a sandwich and had all the fillings drag out with the first bite? That’s poor sandwich design. This culinary tragedy can also happen with pizza, and for the same reason: there was something on it that was too tough for your teeth to cut through clearly. As you pull the pizza away from your mouth, everything connected to that impenetrable piece of topping comes along with it. It will land on your chin, chest, plate, the floor, or all of the above. If it happens to be molten hot cheese, your misfortune is compounded.”
Somebody enjoyed writing that. And we get tips to avoid such misfortunes. For instance, be sure to prepare your toppings so that they have the desired biteability on the finished baked pizza.”
The rest of the chapter is given to the Modernist Pizza toppings database (yes, they really have one—remember, Nathan Mhyrvold was CTO of Microsoft), common pizza toppings around the world, and a plethora of toppings and preparations. There’s fruits and vegetables and the common problems associated with them. That’s followed by a two-page chart of fruit and vegetable preparations.
There’s pre-cooking techniques for those fruits and veggies. (While I’ve been roasting some veggies for awhile now, I never thought about using some of these insanely simple tips.) There’s sautéing and steaming, charring, sous vide, (are we getting too intense here?), confit, (maybe we are), and deep frying.
It’s worth noting, perhaps, that the pizza database was compiled from recipes in 370 books from around the world. They used the data to model characteristics and standards for ingredients. And they went deep. They have graphs. And the pile of the books they worked from (there’s a photo) dwarfs any notion of a pizza-book collection that I have. And I’m not even a slacker. (Look, I even own Modernist Pizza!) The chart of fruit and vegetable preparations is also comprehensive and useful.
I admit, I will never bother with deep frying anything to put on a pizza. But the extreme closeup photo of deep-fried baby artichokes on a pizza is drool-worthy. I don’t want to make it. I want someone to make it for me. And I don’t even care so much for artichokes. (I find them too rich and texturally unappealing—and I suspect that deep frying changes that.)
The photo of the “Artisan pizza with heavy cream, ricotta, Swiss cheese, cheddar cheese, braised trotters, sweated, onion, potato confit, and garlic confit” gets a guy thinking. There are recipes for rosti potatoes, as well as frico. (That’s cheese crisps if you’ve not yet entered the world of Detroit pizza, which is prized for its frico edges.) Pressure caremlizing also enters into the picture.
And for all us carnivores, next up: Meats! The discussion is leant mainly to cured meats, as they’re more common on pizza. There’s a chat on how to prepare everything from bacon to blood sausage, prosciutto to pastrami, Serrano ham to Spam.
I admit to a touch of confusion regarding this warning: sliced cured meats can burn, if exposed, while baking; to avoid this, coat the meat with a melting cheese, like mozzarella, placing it on the dough after it is baked halfway.” Forgetting that I first read “exposed” as “explode” (and who wants the threat of exploding meats?), I’m still just a little puzzled about covering meats with cheese. Perhaps it’s a case by case situation. I don’t see covering a sliced cured meat like pepperoni.
And it wouldn’t be Modernist Pizza without a history of the pepperoni. (Blame Hormel for setting the standard.) And there’s another experiment: “Why Does Pepperoni Curl?” Yes, you’ll be surprised by not just the results, but even some of the questions they asked.
There’s a huge, extreme close-up and tantalizing photo of a pepperoni and sausage pizza as we launch into the section on Italian sausage. And finally, and unsurprisingly at the end of the chapter, “Finishing Your Pizza.” The talk here is of sauces, oils, condiments, and there’s even commentary on “The State Of Olive Oil.”
Roll up your sleeves and get your fire on. Next up in Modernist Pizza: Baking!
If the idea of owning a copy of Modernist Pizza attracts you like a moth to the candle flame, you can find it here. If you want a skinnier, simpler, sillier book that teaches only one kind of pizza, you can find Free The Pizza! here.
Blaine Parker is the award-winning author of the bestselling, 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, pro-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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