Modernist Pizza pulls back the curtain on the mysteries of cheese and what it means to your flat little world of pizza-making (Part 1)
The Ongoing Modernist Pizza Review, Volume 2, Chapter 9, "Cheese," Part I
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
Does the phrase “ooey-gooey” make you want to turn the page? Maybe it’s just me. But the Modernistas went there. It’s at the very beginning of Volume 2, Chapter 9, the chapter on Cheese.
They first acknowledge that the only cheese-less pizza most people expect is Pizza Marinara. They then say that people generally expect cheese. And finally, they reference the many advertising images of “ooey-gooey cheese.” Ack.
I guess this confirms that while Mhyrvold & Migoya are science-based thinkers, they also live in the real world. Personally, I’ve tried to avoid the phrase “ooey-gooey” for my entire career as a writer. This might be the first time I’ve ever even committed it to print. That said, I have not tried to avoid cheese in any way. And this is a head-first dive into cheesy delights.
Modernist Pizza begins by explaining the various ways to classify cheese. There’s the source of the milk, so pick your ruminant, ranging from cows to camels. There’s the scale of hardness, ranging from soft cheese to very hard cheese. “Cheeses can also be differentiated in terms of the coagulating agent used (rennet or acid) and their microflora.” There’s the internal mold, surface mold, surface yeasts and bacteria—the classification methods seem as endless as the microorganisms making it all possible.
But they assure us that, at the end of the cheese day, cheeses are all more alike than they are different. Cheese is comparable to bread or wine, and microorganisms are part of the deal.
Where pizza is concerned, though, the most vital classification may be when you add a particular cheese to the pizza: before baking or after. There are very clear rules about what cheese should go on the pizza when, with limited exceptions. Some cheese will melt and disappear completely. And some cheese can be applied before or after baking.
And cheese is such a vast topic, the Modernistas do something here they’ve not done previously in Modernist Pizza. They admit they are far from comprehensive about cheese. There are entire books devoted to individual varieties of cheese. The only cheeses about to be covered here are those suited to pizza. To this, I say, Thank you. (Based on this intel, one could guess any possible Modernist Cheese might be 10 volumes, weigh 113 pounds, come in a stainless steel case finished to look like a surface-mold rind from a runny brie, and still be considered incomplete.)
The big question here: What is milk? That depends. If you’re talking about milk from the supermarket, it’s mainly milk from Holstein cows. That’s because Holsteins produce milk really well. And the Modernistas compare this monoculture to a world of wine populated only by Chardonnay. (Heaven forbid it be an overtly oaked Chardonnay equivalent of milk. Blech.)
As we know and they illustrate, there are many other kinds of milk—including ones that are better suited to making cheeses. (I once made a fresh mozzarella from supermarket milk. It was quite bland. Perhaps Holstein milk is the reason. That, and the milk was pasteurized, which is also an issue in cheese making.) The book gives us a basic discussion of the component parts of milk vis à vis water and solids (about 87% to 13%), and the available fat, protein and carbs. As always, there’s just enough intel to help us understand the basics, but not so much that we’re ever going to know enough to run out and make cheese. They again avoid overwhelm while still feeling comprehensive.
Mhyrvold & Migoya also glance at the miracle of cheese. “It’s fascinating to think that on a single pizza you can have cheese that’s a day old or less and cheese that’s years old, both made from the same ingredient.” And why is cheese so much more expensive than milk? Let’s revisit that water-to-solids ratio of 87:13. The book’s accompanying photos show relative and minimal quantities of cheese available from a liter of milk. Milk to cheese presents a ratio that rivals the sap-to-maple-syrup production ratio of 40:1. Phew.
Modernist Pizza offers us an examination of the differences between raw and pasteurized milk that is (of course) moderately scientific. It seems human pathogens can end up in raw milk. It doesn’t take much. And, “Without pasteurization, the bacteria can thrive and spread.” But, cheeses made from raw milk aren’t as problematic as raw milk itself because cheese is aged. Bacteria typically do not survive the aging process.
Next comes “Cheese Making.” The pose the question, “How does milk, a liquid, transform into cheese, a solid? And how does the flavor go from plain and slightly sweet to nutty, pungent, earthy, tangy, and all those other different flavors you find in the white world of cheese?” Rest assured, you’re going to get a concise and comprehensive explanation where they include all the fat, so to speak, as fat and its relative ratio to protein is where the flavor lives.
Making cheese requires heating the milk. Then, it’s acidified. A coagulant gets involved (like rennet), curds are formed and then manipulated, and whey is drained off. Then comes aging.
And we get to learn the French term “affinage.” Yay! Sounds sexy, and it is. Depending on who you are. Affinage is the cultivation of beneficial molds, yeasts and bacteria. And the variations are endless.
As Modernist Pizza is so good at doing, there’s a quick explanation of the cheese-making process. This includes a flow chart representing all possible variables along the way. At the end of the line is a choice: making a cheddar (a cheese that’s pressed and aged), a pasta filata (a cheese that’s stretched, shaped and brined), or a ricotta, which requires collecting and forming floating curds. The book highlights the processes for cheddaring and pasta filata (literally, a “formed paste”) since those two are the most relevant to pizza making.
“Milk left to sit out will be invaded by microorganisms.” Ah, a cheery thought. Thus begins the section on cultures. If I had been invaded by more beneficial microorganisms at a young age, would I have more culture? Perhaps that’s a different book.
Here, we’re talking about cultures like lactic acid bacteria, or LAB, that promote ripening of cheese and developing cheese acidity. There are thousands of strains of LAB, each created with a specific purpose in mind. We learn the basics of coagulation or curdling; the part played by pH; the difference between homofermantative and heterofermentative cultures; and thermophilic versus mesophilic cultures. (Yes, they’re all explained—and just enough. No more.)
Want to know how to use a pH meter? Yep, there are basic instructions for that. (Or you can use pH testing paper, which is less expensive but also less accurate.)
There’s an ever-so-brief history of rennet. You may know that rennet was discovered in sheep intestines. But today, most rennet is vegetable based. (Learning that latter fact, I’m enjoying the irony that most rennet is vegan, yet you couldn’t possibly use rennet to make vegan cheese.)
Now, about those buffalo… You probably know about mozzarella di bufala (buffalo mozzarella) as the gold standard of cheese for Neapolitan pizza. It has twice as much fat as cow-milk mozzarella. There are also ongoing developments in testing for fakes. Yes, counterfeiting this cheese is a common practice—namely, making it with cow’s milk and labeling it as buffalo. As with San Marzano tomatoes, always look for the DOP logo. The Modernistas, however, decided to try and see if they could make their own buffalo-quality mozzarella using cow’s milk. They say “The results are delicious.” Color me unsurprised.
Next up, a table of “Cheese Classification By Texture And Moisture Content.” All of the usual suspects are here, from very hard cheeses to soft cheeses. Included is low-moisture mozzarella, “also called American mozzarella, pizza cheese, and part-skim mozzarella.” Not to be confused, of course, with the fabled American Cheese, that much-maligned (perhaps unreasonably so) soft cheese, which is processed, and has a moisture content of 43.2% and a fat content of 24.46 percent. (These gentlemen leave no stone unturned in their mission to help us understand EVERYTHING that influences our pizza making.)
Now, about “Preparing Your Cheese.” As always, a section like this inspires me to ask, “Am I doing it wrong?” Fortunately, no. It seems. But only insofar as concerns the very limited range of cheeses I use on pizza. And there are all kinds of instructions here for preparing everything, up to and including surface-mold ripened and smear-ripened cheeses.
(I know you might be getting queasy here. Be glad you’re not reading Michael Pollan’s writing on cheese funk and the “eroticism of disgust” in his book, Cooked.) These particular soft, ripe cheeses are “hard to handle and stick to everything.” (Sounds similar to fiberglass cloth freshly coated with polyester resin, but it doesn’t smell nearly as good, never mind the taste.) With cheese control in mind, here’s another use for your wine fridge: temperature control with hard-to-handle cheeses. The book also offers tips for draining fresh mozzarella, and preparing soft cheese and blue cheeses. And don’t bother slicing processed cheeses. Just more mess. Buy them pre-sliced or in strands.
Ever wondered about Provel cheese? Never heard of Provel cheese? It’s the standard cheese for St. Louis pizza. It doesn’t stretch and it’s an acquired taste. According to Mhyrvold & Migoya, it’s been called things like “waxy” and “melted plastic from the ‘80s.” It was introduced in the 1940s by a grocer, and it became a hit when Imo’s Pizza began putting it on their cracker-thin crust. The St. Louis pizza, a regional pizza variation, was born. Imo’s now has more than 100 stores in the Midwest. And true to his professionalism and lack of pizza prejudice, even pizza god Tony “Respect The Craft” Gemignani offers Provel at Tony’s Pizza Napoletana in San Francisco.
The “Equipment For Cheese Preparation” section doesn’t yield a lot of surprises. That is, unless you’re still surprised by how much intel Mhyrvold & Migoya can offer on something as simple as a box grater or a food processor. But there is at least one surprise: Their favorite tool for cutting balls of fresh mozzarella is a French-fry cutter.
And now, the march of the anti-caking agents. I admit that without ever doing any personal testing, I’ve long advocated for grating your own cheese. The party line is this: pre-shredded cheeses contain anti-caking agents that can prevent them from melting properly. And it’s true—until it’s not.
Hello, experiments! The Modernistas did tests on pre-shredded mozzarella so you and I don’t have to. They found that pre-shredded product coated with cornstarch led to an inferior result. However, mozzarella dusted with cellulose resulted in a melt similar to mozzarella without any anti-caking agent. As a result, they give us instructions for shredding and performing anti-caking ops on our own cheese. I admit, I might consider doing it—except that on Amazon, a two-pound bag of microcrystalline cellulose sounds like a lifetime supply and at 24 bucks, I might just not worry about it. I’m not running a restaurant.
SIDEBAR: For the record, as previously stated, I’ve not done tests. But I have had pizza with cheese that was clearly coated in an undesirable anti-caking agent. You can tell because you’ve got a pizza covered in cheese that has not melted from its original, pre-shredded shape. These pizzas are always subpar. Of course, we eat them anyway. Because hey—pizza.
You’ll also be relieved to know that shred size does not affect coverage and melting. That is, “as long as you’re controlling weight and baking conditions.” Mozzarella behaves like mozzarella no matter how finely you shred it.
The “Applying Cheese To Your Pizza” section is several unsurprising paragraphs of good, solid advice. What’s unusual is that there’s a strong opinion on asymmetrical pizzas and inconsistent distribution of cheeses. Mhyrvold & Migoya literally put voice to their “pet peeve.”
Next up, the importance of portioning. There's the <gasp!> vegan cheeses. A fascinating history of mozzarella, and can you really freeze your cheese? This and more in the ongoing review of Modernist Pizza…
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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