The Midweek Modernist Pizza Report: From jamming it in a can to saucing it up, hello tomato (and beyond)! Part 1
The Ongoing Modernist Pizza Review, Volume 2, Chapter 8, "Sauce," 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
“To many, if it doesn’t have some kind of sauce on top, it’s probably not pizza.” Thus begins the chapter of Modernist Pizza that might seem innocuous. Only after you dive in is it clear just how much the global tomato crop means to life, the universe and pizza.
The first page of Volume 2, Chapter 8, “Sauce,” sets us up for the importance of tomatoes—while simultaneously dashing any requirement for tomatoes.
Sauces can be green or white, made of cream or cheese, egg, stock, or even soup. Yes, soup. And I admit, while I’ve never used soup for pizza, I have made pizzas with leftover gumbo and leftover etouffée. Soup-adjacent sauces, if you will. Seems my efforts fit right into the Modernist paradigm. (Even a blind squirrel finds an acorn and all that…)
Mhyrvold & Migoya also point out that even the almighty office of pizza law, the AVPN, doesn’t limit the pizza to red sauces. (But the red sauce, of course, must be San Marzano tomatoes…)
The first section of the chapter is “Why We Put Sauce On Pizza.” Mhyrvold & Migoya point out that the sauce usually has two main purposes: to add moisture to a dish, or to contribute flavor. But here, Modernist Pizza lets us know that in pizza making, sauce has additional functions. (The science of pizza continues…)
Sauce protects the center of the pizza, and keeps it flat. It actually acts as a heat sink so the center of the pizza can’t get above 212 degrees. If that happens, all the water evaporates. Sauce also protects delicate toppings from the heat of the oven.
They also mention something here that is in Tony Gemignani’s 10 Commandments Of Pizza: putting cold sauce on a pizza is a bad plan. It creates problems, among them: the dreaded gum line.
Here’s a good one. Apparently, the AVPN proclaims that thou shalt not sauce a pizza while it’s upon the peel. The powers-that-be want you to sauce it and then slide it onto the peel. But Mhyrvold and Migoya tell us that the top pizzaioli of Naples disagree. “Ultimately, it depends on your comfort level and expertise.” That said, The Modernistas prefer saucing the pizza while it’s on the work table, then transferring the pizza to the peel. It gives you more time to work without the danger of the pizza sticking to the peel.
And fans of Trenton style tomato pie will be glad to hear that the “cheese first and then sauce” paradigm is the Modernistas’ preferred method of application. The reasoning is simple: It’s less likely to result in a gel layer. (Science!)
And why is Detroit style pizza always sauced after baking? Because putting sauce on a thick-crust pizza can inhibit heat radiation to the center of the crust. In other words, it won't bake through.
These tips and more! And practical to boot. For instance, did you know that saucing technique matters more than you might imagine? (How’s your spoodle technique? I'm sure hoping they talk about that later.) They performed experiments where they were saucing things in different orders than usual. That even included mixing cheese and sauce together on a New York pizza. “Not only did it fail to improve the melt, it resulted in an unappetizing pink color.”
Oh, no! More science! Sauce amount recommendations they offer are based on <gasp!> weight of the sauce relative to the weight of the dough. Scales!
The section on “Common Sauce Problems” addresses things like burnt sauce on the finished pizza, a tomato sauce that’s leaching water, and too much sauce which can lead to the dreaded gum line (AKA the gel layer).
And no chapter about sauce would be complete (at least not in the uber-comprehensive world of Mhyrvold & Migoya) without conversation about its history and a timeline. That timeline begins in 1519 when Spaniards came to the New World. The Aztecs called the tomato plant xitomatl, and it’s suspected they’d been cultivating the wild plant since 500 BCE.
The timeline tracks the tomato’s progress through the centuries. It covers the early mentions in cookbooks and in health-food lore up to the 1930s. That’s when it was discovered that gassing tomatoes meant they could be picked before fully ripe. (Canned tomatoes are far more likely to be ripe tomatoes than the “fresh” ones in your supermarket produce section.) We get to follow tomatoes all the way to the most recent development, the Tasti-Lee tomato in 2010.
SIDEBAR: I had to Google the Tasti-Lee. The company website declares, “Tasti-Lee® brand tomatoes have been bred to stay on the vine until fully ripened by Mother Nature, yet remain firm all the way to the store shelf & your kitchen counter!” I don’t know how much like a true garden-fresh tomato it tastes, but I’m willing to try.
The Modernistas says, “There’s little question that in-season tomatoes ripen to full red-ripe under the hot sun taste the best, but in most parts of the world, canned tomatoes are going to taste better than fresh ones.” Therein lies one of the sad truths about tomatoes. It also means my pantry has lots of canned tomatoes in it. (I’ve come it the conclusion that, counterintuitively, many canned and frozen products are often better than so-called “fresh” options because they’re picked or caught and packed or frozen at the height of their freshness. Seems The Modernist stance is backing me up on this. Maybe. Don't want to get too self-aggrandizing here.)
Unsurprisingly for writers so science minded, there’s a discussion of pH and the ideal acidity for tomatoes. There’s also mention of the degree-of-sweetness measurement by degrees Brix. (Got your refractometer handy?)
Are you tired of clever people telling you very haughtily that a tomato is a fruit? Hang on: “Botanically speaking, tomato is a berry consisting of seeds within a fleshy pericarp developed from an ovary. It’s technically a fruit, but gastronomically it’s treated as a vegetable.” It’s said here without pride or irony because this is Modernist Pizza at work. This is also the springboard for discussing the anatomy of a tomato. One page, four paragraphs, and a giant photo of the Roma tomato cross section pointing out the key parts of its anatomy. Brilliant!
There is interesting trivia about what you think you’re eating versus what’s really being served vis à vis the tomato. The ever-popular Roma tomato is almost never actually a Roma tomato. But have you ever heard about the Heinz 5608 or the Woodbridge BQ 273? (Thank you, Processing Tomato Advisory Board!)
Then, there’s the fetish surrounding San Marzano tomatoes. Yep. Guilty. I’m a fetishist. I’ve recommended DOP San Marzano tomatoes to people with the reservation that they’re expensive. But buyer beware! The market is crowded with tomatoes called San Marzano that are not produced in the region or even in Italy.
In the US, the problem has apparently seen fraudulent labeling and even fraudulent pizzas (!), and seizure by police. (Who are the pizza police, anyway? And where were they when all that fake San Marzano pineapple came around?) And when the US brought charges against producers here who were labeling their cans falsely, evidence included DNA testing. This is a big deal.
But leave it to the Modernistas to be clear-eyed about all this: “Here’s another shocker: you can make a good pizza with other tomato varieties! There are so many kinds of tomatoes, it’s shortsighted to think there’s only one kind that work.”
San Marzano tomatoes are popular for their taste, among other things. I know I love the way they taste. There are also people who probably think I commit crimes of sauce against them. (I cook them down with seasonings instead of using them straight from the can—which is great for Neapolitan pizza baked at 800 degrees, just by the way. Unreduced, wet sauce is not so good for pizza baked in a 550-degree home oven.) But the important thing is: my regular advice has been proven solid. If you buy the tomatoes with the San Maranos with the DOP seal, you are getting the real deal. Trust no other.
Interestingly, the Modernistas speak very little of the fetish itself. I was looking forward to a little more snark. (Not that this book has much of that.) There really just is not a lot of judgment here in Modernist PIzza.
Next time: get ready for the glory of the canned tomato. We'll also question the deadly nightshade family. And let's take a peek at the legacy left by the Queen of The Italian Tomatoes who might not have been Italian but was a hot tomato in her own right...
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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