Homemade Pizza

Having grown up in the Pizza Capital of the United States (that would be New Haven, Connecticut) I have long-standing opinions on what makes a proper pizza. Chief among these are the default assumptions that pizza means “red pie” (tomato sauce) and that cheese on pizza means an evenly melted, gloriously stretchy, ever so slightly browned layer of molten goodness, ensuring milky, salty flavor with every bite, at least until you reach the crust.

It wasn’t until I was in my twenties, working in the food business and traveling to Europe that I learned of differing expectations in the Pizza Capital of the World (that would be Naples, Italy). There, the pie was red but the cheese was delicately softened disks of “fior di latte” (flower of milk, aka fresh, hand-pulled cow milk) mozzarella, or, even better, gently softened rounds of mozzarella di bufala di Campagna (fresh mozzarella made from buffalo milk). People ate their pizza with a fork and knife and the texture of the crust was soft and chewy, almost like Indian nan.

The pizza of my childhood and the pizza of my travels both relied on mozzarella but the mozzarellas were radically different and so, too, were the pizzas. 

You Have to Start with Mozzarella

To appreciate cheese on pizza, you have to start with mozzarella. It’s because of pizza that nearly half of the 30 pounds of cheese the average American eats each year are mozzarella. It’s the most consumed cheese in the U.S. and that’s because it’s the cheese we put on our pizzas.

But not all mozzarellas are created equal and your pizza won’t be either. American pizza is typically made with low-moisture mozzarella. It’s sold in the dairy department of the supermarket. It’s available in whole milk, park skim and skim versions and often comes pre-shredded in bags. The best-known brands are Polly-O, Kraft and Sargento. 

Cheese people are quick to point out that low-moisture mozzarella is considered inferior to “real” or “fresh” mozzarella—the smooth, white, half pound balls typically sold in the deli department under the brands Bel Gioioso, Rio Briati or Galbani. And for eating purposes this is true. If you’re making a caprese salad or slicing mozzarella to enjoy alongside prosciutto and olives there’s no comparison between the bland, salty chew of a low-moisture mozzarella cube and the delicate, milky freshness of a fresh mozzarella round. 

When it comes to cooking, however, you have to consider more than flavor. Fresh mozzarella contains 60+% water, versus low-moisture mozzarella’s 45-52%. Buffalo mozzarella looks and behaves a lot like fresh mozzarella. It’s typically sold in a container, packed in water, so the moisture content is even higher as is the fat content. Buffalo milk is nearly twice as fatty as cow milk and has stronger, grassier flavor.

Which of these mozzarellas makes a better pizza really depends on the kind of pizza you prefer to eat. What makes low-moisture mozzarella pretty boring to eat raw make it exceptional when heated. Less water and more age mean it grates and shreds easily and melts into an even, stretchy layer that blankets an entire pizza. The higher salt content contrasts with the sweetness of tomato sauce and the resulting slice is what most of us think of when we think of pizza. 

Fresh mozzarella, buffalo mozzarella and even the cream-enriched cheese burrata become smooth and oozy under heat but they form individual moments of cheesiness across a pizza’s surface. Additionally, that high moisture content puts you at risk of soggy pizza. A soft, floppy center crust is part of what distinguishes Neapolitan-style pizza, and this due in large part to the fresh mozzarella that’s used. But should you try to blanket your pizza with fresh mozz you’ll wind up with a wet, soggy slice that can’t be picked up. 

I love the interlude of fresh mozzarella on pizza. When I go this route I keep my toppings extremely simple—a restrained smear of homemade sauce from in-season tomatoes and a sprinkling of shredded basil as the pizza comes out of the oven. To manage sogginess I add the cheese halfway through the bake so the crust has time to establish itself. And most importantly, I prepare myself for a pizza that’s not going to have an even layer of cheese across every bite. The cheese is more like a topping and less like a foundational element of the pizza.

But truth be told, 90% of the time when I make pizza (and it’s become a Friday night staple in our house) I use low-moisture mozzarella because I want cheese on the whole darn thing. Fat carries flavor and it ensures even, layered melting so treat yourself to whole milk mozzarella and skip the part-skim and skim versions. Also, though it’s a bit more work, I’m a big advocate for buying mozzarella by the block and grating it at home. Pre-shredded mozzarella is coated with starch-based anti-caking agents and these tend to brown faster and form a crust on the pizza. 

Cheeses to Branch Out To

An obvious question about making pizza is, “Since there’s no shortage of mozzarella pizza in the world what can I branch out to?”  And this is where making pizza at home can be really fun. You may not have a brick oven that cooks your pie perfectly in 3 minutes, but you can experiment with toppings and flavor combinations that aren’t readily available at restaurants. Varying the cheese is the easiest way to do this.

Cheeses for Melting

Several styles of cheese will behave like low-moisture mozzarella and deliver a smooth, even layer of melted cheese with the added benefits of more or different flavors. 

Provolone, like mozzarella, is what’s called a pasta filata cheese. When the cheese is being made the curd is dipped in hot water, pulled and stretched to develop a smooth, elastic, even texture. Then, provolone is aged for longer than fresh or low-moisture mozzarella. You get a first cousin in terms of texture but a deeper, saltier, more developed flavor. Provolone often has beefy notes and I find it pairs especially well with roasted red peppers and spice, be that a sprinkling of chili flakes or rounds of Calabrese salami.

Taleggio is one of my favorite melting cheeses. I’ve written about using it for grilled cheese and mac and cheese. It’s my go-to for cheese grits. And I love it for pizza. Taleggio is high enough in moisture that you’ll get even melt. When you grate the cheese don’t cut the rind off. That orange, brine-washed exterior imparts flavors of cured meat and added salt that make it such a great topper. This cheese pairs especially well with licorice-y flavors. One of my favorite combos is caramelized fennel and fennel-laced, Tuscan-style salami or crumbled breakfast sausage.

Asaigo comes in a younger, semisoft style and a hard, aged grating style. For pizza go for the younger version. Cut off the rind before grating and expect a fresh, milky flavor akin to fresh mozzarella but with better meltability. Another option in this flavor camp is Fontina. Both are delicate and do well with veggie pizza. In particular I like spinach and black olive. 

Cheeses for Dolloping

As I described fresh mozzarella or buffalo mozzarella as being more about intermittent bites of cheese, several other fresh cheeses don’t melt well but are lovely in combination with low-moisture mozzarella or as dollops across the top of a pizza.

Goat cheese, or chevre, won’t melt and go gooey but it will soften under heat. The cheese has bright, tart, citrus flavors . That makes it well suited to strong and intense toppings, against which it offers a burst of clean, milky flavor for contrast. For people who don’t care for the lemony flavors of goat cheese, spoonfuls of high moisture, full fat ricotta work the same way. I love either one with figs, caramelized onion and bacon.

Cheeses for Finishing

Several styles of cheese make amazing finishers for pizza. They’re best combined with mozzarella or other good melters and used for an additional burst of flavor and complexity. I recommend adding them for the last 3-4 minutes of cooking so they have a chance to soften and meld with the other toppings.

Parmesan or aged Pecorino Romano are so dry and low moisture that they won’t go gooey but they will soften into the other cheese and toppings and give you a beautiful dimension of nutty and sharper flavors. For people who are looking to cut fat I strongly encourage a sprinkling of one of these at the end of baking in lieu of a pizza blanketed in fat free mozzarella. The bit of fat and flavor hit from these cheeses is much more satisfying and delicious. These hard grating cheeses also pair well with toppings such as Prosciutto or arugula that are best added at the last minute or even as the pizza is coming out of the oven.

Blue cheese is another unexpected finisher that can add a massive flavor pop from a restrained sprinkling of chunks. Blue’s high salt and acid content can become metallic-tasting with too much exposure to heat so a few minutes is plenty. I balance the intensity of the cheese with caramelized onion, bacon or cruciferous vegetables like broccoli.