In the Kitchen
Cheese on top or cheese on the bottom?
By Diana Cline
Do you build your pizzas with the cheese on the top of the toppings, or do you put the cheese on the bottom, meaning, underneath the toppings? What’s the difference? Is there a difference?
Great questions! In the pizza industry, in North America, most pizza places put cheese underneath toppings, unless the customer requests “extra cheese.” In that case, all the cheese is loaded on top of all the toppings. Things evolved that way because, as a visual species, we like to see the cheese, especially when we ask – and pay – for more of it. I know a great many places that don’t actually put more cheese on when a customer requests it. They simply rearrange the layers and put all the cheese on top, so it looks like there’s more. We weigh the cheese on every pizza at Diana’s Cucina, as I’m a firm believer that it’s good business to give the customer what they’re paying for.
When it comes to how the pizza bakes up, where you place the cheese makes a big difference in taste and texture. I will use one of my all-time favourite pizzas on my menu, “The Ultimate Pepperoni,” to elaborate this point. This pizza has two layers of dry-cured pepperoni, on top of a double, extra-cheese blend of garlic-and-chive Havarti and mozzarella, over our housemade marinara, on a Moosehead beer crust. After it’s baked, we add a layer of grated Parmesan cheese. It’s a fabulous pizza. I was awarded “Canada’s Best Pizza Chef 2007” at the 2007 World Pizza Championship Games in Italy with this specialty pizza as my entry. When I created this pizza, I purposely designed it to have all the pepperoni on top, and what we in North America, consider extra, extra cheese. I was inspired to bring the best of the best of a North American-style pizza to Italian pizza games.
I should note here that Italian-style pizzas have one-half to one-third of the amount of cheese that we in North America put on a 12-inch pizza. It’s common for Italian-style pizzas to have sauce and crust not covered by a full “edge-to-edge” layer of cheese. Rather, the cheese is sparsely spread out, allowing the sauce and even bare crust to be seen in spots. In 2007 pepperoni was the most popular topping ordered on North American pizza. Today it still is.
Consider a dry-cured or a fresh pepperoni that’s baked under layers of cheese: it tastes very similar to how it tastes straight out of the make line. But, when you place that same pepperoni on top of layers of cheese and bake it in the high temperature of a pizza oven, it crisps up and the edges curl. The pepperoni we use is the best quality of pepperoni made in Canada. You owner/operators know that if you want to save money, you can buy a pepperoni for less than 50 cents a pound, but personally I wouldn’t feed that pepperoni to my cat, let alone to any humans I care about. The pepperoni I buy for my customers is close to $5 a pound, and you can taste the premium quality. When you layer it on top of the cheese, in the high heat of the pizza oven, it enhances the slight smokiness and accents the hints of pepper in the meat. After it’s baked, the pepperoni is crispy, and there’s a satisfying crunch to the bite of your slice of pizza. The same pizza built with the pepperoni underneath the cheese will have a very different bake, taste and texture.
The same principle applies to vegetable toppings, except that with veggies the moisture content can quickly get out of control. Vegetables are mostly water, although some have more water content than others. When you layer veggie toppings on top of cheese and bake the pizza at a high temperature, much of the moisture of those veggies evaporates. When you layer veggies underneath a blanket of cheese, and bake it at a high temperature, all the moisture released gets trapped between the cheese and the sauce. And all that moisture has nowhere to go, until you slice that pizza, when it’s immediately released into the crust, creating a soggy-bottom crust. The excessive moisture literally waters down the taste and texture of your crust, making it not very satisfying to eat.
When I create a designer specialty pizza for my menu, I like to play around with the build of the pizza. Some of my designer pizzas have cheese on top, some have cheese on the bottom. And it’s not necessarily because of how much cheese is on the pizza. I am inspired by flavours and textures and I will play around with the layers, and the textures and flavours of each ingredient until I’m satisfied that what I’ve created is a masterpiece of edible art. And personally, for me, as an artisan pizza chef, it doesn’t get much better than that. •
Diana Cline is a two-time Canadian Pizza magazine Chef of the Year, three-time winner of “Canada’s Best Pizza Chef” at international pizza competitions, a judge for international pizza culinary competitions in Las Vegas, Italy and France, and a partner with Diana’s Cucina & Lounge in Winnipeg. In addition to creating award-winning recipes, Diana is a consultant to other pizzeria owner/operators in menu development, creating systems to run a pizzeria on autopilot, along with marketing and positioning to help operators grow their business effectively and strategically. She is available for consulting on a limited basis. For more details, contact her at firstname.lastname@example.org