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Tech Slices: The Power Of One – One Topping, That Is

The Power Of One – One Topping, That Is

April 18, 2008
By Bob McDougall


Over the last year and a half, we’ve discussed a lot of
different subjects from a technical standpoint: food safety, dough
types, and equipment – even the best order in which to top a pizza.
Most of the topics were pretty straightforward.

Over the last year and a half, we’ve discussed a lot of different subjects from a technical standpoint: food safety, dough types, and equipment – even the best order in which to top a pizza. Most of the topics were pretty straightforward.

This month, I’m going out on a limb to suggest that “pepperoni” is perhaps not the only really great one-topping pizza, and that there is a method to decide which of these pizzas will appeal to our customers.

While pepperoni pizza is, according to most, the highest popularity single-topping pie, it’s not inexpensive, due to the price of good pepperoni. Sure, there’s usually as balance between the amount of flavour and the price of the pepp – you can use smaller amounts of the more expensive, fully-cured dry pepperoni to achieve a good level of flavour than if you employ cheaper, high-moisture pepperoni sausage, but on the whole, pepperoni pizzas are fairly expensive in your mix.


Why not offer your customers some alternative “One-topping specials” that allow you to price aggressively but still end up with some cash in your jeans? There’s a lot of good eating in other, cost-effective single topping pies.

Think of the entire sensory experience of eating pizza, specifically, a pepperoni pizza.

The tangy aroma; the firm, slightly chewy initial bite; the slightly greasy, warm and piquant first burst of flavour; the complex but substantial texture made up of resilient slices of sausage, soft cheese and chewy dough, made easier to eat by a mixture of fat and water-based fluids (oil from the pepp, moisture both from the sauce and the eater’s own contribution brought forth by the mouth-watering flavour); the release of lower-level flavour, such as those from whole spices like fennel seed as chewing progresses.

Next time you enjoy a pepperoni slice, take a few moments to go through this exercise.

Close your eyes and try it with your first bite, then again near the end of the slice. This will provide a good example of how the palate changes as appetite wanes and as our perception changes. Just remember, be aware of your surroundings – if you try this in a crowded pizzeria, you may get more than a few strange looks. Just tell them “this is research!”

Analyzing the above exercise we note the following characteristics about this particular popular pizza offering:

These points are not all we might observe, just a guide to the sorts of things we can learn from analyzing the characteristics of a good product. Another point that may not be evident just from tasting is that all four major components have natural flavour enhancers, which serve to improve each other’s flavours. Tomato sauce contains compounds that work like MSG, boosting the appreciation of meaty flavours. Compounds in toasted dough (or anything else) enhance sweet and acidic notes like those in tomato. Fermented or cultured products (both cheese and some pepperoni) contain complex flavour enhancers that boost the flavour of many components. Of course the old standby – salt – boosts almost all flavours within normal ranges of use.

When applying these to other single-topping possibilities, which might be good candidates?

Salami? Sure – but that’s too easy.

What about mushrooms? They can be soggy if not dried well during the bake, so you’d want them on top, but they have good flavour and contain their own enhancers. Salt would probably help. Maybe a Halloween special – double mushroom and extra cheese to give it more texture?

Roast beef? Slices or chunks of beef match a lot of the characteristics, but if you’ve tried them they can be too dry on their own in a tomato/cheese pizza. Also, the flavours aren’t really a match – what about using a white sauce with some horseradish? From experience that’s a great single topping. Try going easy on the cheese and boosting the sauce salt level with a bit of sea salt for a unique, tasty and pretty cost-effective pie.

Onions? Well – it takes all kinds. Actually, you’d be surprised how tasty a double onion pie can be. Again – try to satisfy the points above. Enough sauce for flavour enhancement and moistness, onions under the cheese for moistness and flavour, and so they don’t fall off. They’ll stay firm but not crispy there as well. Cheese for texture and some onions on top for flavour enhancement (from toasted onions), visual appeal and great aroma. They also provide a texture interest for the mouth in addition to the firm onion under the cheese.

What about convenience and ease in eating? Diced onion is convenient, but doesn’t add much visually. Onion in rings looks great but pulls and falls when eating.

One of the truly under-rated single toppings is a nice Italian-style sausage. The product you’ll want for this is not so much the highly-extended pellets often used as pork or beef sausage, but a nice, lean well-seasoned sausage. Save yourself possible food safety grief and buy or make a fully cooked product. In the US, especially the southeast, such a topping is often ground through a 12 mm or kidney plate and used in big, ragged chunks. Delicious, but often almost too much of a single flavour.

Try a large-diameter sausage (25-35 mm works well) sliced 4 to 7 mm thick on an angle.

When placed flat after cheese on a pizza, these have a great visual, good aroma, high value perception, don’t tend to burn like pepperoni can, and provide a chewy texture and both initial and continuing flavour. You can make this single topping offering into a whole promo by extending your range to spicy with shaker chilies or using mixed herbs for a sausage and herb option.

Try this sort of analysis on other popular pizzas – single topping or not. What makes “toute garni” (pepp, mushroom and green pepper) so popular in Quebec? Is that particular mix in any way related to their preference for a moister, uncured pepp? What is the appeal of extra, double, or even triple cheese? Why is pepp, bacon and mushroom a high seller?

There are reasons for what our customers buy. Analyzing the experience they have in consuming our product can help guide us in expanding and improving that experience, by using the science of food to serve the art of pizza!•