In the Kitchen
the pizza chef: How to evaluate quality ingredients
By Diana Coutu
By Diana Coutu
How does a gourmet pizza compare with an ordinary pizza? What makes a pizza above average? It seems like every pizza place advertises that it only uses quality ingredients, so what’s the difference? Whose definition of quality are we using anyway? After having judged in Italy at the World Pizza Championship Games, I can tell you what we look for in a winner. Let’s begin by comparing the basic ingredients used in pizza making because, the fact is, not all pizzas are created equal.
How does a gourmet pizza compare with an ordinary pizza? What makes a
pizza above average? It seems like every pizza place advertises that it
only uses quality ingredients, so what’s the difference? Whose
definition of quality are we using anyway? After having judged in Italy
at the World Pizza Championship Games, I can tell you what we look for
in a winner. Let’s begin by comparing the basic ingredients used in
pizza making because, the fact is, not all pizzas are created equal.
Here at Diana’s Gourmet Pizzeria, we begin each of our dough recipes
with olive oil while many places use canola or vegetable oil and even
lard. Olive oil is also a lot more expensive; typically, you can buy 18
litres of canola oil for the same price as four litres of olive oil.
Olive oil is healthier and when you use it in pizza dough it gives the
crust a great bread flavour. While I’ve never worked with lard in pizza
dough recipes, I know that it imparts a flaky, pastry-like type of
characteristic on the dough that makes it more like a pie crust than a
We also only use sea salt in our dough and in our sauce recipes, versus
commonly used table salt. Sea salt is a more natural salt. It contains
all the minerals that you find in sea water and our bodies, whereas
table salt is sodium chloride, something doctors, nurses and now Health
Canada is telling us to cut down on. The sea salt we use is 90 times
more expensive than table salt, but because of its high quality you can
reduce the amount used in recipes by two-thirds versus table salt.
The next basic ingredient in pizza making is tomato bases. We start our
award-winning marinara recipe with grade A, premium-quality crushed
tomatoes that are bright red in the can and naturally sweet. There are
grade B through D quality tomatoes available. Lower quality tomatoes
are orange and sometimes even brown in the can. The increased acid
makes them bitter to the taste, especially compared to the premium
tomatoes. Many of these lower grades of canned tomatoes have plastic
liners inside the tin cans because the acid from the tomatoes is so
strong it will eat the tin and leach tin flavour into the tomatoes.
Pizza places that use low-quality tomatoes try to overcome the
bitterness and orange colour by loading the sauce with sugar and red
dyes to mimic a better quality tomato. I’ve tasted some pretty bad
pizza sauces, some that seem more like cheap ketchup than a pizza
sauce. If you’ve ever experienced really bad heartburn from a pizza,
chances are the tomato base was of lesser quality.
Next we can examine the quality of spices used to create pizza sauces.
Many spices are grown in Third World countries where access to clean
water and education about proper food handling are real issues.
Villagers typically get paid by the pound, so sticks, stones, insects
and other foreign matter find their way into these spices. It’s not
just a big difference in cost on guaranteed quality spices versus cheap
ones. There’s also a big difference in the actual amount of spice per
gram. Choose a brand or company that educates villagers to ensure
maximum quality and purity. When you use the best quality spices,
recipes requires less quantity to create great and satisfying flavours.
Plus you can be certain that your recipes will always turn out as
intended, every time. We only purchase the best quality of spices at
Diana’s Gourmet Pizzeria, yet the cost is only one per cent of the
total cost of the recipes. Most of the flavour is provided by the least
expensive price per serving. When you buy the best spices, less is
I was called in to consult for a local pizza place a couple of years
back. The owner was having issues with his pizza sauce. It was turning
into a jelly-like substance if he allowed it to marinate any longer
than five hours and it didn’t have the same great taste that it once
did. We went through all the ingredients he uses, went over his process
to create a batch and with a little bit of digging I determined that
his sauce problem began when he started buying garlic powder and
oregano from a dollar store. I went back to my pizzeria and picked up
some high-quality spices to test against his dollar-store-quality
spices. Everything – the colours, the smells and the tastes – was
better with the spices I brought. My ground black pepper was black,
whereas his was more like the colour of ashes. For the final test, we
mixed up a fresh batch of his sauce and let it marinate overnight. His
sauce problem was solved, although the bigger issue was that he hadn’t
raised his prices in over a year and, while all of his costs were going
up, he felt his only choice was to source cheaper quality ingredients.
Unfortunately, his customers were accustomed to a higher level of quality and when he
allowed that to drop, so did his sales. I created a marketing campaign
for him with a price increase that let his customers know that his
original sauce recipe was back and, fortunately, his sales recovered.
Never assume that your customers would prefer to eat less than your
best rather than pay an extra dollar or two.
The last basic ingredient used in pizza making is dairy cheese. A lot
of places that sell pizza mix their dairy cheese with fake cheese. Some
of these fake cheeses are made from soy, others from oils. While I
don’t have any issues with soy cheeses – in fact I’ve tried to source
good-quality ones for a segment of my customers – I do take issue with
pizza places using these imitation cheeses but not disclosing it to the
public in an effort to keep their prices unrealistically low. Since the
1980s two large pizzas with two toppings have often been advertised for
$19.99 (or less) and come with a free bottle of pop. Everything, and I
do mean everything – minimum wages, dairy prices, wheat prices, fresh vegetables, top-quality meats, real estate and
especially gas prices – has gone up since then. The math for mainstream
pizza has stayed the same. More and more savvy consumers are
questioning how that’s possible and even more are demanding better
Market analysis company IGD produced a study showing that consumers
defined premium food by the quality of ingredients more than any other
factor, such as celebrity endorsements or packaging, reported
The IGS report found that consumers are price-concious but willing to
pay extra for value-added ingredients. Buyers are becoming much savvier
about what quality is. Simplifying is a burgeoning trend in the wake of
the recession and this means a back-to-basics approach to eating,
particularly comfort foods such as pizza. Couple that with the move
towards healthier eating and you’ve got a market ripe for gourmet fare.
Even if gourmet isn’t your positioning or point of differentiation, you
increase the value of your pizza for your customers when you opt for
high quality ingredients. Simple done well is better than complex done
poorly. Sourcing cheaper alternatives to fight rising costs is a big
risk considering it could mean losing your customers.
High quality ingredients not only taste better, but often provide value
in being able to use reduced quantities of better products. Like with
many things in life, you often get what you pay for.
Diana Coutu is a two-time Canadian Pizza Magazine chef of the year
champion, internationally recognized gourmet pizzaiolo, co-owner of
Diana’s Gourmet Pizzeria in Winnipeg and a board director for the CRFA.
In addition to creating award-winning recipes, Diana is also 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 information contact her at Diana@dianasgourmetpizzeria.ca.