In the Kitchen
The Pizza Chef: September-October 2012
By Diana Coutu
How to judge a pizza
By Diana Coutu
I’ve had the honour and privilege being an International Pizza Challenge
judge at Pizza Expo in Las Vegas for the last two years.
I’ve had the honour and privilege being an International Pizza Challenge judge at Pizza Expo in Las Vegas for the last two years. I’ve also judged in Italy and France. I’m often asked about how a pizza is evaluated. Each competition has distinct rules that govern the way a pizza is judged.
The International Pizza Challenge has a few categories of pizza styles, although the main ones are traditional and non-traditional. The traditional category is a red sauce pizza with no more than two of the nine most popular toppings in North America (pepperoni, mushrooms, ham, peppers, olives, bacon, sausage, onions and beef). Because two competitors could easily each enter pizzas that feature pepperoni and sausage, what would make one stand out above the other? This is where your dough, sauce and cheese become key factors in the unique taste of your pizza. The non-traditional category is where anything goes and you are not restricted to the colour of sauce, or the kind or number of toppings on your pizza. That being said, there must be a balance between the toppings, crust, sauce and cheeses. I spoke with each of the other judges and we all agreed that more toppings piled on didn’t necessarily make a better pizza. In fact, some pizzas that came across our table could have been great, but they were grossly overtopped and lost all taste.
Judging is broken down into two main categories: taste and visual presentation/appearance. Taste accounts for 65 per cent of the overall score and appearance accounts for 35 per cent. The criteria for taste are then further broken down into: crust, sauce, cheese, toppings and overall taste. If the crust did not have any porosity or flavour, or conversely, if it was a flavoured crust but didn’t complement the flavours of the toppings or cheese, then the pizza would get a low score for this criterion. The criteria for visual presentation are broken down into bake and visual presentation. We are a visual species and we like to eat pretty food. Most of us think that it tastes better when it looks fantastic. If the pizza is burnt, underdone or sloppily topped it would get a lower score for this criteria. The only difference in the scoring between traditional and non-traditional is that there is an additional category for creativity under the taste criteria for non-traditional.
An acceptable or mediocre pizza would receive a middle-of-the-road score, such as a five out of a possible 10. An above-average pizza would get a six or seven out of a possible 10. A fabulous pizza would score an eight or nine. If the pizza totally misses the mark, then the score reflects the poor quality and is low, typically less than five. Reasons for the low score could be that the pizza is overcooked, undercooked, soggy or greasy, or just tastes bad.
These are the mechanics of scoring. I always begin by looking at the pizza as it’s being presented to the judges (the pizza is always brought before us to see before it’s sliced). I check the bake by lifting the pizza and looking at the bottom of the crust. The facilitators then take the pizza away, slice it up and bring each judge a piece of the pizza. At this point, I smell my slice of pizza. I love the smell of good food. A great pizza smells good before you even taste it. Next, I take a bite from the slice with the toppings, crust, cheeses and sauce. If the pizza slops over on itself or on my lap then it gets a lower score than if it held the weight of the toppings and cheese. Next, I take a bite of the edge of the crust on its own. This tells me whether the crust has any flavour. It also tells me whether the pizza maker knows about proper fermentation that allows a great crust to develop flavours or whether it’s actually a cardboard crust hidden under tasty toppings. Lastly, I take another bite of the pizza with sauce, cheese and toppings, just to confirm whether my first impressions were accurate. In the case of two pizzas that come to mind, at first bite I wasn’t sure if I liked them or not, but after that last bite I knew without a doubt. Finally, before giving it my final score I ask myself if this is a pizza that I would happy to pay for. If the answer is yes, I give it a higher score for overall taste.
The important thing to note is that judging a pizza contest is a lot like judging a beauty contest. Everyone does not have to like the same pizza, but as a judge you just need to be convinced that the pizza you score the highest is the one you like the best.
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, Man., and a member of the board of directors 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.