Creating a new pizza centers on creativity and balance
Whether you are a full-service pizzeria or a small slice shop, getting creative with your toppings and combinations is a great way to keep your regulars coming back, bring in new customers and shake things up a bit.
When I’m making a new pizza, I usually start with one specific item that I want to center the pie around. After I decide what that is, I go over its flavor profile in my mind and think about what it could be paired with, how different preparations will change the flavor and texture and how it can be optimized. Above all, the most important thing is an overall balance of the topping combinations. If I choose something that is salty, I want to smooth it out with something that adds creaminess or a hint of sweet. All of these principals can and should be applied to all ingredients whether they are meat, vegetables or sauces.
To me, having different textural elements (crunchy, chewy and creamy) on a pizza is a significant aspect of building a great pie. With this in mind, there are two ways to go about creating a fantastic pizza special — using singularly unique ingredients or preparing common ingredients in an interesting way.
The first can be something as simple as using a standout seasonal vegetable: heirloom tomatoes in the summer, delicata squash in the fall, root veggies in the winter or garlic ramps in the springs. On the other hand, you can use ingredients that are unique to where you are: Spam in Hawaii, lobster in Maine, Hatch green chile in New Mexico, or cheese curds in Wisconsin.
My favorite items to add onto pizzas have big flavor. By that I mean that they bring a good amount of heat, salt, acid or more rarely for me, sweetness. If cornered, I would probably say that my absolute favorite pizza topping is roasted jalapeños and there are a fair amount of these gracing my menu at any given time. I love their bold intensity, the slight smoke it gives off and the fact that you can pair it with everything from juicy sweets, like fresh peaches, to tart pickled cauliflower or salty meats.
When I was at Pizza Expo this year, I made pizzas alongside Lee Hunzinger. He had made a pepperoni jam so good it haunted me. I kept thinking about it, dreaming about it. So, of course I needed to make my own version. I decided to center it around the Calabrese salami that we use at my shop. Naturally I added in roasted jalapeños then reduced it with a local Colorado beer to give it a depth of flavor. Once I had what I was looking for, I thought about what would balance out the assertiveness of the jam. To temper the heat from the jalapeños I made a base of whole milk mozzarella and ricotta cheeses. Since there was no fruit in the jam, I finished it with fresh blackberries and added crunch with fresh arugula and toasted pumpkin seeds.
Now onto preparation. Certain pizza toppings are no brainers when it comes to preparation while others require more time and thought. That being said, you can turn the most common ingredient into the highlight of any pizza. Depending on what equipment you have at your shop, there are multiple ways to bring out flavors and textures in produce. Whether you roast, fry, sauté, blanch, pickle, blend or just leave veggies raw will determine how they taste and feel in your mouth and how they work with other toppings.
You can turn an unassuming leek into the star of the show with different cooking techniques. Roasting it creates an almost creamy flavor. Dusting it in flour, frying it and sprinkling on sea salt makes it the perfect crunchy finisher and pickling it will add a hit of crunch and acid. Even spinach has multiple ways that it can be prepared: piled high as the base of the pie and baked into the cheese, added post-oven for a crunchy element or blanched and then pureed with cheese for a creamy sauce.
Meat is also transformed by how you cook it and when you add it to your pizza. Take cured meats. I am usually partial to adding them post bake since the beauty of a cured meat is slicing it thin and letting it melt in your mouth. There are instances where that rule can be broken. If you have the ends of prosciutto to use up feel free to put it on pre-bake and watch it transform into salty meat croutons. Sausage, on the other hand, can taste different just by its form. If you cook it off as a link and then slice it, the taste will be texturally different than pinching it raw from bulk straight onto the pizza. Other meats, like chicken, beef or pork can be marinated, braised, grilled or roasted to add dramatic flavors to your pies.
The main component of a pizza can also be the sauce. It’s actually one of my favorite items to create. One of our most popular pies is an Amatriciana pizza. I created a sauce that was my take on the classic Italian amatriciana pasta sauce, then topped it with bacon, sweet onions and finished it with a chili oil. Not very traditional but it makes an impression and works well as a cohesive pizza. Pestos are another great way to bring out bold flavors and add color. They turn a basic roasted vegetable pizza or standard pepperoni into something spectacular. Where you put the sauce will determine how your customers taste it. If it’s on top, then it will be the first flavor that hits your tongue as opposed to under the cheese where it is a bit more disguised and blends well with the fatty creaminess of your chosen dairy.
As you can see, there are endless combinations of creative pizza toppings. Once you’ve decided on your main ingredient, what you pair it with is just a matter of balancing it out.
Audrey Kelly owns Audrey Jane’s Pizza Garage in Boulder, Colorado.