A pizza is made of very few ingredients – the more important is their quality! It can be just a little thing that brings your pizza even closer to perfection.
First of all you should get aware of the fact that time and love are ingredients, too, and not less important ones than the below mentioned material ones. In today’s society, people more and more forget about this regarding their nutrition. They need quick and simple food – unfortunately at the expense of the good things that belong into food respectively that time gives them.
Further below, you will find a few tips enabling you to spot the best possible material ingredients. Before I begin, let me clarify some terminology that we’ll meet, when we speak particularly about Italian food products:
“Denominazione di Origine Protetta” = “Protected Designation of Origin (PDO)”, the product is exclusively made in certain places or regions, influencing its unique quality character, e.g. for tomatoes due to a ground rich of minerals and climate conditions.
“Indicazione Geografica Protetta” = “Protected Geographical Indication (PGI)”, the product obtains a particular character through production, treatment or refining in a certain region or place. Contrarily to D.O.P., it does not necessarily have to be entirely made in that specific region.
“Specialità Tradizionale Garantita” = “Traditional Specialities Guaranteed (TSG)”, this guarantees a traditional way of production respectively composition. This seal is found on very few products, but among others the “True Neapolitan Pizza” (“Verace Pizza Napoletana) carries it. In order to offer it, there are worldwide regulations to be followed, which can be found in an official 14-pages long document – only when a pizzeria fulfills all of the criteria, it may get licensed to sell pizza under this “brand”.
A dough stands and falls with the flour it’s made of. An inappropriate flour will result in an unsatisfying dough – be it for the further handling, be it for the taste. I’ll be posting some in-depth content on flours’ properties, and maybe some comparisons some time.
“The right” flour does not exist, as it depends on the product you want to obtain and how we actually want to make the dough for it.
The most important property is the flour’s “strength”, which is indicated through a “W” value and allows for different conclusions about its absorption capacity, the gluten content and possible maturation times.
So, stronger flours form significantly more gluten than weaker ones. As gluten can absorb 1.5 times its weight of water, such flours can absorb more accordingly, and as gluten is insoluble and builds a stable, elastic structure, a stronger flour can be used for longer maturation times.
The “W” value can be found on a few packages of Italian flours. For professional flours, the specifications can usually be looked up on the manufacturer’s website. In case we find this value, we can roughly orientate like this:
|< W240||Weak flour||Usability for pizza is rather limited|
|W240 – W280||Medium strong flour||Appropriate for pizza and short to medium proofing times up to 24 hours|
|> W280||strong flour||Appropriate for longer proofing times (more than 24 hours)|
If we do not find this specification, the protein content offers us another rough clue, as gluten is a protein respectively is formed from two proteins and water. But we don’t know specificly, how high the amounts of which proteins are, thus it is just a rough approach:
For pizza, we should opt for flours with at least 12-14% protein content. Below that, it will be more difficult to obtain a proper, stable dough, especially with higher hydration. Above that, it might happen that the dough results tenacious and gummy.
You can use normal tap water. If you want to be very precise, it should feature a pH value of 6-7. Naturally, the water shall be clean. In regions with rather hard water, you could consider filtering the water, but it is not necessary.
The salt should be as pure as possible, thus free from additives like anti-caking agents. I prefer sea salt due to its taste, but table or other salts work as well. The nuances are very fine and probably won’t be noticed at all in a dough.
I only use fresh yeast. Dry yeast is basically the same, but, as the name implies, dried, so that generally you only need a third of the fresh yeast quantity. Having a pack of dry yeast at hand can save your day, as fresh yeast can die.
The mother of all pizzas is the Margherita, so I’ll focus on this. Of course, creativity knows no limitations (some do even put pineapple on their pizzas). The pizza named after the Italian queen was created, legend has it, when she once came to Naples. In her honor, the pizza should carry the colors of the Italian flag: Red (tomatoes), white (mozzarella) and green (basil). That sounds simple – supposedly!
The tomato sauce for the traditional Neapolitan pizza is made solely of tomatoes and salt. The tomatoes are preferably crushed by hand, meanwhile passing the tomatoes through a foodmil is an established method, too. Using a stick blender is discussed controversially, as you might destroy the seeds, what would lead to a slightly bitter taste.
To choose the tomatoes is indeed not easy. While the ones swear by origin protected San Marzano Tomatoes (“Pomodori di San Marzano dell’agro Sarnese-Nocerino D.O.P.”), the others prefer using different, occasionally lower priced tomatoes.
Because of their pleasant taste, I am an absolute San Marzano tomato fan, however I have made the experience that the D.O.P. variants are not necessarily the best ones. But as the differences are very minor and it’s also a question of personal taste, I can only recommend you to purchase some different cans and try to find your personal favorite.
At the same time, it would not be amiss to check out some lower prices tomatoes. I’m going to make a comparison of different products, which I’ll post in my blog. There are some other pretty good canned tomatoes, like cherry tomatoes, yellow tomatoes and many more. Just give them a try, but keep an eye on the ingredients – the addition of salt and/or citric acid is a sign of inferior natural taste and/or inferior quality.
Check the stamp on the can. Besides other letters and numbers, you will likely find a three-digit number. This number provides an exact information about the tomatoes’ harvest date, allowing for conclusions about the quality. Ideally, on the northern hemisphere the tomatoes are harvested in the late summer, circa between the 230th and 260th day of the year, thus between mid of August and mid of September. If the stamp for instance says “E241”, you can assume the harvest took place around the end of August and the tomatoes should be of very high quality.
Advice for the preparation
For the above mentioned preparation methods, just add salt as required. A good guiding value is 1 gram of salt per 100 grams of tomatoes.
Pecorino Romano or Parmigiano Reggiano
As a kind of flavor booster, one or both of these cheeses is added finely grated. It’s optional, but I highly recommend it.
- Pecorino Romano D.O.P. is a tangy hard cheese from the surroundings of Rome, made from sheep milk. Longer maturated cheese will taste more salty.
- Parmigiano Reggiano D.O.P. (commonly known as parmesan cheese) is a hard cheese as well. It comes from the region around the city of Parma respectively the province Reggio Emilia, and is made from cow milk. Also for parmesan, a longer maturation develops a more salty taste.
Mozzarella/Fior di Latte
Mozzarella is a so-called filata cheese. It is very popular for au gratin dishes, as it melts excellently and draws long strings. Who doesn’t love it?!
But there’s more about it, as different variations exist:
- “Mozzarella” (without additions, or with indication “di latte vaccino”), also called “Fior di latte”, is mozzarella from cow milk.
- “Mozzarella di latte di bufala” is buffalo milk mozzarella without any particular origin declaration.
- “Mozzarella di bufala Campana D.O.P.” is buffalo milk mozzarella from the region “Campania” in southern Italy.
Particularly Fior di latte exists in various types:
Fresh mozzarella balls in brine, usually packed in soft plastic bags or plastic tubs, firm (dry) mozzarella “rolls” or even pre-shredded.
Hands off the pre-shredded one, please. Commonly, it’s of inferior quality, and usually anti-caking agents are added. It’s not that they’re bad, butthey tend to burn when cooked at high temperatures, and the cheese itself is often dehydrated, so that it might burn, too.
The firm variant is very popular among pizza enthusiasts and professionals. For me, it’s not the best option, as it doesn’t melt tenderly and often results firm to the bite, almost gummy.
Thus, my favorite is fresh mozzarella, and for taste reasons, I prefer the Mozzarella di bufala Campana D.O.P. with its lightly sour taste. Cow milk mozzarella works as fine though. As fresh mozzarella is rather watery and can make your pizza become soggy, particularly when the cooking time is short, I have two precious tips for you:
- Open your eyes and use your hands before buying mozzarella. Feel for the mozzarella ball in the plastic bag. The firmer the better. You should leave very soft ones where they are. If available, preferably buy larger balls – they are usually less watery.
- No matter which fresh mozzarella you decide to use, you should cut it into the desired size and drain it for at least 2 to 4 hours before use. As you don’t want to put cold mozzarella on your pizza, it can drain off at room temperature – it will even lose more water.
This is a tough topic, too. I think it’s hard to find really good indications for the oil’s quality if you shop outside of Italy or another olive oil producing country, such as Spain or Greece. Here in Germany, you usually have rely on the “grade of quality” indication – I’d always opt for “Extra Virgin Olive Oil”, and on labels like “from 100% Italian olives”. But this actually doesn’t really say anything about the oil. Why that?
Well, there is not only one olive cultivar per country, but instead, there is a huge bandwidth of different olives, lots of different grounds the trees grow on, and various climatic conditions. Thus, the oils’ tastes and quality depend on all of these factors. While I’ve been told on a regular basis that Greek olive oils would be much milder than Italian ones, I noticed this is only partially true.
Yes, plenty of Italian olive oils you can find in a common German supermarket are more bitter than nearly all Greek ones. However, the mildest (and most tasty) one I’ve ever discovered, is an Italian one, more precisely a Sicilian one (D.O.P. Val di Mazara). This one is for the most part extracted from the cultivar “Biancolilla”, which has a very decent, fruity taste.
At a retail price of about 13€ (per bottle of 750 milliliters), it is not even very expensive, considering that very high quality oils for more than twice as much, do not taste better at all. It will surly pay off, if you research a little and try out various oils. If you have an Italian specialties store around, they might offer tasting events from time to time, or even be able to give you some good advice.
If you think there’s not much to say about basil… you’re probably right. But it’s surely more than you’ve thought.
The typical green basil from the supermarket is pretty good already. However you should pay a visit to your local garden center. They usually have many different and interesting types of basil to check out. Use your nose, as for sure you want to have very aromatic leaves for your pizza.
But you can actually grow your own basil, too – seeds can be found there in many variations, too. You just have to consider it will take a while until you can actually use it.
Meanwhile, I am “conditioned” in such a way that I want to make pizza as soon as I smell basil.
As mentioned, your fantasy is the only limitation when it comes to ingredients for pizza toppings. You can experiment with different sauce types or leave it away, you can add vegetables, meat products or other cheeses. Even sweet toppings work fine!
The only thing I’d recommend from the bottom of my heart, is to procure your ingredients in the best quality you can afford. E.g. if you want to put ham on your pizzas, opt for a prosciutto cotto instead of formed ham. Of course you’ll never really be sure to get a (fairly traded) high quality product at a high price, but you can assume that a low-cost product will either not be of good quality or have been unfairly traded at some point in the supply chain.
A final tip: In market places or at the meet/dairy counters in the supermarket, you can get some good advice and often you can even taste the products, so you don’t have to buy the pig in a poke.