Pizza

Choosing the Perfect Pizza Cheese

Mark “The Cheese Dude” Todd offers 8 tips for getting more impact—and profitability—from your cheese inventory.

  • With a seemingly endless variety of pizza cheeses on the market, Mark “The Cheese Dude” Todd guides you in finding the ones that will work the hardest across your menu.
  • His first tip: “The most important thing is the base cheese you use,” and it should not be just 100% mozzarella.

Recipe: The Grandma Pizza from Grande Cheese

Most pizzerias stock mozzarella, the gold standard for irresistible slices and pies. But beyond that, which cheeses offer the most bang for their buck—and attract the most customer interest? Which varieties will work the hardest across the menu, shape-shifting to earn the title of “most versatile”? Where does an operator start when there’s a seemingly endless array of cheeses out there? Mark “The Cheese Dude” Todd, who handles cheese education and promotion from his base in Monte Rio, California, has got you covered with a complete plan of attack.

Step 1: Nail the mozz factor. “The first tip I tell everyone: The most important thing is the base cheese you use,” Todd says. “Make sure it’s not just 100% mozzarella—if it is, you’re missing out. You should be using a blend of some sort as your base cheese for the best performance. A part-skim and whole-milk blend at a 75-25 or 80-20 ratio will give you optimal browning, good melt and flow—and a good price point—so start from there to see what you can add.” Starting with a solid base blend will help ensure that any additional cheeses you carry will truly shine on your pizzas.

Step 2: Review your stock. Look at what cheeses you already have in-house. “You might have cheeses like blue, feta, fresh mozzarella or Parmesan for salads—so you can look at offering those on pizzas as well,” Todd says. “Use what’s already on hand and think of how you can use them to create great signature pies, like feta on a Greek-style pie. Building pies around the cheeses that are already in your store also helps to create faster turnover, keeping ingredients fresher.”

this photo shows a beautiful cheese pizza from Fired Pie
This gorgeous cheese pizza is a popular item at Fired Pie.

Step 3: Determine your additional needs. Once you’re ready to diversify your cheese offerings, ask yourself a key question: What are you hoping to achieve? “Are you looking for texture, flavor, aroma—what are you looking to get out of that new cheese?” Todd asks. “If you want to pump up aroma, smoked cheeses give a huge aromatic impact (as well as flavor) with just a small amount used. Blue cheese also gives a great aroma, and even washed-rind or ‘stinky’ cheeses in small amounts add earthy aromas, which make people hungry.”

On the other hand, if you’re looking to inject maximum flavor to pies or other menu items, Todd recommends reaching for pepper Jack, aged cheeses like cheddar, and mountain cheeses (also called Alpine-style). These will add aroma, too—but their flavor payoffs are their biggest selling point.

Finally, if you’re looking to add texture, go back to Step 1 and examine your base. “When doing a blend that uses part-skim mozzarella as the primary ingredient, you’ll want to experiment with using whole-milk cheeses as additions—like provolone or Monterey Jack, which are great melters,” Todd suggests. “Part-skim offers great browning and a stretchy texture, but whole-milk cheeses add more melt and flow to cover the pizza completely.”

Related: Train your employees to apply pizza cheese consistently and correctly

Step 4: Look locally. Another way to make cheeses stand out across your menu: Find producers in your region or state. “Partnering with makers of artisan cheeses helps add local flavor and flair to pizzas, allowing you to highlight a taste of your state,” Todd notes. “Often, you’ll also get support from these types of cheese makers, like a better deal on the cheese, or they’ll allow you (or pay you) to put their name on your menu and feature them.” And, since no one knows their cheeses better, they can help you with pairing recommendations—whether you’re seeking complementary food ingredients for a specialty pie, or wine and beer pairing recommendations to put on your menu or to educate your servers.

Step 5: Seek ethnic inspiration. Is there a well-established ethnic population in your area? If so, why not tap their recipes for some inspiration when building your next best sellers? “Maybe your neighborhood has a lot of folks from East Africa—find out what they like to eat in that area of the world and put it on a pizza!” Todd says. “Local ethnic foods and populations can give you clues to develop specialty pizzas, and cheeses can help you do that.” For example, you can find cheeses with spice blends such as harissa, which are popular in north Africa. And, of course, if you don’t live near an ethnic population, get thee to Google! Research some ethnic dishes online for ideas, and keep in mind how cheeses can help you achieve your desired flavor combinations.

this photo shows Mark The Cheese Dude Todd in his white chef's coat
Mark “The Cheese Dude” Todd

Step 6: Seek expert help. When you’re looking for information on cheeses, go to the source—that is, the people who live and breathe dairy, such as state milk marketing boards. “They’ll break down cheeses as far as functionality, so you can look for the cheeses available for the attributes you’re seeking—like if you want meltability, high moisture or full fat,” Todd explains. “That helps you design dishes around the use of that cheese. Maybe you don’t want to see a recipe there and just put it on your menu, but you can look for ideas on how to use various cheeses, and how to pair them with other ingredients you already have on hand.”

Related: The science behind the melting characteristics of pizza cheeses

Step 7: Work across the menu. Initially, you may be looking to add cheeses for specialty pies, but don’t forget to look for other ways you can utilize a new cheese across the menu. You may want to try a new cheese in pastas or salads, for example, but don’t forget to also think outside the box. “A hard cheese like Parmesan is great for making cheese crisps, which you can add to soups or salads,” Todd notes. “Figuring out the attributes of the cheese helps you design your dishes.” For example, feta isn’t known for its melt, so if you’re cooking with it, know that it will add different beneficial elements to a dish—like browning, big flavor and a crispy, salty kick. Or crumble and mix it in to a casserole, which will add intense salt and flavor without drastically changing the texture.

Step 8: Position and price smartly. Once you’ve taken the trouble to add and maximize cheeses across your menu, use the menu itself to point customers in the right direction—the one that leads to maximum profits. “I can’t tell you how many times I see a pizza menu with plain cheese pizza as the first on the list,” Todd laments. “Instead, learn how to design your menu and layout to get the most return on the products. You want to use the cheeses in your pizzeria to make more money and upsell!” Todd notes that 50 cents worth of blue cheese can lead to $2.50 in net profit. Smoked cheeses, with their intense aromas, can be used in small amounts to make major impacts. If you use specialty, artisan and/or local products, call them out on the menu, and people will pay more. “If you’re introducing a new cheese, try it on special first and see what the response is,” Todd advises. “Try blending them—maybe a blue with a smoked cheese will be a winner. Build up your cheeses slowly and keep them to a reasonable amount so they rotate well. There are so many ways to add aroma, flavor and texture through cheeses.”