How cheesy can you be

In order to make a pizza you must have three basic ingredients; dough, sauce and cheese. The rest is optional. Many pizza makers attempt to improve their pizza by creating a better crust, adding seasonings to the sauce or trying different combinations of toppings. How many have tried to improve their pizzas by changing the cheese or the way cheese is used and marketed? If you want to differentiate your pizza and cater to those who prefer something different, say New York or Italian-style, a different cheese may be the answer. By using Provolone, you can have a taste more like the pizzas from Pittsburgh or Ohio. By using sliced cheese, your pizzas will resemble those from Italy. Cheese is a topping, so why not treat it like one. You don't offer just one vegetable or meat topping so why not offer a selection of cheeses?

Like dough, cheese is a living entity that is constantly changing in the way it performs as well as tastes. Several factors determine the performance and taste of cheese, such as moisture levels, milk fat content and its aging process. A low-grade cheese can turn a gourmet pizza into cheap-tasting fast food and a high-quality cheese can make an average pizza much, much better. So, what's in the cheese? If you want to improve your pizza, you need to know what the differences are, so read on. Our research on cheese has found information on cheese storage, handling, melt ability, regionality and flavor that can help you build a better pizza.

Why Mozzarella?

Many chains use either 100 percent or a blend of various Mozzarellas, such as whole milk and part-skim. Papa John's uses a high-quality 100 percent Mozzarella proprietary blend and Dominos uses 100 percent Mozzarella (not a blend), according to spokespersons with Dominos and Papa John's.

Why Mozzarella? Rick Barz, V.P. for product quality development with Leprino Foods, offers hints of why Mozzarella has become a staple for pizza. "Mozzarella's flavor is rather bland, which works well for the flavoring of pizza," he says. The result of the melting and flow characteristics makes it the perfect carrier of other flavors throughout the pizza. It carries the spice of pepperoni evenly across the pie and doesn't interfere with the flavors of other ingredients, he adds.

When asked why some major chains use blends of Mozzarella he explains that in most cases it is to control the amount of oil released when cooking or to obtain a certain flavor. Whole milk Mozzarella has a more "buttery-rich" flavor, but releases too much oil for some pizza makers. Blends and high-quality cheeses are also used to control consistency.

Mozzarella and Provolone are "Pasta Filata" cheeses, which translates as "stringy curd". Bellissimo Foods explains that the process of creating a "Pasta Filata" involves weaving the cheese like taffy, which builds the protein structure into long chains and giving them their stretching and melting characteristics. Bellissimo warns pizza operators to watch for low-grade imposters, which use a "still" process for making "Pasta Filatas" because they are essentially Mozzarella-flavored Cheddars and fail to perform like a true Mozzarella.

Consistency and High-Quality Cheese

The difference in a high-quality cheese and a low-quality cheese is the standards by which it is produced. The government sets standards on the amount of milkfat and moisture in certain types of cheese. Example: Low-moisture, part-skim Mozzarella's maximum moisture percentages must range between 45 and 52 while the minimum percentage of milkfat in the solids must be between 30 and 45. In high-quality cheeses, the manufacturer tightens these tolerances and lower-quality cheese producers simply stay within the guidelines. To have a superior pizza, consistency is the key. The formula for producing a great-tasting pizza over and over is consistency and high-quality ingredients will allow you to do just that. To find out if your cheese is of a high quality be sure to ask your cheese supplier for specifications on cheese controls, such as moisture and fat content, and go with the companies with tighter specs.

What is cheese and how is it made?

In making natural cheese, the basic principals are the same; remove the water from the milk and leave behind the milk solids (protein, vitamins, fat, etc.). According to the California Milk Advisory Board, the factors that determine the flavor and type of cheese are the type of culture used, the amount of whey (the liquid portion of the milk) left in the curds (the solid components of milk) after they are cut and cooked, the amount of pressure applied to them and the aging of the cheese.

Moisture Levels

Cheese has five consistency classifications that are determined by their moisture levels. The moisture content determines the hardness or softness of the cheese. The classifications are hard grating, hard, semi-soft, semi-soft part skim and soft and each have federal standards of identity to ensure their consistency. You can see these requirements in the classification table here (table 1). Since milk fat melts just below body temperature, the softer cheeses, those high in milk fat content, are creamier, but they also ripen faster making their shelf life shorter. The firmer cheeses, those with lower moisture content, tend to have more flavor, ripen slower and can be stored for a year or more under the right conditions. The other table (table 2) shows some of the cheeses and their classifications.

Browning

The browning properties are also important when choosing a cheese. Some operators like the cheese to remain milky in appearance while others like it to brown slightly. Those cheeses with lower milk fat tend to burn faster. This is a characteristic to consider if you use stone hearth ovens, which cook very fast at high temperatures. The better dairies put a top end on the amount of milk fat in their whole milk Mozzarella, which will help you control the consistency. Ask your supplier if they do this if you want a high-quality cheese for your high-quality pizza. Most pizzerias use low-fat Mozzarella, but blends of Parmesan, Romano, Provolone, Jack and Parma-Jack are excellent choices for pizza.

Melt Ability and Blends

Melt ability is another important factor in determining what cheese to use on your pizza. Table 3 shows the melt distance of some of the more popular cheeses and is measured in millimeters. As you can see, cheeses such as Mozzarella, Provolone and Monterey Jack have similar melting properties. While Feta, Brie and Panela do not have the desired melt ability of Mozzarella, they do compliment other toppings and work well on pizza in small quantities.

Storage, Freezing and Thawing

Another important factor in the flavor of cheese is the manner in which it is stored. Cheese should be stored in airtight containers to protect the flavor and freshness. Optimal storage temperatures are between 42 and 50 degrees. While it can be frozen, there are certain characteristics that need to be noted about the properties of certain cheeses. First, cheese must be frozen quickly to prevent it from becoming crumbly. It doesn't need to be freeze-dried or IQF frozen, but it doesn't need to be placed in the freezer in large blocks because the inner core will take longer to freeze and will become, as I just mentioned, crumbly. If you get it in large blocks, it is best to cut it into 1-lb bricks no more than one-inch thick to ensure an even and more rapid freezing. Make sure to rewrap it to prevent moisture loss. You may want to consult your cheese supplier about the softer cheeses. If you do use cheese that has been or will be frozen, it is best to use low-moisture varieties or buy pre-frozen, pre-shredded or blended cheese. If the cheese develops mold, simply cut 1/4 – 1/2-inch below the mold and you'll be OK, but if it is very moldy, in more than three or four spots, you will be better off to trash it.

Aged cheeses' flavors are not affected by freezing because much of the moisture has been removed in the ripening process, but it can have a negative affect on the body and texture. A cheese that has been frozen slowly will be softer when thawed, harder to shred and will brown faster. Shelf life in the freezer is around 12 months and thawed is around 14 days. Older cheese will over-melt and become "soupy" when cooked. If you are going to use frozen cheese it is better to buy it already shredded and frozen.

There are certain guidelines to follow when thawing cheese, too. Always thaw cheese slowly in the refrigerator and never refreeze it. It may look uneven in color while frozen, but will return to its original color when completely thawed. Some of the soft and semi-soft cheeses can be shredded better when partially frozen, but they all need to be used as soon as possible after being thawed. Remember, cheese that is in a refrigerator will continue to ripen causing the flavor and performance to change, but cheese will cease to ripen as long as it is frozen.

Using Cheese Better

The way that you use cheese can affect the taste and appearance of your pizzas. Too much cheese will cause uncooked dough. Tom Lehmann, with the American Institute of Baking, says six to eight ounces for a 12-inch pizza is optimal. By portioning out the cheese, instead of free-throwing it across the pizza, will also help you control consistency and your inventory. The position of the cheese, on top of other toppings or under them, is also important. Tom Lehmann says dehydrated toppings work well on top or bottom, but the more moist toppings work best on top of the cheese. This helps prevent soggy dough.

If you desire a cheese that has a similar melting ability to Mozzarella, blends work great. Table 4 gives you some of the flavor profiles of cheese. By adding cheeses with varied tastes, such as Dry Jack, Cheddar or Teleme, to Mozzarella you can create a new signature taste for your pizzas. The softer varieties of cheese also work great as carriers of other flavors like flavorings, herbs, spices and sweet flavors because of the melting and flow characteristics.

Another thing to consider is what the cost are to your store to handle, store and shred your cheese. In some cases it may be cheaper to buy cheese that has already been shredded or diced by the cheesemaker.

Match your cheese to your oven

The type of oven you use may affect the way your cheese performs. Conveyor ovens create a lot of top heat for longer periods than stone or deck ovens. Therefore, the performance of the cheese is a factor. In a conveyor oven you want to protect the cheese so it is best to use one with higher moisture content. You may also want to adjust the position of the ingredients differently. As Tom Lehmann mentions, place the moister toppings on top of the cheese. Stone or deck ovens do not produce a lot of top heat so a cheese with lower moisture levels works best in this case.

Marketing Ideas for Cheese

National chains have had uncountable marketing strategies for pizza crusts and toppings. They have sold the ideas of thick and thin crusts along with flavored crusts and numerous toping combinations. Pizza Hut offers a lesson in how to market a topping like cheese with their Stuffed Crust, New Yorker and Insider pizzas. What they are selling here is cheese and the way it is used. It isn't a new topping, but a new way of marketing it. Cheese, and lots of it, has been used on pizza from the very beginning and is one of the basic ingredients. Who orders a pizza without it? Pizza Hut focuses on the way it is used; in unsuspecting places like the crust or between two layers of crust and the idea of more cheese as with the New Yorker and the Insider.

Independent operators can learn a lot from the Pizza Hut strategies. It's not that you have to invent a new topping for pizza, a new crust or even a new cheese, you just need to invent a new approach to selling what you have. The best example I can give on this subject is as follows: My fiance was having a yard sale. She had a rather large box of old clothes no one would buy. Rather than try to sell them as old clothes, which no one was buying, she made a sign that said "BOX OF OLD RAGS, $2". They were gone within an hour. It wasn't the product, but the way the product was marketed.

How can pizza operators do this with cheese? Simple, find a new way to sell it. If you read the summer 2000 issue of PMQ, you may remember the article on the differences between American pizza and Italian pizza. One of the main differences is Italian pizza makers use buffalo milk Mozzarella, which is the traditional way of making Mozzarella, as opposed to Mozzarella made from cow's milk. They also use it in slices instead of shredded. This helps create a different taste with each bite. You can use different cheeses in different forms, i.e., sliced, diced or shredded, to get a different appearance and taste.

If you want to get a regional taste, say like California-style, Pittsburgh-style or New York-style, use Monterey Jack, Provolone, Smoked Provolone or Smoked Cheddar in conjunction with your standard Mozzarella to create a versatile and more appealing menu. Another idea that offers something different is flavored cheeses. David Viviani, proprietor of Sonoma Cheese, suggests pizza operators add a little variety with flavored cheeses. Flavored Monterey Jacks can now be purchased seasoned with garlic, hot pepper, pesto or Vidalia onion. A suggestion for using cheeses other than Mozzarella is to use them blended with or in moderation with Mozzarella to prevent their flavor from overpowering the other ingredients. Other ways to create something different with cheese are to make Greek pizzas using Feta, Taco pizzas using a blend of spicy cheddar or other Mexican-style cheese or change the placement of the cheese. If you do decide to change the placement of toppings and cheese, be sure to remember the tips Tom Lehmann gave above in the "Using Cheese Better" section of this article.

Laura Majors, with Leprino Foods, says that the best way to please your customers is to get to know them better and find out what they like. Cheese can be more than just a pizza topping. Fried cheese or even a cheese dip to go with bread sticks, are great appetizer ideas. Cream cheese blended with Mozzarella works well together to create dessert pizzas. She also says it is a good idea to target kids because "kids love cheese".

Cheese Alternatives

In the pizza industry there has been an interest in, and a need for, a healthy pizza for quite some time. This is evident in the research PMQ conducted on healthy pizzas in the spring 2000 issue. The obstacle in the search for a healthy pizza has been creating one that tastes good. In recent years, there have been advances in healthy cheese alternatives that may solve that problem. Soy cheeses have come a long way so now you can offer a healthy pizza with soy cheese that performs and tastes very close to those made with Mozzarella. The FDA has also released a statement that 25 grams of soy protein a day can lower the risk of heart disease. Studies have shown that 87 percent of Americans today are changing their eating habits to reduce fat. You now have an opportunity to cash in on the trend.

Pizzerias offer multiple choices when it comes to crusts and toppings. The next logical step is to offer a variety of cheeses or offer specialty cheeses, like feta or blue, as add-on toppings just like onions and olives. Think outside of the box and try to come up with different ways to use the products you already have to extend your menu line. Once you know how cheese performs, proper handling and the varieties offered you could offer a wider variety of choices, a better tasting and more visually appealing pizza. Remember: If you use more cheese than your competitor, be sure to let your customers know about it. PMQ

Do You Know…

Mozzarella

Most commonly used on pizzas because of its superior melting and stretching abilities. A white cheese with delicate, mild flavor can be found as semi-hard or fresh varieties.

Monterey Jack

Semi-hard creamy white cheese with semi-firm to firm texture and smooth, mild flavor. Comes in flavored varieties such as hot pepper, jalapeno, garlic, onion and pesto. A California original.

Brie

Mild, rich soft-ripened cheese with an edible white rind. Brie has a soft, creamy white interior that becomes more flavorful as the cheese ages.

Swiss

A mild, pale yellow cheese with a tangy, sweet, nutty flavor. Best recognized by the holes or eyes that develop as the cheese ripens.

Dry Jack

Very hard, aged dry version of Monterey jack with a delicious nutty flavor. An excellent replacement for Parmesan and California original.

Asiago

Piquant, sharp light yellow, Italian-style cheese that can be very hard in texture depending on age, similar to Parmesan.

Oaxaca

A firm white Hispanic-style cheese with a mild, sweet milky taste. Similar to Mozzarella and is distinguished by its distinctive, braided appearance.

Edam

Semi-hard mild yellow cheese with a firm texture that is similar to Gouda.

Feta

A salty, pungent white cheese with a dry, crumbly firm to hard texture.

Panela

Mild, firm, white Hispanic-style cheese with sweet milky flavor.

Gouda

Semi-hard creamy yellow cheese with firm texture and mild, nutty flavor.

Provolone

Hard or semi-hard light yellow cheese with flavor ranging from mild to sharp to smoky.

Cheddar

Cheddar describes a family of very popular and versatile cheeses available in a range of flavors from mild to very sharp.

Fontina

A firm, light yellow, mild nutty flavored cheese, similar to Gouda or Edam.

Teleme

A mild, creamy white cheese with a slightly tangy aftertaste. A California Original.