The ease of cheese

If you believe the tale, mozzarella was first invented when cheese curds accidentally fell into a pail of hot water in a factory in Italy. Soon after, it was used on a flat disc of pastry with tomato sauce and baked, thus creating the first pizza. The rest, as they say, is history.

Cheese is your business, so knowing as much as possible about its properties can be a huge step in developing a better pizza. PMQ did an article about two years ago called How Cheesy Can You Be. This was a complete guide to understanding and using cheese better. In this article, we discussed the melting and browning characteristics along with how milk fat contributes to the performance of cheese. Provided here are some of the bullet points of that article. For the complete story and list of cheese resources, go to: https://www.pmq.com/cheesey.shtml.

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.

Cheese Prices

Pizza operators can prepare for rising cheese prices according to Dick Groves, publisher and editor of Cheese Reporter, which tracks the daily price that cheese is traded for on the stock market (www.cheesereporter.com/prices.htm).

"I predict that prices are going to be higer this year," Dick says. "Why? There are a couple of reasons. One of these things is the reduction in production of a growth hormone produced by Monsanto. This hormone is injected into cows to increase milk production by 5 to 15 percent. About one month ago, Monsanto cut back production of the hormone by about 20 percent because of quality problems, which will mean lower yields by milk producers who use the product. Another factor is that the U.S. can't import heifers from Canada due to the mad cow concerns."

With prices already on the rise, it may time to talk to distributors about setting up prime vendor agreements and locking in a price on cheese. With prime vendor agreements, you agree to purchase say 85 to 90 percent of your goods from one distributor and in return they offer you a block price (the price it is being sold for on the stock market) plus a preset amount over that for cheese.

Why Mozzarella?

Many chains use either 100 percent or a blend of various Mozzarellas, such as whole milk and part-skim. Why Mozzarella? Mozzarella's flavor is rather bland. 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.

Why do some pizzerias use blends of Mozzarella? In most cases, 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". 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.

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. 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 tighter specs.

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 with each having 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

 

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 your ovens 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. 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

 

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

 

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. First, cheese must be frozen quickly to prevent it from becoming crumbly. 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 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.

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.

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. 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. Tom also 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. 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 because of the melting and flow characteristics.

Match your cheese to your oven

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

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. 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. 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.

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. 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 and lower carbs. You now have an opportunity to cash in on the trend.

The Atkins Diet offers the perfect opportunity to market cheese. Cheese is already low-carb, so the need to find a low-carb crust alternative and combine it with meats and cheese toppings can be very beneficial right now. Some ideas that are circulating now are crustless pizzas where a base of pepperoni is used topped with cheese and placed on metal cooking trays. One operator. John Pontrelli of Pit Stop Pasta, is offering pizza in a bucket where all the pizza toppings placed in a crock or, for takeout customers, a metal can.

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.