Topping it Off

The final slice (for now)

I’ve pretty much covered every aspect of thin-crust pizza making, except for one: toppings. A pizza is a blank canvas that you should feel free to decorate however you like, depending upon what you have on hand, what’s in season, or whatever mood you might find yourself in. And while I have my personal topping preferences—and aversions—I’m not going to judge you for the choices you make. There are far worse things you can do in this life than put buffalo chicken on a pizza. (That said, red wine gravy in place of sauce I cannot abide.)

I do, however, have a philosophical approach to pizza topping that you might find useful to contemplate:

  1. Less is more. Both in terms of the number of different toppings and the total amount used. More on the former below, but as for the latter: To me, a thin-crust pizza is not an open-faced sandwich, it is a bread. In other words, I don’t want the toppings to detract from the experience of the slice itself. So I try to keep the amount of toppings to a minimum, anywhere from a light scattering to a few ounces at most. (There is a practical reason to avoid overloading a pie with toppings as well, since all that weight will slow down cooking and cause it to sog out.)

  2. Concentrated is more. That’s also why I tend to use intensely-flavored toppings like anchovies or pickled chiles, since a little bit goes a long way.

  3. The rule of one. Many times, a single topping is all a pie needs, especially if it is special. That way it can be experienced in all its glory.

  4. The rule of threes. If I top a pie with more than one item, then I almost always try to use three. (The cheese, if it is special, counts as a topping here.) Two toppings make a closed loop, while three produces narrative tension. (More than three and things just get confusing and hard to follow.)

  5. The flavor triangle. I tend to choose ingredients that serve unique flavor roles and resonate off one another harmoniously. Categories include savory/salty, meaty, earthy, vegetal, nutty, spicy, tart, sweet, bitter, etc. Many toppings obviously fit into more than one of these slots, but still I try not to repeat myself on the same pie.

  6. The raw vs. the cooked. Some ingredients can be added to a pie raw, while others need some form of precooking. I’m not a fan of the way that many raw vegetables—onions, mushrooms, and hardy greens, for example—can desiccate on the top of a pie rather than cook. In those instances, I’ll sauté or roast them ahead of time. (Hot tip: I like to toss sliced onions with salt and let them sit for awhile to wilt, before rinsing off the salt. Softened like this, they cook beautifully on a pizza without losing any of their “raw” character.)

  7. Under vs. after. Delicate fresh herbs and greens like basil, oregano, or arugula will be ruined if added to the top of a pie before cooking. They are best placed either under the cheeses to protect them from the heat of the oven, or added only after the pie is cooked.

My last topping tip is more of a product recommendation, one that is drizzled over the pie after it is cooked:

Honey on pizza, you ask? Yes. Honey on pizza, especially one infused with chiles and spiked with vinegar. Trust me on this one—just set your skepticism aside and give it a try. Mike’s Hot Honey is the creation of my friend Mike Kurtz, who stumbled upon the concept of spicy honey on pizza while traveling in Brazil years ago. After sorting out a recipe of his own, he eventually brought it to Paulie Gee’s, the Greenpoint, Brooklyn pizzeria where he was a bartender, and the rest is history. (Their hot sopressata and hot honey pie—aka “The Hellboy”—is a classic.) For years I used to drag boxes of the stuff to my pizza classes to sell, but nowadays you can find Mike’s in many supermarkets.

Finally, the subscriber-only white pizza sauce I’ve mentioned a bunch of times now (pictured above) will go out this afternoon, so sign up below if you want in on it!

That’s a wrap on Pizzember. We’ll be back to regularly scheduled programming next week, and I’ll get to all the pizza topics & recipes I haven’t covered this month sooner or later (I’m working on a new Detroit-style pie recipe as we speak, so stay tuned for that).