Mozzarella Takes All


By Michele Bacigalupo

Photo courtesy of Jeffreyw.

Pizza has not always been as popular, or as frequently devoured, as it is now.

When Italian King Umberto I and Queen Margherita visited Naples in 1889, they requested a variety of pizzas from Pizzeria Brandi. Queen Margherita soon became infatuated with the pie called pizza mozzarella, which contained soft cheese, basil leaves, and red tomatoes.

Legend has it that the pie was renamed pizza Margherita soon after. Despite the queen’s seal of approval, pizza remained a well-kept secret in Naples until the 1940s.

In the late 19th century, Italian immigrants to the United States attempted to recreate the pizza they knew from Naples. Pizza thus became available in the US, but it would take some time before it grew into a ubiquitous staple item. The first known pizzeria in America was G. (for Gennaro) Lombardi’s, located on Spring Street in New York City. Lombardi’s was first licensed to sell pizza in 1905.

The pizza pie became an American staple shortly after World War II. The craze is attributed to members of the American military who grew fond of the food while serving their country in Italy. Pizza held many similarities to other trends of the time, such as informal cuisine, dining in front of the TV, and ethnic food.

There were plenty of cars available in the post-war era to facilitate takeout and delivery dinners. Pizza quickly went from being considered an ethnic food to becoming a beloved American pastime.

Low-moisture, part-skim mozzarella is by far the most prevalent pizza topping. This brand of mozzarella cheese was developed in the US after the realization that fresh mozzarella had a limited shelf life and spoiled easily. The low-moisture part-skim version is a firmer, drier substance, and more beneficial to the pizza industry in terms of cooking and transportation.

In the fields of both science and food, it is well known that mozzarella reigns supreme as far as pizza toppings are concerned. It’s not just an opinion, but actually a fact that was recently confirmed by a study published in the August issue of the Journal of Food Science.

The paper is titled “Quantification of Pizza Baking Properties of Different Cheeses, and Their Correlation with Cheese Functionality.” Bryony James, a professor of materials engineering at the University of Auckland in New Zealand, conducted the study along with some colleagues to evaluate the baking properties and performance of different cheeses on pizza.

The purpose of the study was to improve methods for quantifying and differentiating the outcome of different pizzas once they were baked. A variety of cheeses were utilized, including mozzarella, cheddar, Colby, Edam, Emmental, Gruyere, and provolone.

The browning and blistering of the cheeses played an important role, as well as the correlation to other properties, such as the transition temperature, rheology, and free oil. The color uniformity of the cheeses after baking was also taken into account. Images were recorded by machine vision after the cheeses were baked onto the pizzas.

Mozzarella exhibited the highest levels of water activity and moisture content out of all the cheeses. The browning and blistering patterns of mozzarella are entirely unique due to the way the cheese bubbles.

Mozzarella is made by molding fresh curds, then stretching the cheese over and over again. The cheese is exceptionally elastic, which allows it to return to its original shape after bubbles grow and expand in the oven. As the bubbles rise, oil comes off the top of the pizza, exposing the cheese and creating the distinctive browning process. The other cheeses monitored in the study neither browned as well nor proved as elastic as mozzarella.

James and her colleagues concluded that mozzarella remains the optimal choice for topping a pizza due to its browning and blistering effects. Other cheeses can be combined with mozzarella to satisfy individual preferences and give pizza a sharper taste.

Although it’s easy to agree that mozzarella is an essential pizza ingredient, food preferences remain subjective, and it’s tough to label one pizzeria as definitively superior to another. You don’t always have to surrender to the constant battle of finding the best slice in the neighborhood, let alone get caught in the crossfire of a New York-versus-Chicago battle.

If you’re inspired to bake pizza after reading this article, here are several links to DIY recipes to try out: Buffalo Chicken, Broccoli Pesto, Deep Dish, or a Pizza Kit (aka Lunchables reinvented).