Aside from the regional pizza wars that periodically flare up like the flames of a brick oven and the occasional eating-method controversy, most of us probably don’t pause too often to carefully consider our pizza. We just enjoy it. But a research team has recently taken a good hard look at the various cheeses with which we may top our pies in an attempt to pinpoint — with scientific precision — which of them performs best during baking.
In a new study published in the Journal of Food Science, chemical and materials engineering professor Bryony James and her team at the University of Auckland in New Zealand evaluated the performance of seven different cheeses — mozzarella, cheddar, Colby, Edam, Emmental, Gruyere and provolone — in terms of composition and functionality, using a new technique to assess differences in the way they browned and blistered when baked on pizza.
But wait, you may be asking, didn’t mozzarella already win the pizza-cheese battle long ago? Well, yes and no.
“Pizza cheese is predominantly mozzarella. That’s an absolute given,” James notes in a video commentary about the study. “The reason we started messing around with different cheeses was quite deliberately to push the materials properties and the composition properties away from what’s typical.”
Rather than relying on a human sensory panel to assess cheese performance, the team members developed a “machine vision system” and combined it with image-analysis software and algorithms to help them quantifiably evaluate the cheeses’ elasticity, free oil, moisture, water activity and transition temperature — and how these properties influence color and color uniformity after baking.
And? Cheddar, Colby and Edam failed to blister due to a low level of elasticity. Gruyere and provolone browned a bit, thanks to an amount of free oil deemed “sufficient” enough to prevent the evaporation of moisture, but Emmental barely did at all. Mozzarella, as we all know, blisters and browns easily.
But while mozzarella seems to retain its ‘za-topping bragging rights, the authors suggest that, armed with the study results, pizza makers may want to combine the go-to topper with some of the other cheeses assessed to make “gourmet” pies that can be adjusted to accommodate varying consumer preferences and appeal especially to those who like their pizza cheese “less burnt.”
Still, researchers may yet have more work ahead of them. To limit the number of variables, James’ team analyzed the cheeses on pizza crusts devoid of tomato sauce.
“The sauce,” she says, “is another question.”