If you want to dive into the fun of making pizza at home and developing your own specialized recipes, it might seem obvious that you want all fresh ingredients. And most people would agree that pizza is primarily made to showcase three ingredients—crust, sauce, and that delightfully stringy cheese.
Contemporary pizza experiments use a variety of cheeses to develop different flavor profiles, but for pizza traditionalists, mozzarella is the quintessential dairy ingredient to top your pizza.
Choosing the Freshest Ingredients
While most of us picture items fresh from the garden when we imagine “fresh” ingredients, that’s not actually how it works. While some ingredients, like freshly picked basil or oregano, can give a bright flavor to pizza ingredients, the freshness of other items is relative.
In tomato sauce, using fresh tomatoes—particularly those from a grocery store—will not give you the best tasting sauce. This is because tomatoes in the store are picked before they are ripe and allowed to ripen as they make their journey to the supermarket shelf.
If you aren’t purchasing tomatoes from a farmer’s market, which has a shorter vine-to-shelf timeline, or raising them in your own garden, you will get the best taste from canned tomatoes. This is because canned tomatoes are picked when fully ripe, then processed quickly in a cannery.
Mozzarella cheese is unique in the world of cheese. Most cheeses develop a deeper flavor profile over time, but mozzarella is made to be eaten fresh.
With a mild taste and creamy texture, this staple of traditional pizzas can be eaten at room temperature in dishes like Caprese salad. And when heated quickly on top of a crust and tomato sauce, it makes the kind of stringy, cheesy goodness that pizza aficionados crave.
Choosing the Freshest Mozzarella
Mozzarella was developed in Italy and originally used the milk of an Italian water buffalo breed, which gave it a unique flavor. This kind of mozzarella is still made but is more expensive than mozzarella that is made with cow’s milk—a practice that has become more common.
Whatever kind of milk is used (and higher fat milk is best), mozzarella is made by incubating it with bacteria that thrives at high temperatures, known as thermophilic bacteria. Rennet, an enzyme used in cheese making to coagulate milk, is added to form curds.
By heating them in water, the curds form strings and develop the elastic texture that mozzarella is known for. At this time, cheesemakers stretch and knead the curds until they have a smooth consistency before forming them into balls.
The process is not difficult, nor does it require any special skills. The only specialty ingredients needed are rennet and citric acid, which can both be found through online retailers or in some specialty food markets. Making your own can be an excellent way to experience the freshest mozzarella on your pizza by using cheese that isn’t even an hour old.
I Don’t Want to Make my Own Cheese
That’s okay! Shopping for fresh mozzarella is not difficult. There are many store brands available. Look for those that are in the traditional ball shape and packed in liquid to help maintain their creaminess.
Because it is packaged in liquid and with the cheese’s naturally high moisture content, mozzarella is not a good candidate for freezing. Buy it within a day of when you are ready to use it, and use it soon after purchasing to take advantage of the best flavor.
Manufactured Mozzarella – What to Avoid
Mozzarella is a semi-soft cheese, which means grocery store brands that don’t feel soft are probably not going to produce the soft, melted, stringiness that we love about it.
And as a semi-soft cheese, grating mozzarella can be almost impossible. (Your best shot at doing this is to grate it when it is fresh out of the refrigerator, then let the shredded cheese come to room temperature.) You don’t have to grate it, of course. With a sharp knife, you can slice your mozzarella for your recipes.
One thing you should not do is purchase pre-shredded mozzarella. All shredded cheese products are coated with cellulose, which is essentially a wood pulp that contains insoluble fiber. Cellulose keeps the shredded cheese pieces from sticking together during processing, packaging, shipping, and during its time on the shelf.
It is perfectly safe to consume and is not digested all that differently from other plant fibers. Foods like celery also contain cellulose. However, keep in mind that the same properties that make cellulose ideal for packaging shredded cheese also keep cheeses from melting in the same way they would without the cellulose additive.
For the best mozzarella as a pizza topping, try to use the freshest, softest mozzarella that you can find, and skip the convenience of pre-shredded. It really doesn’t save all that much time.
Topping It Off
The most authentic Italian pizza is not very fancy. With a crispy but chewy crust, a rich tomato sauce, some fresh herbs, and gooey mozzarella cheese, you can come pretty close to capturing the essence of Italian pizza. Just like the pizza makers in Italy, using the freshest ingredients will produce the best results.
If you aren’t interested in making your own fresh cheese, you can always find a variety of fresh mozzarella at gourmet cheese shops, specialty food stores, and your everyday grocery retailers. Don’t be afraid to ask the employees at any of these locations for their recommendations. You might even check to see if they offer samples, so you can check the cheese’s flavor and creaminess for yourself.
The best part about using fresh mozzarella is that you can customize the thickness and amount of cheese on your pizza that you prefer. As a result, your pizza nights will be something you look forward to days in advance.