Best Cheese for Pizza: Mozzarella & Beyond
What type of cheese goes on pizza? Well, mozzarella cheese is the best cheese for pizza. But American regional tastes—and science—say it’s not the only one. We’ll help you raise your pizza game!
The pizza arrives at your table, its savory aromas only hinting at the toppings and herbed tomato sauce tucked under a blanket of melted cheese…actually, it’s more of a comforter, richly golden and invitingly dappled with toasty browned spots that beckon you to dive in. When the slice is lifted from the rest of the pie, those gorgeous elastic strands follow it from the pizza pan to your plate like harp strings of heavenly flavor: flavor that more than delivers on the promise offered by the appearance and texture.
This is why people love pizza, and it’s why so many pledge their loyalty to the pizza parlor that delivers just the right experience. For some it’s the crust; others swoon for a particular sauce recipe…but just as likely it’s the perfect combination of cheeses for pizza.
But wait—isn’t pizza cheese just mozzarella? Not at all…but of course, any discussion of the best cheese for pizza has to start with mozzarella. After all, mozzarella is the most popular cheese in America, and it’s all because of pizza. (The most popular cheese for snacking is Cheddar.)
Lots of Mozz
Mozzarella is considered the best cheese for pizza for a few reasons: its delicate, milky flavor, its smooth, elastic texture, and its fabulous meltability. The texture comes primarily from the fact that it is a pasta filata-type cheese (“spun paste” in Italian). These cheeses are kneaded during manufacture to give them a stretchy consistency that results in those delectable strands we know and love.
There are several different types of mozzarella: whole-milk and part-skim, fresh and aged, and mozzarella di bufala, the Italian original made from the milk of domesticated water buffalo. Since there aren’t very many water buffalo in the United States, you can assume your Wisconsin mozzarella came from a cow.
Fat and calories aside, the main difference between whole-milk and part-skim mozzarella is that the whole-milk version melts better, while part-skim browns faster. Neither is better; it really depends on what you want your cheese to do.
As for fresh vs. aged, again, it’s a matter of preference. Purists tend to prefer fresh mozzarella—either di bufala or the cow’s-milk version, fior de latte—because it’s what was used on the original Pizza Margherita in Naples, Italy. This pizza, named for Queen Margherita of Savoy in the 1880s, represents the colors of the Italian flag: red (tomato), white (mozzarella) and green (basil). Those are the only three toppings. The sauce is a simple marinara with oregano and garlic, and the mozzarella and basil are both fresh so they are as white and green as possible. This pizza does not contain an abundance of cheese as we tend to use in America, as you want all three colors to shine through.
One thing many pizza lovers don’t like about the classic Margherita, however, is the fact that water from the fresh mozzarella tends to spread, form puddles and soak into the crust. While many pizza customers find this soggy middle to be the benchmark of a true Neapolitan pie, most people prefer the saltier flavor and easy melting of a lower-moisture aged mozzarella. In fact, our friends at Bon Appétit came out rather strongly in favor of low-moisture mozzarella. Those who like a crispy crust are especially better off saving the fresh mozzarella for Caprese salad rather than pizza.
So that’s the story on mozzarella…but mozzarella is only part of the story.
The Other Best Cheeses for Pizza
Truth be told, mozzarella can be a bit bland. In general, this is good because it lets the other ingredients’ flavors shine through…but many pizza chefs like to blend mozzarella with other cheeses for a deeper cheese experience.
Turns out that scientists have actually done a study on the best cheeses for pizza. (Oh, to have been a part of that study.) A team of researchers at the University of Auckland tested seven cheeses—mozzarella, provolone, Cheddar, Colby, Edam, Emmental, and Gruyère—for factors like moisture, free oil content, and elasticity. High-moisture cheeses release more steam, causing bubbles (blisters) which brown. Oils, however, lead to less browning because they prevent moisture from easily evaporating. And less-elastic cheeses brown less because the blisters don’t form.
Their findings? Mozzarella is still the best pizza cheese because of all the above factors, but it’s best to add one or more of the others depending on how you want it to melt and perform.
Provolone, for example, is a pasta filata cheese like its cousin mozzarella; it exhibits similar stretchy-stringy properties, yet adds a bit more flavor due to a longer aging process. And because it produces more oil (as does Gruyère), it leads to a less browned top and a smoother texture.
Cheddar cheese, on the other hand, results in less blistering and more uniform color due to its “small elasticity”. Same goes for Colby and Edam.
So how do you create the best cheese for pizza? Depends on what you’re looking for. One cheese that is not recommended, however, is Parmesan. Whoa, hold on a minute! Then why are all those shakers of grated Parmesan on every pizzeria table? Let us clarify: Parmesan should never be added to your mix of cheeses for baking. Because of the dryness of this hard cheese, it won’t melt…and its delicate flavor is ruined by high heat. Yes, Parmesan cheese does belong on your pizza—but it should be freshly grated or shaved as a garnish on top of a pizza that’s just been baked.
Brick Cheese Pizza
Another type of cheese that can be found on pizza—in certain areas—is Wisconsin brick cheese. And by certain areas, we mean specifically Detroit. For some reason, pizza makers in Detroit add brick cheese to their regular mozzarella. Some build their pizzas as usual, while others build them in reverse, adding cubes of brick directly to the top of the crust before adding sauce and toppings. Caution: We are NOT talking about German-style Brick. This cheese is smear-ripened similarly to its cousin, Limburger, and is meant to be used accordingly. There is actually a recipe for Limburger pizza, and you could certainly substitute German-style Brick in the recipe, but if someone is expecting Detroit-style pizza, they would be in for a pungent surprise!
If you can’t find regular brick cheese, you can blend your mozzarella with Muenster, Monterey Jack or farmer’s cheese.
Just as Detroit has its own style of pizza, so does St. Louis. St. Louis-style pizza typically features a very thin, unleavened, cracker-like crust and is cut in squares (known as a “party cut” or “tavern cut”). But the main distinguishing feature of St. Louis pizza is the cheese: namely, Provel. This white pasteurized processed cheese is similar to Velveeta, with a low melting point, and is processed from Cheddar, Swiss, and provolone cheeses. Provel is rarely found outside the St. Louis area, so if you want to try to duplicate the flavor—you won’t be able to duplicate the texture—of St. Louis pizza, substitute a blend of Baby Swiss, white Cheddar, and provolone.
Play around with different combinations of cheese and find the blend that suits your personal taste. You’ll be making the best pizzas of your life!