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Ed's Cosmic Pizza Blab: Sauce

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[Photograph: J. Kenji Lopez-Alt]

How important is sauce among the holy trinity of pizza components? That's the question I'm pondering as I write this.

We all know that crust reigns supreme. Without a righteous, proper crust, great pizza does not exist. Cheese is a close second. If the cheese sucks, chances are the pizza does, too. But what about sauce, the oft-forgotten or rarely mentioned pizza element?

Sauce is most often mentioned as an unabashed negative. Canned pizza sauce is of course a no-no. But what is the yes-yes of pizza sauces? What makes good pizza sauce good? Is there only one truly righteous pizza sauce? What do the pizza gods say about sauce? I am of the opinion that sauce on pizza should simply be good canned tomatoes crushed as desired, with a touch of sea salt. But that's just one pizza lover's opinion.

I decided to ask some of my pizzaiolo heroes what they have to say about sauce.

My questions: What is in your sauce? What does a good sauce do for your pizza? What role does it play? Is there only one righteous pizza sauce?

The answers might surprise you, or maybe not.

Chris Bianco, Pizzeria Bianco

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Ok. Sauce. Good question. What makes a good pizza sauce is not usually what makes a good pasta sauce or any other culinary application. For pizza, in my opinion (which as we know should be is subjective), you first must look at the objective: is it doing it exactly as you were told—as pizza gospel—or doing something that makes cooking sense and achieves that good intention.

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[Photograph: J. Kenji Lopez-Alt]

For instance I just returned from northern California to pick and pack our tomatoes (Bianco DiNapoli) and there is where, for me, we start making sauce. This year's crop yielded very high quality fruit, but what actually makes it into the can is a very small portion of the yield. After picking, each tomato is checked by hand (Laverne and Shirley style) for quality, color, yellow shoulders, etc.; not so much size uniformity, but ripeness and flavor. Then I have found adding scant amounts of pacific sea salt is key to balancing the flavor, acidity and sweetness. Also, three basil leaves with stems are added to each can to give back the vine aroma and flavor. Now with only organic tomatoes, sea salt, and basil packed in a balanced puree, all I need to do to make my sauce is hand crush the tomatoes to the desired texture, add a glug of extra virgin and we're oven ready.

I never use a hand blender because then I would miss out on the experience of the varying tomato flavor bite by bite. I do add herbs, like wild oregano for my marinara pizza, but in that case I like to activate its flavor at the last minute before putting it in the oven to give the essential oils the chance to be their brightest. In the case of fresh basil, I like to bruise it just when the Margherita emerges from the oven. Since the sauce cooks very quickly in an 800 degree oven, a pre-cooked sauce, for me, tastes too tight. Just personal taste; all sauces are groovy.

If you dig it, it's right.

The role of the sauce is no different in importance than any other ingredient in or on a pizza, even though it does have a crucial role in balancing the marriage of cheese and dough. Using any ingredient in a pizza, I'm hoping to find harmony or balance."

Bruce Hill, Picco and Zero Zero

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"Hey Ed, my sauce is San Marzano's and sea salt only. It's really all about the quality of the tomato. But that's just for Neapolitan style pizza, because the sauce actually reduces on the surface of the pizza while it is cooking. The sauce is a base flavor as well as a bridge to other flavors, like basil, olives, fior de latte, buffala, peppers, you know, the toppings. They all start with the relationship to the flavor of tomatoes.

Pizza was born when tomatoes hit the dough, the rest is history."


Mathieu Palombino, Motorino

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[Photograph: Adam Kuban]

"My sauce is nothing more then canned tomatoes, riced by hand (passed through a ricer), that's it.

The role of the tomato sauce on pizza? Well there are many, first the tomato is what turns bread into pizza. I know that there are white pizzas, but still , when you ask someone what a white pizza is they often answer: It is a pizza without tomato sauce.

Sauce also protects the center of the pizza from burning right away; as long as there is water in the sauce, the heat from the top of the oven can't burn the pie. Which is probably also why Neapolitan pizzas are made with plain wet tomatoes (if you were to use a marinara sauce used for NY style pies, for instance, the sauce would burn right away because of the high heat of Neapolitan-type ovens.

Just out of the oven the fresh tomatoes on top of a Neapolitan pie look like sauce (or it should), and that's because the tomatoes have reduced during fast and intense cooking.
If you had made that same pie with an already cooked sauce, the sauce would most likely be way too dry or even burnt.

When you make NY-style pizza in a gas oven that is set at 400 to 500 degrees, you have to use a cooked marinara-like sauce which has previously reduced on the stove. The type of sauce I use would be a little too wet and wouldn't work on a NY-style pizza.

Precooking the sauce for a NY style pie is perfectly fine. It allows you to take your time and make the sauce the way you want, adding whichever flavor layer you like; onion, garlic, carrots, or whatever works for you. These pies also cook slowly and become rustic tasting, which is part of the reason the NY pies are so satisfying and feel like a hug.

Neapolitan-style-pies are more vibrant and clean tasting, they are less deep in flavor. In the end, I would never be able to tell which one is better. It depends on your mood, on the weather outside, or just your opinion."

Paulie Gee, Paulie Gee's

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[Photograph: Adam Kuban]

"My sauce: My favorite Italian tomatoes, separated from the juice/purée in the can, run through a food mill and seasoned with a bit of Sicilian sea salt.

The role of sauce: It contrasts with the other ingredients. For that reason, the tomatoes I like are on the sweet side.

Is there only one righteous pizza sauce? Yes. And everyone has their own."

Kim and Brian Spangler, Apizza Scholls

[Photograph: Adam Kuban]

"Kim and I want pizza sauce to pretty much taste like fresh tomatoes. We seek out canned tomatoes that are simple, bright and sweet! We've tried a lot of imported, as well as domestic; with skin, without skin, etc. We've decided that for our tastes, we like ground tomatoes without skin. We grow amazing tomatoes in California, so we see no need to look outside the States.

We don't do much to our sauce. Per 10 pound can, we include a 1 tablespoon mix of dried oregano, basil, parsley and marjoram, 2 teaspoons sea salt, and 1 tablespoon fresh chopped garlic. Since we put the sauce on top of the sliced aged mozzarella, we then sprinkle a generous amount of grated Grana Padano/Pecorino Romano on top of the sauce, which will meld with the sauce as it flash cooks on the pizza. To us, and our style of pizza, the balance of crust, cheese, and tomato come first. Tomato is the bright and fresh acidity that balances the richness of the cheese and keeps pizza from becoming too bready.

We do not pre-cook sauce as it will make the sauce bitter and it will also adjust the moisture level of the sauce. One of the reasons (there are a few, by the waC) that we add sliced cheese before putting on the sauce, is so the tomatoes can flash cook and retain their brightness.

There is no ONE sauce, as certain types of sauce seem to work better with other types of pizza. Bar pizza tends to benefit from a thicker and more herbed/spiced sauce, just as Chicago deep dish really benefits from the chunky, stew-like sauce. Variety truly is the spice of life.... no?"


There you have it.
The one point that everyone agrees on: when it comes to sauce on pizza, to each his/her own. There is no room for pizza sauce ideologues in a democratic pizza universe. Free at last, pizza makers, free at last.

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