The Pizza Lab: How To Make Vegan Pizzas That Really Work
Note: For the 32 days between February 1st and March 4th, I'm adopting a completely vegan lifestyle. Every weekday I'll be updating my progress with a brand new recipe. For past posts, check here!
The Vegan Experience this time 'round has been far easier than it was the first time. I don't get hungry, I haven't been at a loss for what to eat, my fridge is bursting with more fresh vegetables and beans than I know what to do with,* and I've had pretty much zero cravings for non-vegan food.
*my dogs have a pretty good idea of what they want me to be doing with it, and Hambone has enjoyed a ball of falafel or two recently.
Strike that. I have had one major craving. It strikes several times a day as I walk down the streets of New York, its unmistakable aroma wafting out the windows of nearly every corner shop. That elusive combination of crisp, golden-brown bread and Italian herbs. If one food is going to do me in, it's pizza. I grew up eating it; I'll probably die eating it. Heck, I even write an entire monthly column about how to make it at home.
Last year, I came up with a little diagram that I used to chart my cravings. It looked something like this:
My graph this year would look a little different. I don't have intense bacon or Spotted Pig Hamburger cravings anymore (those mostly died out by the end of last year's Vegan Experience and have largely not come back); I have now replaced my regular mapo tofu with a 100% vegan mapo tofu recipe that's better than the real thing; and I can totally do without milk. Indefinitely.
But pizza. My first true love. Light of my life and fire of my loins. It will forever rest in that OMG WANT corner.
Fortunately, as I discussed last year, great pizza is not off-limits to vegans by any means. You just have to realize that great pizza does not require cheese.
To some folks, I know that sounds downright sacrilegious. Pizza without cheese?!? Isn't pizza defined by cheese? Well, I'm afraid I'm not going to be of much help to you, so you can turn around right now and walk out the door. And make sure you take that icky Daiya stuff with you.
But the truth is, good pizza is really about good crust and well-balanced toppings, which needn't include cheese. Indeed, many classic pies—the Marinara of Naples, which combines tomatoes, olive oil, garlic, and oregano, is one of the most ancient pizzas in existence. Head over to Rome and you'll find pizza bianca, formed into 6-foot long rectangles, dimpled with crevices to catch olive oil and rosemary, and sprinkled with coarse sea salt. No sauce, no cheese, niente, but one of the most delicious things I've ever put in my mouth.
Every pizzeria in New Haven, famed for its coal-fired apizza (the local vernacular for pizza), and perhaps the highest ranking great-pizza-per-capita city in the country, offers 100% vegan tomato pies as their base. In fact, you have to ask to add cheese to it. In New York, Paulie Gee's out in Greenpoint is one of the finest pizzerias in the city, and features a full six pies on their vegan pizza menu. None of them resort to faux cheese to get there.
What do all of these vastly differing, but all 100% vegan, pizzas have in common? Great crust, high-quality ingredients, and balanced flavors.
And if they can do it, we can certainly do it at home, right?
I have a number of good pizza dough recipes, but I've recently been loving the incredible ease and foolproofness of my Foolproof Pan Pizza dough, as well as my Basic Square Pan Pizza Dough. Both of them are vegan, require very little effort, and basically spread themselves into the pan; no rolling, tossing, or stretching required.
This leaves plenty of time to focus on toppings. Last year, I wrote a brief manifesto on the subject and called it A Pizza Snob's Approach To Toppings. While veganism may have lowered my cholesterol and increased my moral fiber, it has had just about zero effect on my pizza-topping-snobbishness, so the basic tenet at the core of my approach still applies. Which is:
"Whatever is added to my pizza must be more flavorful than the last thing I put on it, and no single topping shall be so strongly flavored that it masks the flavor of those that come before it."
Now, with a tomato- and cheese-topped pizza, this statement severely limits your choice of toppings. The most common cheese pizza toppings are highly flavorful things like cured meats (think: pepperoni, sausage, anchovies, or bacon) or highly flavorful vegetables (think: olives, pickled peppers, onions). They have to be, in order to compete with creamy, fatty cheese and brightly acidic tomatoes.
Take that cheese and sauce out of the picture, and you've opened yourself up to a whole new world of more delicate, subtle, but still delicious, topping alternatives. Here are a few of my favorites.
Potatoes, Onions, Rosemary
Ok, so this isn't exactly the healthiest pizza one could make, but since when is pizza meant to be healthy, vegan or not?
The base of the pie starts out a lot like the fantastic potato-topped pizza bianca at Sullivan Street Bakery (there's also a great version on the bar menu at Maialino): thin slices of potato shingled on top of a moist pizza bianca dough, strewn with onions, and drizzled with olive oil. As it bakes, the potatoes crisp up and the onions brown, lending some sweetness and a bit of bite to the affair.
A sprinkle of rosemary always works with potatoes, in my opinion.
The raw slices of potato cook nicely and are moderately creamy inside, but I longed for even more smooth richness, so I decided to take a page out of Bar's playbook. The New Haven pizzeria is famous for its thin crusted pies, particular their mashed potato pizza. It sounds strange on paper, but what you actually get there is a thin crust topped with creamy, chunkily-mashed potatoes that crisp up around the edges.
To take this effect to the extreme, I dolloped on olive oil-enhanced mashed potatoes in irregular clumps. As the pizza cooked, the clumps harden and brown on the exterior, almost like a perfect roast potato, but with a creamy, olive oil-scented interior.
Zucchini, Squash, Red Onions, and Pistachios
Considering that a poor summer squash-topped pizza was what prompted my original toppings manifesto, it's ironic that one of my favorite vegan pies is made with that same vegetable. The difference? Mine doesn't include cheese or pesto—two ingredients that completely drown out any chance that the squash has of asserting itself.
In this pie, the layered zucchini and squash are cooked long enough that they lose most of their moisture, either to the dough underneath or to the air of the oven. The dough ends up delightfully chewy, while the slices brown a bit around the edges, adding both flavor and texture to the mix.
To the top, I add sliced red onions and a pinch of thyme leaves. As with the potato pie, the red onion slices caramelize intensely, to the point that they're almost crisp, but don't taste burnt. Finally, after the pie comes out of the oven, I sprinkle on some pistachios. The red onion-pistachio combo is one I ganked from Chris Bianco at Pizzeria Bianco in Phoenix. It's a really great combo.
Sun Dried Tomatoes, Olives, Caramelized Onions, and Breadcrumbs
Having recently gotten back from a trip to Sicily with my wife, I've been playing around with a lot of those regional flavors—intense olives and olive oil-drenched vegetables; sweet, salty, and briny. I already have a recipe for Sfincione, the original Sicilian pizza eaten around New Years, which is made with tomatoes, caramelized onions, anchovies, caciocavallo cheese, and breadcrumbs. That recipe inspired this one, which is a variation on the theme.
It starts out pretty similar, with a layer of crushed tomatoes and richly caramelized onions for sweetness. Rather than anchovies and caciocavallo, I used a mix of chopped olives and sun-dried tomatoes, adding that briny, rich element to the pie.
The whole thing gets topped with breadcrumbs tossed with olive oil (use panko for some extra crunch, though make sure they're a vegan brand—some are made with honey).
What emerges from the oven less than half an hour later is this beaut:
Ain't she purty? That basil is entirely optional, but I happen to have an over-abundant basil plant in my living room. I generally find high productivity to be a good trait in the flora and fauna I choose to enter relations with, but this thing is just ridiculous.
Get The Recipes!
- Easy Pan Pizza With Potato, Onion, and Rosemary »
- Easy Pan Pizza With Zucchini, Red Onion, and Pistachios »
- Easy Pan Pizza With Sun-dried Tomatoes, Olives, Caramelized Onions, Olives, and Breadcrumbs »
About the author: J. Kenji Lopez-Alt is the Chief Creative Officer of Serious Eats where he likes to explore the science of home cooking in his weekly column The Food Lab. You can follow him at @thefoodlab on Twitter, or at The Food Lab on Facebook.