The Pizza Lab: The Best French Bread Pizza
It's time for another round of The Food Lab. Got a suggestion for an upcoming topic? Email Kenji here, and he'll do his best to answer your queries in a future post. Become a fan of The Food Lab on Facebook or follow it on Twitter for play-by-plays on future kitchen tests and recipe experiments.
"Is there anyone who doesn't like French bread pizza?," I asked my wife the other day, as I pulled another tray of garlic-scented, oozy, toasty, cheese-covered, sauce-smothered bread from the oven.
No response. Figuring she didn't hear me the first time, I walked a little closer to where she was sat at her desk, concentrating intently on some sort of mathematical business (or was it computer science-y business?) on her computer screen. I said it again, louder, using my hands to try and waft some of the scent towards her.
"Mmhmm," she said, raising her hand in that "I love you, but please don't talk to me now" move that she's now got down pat, and that I've finally started recognizing as a legitimate form of communication.
I contemplated flinging a bit of molten-hot mozzarella, imagining its parabolic trajectory towards the back of her head, but then realized that the trail of extra-virgin olive oil it would leave in its wake would finger me unmistakably as the culprit. Instead I resorted to eating a slice myself and letting the dogs lick a bit off my fingers. If she won't acknowledge the awesomeness of my pizza, at least I'll be sure that the dogs love me just a little bit more than they love her, I thought to myself. But the fact remains: It was darn delicious French bread pizza.
Created by the late Bob Petrillose at Cornell University in the legendary Hot Truck in Ithaca, New York, French bread pizza has been a staple of hungry students and busy parents since 1960.
I know that here on Slice, we're all about homemade dough, cold fermentation, hydration level this, protein content that, and all other manner of obsessiveness. But if the data is correct, even serious pie-heads like you, my dear readers, are happy to give themselves a break and admit the simple pleasures of a virtually work-free pizza alternative: According to our polls, French bread pizza is the second most popular choice in such situations, just behind heating up a frozen pie.
When it's great, it can be fantastic. Crisp and soft, with just the right amount of tender, doughy, sauce-soaked bread under its oozy cheese surface. It's tangier and more heavily seasoned than most regular pizza, but that ain't a bad thing.
On the other hand, bad French pizza can be truly abysmal. Bland, leather-like cheese, with a crust that's either too soggy or too crisp. My goal was to up French Bread pizza's game and make it into a dish that you'd be proud to serve any time—not just when you're rushed, and to do so just about as quickly as you can defrost and heat up a frozen pizza.
It's called French bread pizza, but what it really should be called is "that stuff they call French bread in the supermarket, or sometimes they call it Italian, but either way it's soft and squishy and sort of big and and not too crusty, and it's not really European at all but it's still good for pizza" pizza. I tried making pizza out of real French bread—a nice crusty baguette—and found that it was all wrong. Not only is a baguette too crusty and chewy (French bread pizza should be crisp and tender, not crunchy and hard to bite through), but its open hole structure also makes it difficult to top properly. Sauce and cheese fall into the craters.
Traditional supermarket "French" it is.
My most basic pizza sauce is nothing more than crushed canned tomatoes seasoned with salt. It's what I use on my Neapolitan pies, and even my New York-style pies these days when I don't feel like making a full-blown cooked sauce. But with French bread pizza, that intensely flavored sauce is part of its basic flavor profile.
I started off making a standard simple marinara with garlic, oregano, and a pinch of red pepper flakes cooked down in extra-virgin olive oil before being simmered with some crushed tomatoes, but the sauce needed some more intensity. I decided to increase the amount of garlic to about quadruple my normal ratio, along with using a mixture of butter and olive oil in place of the straight olive oil (those milk solids in butter add a ton of flavor—I add butter to many of my tomato-based sauce). A sprinkling of fresh parsley and basil finished it off.
With a good sauce, the right bread, and some quality fresh Mozzarella, I figured it's as easy as layering it all together and baking it. But I wasn't particularly happy with those results.
Here was the problem:
When you throw sauce directly on top of the soft bread, is soaks in, turning the whole thing unpleasantly mushy and soggy. I tried simply toasting the bread beforehand, which certainly helped, but then I realized—hey, I'm making this tasty garlic butter, why not start with a garlic bread base before I layer on the other ingredients?
I spread the garlic mixture on top and gave the bread a preliminary pit stop in the oven before adding my sauce and cheese.
The pre-toasting helped in both the flavor and sogginess departments—my best pizza yet—but there was still some amount of sogginess occurring, along with another problem:
There's this odd curling phenomenon that occurs when you pre-toast your bread before topping and baking it again, the centers sinking down rather than laying flat. Seems that the soft bready part shrinks as it toasts, causing the bread to curl up like a bi-metal strip. To combat this problem, I engaged in a simple bit of brute force:
That's right, stay down, I said to my bread. Compressing it pre-baking under a rimmed baking sheet tamed it just enough to get it to stay flat. It also made it much easier to top.
As for handling the remainder of the sogginess issues? Turned out to be simple enough: I added a preliminary layer of cheese that was just thick enough to prevent too much sauce from seeping in, but not so thick that it formed a completely impenetrable barrier—after all, I wanted a bit of that soft, doughy texture at the sauce-bread interface. Par-baking it helped it to spread evenly across the surface.
After that, all it needed was a layer of sauce and more cheese before a second trip to the oven. To bang up the flavor even more, I took some tips from DiFara in Brooklyn:
Adding a sprinkling of rough-grated parmesan cheese, along with a sprinkle of fresh herbs and a drizzle of olive oil, after it comes out of the oven, so that the flavors stay bright and fresh.
Even before you bite into it, it looks like good pizza. And unless you are irrationally obsessed with computer science conundrums as my dear wife is, the smell will probably knock your socks off as well.
Just in case anyone is questioning whether all these little extra steps really make a difference in the final product, let me just show you first a French bread pizza made on untoasted bread with no garlic butter, and no finishing aromatics. Just sauce on bread with cheese:
Not terrible looking, but you can tell it's going to be soggy and bland. Now compare that with this:
The bread stays, well, bready, with just a hint of garlicky olive oil and butter soaking in for flavor. The sauce stays put above its protective layer of pre-melted cheese, while the cheese on top is enhance by a layer of parmesan and fresh herbs. I dunno about you, but I know which one I'd rather eat.
In all honesty, this stuff is pretty darn delicious. Better than a good deal of the real pizza I've eaten in my life, even when I've made it myself. The fact that it's on the table hot and gooey in about 20 minutes is just a bonus. A sweet, sweet bonus. You know what? I'm glad I have an excuse to eat it all myself. The dogs can share if they want.
Get The Recipe!
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.