The Pizza Lab: The Best English Muffin Pepperoni Pizza
As New York kids, we didn't have much opportunity to do the running, jumping, and climbing trees-type things that suburban kids get to do with each other after school. Instead, we had pre-scheduled after-school activities. And as the child of a certified, card-carrying tiger mom, that meant lots of them. Chess club, Math Adventure! (really, and it was really spelled with the exclamation point!), violin practice, the occasional sport (so long as it didn't interfere with violin or math). Anything that would increase the likelihood that my young mind would be molded into the sort that would grow up to attend the only respectable college in the world and practice the only respectable profession in the world and absolutely not ever begin to dream about thinking of becoming something as shameful as, say, a writer or—god forbid—a cook.
I unfortunately dashed both of my mom's dreams by a) not going to Harvard and b) not being a doctor. But in a way, it's her own fault: If she had never agreed to let me take that one-day, two-hour after-school Cooking For Kids class, why, then I may never have ended up in the oh-so-embarrassing position I'm at today.
*To be fair, after several years of "there's no difference between what you do and cooking at McDonald's"-type talk, she's had a 180-degree change of heart on my profession of choice and might perhaps even be secretly proud of me.
On the menu at said class: English muffin pizza. The version we made was the same one that kids and college students across the country still make today: a split English muffin spread with some jarred pizza sauce, topped with a handful of pre-shredded mozzarella cheese and a few slices of pepperoni, and baked in an oven until melty and hot.
We all know the first law of Pizza-Like Objects: If it's made with some combination of zesty tomato sauce, a wheat-based bready product, and oozy melted cheese with a hint of pepperoni, it's going to taste good. Perhaps not great, but reliably pretty good. And that's the problem with English muffin pizza. It's good stuff, to be sure. I'd happily eat those same after-school versions without a complaint if they were presented to me. In fact, I did exactly that all through college.
But the thing about good things is that they all have the ability to be great.
Today, we're classing up English Muffin pizza to the point where it's not just an acceptable snack, but a snack to actually look forward to, all while trying to maintain the easygoing simplicity of the original product. Let's go through each stage step by step to institute our improvements.
P.S. Mom—if you're reading this, I'd like you to know that your son now earns a decent living by writing about English muffin pizza. Think about that!
The most obvious place to start our upgrading process is with the sauce. As much as I have a nostalgic appreciation of canned pizza sauces with their candy-like sweetness and their reliance on too many dried herbs and powdered garlic, we can do a little bit better.
The traditional pizza-ist in me says that the sauce should be nothing more than a can of San Marzano tomatoes and salt, but I tried that and, while it was delicious, it was lacking a certain English muffin pizza-ish quality to it. A cooked sauce was a better way to go.
In a nod to canned pizza sauces, my version does include the garlic and herbs, but my garlic, parsley, and basil are all fresh, cooked down gently in a mixture of extra-virgin olive oil and butter to maximize flavor extraction. I also use a dash of dried oregano—tough, dry weather herbs like oregano, thyme, and rosemary do quite well in their dried forms because their aromatics are less volatile than those of tender leafy herbs—and a pinch of red pepper flakes.
Canned crushed tomatoes have the smooth texture I'm looking for in this type of sauce, and all it needs by way of seasoning is some salt and just a pinch of sugar. Italian traditionalists may scoff at the use of sugar in a sauce* and some will act as though it will create an inter-dimensional rift in the space-time continuum on par with crossing the streams. Then again, said traditionalists aren't exactly the target audience for English muffin pizza to begin with, so I think we're safe here.
*Get a load of comments here if scoffing if what you're looking for!
Some folks say you should never add fresh herbs until the very end of cooking in order to maximize their fresh flavor. I'm not the kind of person who likes hard and fast rules like this. Instead, I go for the fresh herb trifecta in almost all my food: some at the beginning to cook down and work their way into the background, some added at the middle (in this case stirred into the finished sauce), and finally a sprinkling of fresh herbs just before serving to capture that freshness.
Pepperoni's not a requirement for English muffin pizzas in the same way that cocktails aren't a requirement for Fridays or sour gummi worms aren't a requirement for road trips. Life will go on without them...it'll just be a whole lot less fun.
Flavorwise, we've found that there are a few brands of pre-sliced pepperoni that bring on the spice, but the big issue is that they don't curl up into little crisp cups the way a natural casing stick-style pepperoni does.
At Slice, we're all about that curl. There is no fine vessel for the delivery of hot pepperoni grease than an edible pepperoni cup, and there is no finer brand of stick-style pepperoni for pizzas than Boar's Head, the winner of our stick pepperoni taste test.
N.B. Those of you interested in trivial science for the sake of trivial science might find this article about why pepperoni curls to be fascinating. I sure do.
With a normal pizza I apply the pepperoni raw before baking, but with the shorter bake time and lower temperatures English muffin pizzas require compared to a pizza made from raw dough, I figured the pepperoni wouldn't cook enough for my tastes without a bit of a head start. So after slicing my pepperoni to between 2.5 and 4 millimeters thick (the thickness range that delivers maximum cuppage), I tried applying it both in raw form and par-cooked in a skillet.
You can see from the pizza on the left that pepperoni that goes on raw will acquire a bit of cupping and a decent amount of crisping of the edges, but it's nothing compared to the awesome charring that you get from par-cooking the slices before they go on top of the muffin.
There's an added bonus from using this method: you get a skillet-ful of hot rendered pepperoni grease to work with. The question is where best to apply it. We'll circle back on that in a moment.
If there's one major issue with English muffin pizza, it's the proclivity that English muffins have for absorbing sauce.
And I'm not talking in the desirable butter-in-the-nooks-and-crannies type absorption, I'm talking turns-bread-into-mushy-goop level absorption.
With my French Bread Pizza, I solved this issue by compressing the bread slightly and adding a protective layer of melted cheese in between the sauce and the bread. English muffins, with their larger holes and less-compressible structure require a different tack. Toasting solve the problem nicely, allowing the sauce to enter the nooks and crannies, but preventing the muffin from turning soggy.
And remember that pan of rendered pepperoni grease that we had sitting on the stove? You see where we're going with this?
Toasting the English muffins in that pepperoni grease gives us protection as well as built-in pepperoni flavor. Win win.
You want to toast the muffins until they're nice and dark, like this. Not only does this offer maximum protection from sauce-induced mushiness, but it also gives your English muffin pizzas just a hint of the char that defines really great traditional pizza.
I tried making a few pizzas with fresh mozzarella, including fancy-pants buffalo mozzarella from Italy, but the wateriness of the fresh stuff doesn't work in this setting. Instead, stick with the traditional choice: low-moisture aged mozzarella.
And forget the pre-shredded stuff! It comes coated with starch which can affect its melting qualities, and it never tastes as good as freshly grated cheese.
I used a block of full-fat mozzarella from Polly-O, the winning brand in our low-moisture mozzarella taste test.
Mozzarella is a great cheese for its gooey melting qualities, but for a flavor boost, I supplement it with a bit of 24-month aged Parmigiano-Reggiano, because if it's good enough for my cheese board, then it's good enough for my English muffins.
Just as I go for the trifecta with my herbs, I do the same with my Parm: a small amount of it mixed in with the mozarella to provide some tang to that layer, followed by a light sprinkle after the pepperoni is applied in order to brown and bring out those gorgeous, nutty flavors that cooked Parm delivers.
Finally, I add a grating of Parm to the tops of the pizzas as soon as they come out of the oven for that fresh sharpness, along with a drizzle of really, really good extra-virgin olive oil. It's amazing how few things in the world are not immediately improved with a drizzle of extra-virgin olive oil.
The final product that emerged from my oven was, to be frank, awesome. At once totally recognizable and true to the original source material, complete with the slightly sweet, herb-and-garlic-infused sauce, while at the same time being so much better, the layers of cheese and fresh herbs adding complexity and depth that I didn't know an English muffin pizza could have, while the extra toasting steps and incorporation of pepperoni grease creating a superior textural experience.
Is it something that I'd serve at a fancy dinner party? Nope. But I'd've done good if after my next party at least one guest went home thinking to themselves, "Damn, that was some tasty English muffin pizza."
And here's the truth: After I completed this recipe, I called up my mom to pick up the leftovers for dinner. She even called me back later to tell me how delicious they were. Perhaps she's proud of me after all.
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.