This is step 4 in my Complete Guide to Making Pizza. Check out the link to learn about how to stretch pizza dough, how to finish your pizza, and other tips for taking your homemade pizzas from good to great!
Do you ever notice that mushrooms in a thoughtfully crafted, creative dish at a high-end restaurant and mushrooms on a pizza from a typical large pizza chain taste completely different?
There are two basic reasons for that:
- The high-end restaurant probably uses higher-quality mushrooms, likely of a more interesting variety. (This is good to keep in mind, but not the subject of this post.)
- More importantly for today’s point: the restaurant actually prepares the mushrooms.
The fastest way to turn a good pizza concept into a disappointing final product is to just throw raw toppings on and let them all cook as the pizza bakes. This is how you get pizza that tastes like you got it on a two-for-$10 special at the nearest chain.
The problem: raw foods are typically less flavorful than cooked foods. When you rely on the bake time of your pizza to cook the toppings, they aren’t prepared in the best possible way for each ingredient, and they tend to cook unevenly. (Think of a pizza with squash blossoms and potato slices. The potatoes will still be hard and raw by the time the squash blossoms are wilted and ready to burn.)
The solution: don’t put anything on your pizza that you wouldn’t happily eat as it is (exceptions apply). In other words, cook (almost) everything you want to put on your pizza in a way that makes it delicious before you put it on your pizza.
The single best way to make your pizza taste amazing is to make everything that you put on it taste amazing.
Would you go around happily eating raw potatoes, mushrooms, and butternut squash? (I wouldn’t.) If not, they have no place on your pizza.
Let’s try again: would you happily snack on pickled red onions, charred poblano peppers, garlic-sauteed mushrooms, and roasted butternut squash slices? I would. In fact, I might snack on so much of these that there wouldn’t be enough left to top the pizza!
That’s the kind of thing you should be putting on your pizza.
Yes, it’s a lot of extra work to prepare each ingredient individually until it shines. Yes, it takes a long time. (This is why those fancy gourmet pizza places charge $20 for an individual pizza.) But the difference in flavor is amazing, and really what sets great pizzas apart from mediocre pizzas. And, best of all, this is absolutely something you can do at home.
How to Prepare Pizza Toppings:
There’s no one-size-fits-all answer on how to prepare your toppings. For example, you can roast asparagus, saute it, or even pickle it. Here are some ideas to get your creative juices flowing, though!
- Roast (with salt, pepper, and extra virgin olive oil, along with other flavors if you like) just about anything. Try this with ingredients such as butternut squash slices, broccoli florets, asparagus, halved Brussels sprouts, eggplant, cauliflower, and potato slices.
- Char ingredients such as peppers, tomatillos, and tomatoes.
- Saute (with salt, pepper, and butter or olive oil) ingredients like nettles, green garlic, or squash blossoms.
- Toast nuts and seeds.
- Pickle things like onions and cherries.
- Fry garlic (to make chips), green tomatoes, or potato cubes.
- Caramelize onions.
- Confit garlic.
As I mentioned before, there are some exceptions and things that you shouldn’t pre-cook before putting them on a pizza. Here are a few off the top of my head, but use common sense!
Eggs. When you’re making a pizza with eggs on top, cook it at a lower temperature (around 450 degrees Fahrenheit instead of 550) and put the eggs on just as the crust starts to puff up and set. This way, the white will be firm and the yolk will still be runny when the pizza is done.
Sausage. If you’re using small chunks of sausage on your pizza, you can put them on raw. The bake time of the pizza will allow them to cook without turning rubbery, as they might if you cooked them first. (Note: only do this with small chunks of sausage to ensure that they cook through fully.)
Soft greens. Things like spinach, kale, dandelion greens, pea shoots, and so on don’t need to be cooked before going on a pizza. Just toss them with extra-virgin olive oil, salt, pepper, and (optionally) other flavors of your choice. They’re tender enough that they’ll cook on the pizza.
Bonus Tip: Finish Your Pizza Like a Pro!
A lot of toppings actually shouldn’t be baked on pizzas. Instead, they should go on afterward, either for a different effect or to preserve delicate flavors or textures. Check out this guide to learn all about how to finish your pizza.