The right pizza sauce

Nov. 30, 2004

Do regional preferences for pizza sauce really exist?

That's a question Red Gold business development manager Connie Browne gets now and again. Her answer to it, though, never changes.

"There is no significant difference," Browne said. "I believe if we're comparing premium pizza sauces, for example, the product attributes are pretty much the same."

Before coming to Pizza Magia as its R&D VP, Bob Sleep worked for Little Caesars, Domino's Pizza and Papa John's. And despite two decades of experience in the industry and many stops around the nation, Sleep agrees with Browne: geography doesn't change the sauce.

"You can taste the difference between everybody's sauce, but that doesn't mean if you go to another part of the country it'll be remarkably different," said Sleep, who also is a degreed chef.

Paradise Tomato Kitchens' corporate chef Allison Rittman ventures a little further than Sleep and Browne, saying the flavor meter sways to and fro -- albeit slightly -- based on which corner of the country you're in.

"It seems to me that in the South they're sweeter, and they're higher in acid and brighter in color in New York," she said. "In the Midwest it seems they're a little thicker, and in the North they're a little more savory."

From the perspective of a sauce manufacturer, Browne's point is hard to dispute. The majority of pizza sauces are born of the same stuff: tomatoes, onions, garlic and spices. But it's those miniscule differences in just how much of each goes into each operator's that convinces some palates there's a world of difference.

Bland sauces not allowed!

The human tongue is designed to discern between four basic flavors: sweet, sour, bitter and salty. With 10,000 taste buds hardwired to the nose and the brain, it's more than equipped to do the job.

Perhaps that's why so many people love pizza, because its wide-ranging flavors put the tongue to the test.

Consider the very makeup of a basic pizza: largely bland dough covered with highly seasoned sauce smothered by somewhat bland cheese and finished with highly seasoned toppings. Such a collage of flavors demands every sauce makes a statement. Onion, garlic, herbs and spices, help that happen, of course, but each flavor's influence is a matter of varying degrees that change in nearly every operation.

Turning flavor vagaries into controllable consistencies is the job of Jordan Stivers, vice president of product development for Blendex Company in Louisville, Ky. Stivers sources spices and herbs and creates dry blends for restaurant companies, including pizza operations. (The company also makes proprietary dry blends for pizza dough.)

Freshness is chief asset of any spice, Stivers said, while its enemy is time and exposure to air.

"Spices are highly volatile, meaning that if you can smell it, flavor is escaping into the air," he said. "The more that happens, the weaker the spice gets."

Similar to year-round-fresh sauce manufacturers, Blendex makes spice blends for customers as they need them. Stivers said that once a spice is dried or ground, ideally it would be used within three months; after six months, flavor deterioration is noticeable.

Depending on a customer's preference, custom spice blends go directly to a sauce manufacturer for bulk production, or they're delivered to individual pizzerias in portion-control bags for manual addition to a sauce.

For operators making their own sauce in the store, custom blends do cost a bit more than buying generic spices from food distributors, Stivers said. He believes the extra cost is worth the investment, however, because it affords added control and delivers consistency.

"You can buy the cheapest black pepper you can find, but you'll never know how old it is. It's probably

 Sassy Sauces

Pizza sauces found on menus on the Internet

* Roasted red pepper

* Tomato vodka cream

* Fire-roasted tomato

* Pureed hot peppers

* Alfredo (cream, Parmesan

and pepper)

* White sauce (olive oil)

* Tomato salsa

* Spicy Chipotle

* Basil Pesto

* Cilantro Pesto

* Parmesan-garlic

* Barbecue

* Jamaican jerk

* Thai peanut

* Ginger hoisin

* Ranch dressing

* White wine garlic and shallot butter

going to taste different every time," he said. "We buy spices from suppliers who do the grinding themselves, and we know that they're doing that in a just-in-time situation, not making a bunch ahead of time. We know what to expect."

And how does the operator know his spice supplier has the good stuff? The pizza operator's personal taste preferences play the largest role in that decision, Stivers said. The operator then needs to check out multiple suppliers to find the one who best can meet that preference consistently over the long-term.

"You have to trust your supplier to get you the best spices available," Stivers said. And be sure that supplier -- especially if it's a custom spice blender -- offers help if problems, such as taste variances, arise. "A good one will solve your problem."

Not your average pizza sauce

As California Pizza Kitchen has proven, pizza lovers like to experiment with sauces other than the tomato-based classic. Of the 27 pizzas listed on the Los Angeles-based chain's Web site menu, only eight use tomato sauce. The other 19 use tomatoes for toppings only or none at all.

White pizzas, which use extra-virgin olive oil as the sauce, have been popular for decades in areas where seafood toppings are popular. The oil is brushed directly on the dough and typically gets some flavor help from fresh garlic and herbs. One of the finest examples of white sauce pizza is the fresh clam and garlic pie served in pizza joints throughout New Haven, Conn.

Barbecue sauce on pizzas, an innovation pioneered by CPK's first chef, Ed LaDou, has become nationally popular at large chains, including Papa John's. The chain's rollout of two barbecue chicken pizzas in the fall of 2003 spiked sales favorably, as did its Alfredo-sauced pies (one with chicken, the other with spinach) when introduced the year before. Rittman said she sees the current hot and/or smoked pepper craze creeping its way into pizza sauces.

"Chipotle isn't something that's hit the big chains yet, but a lot of bold flavors are now coming through," she said. "I'm also seeing things like smoked tomatoes, grilled onions and fire-roasted vegetables. You see chefs taking things that customers know as comfort foods and making them new and different, not the same-old thing."

Paradise's director of research and development, Arlen Campbell, said the company is working on a couple of fire-roasted tomato sauces "that may take off down the line somewhere," and Rittman said she's testing a pizza sauce spiked with peach and jalapeno peppers "that has quite a kick to it."

Justin Uhl, Paradise's director of quality assurance, said some of the company's large chain customers are testing "boutique pizzas through limited-time offers" in order to gauge customer preferences for unique sauces.

"Our customers are more interested all the time in doing that to see if they can get people through the doors," he said. "And because of the way we make sauce year round, we can do those LTOs (limited-time offers) whenever a customer wants to add a unique sauce."

In the past, sauce customers typically came to manufacturers with new sauce ideas, but Uhl said the flow of creativity is more two-way now, as sauce manufacturers are contracting with chefs to develop new products for customers.

Rittman agreed that many of more of her ilk are finding work with companies like Paradise and Red Gold.

"Five years ago it was very unusual for chefs to join manufacturers," said Rittman. "Even at chain restaurants they didn't have chefs because they thought (food) wasn't that complicated. Now they use our expertise to come up with new ideas."

Such as a peach and pepper-enhanced pizza sauce?

"That's kind of a work in progress, but it's good," she said.

Topics: Pizza Sauce

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