Chat Leftovers: Frozen pizza highs and lows

October 9, 2013

Happy fall morning to all. Even if it has been a while since you fed — or ate — baby food, you’ll be charmed by Nevin Martell’s story today about his quest to make fresh, interestingly seasoned purees for his little boy. Does he have a tiny gourmet on his hands? Read all about it here.

What has fins and whiskers and has destructively gobbled its way through the Chesapeake Bay ecosystem? It’s the blue catfish, and a local group has come up with a plan to make the abundant (and tasty) creature available to local institutions that need food. Whitney Pipkin has that story.

And with all the emphasis these days on fast meals, Bonnie S. Benwick says a new book called “Cooking Slow” is well worth picking up. She gives us a book review and recipes, too. (The lamb chili is particularly amazing.)

With so many folks at home on furlough, we’re looking forward to a busy time during today’s Free Range chat. Nevin joins us this week, along with Tucker Yoder, executive chef of the Clifton Inn in Charlottesville, who helped him come up with some baby feeding strategies. Come at noon, and bring your questions.

We do our best to answer them all, but if we run out of time before we get to yours, check this space next week. Here’s a leftover question from last week’s chat:

I’m confused. On the rare occasions when I buy a frozen pizza, the box will say that for a crisper crust, I should decrease the cooking time by around five minutes. My brain doesn’t get why a shorter cooking time makes something more crunchy/crispy. Can you please explain?

Yes, I believe I can! I’ve stared at a lot of frozen pizza boxes, and I think you’re overlooking something. Although many manufacturers do say that you can get a crisper crust by decreasing the baking time and/or the oven temperature, they add one more piece of advice.

And that is: For a crisper crust, you go with lower heat and/or bake for a shorter time and set the pizza directly on the oven rack. For a softer crust, you use higher heat and/or bake for more time and set the pizza on a baking sheet.

Having a baking sheet under your pizza makes a big difference. A nice guy named Phil who answered the phone for Red Baron Pizza in Minnesota knew all about it.

“We get this question a lot,” he said. “People frequently say, ‘This makes no sense!’ But it’s a matter of trapping moisture and directing heat.”

When the pie sits on a baking sheet, the hot oven air comes in contact with the edges of the crust, but not the shielded bottom, “so we raise the temperature to compensate,” he said. At the same time, the baking sheet is trapping moisture in the crust, keeping it from drying out a lot. So that’s why you use a higher temp, or bake longer, but end up with a less-crispy crust.

When the pizza is on the oven rack, the air circulates all around it, drying the crust more and making it crisper. But the same timing and temperature that work with a baking sheet would be bad for a bare crust: “You’d probably burn it,” Phil said. Hence the more conservative approach.

And there, I believe, is your answer. Thanks, Phil.

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