Pizza is one of the most popular foods on the planet. We all know this, it’s a fact so self-evident to so many people that the idea of supporting such an obvious statement with statistics might seem wholly unnecessary. But just to paint a picture of how ravenous consumers of pizza are (by no means a criticism), let’s consider that global market sales reached almost $135 billion dollars in 2018, which is greater than the reported GDP of Hungary, and that the U.S captures a plurality of pizza sales across all countries, with over $45 billion in sales last year alone.
While advertisements tend to focus on the illustrious, stringy cheese-pulls sloping down a piping hot slice, or exotic pizza toppings, the most essential component in a pizza is the crust. This is not just one man’s opinion – a projected 60 percent of people report that crust is the most important part of a pizza. The crust is almost always the deciding factor in delineating different styles of pizza, from the wafer-thin New Haven style, to the iconic New York slice style, and to the gorgeously thick crust of the Detroit and Sicilian style pizza.
Why Is The Crust So Important?
The reason is simple: the crust lays the foundation upon which all great pizzas are built. Without crust, we’d simply be left with an assortment of cheese, sauce, and toppings that would be more recognizable as leftover lasagna than pizza! Obviously this is an exaggeration, and cheese and toppings are delicious by themselves, but the point is that a crust is what ultimately ends up making a pizza work, and gives its toppings their purposes. A pizza without a crust is like a car without wheels, or more appropriately, like a glass of water without a glass.
What Makes The Perfect Pizza Crust?
Every person has their own unique definition of the perfect pizza crust. It’s better to explore how each aspect, like the ingredients, the dough preparation, and the baking process add to form the essential elements of the style of pizza the pizza chef is ascribing to. Below are a few of the most important qualities looked for in pizza crusts:
There are countless variations in the flavor profiles of crust tied to the ingredients used to form the dough and the heat source used to bake it. A New York style pizza dough, for example tends to use more sugar in the dough (many other styles omit sugar completely), and this creates a sweeter crust, and the added effect of caramelization across the underside. Baking a crust in a woodfire oven, a conventional oven, or a coal-fired oven, also imbue the crust with different flavors
This is the quality that is most noticeable between pizza novices and pizza experts. There are tremendous differences in textures across different styles, from the very crunchy (some crackerlike) to the supple and floppy. There are multiple types of crust that warrant that the pizza be eaten with a knife and fork, like the Chicago deep-dish style crust and, on the floppier end, the Neapolitan style crust (among the first styles of crust made for pizza).
This can encompass many different things, including texture, but it can best be expressed as the ability for a crust to shoulder the weight and spread of ingredients on top of it. For obvious reasons, a thicker crust may seem best suited for this, a la the Sicilian, Detroit, or Focaccia style crust. However, this is not always the case. The Chicago deep-dish style pizza, known for its massive amount of cheese and toppings, has a relatively thinner crust compared to the previously mentioned styles. Even thinner crusts, when formed properly, can surprise you with the abundance of cheese and toppings it can support above it.
Types of Pizza Crusts
This is where we get to the good stuff. If we were to scientifically explore every type of crust there is, their global variations, and their U.S regional variations, we’d probably be at this all day. Instead, we will be exploring a particular selection of crusts and pizza styles which best illustrate the spectrum of taste, texture, and pizza integrity you should expect to see as we explore the differences. These are not ranked in any order of quality, but (mostly) by thinnest to thickest crusts, marked by category of thickness.
What comes to mind often when considering thin crust pizza is the “flop factor” (i.e. the tendency for a crust to flop and then retain its shape). Thin crust is commonly thought of as the first type of crust to popular pizza on the global stage, and it is the de-facto pizza standard. Thin crust includes a plethora of different textures and flavor profiles, so there is a little something for everyone to enjoy.
1. New Haven Style.
This is among the most unique entries on this list. The New Haven style pizza, known to locals as “apizza” is very different from what you’d expect from the typically floppy east coast pizza. For one, it is typically shaped irregularly – neither a perfect sphere or rectangle, which is a result of the how the extremely thin dough is carefully spread out before baking in a ripping hot coal-fired oven. The crust is arguably the thinnest on this list, and quite crunchy, however don’t mistake it for being brittle – the lightning fast cook time at high temperature ensures a delicious char without drying out the dough too much.
2. St. Louis Style.
There are many interesting things going for the St. Louis style pizza. One thing people notice is the unique cheese blend known as the provel blend, which includes white cheddar, swiss, and provolone cheese. The other thing people will notice more prominently is the crust, which is unleavened (i.e. devoid of yeast). This makes the crust very crunchy and not pliable, some even referring to the texture as cracker-like. Because of this, a St. Louis style pizza is often cut “tavern style” (i.e. into rectangles).
This style of pizza was likely responsible for helping popularize pizza on the global stage leading into the 20th century. It was famously served to King Unberto I and Queen Margherita when they had traveled to Naples in 1889 following the unification if Italy. This style of pizza was later known as “pizza margherita” after the queen. This crust is known for its floppiness and the blackened bubbles that are spotted unevenly (by design) across the outer layer of crust and the underside.
The dough is remarkable in its simplicity – made up of just yeast, flour, water, and salt. A traditional Neapolitan pizza is baked at temperatures in excess of 800(!) degrees in an authentic wood fire oven for around 90 seconds. It’s a simple dough that requires careful attention and technique to get right (or more importantly, to not burn!).
4. New York Style.
For many this is the crème-de-le-crème of pizza styles. It’s the style of pizza most often portrayed in media and the most ubiquitous across pizza franchises. When people think of a typical New York slice, they think of its immense size and the delectable flop factor that allows for the characteristic pizza fold. Compared to a Neapolitan style, a New York style crust is thicker and is baked for a significantly longer period – roughly 15 to 20 minutes on average.
In addition to the standard pizza dough components like flour, water, yeast, and salt, a New York style dough also uses oil and sugar to its advantage. The sugar and oil help to create browning while the dough is baked at comparatively lower temperatures, and it is also an even browning, which is another element that sets this style apart from a Neapolitan.
A thick crust is typically rectangular (though not always), and it is characterized by being the style of crust most capable of allowing for massive amounts of delicious ingredients to rest on top of it. And while each of the crusts listed below would score an “A+” when assessed on the merits of their pizza integrity, their incredible flavors and textures should not be ignored. From the buttery crust of the Chicago deep-dish pizza to the crispy-on-the-outside, fluffy-on-the-inside crust found in Detroit and Sicilian styles, there are many compelling reasons for thick crust’s rising popularity throughout the U.S.
5. Double-Dough/Stuffed-Crust Style.
In addition to being featured as his pizza of choice on a typical Duane “The Rock” Johnson cheat day, the double-dough style can be seen employed by many take-and-bake restaurants, and is becoming more popular in the west coast. A double dough crust is somewhat self-explanatory – it’s two layers of dough nestled on top of each other. The effect is a thicker crust that is not as dense as it would be if it were formed from one ball of dough.
There are multiple variations of this as well, most notably the stuffed crust style. This can be reflected through sandwiching topping between two layers of dough and then topping with cheese, however it is much more famously reflected through stuffing cheese into the outer edge of the crust and creating a top layer of dough to rest just on top of it. This is type of piece that’s actually best enjoyed crust side first!
6. Detroit/Sicilian Style.
This is the most popular style of “deep-dish” or “pan pizza” that you’re likely going to be already familiar with. A Sicilian pizza crust is very simple to make, and at home as well as in many restaurants it is developed in a stand mixer. Its dough is characterized by its high oil and water content, which may sound unusual together but bound with flour and yeast the result is a flavorful, fluffy crust. The dough is baked in a baking sheet of considerable depth, which should be slathered in olive oil.
The Detroit style crust is derived from the Sicilian style, but the difference is in the pan used for baking the crust as well as the slightly higher hydration of the dough and less oil content. According to Michigan legend, the Detroit style pizza was first crafted in a blue-steel pan used to store nuts and bolts in an automobile factory. This is a deep pan, and akin to cast iron in the sense that it can quickly reach blazing hot temperatures. In effect, doughs baked in such pans end up with an incredibly crispy bottom layer with a light, fluffy interior.
7. Chicago Deep-Dish.
The two elements of a Chicago deep-dish pizza which stick out the most for many people are the mountains of mozzarella cheese and chunky tomato sauce spread unconventionally on top of the pizza. However, the crust is just as unique and just as integral (if not more so) to creating the essential flavor profiles the Chicago pie is known for.
A deep-dish cooks for a very long time, sometimes over 45 minutes, so the crust needs a bit of protection. The cast iron pan that the dough cooks in is first oiled and buttered, then after the dough is spread, topping and then cheese is layered on top of it, which is insulated by a surface layer of tomato sauce. As the crust forms during the long baking process, it actually soaks in the fats rendered from the toppings and cheese above it, which is what ensures the crust doesn’t burn but also gives it a mouthwatering golden finish.
Flatbread and focaccia bread pizzas are commonly seen served in bistros, cafes, and restaurants that emphasize small-bites menus. A popular misconception with this style of pizza is that it is part of some “new wave” style or trend in pizza-dom. In fact, flatbread pizza can be thought of as one of the first styles of pizza ever eaten, with some records accounting for this style of pizza being employed by the ancient Egyptians as well as the ancient Greeks and Romans. Pretty cool!
A focaccia style crust is a type of flatbread pizza that puts emphasis on the focaccia breads airiness and garlic notes. A focaccia style crust is great due to its end pieces acting as perfect dipping sticks once you finish eating a piece, as the light, airy texture resemble breadsticks.
These are the crusts of the more avant garde variety. These doughs are typically flourless and/or yeast-less and can be made up of anything from just cheese, certain starchier or fiber-heavy veggies, and various other gluten-free and vegan-friendly ingredients. For those suffering from gluten insensitivity or allergies, as well as those living the vegan lifestyle, these are going to be the crusts you want to seek out when those pizza cravings grab hold.
As people are becoming more aware gluten insensitivity and Celiac disease, so to is the food industry. Gluten-free pizza doughs are comprised of standard ingredients like water and yeast, but are bound with gluten-free flour. A flour is considered gluten-free if it is not the byproduct of wheat or barley, which as it turns out describes a ton of different ingredients! Flours for gluten-free pizza dough can be made typically from soy, rice, garbanzo beans, tapioca, and multiple combinations between them. Compared to crusts made with wheat flour, a gluten-free crust is likely to be considerably denser and less pliable, meaning for practical reasons that they are designed almost exclusively for thin crust pizzas.
On the other hand, one could forego flour altogether in order to create a gluten-free crust. Using boiled cauliflower (or sometimes even potato) and “ricing” it into a mash, you can combine it with parmesan cheese, oil, water, and herbs to create a delectable, spreadable concoction that acts as a thin crust dough for baking purposes. The texture is unique, but its crunch is reminiscent of a St. Louis style crust.
A vegan-friendly pizza crust is easier to attain with the same traditional pizza dough ingredients compared to the gluten-free variety. A Neapolitan pizza crust, for example, is already vegan due to it not containing any byproducts from animals. However, given that cheese is substituted due to it being a dairy product, the crust usually has to bear more of the burden to provide flavor.
Consequently, vegan-friendly crusts will make greater use out of flavored oils and herbs to flavor the crust. On the upside, the back end of the crust when the slice is finished will sure to be extra tasty! For vegans wanting to try a variant of the cauliflower based gluten free crust, consider substituting parmesan cheese with nutritional yeast.
Ways People Interact With Their Crusts
There is a decision every person makes when they make it to the end of their slice of pizza and are staring down the outer edge of the pizza crust. Most people eat it of course, but others find the back end of a pizza slice to be too boring and they consider throwing it out. This is a mistake! For most pizzas, a fair amount of work and craftsmanship contributed to the end crust, and there are various ways to utilize these delicious segments.
A popular use of the crust is as dipping sticks. This is an especially practical choice if there is an extra side of marinara sauce ordered as well, although a quick-to-put-together combo of olive oil, salt, and pepper will also serve you well in a pinch. If you’re not concerned with being particularly healthy melted butter is also a delicious alternative.
More ingeniously, crust can be cut into segments and left out to become stale for use as croutons in a salad. Or, if you’re feeling especially resourceful, you can freeze your segments for later use as reheated toppings for a soup, or blended in a food processor as artisanal bread crumbs. There are unlimited different uses for your crust depending on where your imagination takes you!
Crusts decide the essential makeup of a pizzas, as every style of pizza ultimately begins from the bottom up. It’s what makes pizza pizza, but it is unfortunately often underappreciated due to being hidden from view under the more eye-grabbing layers of melty cheese and toppings. But this is after all a crust’s sacred duty, to support its ingredients and allow them to shine brightly.
But not all crusts are support players, sometimes they are the MVP, as it is for a Neapolitan style pizza, which requires absolute precision during the baking process, and topped minimally. Same could be said for the crust of a New Haven style pizza, which embody such bare-bones toppings that they occasionally forego cheese altogether. We would also do well not to sleep on the Sicilian and Detroit style crust as well, which is the absolute star of its own pizza theatre.
In the end, this list is incomplete, as there are simply far too many reasons to enjoy pizza crust, and far too many stellar examples to select from. The next time you’re enjoying a slice take a moment between bites to acknowledge what’s underneath, and lend some love to the crust!