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The power of pizza: CALS is helping state cheesemakers develop new varieties

The busloads of schoolkids who visit Jauquet Dairy each year have lots to talk about when they get home—from the really cute newborn calves to the really big cows and the really cool machines that milk them.

Dave Jauquet gets a kick out of all that, but he wants them to remember something else as well: The link between his farm and what they eat. And he has a good way of getting that across.

“I tell them that the milk from these cows ends up on pizza. I like to tell them that because they can connect it all the way from standing here, seeing a lot of cows eating food, to something they actually have for supper,” Jauquet says. “Because pretty much every kid eats pizza.”

And so do their parents, friends and neighbors. In the myriad menu items that make up American cuisine, pizza is as close as you get to a universal food. Ninety-seven percent of U.S. consumers had some at least once last year, and 41 percent of us eat it once a week.

That matters in a very big way to people like Jauquet and his partners—his wife Stacy and brother Jeff. Virtually every pound of milk produced on their Kewaunee County farm is made into six-pound loaves of mozzarella and sleek “salamis” of provolone. Like the people who buy that cheese—mostly independent Italian eateries—the Jauquets, their dozen employees and 600-plus Holsteins are in the pizza business.

That’s the case for somewhere around a quarter of Wisconsin’s 1.25 million dairy cows—the working girls in an industry that generates 150,000 jobs, half of the state’s farm revenue and $26.5 billion in economic activity. At least 85 percent of the state’s milk goes into cheese, a third of which is mozzarella, the vast majority of which ends up on pizza.

“As pizza goes, so goes the dairy industry,” says John Umhoefer, executive director of the Wisconsin Cheese Makers Association.

Forty years ago, cheddar was the state’s big cheese. Mozzarella was a specialty cheese, made by firms that specialized in Italian varieties sold primarily to Italian American customers. Since 1970, Wisconsin’s mozzarella production has increased tenfold—it surpassed cheddar in 2000. So has U.S. per capita consumption. “That’s all pizza,” Umhoefer says.

In a nation with 70,000 pizzerias and pizzas sold in every bowling alley and convenience store, it’s hard to imagine a time when pizza wasn’t part of the broad cultural landscape. But it wasn’t until after World War II that pizza went mainstream. Cultural historians attribute the shift to American G.I.s who acquired a taste for it while serving in Italy. It also meshed with trends of the time: Informal dining, ethnic foods, eating by the TV, and lots of cars to facilitate takeout, delivery and road food.

If you want to get a feel for how pizza transformed Wisconsin’s cheese business, a good person to talk to is Roger Krohn, master cheesemaker at the Agropur facility in Luxemburg. Krohn is in charge of turning milk from Jauquet Dairy and 150 other area farms into pizza cheese. His family began making cheese at this site in 1892, and when they sold the business 108 years later, Roger Krohn stayed on to oversee cheese production. It was in his DNA. He grew up next door to the cheese plant and began making cheese there at age 14.

For the first 68 years, like most Wisconsin cheese firms, the Krohns made cheddar. In 1960, that changed. “I think my dad was looking to branch out into something a little less competitive—a new niche market,” Krohn says. “An Italian gentleman encouraged him to get into mozzarella, because he foresaw the pizza industry really taking off.”

It was a leap of faith—“Pizza was not a real big deal in 1960, at least not in the Midwest,” Krohn says—but a smart one. The mozzarella making began modestly—two guys kneading and stretching the curd by hand—but never stopped expanding. By next year, when a major expansion is done, the plant will be using 2.4 million pounds of milk from 28,000 cows to produce about a quarter of a million pounds of pizza cheese—every day.

As pizza picked up, more Wisconsin cheddar plants followed suit, says Dean Sommer of the Wisconsin Center for Dairy Research (CDR), a CALS-based dairy foods research and education program.

“They read the tea leaves,” says Sommer, who in 1986 took a job at Alto Dairy (now Saputo foods) in Waupun—then the nation’s largest cheese plant—to help the firm expand into mozzarella. “Consumption of pizza was on a double-digit increase every year, and the margins of making mozzarella were higher than for cheddar cheese. They could see that with the growth of pizza and the growth of mozzarella, and the profitability, this was a better place to be.”

 

Pizza is a simple food, but when it’s being made in thousands of kitchens by thousands of chefs, things get complicated. Ovens change, tastes change, and everyone has a different idea of the perfect pie. To keep everybody happy, cheesemakers must be nimble.

For more than a century, Wisconsin cheesemakers have been enlisting help from CALS scientists to improve and troubleshoot their products. That’s how the first pizza cheese research at UW happened, says CDR scientist Carol Chen. Decades before Domino’s folded its first box, Wisconsin’s Italian cheesemakers tried shipping their traditional pizza cheese, a fresh mozzarella, to the East Coast. “But by the time it got there it was spoiled,” Chen says. “Fresh mozzarella has a very short shelf life.” So one of those cheesemakers teamed with CALS food scientist J.L. Sammis to invent a new mozzarella—a firmer, drier cheese better suited to transport and cooking. Now known as low-moisture part-skim mozzarella, it’s the most commonly used pizza cheese in the world.

As the pizza business grew, so did mozzarella research, recalls Norm Olson, a CALS professor emeritus of food science who served as CDR’s first director.

“When I started on the faculty in 1959 there was very little mozzarella for pizza made in the state, and what was made was virtually all molded manually—a bunch of women and men around the hot water tank molding the cheese into its final shape,” says Olson, who had never tasted pizza when he took the job. “We worked with the cheese companies and equipment manufacturers to mechanize the process. That had a huge impact on the price and availability and economics of mozzarella cheese.”

Roger Krohn recalls another challenge: Hotter, faster ovens. “It used to be you’d go out for pizza and wait 35 or 40 minutes, because it took that long to bake. Now they’re done in five minutes,” he says.

“A lot of pizzerias were having issues with the new ovens in the ’80s,” says Mark Johnson, another CDR scientist. “The cheese melted too much, it didn’t string, it burned.” The researchers explored that and all manner of other factors—from the milk to the microbes that make the flavors—that affect how the cheese performed.

Two decades later, the focus has shifted. In 2012 the USDA proposed new rules for school lunches: No more than 10 percent of total calories from saturated fat and no more than 200 milligrams of sodium. That put pizza in the crosshairs.

“They looked at removing it from the school lunch program,” Johnson explains. “And there goes a lot of nutrition—there’s a lot of calcium, protein, phosphate in the cheese. Sure, it’s also in milk and yogurt, but kids prefer pizza. So you’re seeing a lot of research now about reducing the fat level by half and also reducing the sodium content by at least 25 percent.”

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Pizza cheese gets evaluated for stretch, melt, blistering, color and 11 other characteristics by scientists at the CALS-based Wisconsin Center for Dairy Research. Left to right: Carol Chen, Maya Warren and Liz Miller.

It’s not just the government that wants a healthier pizza. Consumers are opting for healthier foods, notes a 2012 report by Packaged Facts, a research firm. The main message to pizza makers is to boost the overall healthfulness of their product and experiment with options that provide more “clear-cut healthfulness without sacrificing taste,” said the firm’s research director.

It’s not that hard to make a low-fat pizza cheese. The trick is to make one that anyone would want on a pizza. And it’s not just a matter of taste, says CDR director John Lucey. “Without much fat in the cheese, the pizza surface tends to dry out, leading to excessive browning and blistering,” he explains. “And low-fat cheese is higher in protein, and the greater protein content makes a tougher cheese with less melt unless the cheesemaker corrects for this difference. Low-fat cheese also usually appears translucent.”

Lucey has applied his expertise in the chemistry and physics of cheese to create a low-fat, low-salt mozarella with pizza-worthy qualities: It melts and stretches nicely, doesn’t blister and burn and has an appealing white color. Now researchers are focusing on how it tastes.

“We’re mixing and blending cheeses to improve the flavor,” says Johnson. “We start with the low-fat cheese and blend in enough of a higher-fat, more flavorful cheese—say a Muenster—to bring the fat content up to 10 percent, which is where the school lunch program wants us to be.” The resulting blend will still have half the fat and less than half the sodium of a low-moisture part-skim mozzarella, he says. The researchers are also looking beyond the cheese, finding ways to reduce sodium levels in the sauce and crust.

Does a cheese have to be salty to be flavorful? That has a lot to do with context, CDR sensory research suggests. If consumers sample a reduced-sodium cheese along with a conventional version, the saltier version wins out. But if they’re not tasting the two side by side, they’re fine with the lower-salt version.

 

The cheese industry pays a lot of attention to sodium these days, and not just for U.S. markets. Asian consumers want low-sodium cheese. And Asia represents a huge new market for dairy products—and pizza.

While the pizza business isn’t booming in the U.S. like it was 30 years ago, it’s enjoying double-digit growth elsewhere, especially in Latin America and Asia. That’s where U.S. companies that sell pizza and its ingredients are looking to grow.

“It’s easy to see the attraction,” notes PMQ Pizza Magazine editor-at-large Liz Barrett in her 2013 state-of-the-industry report. “In a different country, you’re the new guy in a fairly new industry. It’s similar to opening a pizzeria in the States back in the 1970s—before the market became saturated and everyone was excited to discover what you had to offer.”

“We’d love to tap into the Asian market, obviously, because of the number of people who live there,” says Roger Krohn. “They’re starting to get a hunger for our mozzarella and our pizzas.” But it’s going to take a different kind of product to succeed there, he adds. “They like a totally different mozzarella.”

China, not surprisingly, is getting a lot of attention. U.S. chains are active there—Pizza Hut alone has 500 stores—and China has its own chains as well as independent operators. But with an expanding middle class and a population four times that of the U.S., the market is barely tapped.

In June 2012, the farmer-funded U.S. Dairy Export Council sent Mark Johnson to Shanghai to get the Chinese view on what makes a good pizza cheese. He helped bake pizzas in 10 pizzerias—a Domino’s, a Pizza Hut, and eight small independents—to see how U.S. cheeses stacked up against the competition, which was mostly from New Zealand.

“I think U.S. cheese tasted better,” he says. “But when I asked them what was most important—a great flavor versus appearance—appearance is what they wanted.”

Color was a big issue. While U.S. mozzarella is white, New Zealand’s is yellow because it’s made from milk from cows that are always on pasture. New Zealand was first in the market, so the Chinese expect yellow cheese. Nor is there detente on the appropriate color of a baked pizza. Consumers in the U.S. expect the cheese on their pizza to look a bit toasted. “But when I show a browned pizza to people in China,” Johnson says, “they think it’s burned.”

They also want their cheese to stretch—a lot. “When they advertise pizza on TV, they lift a piece from the pie and it has this really long stretch. They show cheese dripping off the slice. They love that,” says Johnson.

Cheesemakers in the U.S. can make a mozzarella that looks and acts like New Zealand’s, Johnson says, but he also thinks there’s an opportunity to offer Asian consumers something different.

“Let’s be innovative,” he says. “There are other cheeses you can put on a pizza. So instead of copying somebody else’s cheese, you introduce a Muenster as a cheese for pizza, or a Monterey jack—different varieties. And different condiments that work with our cheeses. Let’s not just add pepperoni and sausage.”

The CDR kitchens are experimenting with condiments suited to emerging markets. A good example is kimchi, the super-pungent Korean dish made with fermented vegetables.

“We add kimchi to a Muenster cheese. We baked a pizza using this cheese for a Korean group that came here,” Johnson says. “They were all going ‘I want to be the first to import this cheese.’ Boy, they loved it. They just loved it.”

 

Wisconsin does not make the most pizza cheese in the U.S.—California ranks No. 1 in mozzarella—but it makes most of the best.

“Most Wisconsin companies sell a higher-priced but higher-quality cheese,” explains CDR’s Dean Sommer. “It’s a different market—smaller pizza chains and mom-and-pops that don’t try to compete on price with the big guys, whose customers prefer to sit down to enjoy a hand-crafted pizza rather than eat it quick and run.”

It’s a great fit for Wisconsin’s mid-sized firms, which can custom-tailor a product for every end user, says John Umhoefer of the Wisconsin Cheese Makers Association: “We don’t have giant box factories working 24/7 making one product. We’ve got people who have the expertise and time and energy to experiment.”

Roger Krohn follows that model at Agropur. Every so often he heads east to visit pizzerias that use his cheese. “We’ll go into the kitchens and bake pizzas with the cooks. A lot of them, especially in New York, came over from Italy, so I get quite an education every time I talk to them. They’ll tell me exactly what they want on their pizzas.”

Dairy farmer Dave Jauquet stays out of the kitchen when his family goes out for pizza, but he still feels like he’s part of the business. “I think we’re thinking about it a little differently
than somebody sitting at the next table. It’s not just another ingredient. It’s something that you could almost say you made.”

This story was originally published in the Fall 2013 issue of Grow magazine.