Perfect Pizza? There's a Formula for That

Photo courtesy Stella Barra PizzeriaThere are a lot of pizza geeks out there, but mathematics professor Eugenia Cheng, PhD, has one-upped them all by devising up with a mathematical formula to express the toppings-to-dough-to-size ratio of the perfect pie. Cheng, a professor at the University of Sheffield in England who is currently guest lecturing at the University of Chicago, was contacted by the UK chain PizzaExpress after employees noticed that their new 14-inch pizza was being eagerly gobbled up by diners, despite the fact it used the same exact amount of dough and topping as their classic 11-inch pizza. Cheng previously calculated what proportions comprise the ultimate British "cream tea" (scones with clotted cream and jam). "I love math and food, and I like putting them together," Cheng tells Yahoo Shine. "People find food fun, but math, not so fun."

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To dissect her latest culinary challenge, Cheng dug out her favorite cookbook, a worn copy of the British standard, "Good Housekeeping," and started making pizzas. In her equation, "d" is the amount of dough and "t" stands for toppings. The rest of the formula (in which "r" equals the radius) expresses the ratio of pizza base to topping for the perfect, most regular bite. While she found that the smaller pizza size contained 10 percent more topping per bite on average, the toppings on the larger pizza were more evenly distributed and there was less bland crust at the edge. And most important, for the home cook, the crust on the smaller pizza was much soggier. Cheng says that mathematics often provides a logical justification for something we feel intuitively to be true. "I clearly remember being in cookery class when I was 11, and because we were greedy little 11-year-olds, we tried to sneak on more toppings and ended up with very soggy pizza," she says.

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The perfect pizza formula confirms something that serious pizza chefs in the United States have been saying for years: Use less topping. Food writer Steve Coomes, who founded Pizzamarketplace.com and served as editor of Pizza Today, says, "The amount of toppings is finite before you ruin your pizza. These kitchen sink-type pizzas wind up being more of a casserole." He explains that piling on ingredients doesn't allow the heat to penetrate to the crust when cooking and also creates a lot of moisture that leaks into the dough. "The best pizza makers strongly dissuade diners from ordering more than three toppings—one protein, one vegetable, and one herb." He also adds that traditional Italian pizza has a super thin crust.

Cheng's formula for the perfect pizza (courtesy PizzaExpress)

With Cheng's formula, you can achieve a homemade thin-crust pizza that packs a lot of flavor without using your calculator. Skip the pineapple-ham-garlic-chicken-meatball pie. The key is to keep the toppings at a reasonable number.

Jeff Mahin, chef-partner of Stella Barra Pizzeria, which has locations in Los Angeles and Chicago, finds Cheng's formula intriguing, and says he also used his background in math and chemistry to develop his signature extra-thin, Roman-style pizzas. "We use less topping ingredients by weight, but we slice our toppings very thin," he tells Yahoo Shine. He says he was inspired by the way deli meats are sliced, which allows more surface area to hit the taste buds—"You get a big mouthful of flavor." He also tops his pizzas with highly flavored ingredients such as roasted garlic, shaved fennel tossed with fresh rosemary, and strong dry cheeses such as pecorino and Grana Padano or a pungent Taleggio instead of the usual mild mozarella.

While her formula is meant to aid home cooks, Cheng won't be grading anyone's results. She says the perfect pizza also comes down to a matter of personal preference. "If you really like soggy pizza with a lot of toppings, that's fine too."

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