The Food Lab: How to Make the Best Kale Pizza

The Food Lab

Unraveling the mysteries of home cooking through science.

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Sweet, nutty, and crisp kale on top of a garlicky white pie. [Photographs: J. Kenji Lopez-Alt]

Call it a trend, call me a bandwagon-jumper-on-er, call it what you will, but I'm gonna stick by my guns on this one: kale pizza is freaking delicious, no matter how of the moment it is. And now that I have it in my life, I'm going to go on eating it until my dying day. Ever since I first tried it on top of the Rooftop Red at Paulie Gee's in Greenpoint, it has even supplanted my beloved Brussels sprout as pizza topping brassica-of-choice.

There's a whole lot I've loved about my move to the West Coast. More space for us. More space for the dog. World-class hiking trails within a 20 minute drive from my front door. A park that not only allows off-leash dogs, but where those dogs can make friends with a horse owned by a kite surfer while a hang-glider lands on the dunes ten feet away.*

*Yes, this really happened.

On the other hand, we've got this to contend with: insanely high rents. Way too much hipster charcuterie (too much hipster everything). And perhaps most gravely, a serious lack of brassica-topped pizza.

See, for the last four years running, Ed has thoughtfully ordered a stack of my favorite Neapolitan-style pizza in the world—the Brussels sprouts pie from Motorino—to be delivered to the office for my birthday lunch. Sometimes it even came with a candle. The Brussels sprout leaves get a sweet, nutty char under the intense heat of the wood-fired oven, a flavor that echoes and enhances the char on the leopard-spotted crust.

This year, however, I had no such luck. There's good Neapolitan pizza in San Francisco here and there (you can forget about finding a decent slice though), but none I can think of that does a good Brussels sprout or kale pie.

The answer? Make one for myself, of course.

I used to make different doughs depending on the specific style of pizza I was aiming to create. These days, more often than not I'll make my Basic New York-Style Pizza Dough. It's easy to throw together, browns and puffs beautifully even without cold fermentation, and it can be made with basic supermarket ingredients (no fancy imported flours like my Neapolitan dough recipe calls for).

I tried a quick test run by throwing some torn mozzarella cheese and kale tossed in olive oil on top of a stretched disk of dough and baking it on top of my Baking Steel underneath a hot broiler, figuring if it works for my favorite pizzerias, it should work for me.

It didn't work out so well: the kale had burnt to a singed crisp before the pie was even half way cooked. The problem is that while a broiler and Baking Steel can give a reasonable approximation of a real wood burning oven, its heating characteristics aren't quite the same. While a stone oven will heat relatively evenly all around with its intense convection currents, a broiler will heat the things closest to it at an exponentially faster rate,* which means that the bit of kale sticking up above the pie end up cooking far too quickly.

*thanks a lot, inverse-square law!

The answer was exceedingly simple: just par-cook the pizza base.

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I started by topping my dough with some torn mozzarella along with some shredded Gruyère. I really like the way nutty Alpen-style cheese play off the nuttiness of cooked brassica. I also added a pinch of red pepper flakes, some sliced garlic, and a drizzle of olive oil before sliding it onto my steel.* Died pancetta or bacon would also be great here if you're in a porky cured meat kind of mood.

*You caught me: the photograph actually shows the pizza being baked on a solid sheet of copper.

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After just a couple minutes, it should be browning intensely in spots with a poofy appearance. It's ready for the kale.

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I prefer to use standard curly kale to lacinato or other fancier straight-leafed varieties. The curls twist up and get extra crispy in the oven. The real key to a successful kale pie is also something I learned from Paulie: marinate that kale. Tossing kale in olive oil and letting it rest for a little while (I let mine sit out at room temperature while my pizza dough rises) will get it nice and tender so that it wilts more readily when baked.

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(Check out this article on Kale Caesar Salads for more info on how marinating kale works.)

Once marinated, I spread the kale on top of the par-baked pie, working quickly so that the pizza barely knows it was out of the oven. You want to spread it on thick as it's going to shrink down as it bakes.

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Back under the broiler it goes for another minute or two.

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What pops out on the other end should smell all kinds of awesome. Sweet, nutty, smoky, charred, with pools of molten mozzarella just peeking through the shroud of crisp, frilly kale leaves.

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I may not have anyone delivering a pizza lunch to me on my birthday these days, but so long as I've got an oven and a pizza peel, I think I'll do just fine out here on the West Coast.