Why It Works
- Using supermarket bread instead of a baguette makes French bread pizza easier to top and produces a better final texture.
- Flattening the bread before toasting prevents the bread from curling.
- Double layers of cheese prevent the bread from getting soggy.
"Is there anyone who doesn't like French bread pizza?" I asked my wife, as I pulled another tray of garlic-scented, oozy, toasty, cheese-covered, sauce-smothered bread from the oven.
No response. Figuring she didn't hear me the first time, I walked a little closer to her desk, where she was concentrating intently on some sort of mathematical business (or was it computer science-y business?). I said it again, louder, using my hands to try and waft some of the scent towards her.
"Mmhmm," she said, raising her hand in that "I love you, but please don't talk to me now" move she's got down pat, that I've finally started recognizing as a legitimate form of communication.
I contemplated flinging a bit of molten-hot mozzarella, imagining its parabolic trajectory towards the back of her head, but then realized the trail of extra-virgin olive oil it would leave in its wake would identify me unmistakably as the culprit. Instead I resorted to eating a slice myself and letting the dogs lick a bit off my fingers. If she won't acknowledge the awesomeness of my pizza, at least I'll be sure that the dogs love me just a little bit more than they love her, I thought to myself. But the fact remains: It was darn delicious French bread pizza.
Created by the late Bob Petrillose at Cornell University, the legendary Hot Truck's French bread pizza in Ithaca, New York, has been a staple of hungry students and busy parents since 1960.
I know that here at Serious Eats, we're all about homemade dough, cold fermentation, hydration level this, protein content that, and all other manner of obsessiveness. But if the data are correct, even serious pie-heads like you are happy to give themselves a break and admit the simple pleasures of a virtually work-free pizza alternative: According to our polls, French bread pizza is the second most popular choice in such situations, just behind heating up a frozen pie.
When it's great, it's fantastic. Crisp and soft, with just the right amount of tender, doughy, sauce-soaked bread under its oozy cheese surface. It's tangier and more heavily seasoned than most regular pizza, but that ain't a bad thing.
On the other hand, bad French pizza can be truly abysmal. Bland, leather-like cheese, with a crust that's either too soggy or too crisp. My goal was to up French bread pizza's game and make it into a dish that you'd be proud to serve any time—not just when you're rushed, and to do so just about as quickly as you can defrost and heat up a frozen pizza.
Choosing the Bread
It's called French bread pizza, but what it really should be called is "that stuff they call French bread in the supermarket, or sometimes they call it Italian, but either way it's soft and squishy and sort of big and not too crusty, and it's not really European at all but it's still good for pizza" pizza. I tried making pizza out of real French bread—a nice crusty baguette—and found that it was all wrong. Not only is a baguette too crusty and chewy (French bread pizza should be crisp and tender, not crunchy and hard to bite through), but its open hole structure also makes it difficult to top properly. Sauce and cheese fall into the craters.
Traditional supermarket soft "French" bread it is.
Making the Sauce
My most basic pizza sauce is nothing more than crushed canned tomatoes seasoned with salt. It's what I use on my Neapolitan pies, and even my New York-style pies these days when I don't feel like making a full-blown cooked sauce. But with French bread pizza, that intensely flavored sauce is part of its basic flavor profile.
I started off making a standard simple marinara with garlic, oregano, and a pinch of red pepper flakes cooked down in extra-virgin olive oil before being simmered with some crushed tomatoes, but the sauce needed some more intensity. I decided to increase the amount of garlic to about quadruple my normal ratio, along with using a mixture of butter and olive oil in place of the straight olive oil (those milk solids in butter add a ton of flavor—I add butter to many of my tomato-based sauces). A sprinkling of fresh parsley and basil finished it off.
The Layering Strategy
With a good sauce, the right bread, and some quality fresh mozzarella, I figured it's as easy as layering it all together and baking it. But I wasn't particularly happy with those results.
Here was the problem:
When you throw sauce directly on top of the soft bread, is soaks in, turning the whole thing unpleasantly mushy and soggy. I tried simply toasting the bread beforehand, which certainly helped, but then I realized—hey, I'm making this tasty garlic butter, why not start with a garlic bread base before I layer on the other ingredients?
I spread the garlic mixture on top and gave the bread a preliminary pit stop in the oven before adding my sauce and cheese.
Pre-Toasting Pros and Cons
The pre-toasting helped in both the flavor and sogginess departments—my best pizza yet—but there was still some amount of sogginess occurring, along with another problem:
There's this odd curling phenomenon that occurs when you pre-toast your bread before topping and baking it again, the centers sinking down rather than laying flat. Seems that the soft bready part shrinks as it toasts, causing the bread to curl up. To combat this problem, I engaged in a simple bit of brute force:
Compressing it pre-baking under a rimmed baking sheet tamed it just enough to get it to stay flat. It also made it much easier to top.
As for handling the remainder of the sogginess issues? Turned out to be simple enough: I added a preliminary layer of cheese that was just thick enough to prevent too much sauce from seeping in, but not so thick that it formed a completely impenetrable barrier—after all, I wanted a bit of that soft, doughy texture at the sauce-bread interface. Par-baking it helped it to spread evenly across the surface.
After that, all it needed was a layer of sauce and more cheese before a second trip to the oven. To bang up the flavor even more, I took some tips from DiFara in Brooklyn:
Adding a sprinkling of rough-grated parmesan cheese, along with a sprinkle of fresh herbs and a drizzle of olive oil, after it comes out of the oven, so that the flavors stay bright and fresh.
Even before you bite into it, it looks like good pizza. And unless you are irrationally obsessed with computer science conundrums as my dear wife is, the smell will probably knock your socks off as well.
Just in case anyone is questioning whether all these little extra steps really make a difference in the final product, let me just show you first a French bread pizza made on untoasted bread with no garlic butter, and no finishing aromatics. Just sauce on bread with cheese:
Not terrible looking, but you can tell it's going to be soggy and bland. Now compare that with this:
The bread stays, well, bready, with just a hint of garlicky olive oil and butter soaking in for flavor. The sauce stays put above its protective layer of pre-melted cheese, while the cheese on top is enhance by a layer of parmesan and fresh herbs. I dunno about you, but I know which one I'd rather eat.
This stuff is pretty darn delicious. Better than a good deal of the real pizza I've eaten in my life, even when I've made it myself. The fact that it's on the table hot and gooey in about 20 minutes is just a bonus. A sweet, sweet bonus. You know what? I'm glad I have an excuse to eat it all myself. The dogs can share if they want.
The Best French Bread Pizza Recipe
3 tablespoons (45g) unsalted butter
4 tablespoons (60ml) extra-virgin olive oil, divided
4 cloves garlic, finely minced
Pinch red pepper flakes
1/2 teaspoon dried oregano
1/4 cup (15g) minced fresh parsley or basil leaves, or a mix
1 large loaf French or Italian bread (see notes), about 18 inches long and 4 inches wide, split half lengthwise and crosswise
1 (14.5-ounce; 400g) can crushed tomatoes
8 ounces (225g) freshly grated whole milk mozzarella cheese
2 ounces (60g) grated Parmigiano-Reggiano
Adjust oven rack to upper position and preheat oven to 425°F (220°C). Heat butter and 3 tablespoons (45ml) olive oil in a medium saucepan over medium-low heat until butter is melted. Add garlic, pepper flakes, and oregano and cook, stirring occasionally, until garlic is softened but not browned, about 2 minutes. Stir in half of parsley/basil and a big pinch of salt. Remove from heat.
Place bread cut-side-up on a clean work surface. Using a rimmed baking sheet, press down on bread evenly until compressed to about 2/3rds of its original height. Place bread on top of rimmed baking sheet. Using a pastry brush, brush half of garlic/butter/oil mixture evenly over cut surfaces of bread, making sure to get plenty of bits of garlic and herbs. Set aside.
Add tomatoes to remaining garlic/butter/oil mixture in pan, stir to combine, increase heat to medium, bring to a simmer, then reduce heat to maintain a bare simmer. Cook, stirring occasionally, until rich and reduced, about 15 minutes. Season to taste with salt.
While sauce cooks, spread 1/4 of mozzarella evenly over surface of bread and transfer to oven. Cook until cheese is barely melted, about 8 minutes. Remove from oven and set aside until sauce is cooked.
Spread sauce evenly over bread, then spread remaining mozzarella on top of sauce. Transfer to oven and bake until cheese is melted and just starting to brown, about 10 minutes. Remove from oven and immediately sprinkle with Parmigiano-Reggiano, remaining parsley/basil, and remaining tablespoon extra-virgin olive oil. Allow to cool slightly and serve.
|Nutrition Facts (per serving)|
|Servings: 3 to 4|
|Amount per serving|
|% Daily Value*|
|Total Fat 44g||56%|
|Saturated Fat 17g||87%|
|Total Carbohydrate 69g||25%|
|Dietary Fiber 6g||20%|
|Total Sugars 9g|
|Vitamin C 11mg||54%|
|*The % Daily Value (DV) tells you how much a nutrient in a food serving contributes to a daily diet. 2,000 calories a day is used for general nutrition advice.|