Pizza! Pizza is one of the stickiest points for omnivores and vegetarians considering veganism. (It’s also a difficult point for me, re: Cheese Confessions.) Pizza is a food staple for many people (75% of Canadians eat pizza at least once a month!) and it’s usually all about the cheese. I’ve noted before the addictive, high-inducing qualities of cheese, but wait– there’s more! Cheese and tomato sauce, the basic pizza toppings, both include high levels of glutamate, “a chemical that nerve cells use to send signals to other cells” and “the most abundant excitatory neurotransmitter in the vertebrate nervous system” (more info here). Scientifically, pizza makes us excited, happy, high, and makes us crave more. It’s that potent combination of cheese and tomato sauce on comfort-food dough that is so hard to quit.
Though vegans will never replicate that same opiate high effect of dairy cheese… that is probably for the best. Still, pizza is built into culture, and that’s another sticking point. Beyond the scientific reasons for eating pizza, it’s also popular because it is so easy and convenient. How many social/work settings have you encountered in which the automatic food choice is pizza? The majority (at least, that is how it’s been for me).
Fortunately for vegans and lactose-intolerant others, there are ever more non-dairy pizza options locally and in the big pizza chains. This is good news for easing potentially difficult social situations, debating food choices. It’s good news, also, for those of us still addicted to the familiar comfort of the rich and savoury dish. However, if you’ve had the typical Daiya topped vegan pizzas only, you’ve probably lost all hope. I’m here to restore it. Yes, I AM HERE TO RESTORE YOUR HOPE IN VEGAN PIZZA!!
Firstly, you must say goodbye to the classic chewy, stretchy, double cheese take out pizza. There’s no real way to replicate this in vegan form. If the chewy cheese was never your bag, then no big deal. If this was your ultimate… mourn and know that there’s better pizza out there.
The success of vegan pizza comes from embracing creative toppings and/or soft cheese dollops. Daiya topped pizza can be delicious, but it must be done correctly. There are only two pizzas I now consume regularly and I’ve learned much from them: one is the Fat Mac pizza from Apiecalypse Now; and the other is homemade using a recipe from Sam Turnbull. The Fat Mac is a beautiful ode to the McDonald’s Big Mac hamburger, but veganized and pizza-ified. It’s exactly as you would imagine and it’s perfect. Apiecalypse Now has several other delicious pizza varieties, but I find it very difficult to venture outside this favourite. I get stuck on familiar faves and crave them. (If you live in Toronto, you have access to this incredible vegan pizza shop. If you don’t, well I can’t speak to whatever hidden gems you have in your city, but you certainly can apply the tricks I’ve learned.) Sam Turnbull, blogger behind It Doesn’t Taste Like Chicken, has a fantastic pizza recipe in her cookbook, but the most important aspect is her mozzarella cheese sauce. It is the perfect vegan answer to pizza cheese.
Why are these my staples and what is so special about them? Let’s start with the Fat Mac pizza.
Apiecalypse Now, Fat Mac Vegan Pizza
This pizza is totally different from the expected pizza format, but still hits that pizza craving. There is no tomato base, and the cheese (Daiya shreds) is sparse and not the main focus. The cheese is the first layer, sticking to the sesame-speckled crust and dehydrating the perfect amount, avoiding that constant-wet and stuck-to-your-teeth effect that melted Daiya cheese so often gets. Above the cheese, sprinkles of ground round vegan beef and chopped onion and pickles. Finally, it’s topped with shredded iceberg lettuce and doused in vegan mac sauce. It’s tangy, savoury perfection.
Why is it so perfect? Firstly, this is one of the few examples of fast food restaurant vegan pizza that does Daiya right. Generally, their pizzas are made with sparing amounts of pizza sauce and cheese, so that the layers don’t become too wet and never crisp. They get that crisp cheese layer through increasing baking temperatures and making sure not to make layers too thick. The Fat Mac pizza, specifically, uses the brilliant technique of baking the cheese in, dry, on the dough. There is no moisture trap for the sauce between dough and cheese to rehydrate the cheese to an unpleasant and gooey texture. This is a huge consideration, as the issue that makes Daiya cheese-topped pizza a failure is the inability to dry the cheese out enough. Apiecalypse Now gets it perfectly.
The second reason for its perfection is the creative reimagining of the pizza. It isn’t the traditional tomato sauce, cheese, and toppings assembly. They don’t use tomato sauce in this one at all! Instead, they create an alternative ode to non-vegan comfort food, the Big Mac burger, and simultaneously achieve the same flavour profile as the most delicious pizzas. It’s savoury, a bit of sweet, and lots of creamy tang. Mostly, I believe the success of this pizza is owing to the Mac sauce doused on top. It is the same effect as the irresistible blend of tomato sauce and cheese, without relying on the usual. This is also an important consideration for good vegan pizza. The best versions utilize tangy vegan sauces to replicate the tangy, savoury taste of traditional pizzas. It’s this last point that is so important for my next example.
Homemade Pizza with Mozza Sauce
I grew up having homemade pizza regularly. My whole family came together in the kitchen to make Sunday night dinners together and it was always a beautiful time. As such, making pizza from scratch has never bewildered me, but vegan pizza was a different story.
When I first became vegan, I was obsessed with Gusta vegan cheese. It’s this incredible product made from cashews that feels and grates like dairy cheese. The taste is wonderful and cheesy, but muted. The most incredible thing about the cheese, though, is that it melts and resolidifies, just like dairy cheese. To me, it was magic! I put it on everything I could think of … but not pizza. Having delved into the ooey gooey Daiya pizzas from Pizza Nova, I couldn’t imagine “wasting” this (rather expensive) cheese on a vegan pizza that would end up ooey gooey. Without another idea, I didn’t dare try my hand at making vegan pizza.
Then one glorious night I was having a “girls’ weekend away” with my mom and sister, and my mom suggested we try making our own pizza from her copy of the Fuss Free Vegan Cookbook by Sam Turnbull. I was skeptical, but agreed, and proceeded to make the best vegan pizza I had ever had! We were all floored at the results. Though it was just a simple pizza –dough, tomato sauce, cheese, caramelized onions– it was so perfectly balanced and delicious. The main aspect that was so surprisingly spot on was the cheese. Sam’s pizza cheese is more like a sauce. It is literally titled “gooey mozzarella,” something that put me off initially, but this kind of gooey is just right.
The difference between this gooey and the gooey of processed vegan cheese, is that this one doesn’t stick to your teeth or have any of that plastic-like texture or taste. Instead, this vegan mozzarella is more like a thick cheese sauce that fills the mouth with creamy, savoury, tangy deliciousness. This is the same quality that sends the Fat Mac pizza to the top of my list — the sauciness with tangy, creamy flavour profile. Baking the pizza at higher temperatures also adds a crisp layer to the cheese sauce to wonderfully diversify the textures.
*If you want melted vegan cheese without the plastic element, this can be achieved with homemade cheese using an agar agar powder base, like my sharp cheddar. It will melt and resolidify, but still won’t have that specifically stretchy chew of melted cow cheese.
5 Tips and Tricks for the Best Vegan Pizza
- Utilize cheese sauce over shreds.
- If using Daiya or pre-bought vegan cheese shreds on a tomato base, use sparingly.
- Bake shredded cheese right on the dough, rather than on top of sauce.
- Bake at higher temperatures to achieve crisping.
- Ditch the usual tomato and cheese mixture to create alternative with a tangy cream sauce.
These are my top learnings about what makes a vegan pizza good. These tricks are certainly helpful for making your own pizza. If you’re going out (or ordering in) for pizza, look for these aspects in your pizza. If you’re looking at a pile of pale Daiya shreds on top of a thick tomato base, you’re likely looking at a sub par vegan pizza. If you see no crisping cheese and a soft and underdone looking pizza, take a pass. If it’s looking crispy and sparse (with interesting toppings), go for it. Look for golden and slightly charred edges, for cheese sauce that’s browned on top, or for creative alternatives with a tangy cream topping. That’s where the vegan pizza gold is.