Want to create lip-smacking depth of flavor on pizzas, salads, appetizers and more? Follow these expert tips for choosing and using oils, vinegars and spices across your menu. | By Tracy Morin
Flour, water and yeast may comprise the cornerstones of any successful pizzeria, but it’s difficult to imagine any menu truly shining without the aid of must-have flavor enhancers like oils, vinegar and spices. From a zigzag of balsamic glaze across a pizza fresh out of the oven to a healthy drizzle of high-quality olive oil atop gelato, there’s hardly a menu selection that doesn’t benefit from a little liquid oomph—or a sprinkle of spices.
Still, you might feel stuck in the same ol’ when it comes to making the most of these must-have kitchen ingredients. If you need a bit of inspiration for using oil, vinegar and spices in more creative ways, look no further!
LIQUID LOVIN’ Stefano Velia, a now-retired pizza chef of 30 years and owner of the blog Pala Pizza, reaches for authentic balsamic vinegar of Modena for pizza applications—especially one topped with caramelized onion, goat cheese and arugula. “This same balsamic vinegar can be used across the menu, from salads to fruit to desserts,” Velia says. “A high-quality olive oil also imparts a more robust flavor on pizzas—if the pizza is not on the greasy side to begin with, such as a pepperoni pie. A light drizzle to finish off a fresh-out-of-the-oven white pizza is perfect. Or use a garlic-infused olive oil as a sauce replacement for white pizzas.” Finally, Velia notes that drizzling pies with hot honey (such as Mike’s Hot Honey), especially on pepperoni pizzas, has become “quite the craze.”
MIDDLE EASTERN MIX Feel less than inspired? Looking toward ethnic cuisines is a surefire idea-starter. For example, Emily Ackerman, a Lebanese-American food blogger at A Pinch of Adventure, points out that elements of Middle Eastern cuisine can easily jazz up pizzas and flatbreads. “One kind of Middle Eastern flatbread pizza is known as Manakish: Za’atar seasoning is mixed with high-quality olive oil and lemon juice, then spread onto flatbread dough and baked in a pizza oven,” Ackerman explains. “Za’atar seasoning (a roasted blend of thyme, oregano, sesame seeds and sumac) can be used to spice up salads, grilled meats and breads.” To make a basic za’atar spread, Ackerman recommends blending 4 tbsp. za’atar seasoning, 4 tbsp. olive oil and the juice of half a lemon.
SPEAKING SPANISH Adriana Perez, owner of San Diego-based Driana Foods, is a fan of sustainable, mono-varietal Spanish olive oils, like Arbequina, Cornicabra, Manzanilla and Picual (her go-to brand is Casas de Hualdo). “Picual olive oil, with its fresh basil and tomato plant aromas, pairs well drizzled over Italian flavors, while Cornicabra works well on pizzas, especially white pies. Its refreshing aromas of arugula and green apple brighten the milder, creamy flavors,” Perez explains. “As an alternative to balsamic, I like Spanish sherry vinegar.”
Arbequina varieties work well with sweets—try it over vanilla ice cream with balsamic vinegar of Modena. Or, post-bake, add Arbequina or Manzanilla on dessert pizzas (such as Nutella and berries). Meanwhile, because plant-based proteins like pepperoni and sausage can dry out when cooked, a drizzle of Manzanilla adds moisture while pairing well, flavor-wise, with these alternatives.
To spice up pizzas and other Italian items, Perez advocates smoked paprika, sumac and Aleppo pepper flakes. “Smoked paprika adds beautiful color and flavor to tomato sauce,” she says. “Sumac adds a citrusy acidity to white pizzas. And, for a kick, instead of red chili flakes, try Aleppo pepper, a Middle Eastern spice with moderate heat and a slight fruity finish.”
QUALITY CONTROL Oils, vinegars and spices are musts to spruce up the menu, but how do you choose—and use—the best types for you? Two restaurant consultants share their top tips:
What’s your type? When choosing olive oils, think about what speaks to your brand identity, suggests Nancy Jo Seaton, president of Seaton Food Consultants in Stamford, Connecticut. If you’re “authentic Italian,” go for a fresh, dark-green extra-virgin—or several, if possible. “Offer an olive oil flight to customers with a side of home-baked bread or breadsticks,” Seaton advises. “Three different oils would be enough for a shared appetizer with some bread and fresh mozzarella and tomatoes. Consider oils from different countries (like Greece, Spain and Italy) or from different regions (Italy or California).”
Infuse flavor. If your restaurant is more experimental, modern or casual, offer a similar appetizer featuring flavored oils (which are less expensive), like garlic, rosemary and basil. You can even make your own infused oils. But, Seaton advises, keep in mind potential issues with food safety. “Purchasing flavored oils is likely cheaper, because you won’t have to toss out unused portions,” she explains. However, premade flavored oils can be used to improve or mask the flavor of a substandard oil. Make sure the quality matches the price.
“We especially like playing with fruit-infused vinegars, like sweet peach white balsamic,” he says. “Fruit infusions add a touch of sweetness and can be versatile in savory, salad and dessert pizzas. We also enjoy using thyme, basil, cilantro, rosemary, mushroom and, most recently, ginger. The possibilities are endless.”
Fresh is best. Seaton stresses that you must maintain oils’ freshness over time, especially as they’re exposed to light and oxygen. “Oil can turn rancid in as little as six months, so knowing the age of your oil is essential, especially if you are going to make a sauce with it in-house, like a pesto,” Seaton says. “Be sure to taste your oil before you serve it—in any format—to ensure it does not have ‘off ’ flavors or is turning rancid.”
Fortunately, you don’t have to look far in your quest for top-quality, fresh olive oils: California produces some of the best, notes Amy Hsiao, head of marketing for Lodi, California-based Corto. “California is leading the way today with oils focused on the freshest fruit grown with sustainable practices,” she says. “California has the strictest olive oil standard in the world, which actually includes freshness metrics.”
Do your research. Moeller believes that research is perhaps the best way to ensure that you’re using top-quality ingredients. “Go past a basic Google search, understanding how an oil or vinegar is produced, what attributes generate flavor profiles, and what area of the world is best suited to growing grapes or olives,” he recommends.
“Reach out to local distributors and producers and have open discussions with chefs and retail stores to gather as much information as possible.” Ask about the specific smoke point of each oil (this will vary by producer; mass-produced, lesser-quality oils have a lower smoke point). Finally, to choose wisely, do a taste test on the raw products, and then use the top two or three choices as a base in the target recipe to see how each performs.
Spice it up. Don’t overlook the spice rack! “Chefs often miss out on stocking aromatics like thyme, rosemary, sage, dill, saffron, cumin and curry,” Moeller says. “We always have some nutritional yeast on hand, because it’s versatile—as a pizza topper, on salads or with vegetables—and provides a level of nutritional balance that many people require, as it is packed with B vitamins.”
Experiment across the menu. Are your customers heat seekers? Seaton recommends creating different types of heat via oils—like transforming a chicken breast with an oil-based Calabrian pepper paste, used as a marinade. Or go for a classic, pairing fresh strawberries and aged balsamic vinegar. “If you (or your customers) don’t want to spend a fortune on aged balsamic, reach for a balsamic glaze, which is fortified with sugar and other flavorings,” Seaton suggests. “Allow the strawberries to sit in the glaze for up to an hour, and then put over a simple ice cream or panna cotta—easy, different and delicious!”