Americans love their pizza! On any given day, about one in eight of us has a slice or two. And pizza eaters get up to one-third of their daily calories from their favorite pies.
Unfortunately, a typical slice of pizza is loaded with fat, sugar and salt and is low in fiber and nutrients. But pizza doesn’t have to be bad for you. In fact, you can turn it into a food that is really good for you. It can even help prevent heart disease (cancer, too). The secret is to make the pizza yourself.
Homemade pizza is different. It can satisfy your cravings without jamming up your arteries. And you can make it in about the same amount of time that it would take to phone in an order and drive across town for your favorite pie.
What, exactly, does a healthy pizza look like? It depends on the ingredients…
Full-Fat Cheese (But Not Too Much)
New research suggests that saturated fat—and particularly the saturated fat found in cheese and other dairy foods—isn’t the cardiovascular demon that doctors once thought. Saturated fat actually can improve HDL “good” cholesterol and may reduce triglyceride levels.
You can’t have good pizza without good cheese. Don’t bother with pregrated cheeses that come in a can or a bag. They have almost no flavor, and they often are spiked with extra sodium.
My advice: Use high-quality mozzarella, Romano, Parmesan, goat or gouda—or a combination of your favorites. A 12-inch pie needs about two to four ounces of cheese—the equivalent of one-half to one cup of grated cheese.
Plenty of Tomatoes
Tomatoes are one of the main ingredients in a heart-healthy Mediterranean diet. The lycopene in tomatoes—along with beta-carotene and other carotenoids—has been linked to lower rates of heart disease and cancer. Lycopene is particularly important for men because studies suggest that it could reduce the risk for prostate cancer.
My advice: Processed tomatoes may have more lycopene than fresh, but fresh tomatoes have fiber in the skin and seeds—so use both. Look for low-sodium, no-added-sugar tomato sauce. Layer sliced fresh tomatoes (or cherry tomatoes) over a base of the tomato sauce.
The American Heart Association advises everyone to eat fatty fish at least twice a week. The omega-3 fatty acids in fish have been shown to lower triglyceride levels and reduce dangerous heartbeat irregularities (arrhythmias).
The especially healthy thing about anchovies—unlike, say, albacore tuna or other fatty fish—is that they contain little mercury while being rich in omega-3s.
My advice: Try white anchovies. They have a “meatier” texture and better flavor than other canned or jarred anchovies. They also are lower in salt.
Kitchen tip: You can remove much of the salt from any kind of canned or jarred anchovies by soaking them in water for a half hour. Or soak them in milk. It softens the texture and reduces the fishy flavor while removing sodium.
Onions, Garlic and Chile Peppers
These vegetables contain a variety of anti-inflammatory compounds that protect the arteries and reduce the risk for heart disease. One large study found that men who consumed the most flavonoids (a class of antioxidants found in onions, garlic and other vegetables and fruits) had a 68% reduced risk for cardiovascular disease.
Capsaicin, the chemical compound that puts the “bite” in jalapeños and other chile peppers, may have similar effects. It is a potent antioxidant that’s been linked to lower cholesterol and blood pressure.
My advice: Lightly cook onions, garlic and chile peppers before you add them to pizza. You can’t count on fully baking raw ingredients placed on raw pizza dough. The extra cooking time will give them a fuller flavor and a softer texture.
Kitchen tip: Before I add onions to pizza, I caramelize them in a sauté pan by slowly cooking them in a little olive oil until they are browned. It makes them sweeter and richer. Or if you prefer, you can microwave them for 30 seconds. That won’t caramelize the sugars, but it will blunt the sharp flavors.
This peppery salad green is one of my favorite pizza toppings. It has a strong, “bright” flavor that can hold its own with other pungent toppings.
Arugula, along with broccoli and Brussels sprouts, is a cruciferous vegetable that lowers inflammation and may reduce the risk for heart disease. It also is a detoxifying agent. When researchers looked at previous studies, they found that about 70% of the studies confirmed the link between cruciferous vegetables and lower cancer risk. The report was published inJournal of the American Dietetic Association.
My advice: After washing and slicing arugula into bite-size pieces, toss it lightly in a little olive oil before adding it to the pizza. The oil brings out the flavor and prevents the leaves from crisping during cooking. Oil also helps you absorb fat-soluble vitamins such as vitamin A and vitamin K.
You can buy ready-to-go pizza crusts, but generally I don’t recommend them because many contain too much sugar and fat and chemicals. Better: Fresh whole-wheat dough that’s ready for rolling. You can buy both white and whole-wheat varieties at Whole Foods, Trader Joe’s and other markets.
If you’re not bound by tradition, you also can use crust substitutes. I often use corn tortillas for pizza.
Fennel, Cumin or Sesame Seeds
When rolling out pizza dough, don’t use too much flour on it. In fact, you don’t have to use any flour to prevent the dough from sticking.
You can make your dough healthier (and better-tasting) by using crushed seeds or cornmeal instead of the flour you might sprinkle on the board. Try fennel seeds for an Italian pizza or cumin seeds for a Mexican-style pie. Sesame seeds are another tasty choice.
Helpful: Buy a pizza peel, a broad wooden or metal paddle that makes it easy to shift the pizza from the counter to the oven and from the oven to the table. If you like, you can roll out the dough on top of the peel, which saves having to shift the dough from the counter. Or roll it out on a pizza stone, which can be put directly in the oven.
More Heart Helpers
Here are other ingredients you can add to your pizza for flavor and heart-helping benefits. All can be added before putting the pizza in the oven (or on the grill)…
- Cooked, sliced beets. Beets contain nutrients that help to naturally reduce blood pressure.
- Avocado slices contain heart-healthy monounsaturated fats.
- Chopped walnuts and almonds, rich in plant sterols, prevent the absorption of cholesterol.
- Dried herbs and spices. Their anti-inflammatory, heart-helping antioxidant value is concentrated. Sprinkle on oregano, sumac, cumin, rosemary, basil, thyme or pepper.
Four Steps to Perfect Pizza
Pizza really is quite simple to make, especially if you use prepared dough. You can even cook it on the grill. For grilling instructions, go to How to Grill a Great Pizza.
Here are four easy steps for making pizza in your kitchen…
1. Preheat your oven to 450°F.
2. Roll out your crust thinly, to about one-quarter-inch thickness on a cornmealed or seeded surface.
3. Ladle the sauce…layer the tomatoes…scatter the onions, garlic and chiles…sprinkle on the arugula and cheese (and anchovies if using).
4. Bake until golden, about 10 minutes. Let cool for five minutes before slicing.