I want to tell you a story of two pizzas. The first, a Kroger hot honey pepperoni pie, is what I refer to as, lovingly, sh**ty supermarket pizza, the kind you can snag out of the freezer aisle for less than $5. The second is from my favorite local pizzeria, Pizza Lupo. They serve a Milk & Honey pizza — topped with cambozola, fresh mozzarella, a buttermilk ricotta sauce, basil and a drizzle of hot honey — that is honestly life-changing.
Despite their difference in provenance, both pizzas are uncommonly good compared to other slices in their respective tiers and a big part of that is a shared key ingredient: honey.
I know that condiments on pizza are a big point of contention; as Pizza Lupo's owner, Max Balliet, actually once texted me, ranch dressing on pizza is considered "sacrilegious in serious pizza circles," while barbecue sauce isn't far behind. However, if you treat honey as an ingredient instead of an afterthought, the results are pretty stellar.
Let's break it down. What makes a good piece of pizza — much like what makes any good dish — is a spectrum of flavors and textures. Think about the acidity of the tomato sauce, the lactic creaminess of the cheese, the brightness of vegetables, the brininess of olives and the cured saltiness of pepperoni or sausage.
While there is usually at least a little sugar present in the sauce, or perhaps a topping like sausage, sweetness isn't typically a consideration when it comes to building the flavor profile of a pizza, though it should be.
Honey is one of the best ways to do that.
Much like when building a charcuterie board, good honey offers a couple distinct advantages when paired with other ingredients: it offers a little freshness to the bite, it enhances the flavor of the other ingredients and can offer some additional flavor, too. Depending on the variety, honey can be floral, spicy, tangy, nutty or buttery.
And it's been having a moment on pizza for a while. As Andrea Strong wrote in her TASTE piece "When Pizza Met Hot Honey: A Love Story," Mike Kurtz, the founder of Mike's Hot Honey, had the idea for his product when visiting a pizzeria in Brazil where the table condiment was a jar of spiced honey with whole chile peppers submerged inside.
"I drizzled the honey on the pizza, and it was a revelation," Kurtz told the publication.
He went on to help develop the Hellboy Pie for Brooklyn pizzeria Paulie Gee's. "The pizza features mozzarella, tomato, soppressata picante, Parmigiano-Reggiano, and a hefty drizzle of Mike's Hot Honey, which is drizzled on the pie when it's bubbly and fresh out of the oven," wrote Song.
Since then, pizzerias all across the country have taken to drizzling honey over their creations. There's Emmy Squared's Colony² with ezzo pepperoni, pickled jalapeños and honey; Criscito Pizza has their Honey Garlic pie; Pi-Pizza's specialty pi has "white sauce, mozz, smashed scallion, goat cheese, mike's hot honey."
In the ensuing years, the trend has trickled down the honeycomb to chain pizza places and supermarket shelves. Papa John's had their Bee Sting pizza with spicy pepperoni, mozzarella, fresh green chilli, and a sweet wildflower honey drizzle. In 2020, Aldi released their Mama Cozzi's Pizza Kitchen Hot Honey Pizza on a pretzel crust. Walmart has a Great Value brand Hot Honey Pepperoni Pizza, too.
Part of this is, of course, the natural proliferation of trends from culinary tastemakers to the mass market. Part of it, though, is honey's inherent versatility. It works pretty flawlessly with both white and red pies — and it's also one of the simplest ways to make both the pizzas you make, bake or deliver at home instantly better.
Here are some varieties to try:
- Buckwheat honey: Buckwheat honey has a deep, nutty flavor with an almost molasses-like sweetness. It stands up beautifully to stronger or aged cheeses like goat cheeses, aged Havarti or caramelized gorgonzola.
- Orange blossom honey: This honey is sweet with both floral and citrus undertones. That makes it an ideal pairing for a white pie piled high with fresh mozzarella and peppery arugula.
- Hot honey: Take a cue from pizzerias across the country and drizzle hot honey over your tomato-based pies, stacked high with parm and cured meats. If you're feeling extra spicy, pickled peppers are a good addition, too.
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