The following was posted in the Millar Stainless Steel Pizza Oven thread: http://www.pizzamaking.com/forum/index.php/topic,18587.msg251119.html#msg251119
So as not to risk hijacking that thread, I’m starting a new thread on this topic which as pointed out, has not had much discussion.
I don't recall any other member on this forum expressing something I feel very strongly about after extensive testing: forget about leoparding. It is just a cosmetic artifact of the fermentation time/temp and heat. Depending on which sourdough culture I use and how I ferment it and how I bake it, I can easily produce a pizza with very little leoparding that has much better flavor and texture than one with picture-perfect leoparding. More often than not, pizzas I bake that have pretty leopard spots are over-baked. I understand that visuals are an important part of food enjoyment, but IMHO, leoparding as a cue for quality is just an illusion.
I respectfully disagree with two main points above. First is with the statement “leoparding as a cue for quality is just an illusion.”
Is leoparding a definitive, stand alone indicator? No. Is it the be-all-end-all of a Neapolitan pizza? No. Can it be a cue for quality however? Absolutely it can. The quantity, size, distribution, and appearance spots or lack thereof, particularly when taken in consideration with other factors but even on their own, can give you information on how the dough was mixed, gluten development/breakdown, over/under fermentation, handling during assembly, baking, etc. There are correlations that can be drawn between the appearance of spots and certain quality attributes. Just because the correlations are not perfect does not mean that they are not meaningful or otherwise unimportant for consideration. That quality is subjective may complicate matters as different people may see different correlations, however this does not change the underlying premise that correlations exist.
I also disagree with the “cosmetic artifact” characterization. Leoparding may be cosmetic, but I don’t see it as an artifact. If it’s an artifact, it’s an artifact of process and formula, of fermentation time/temp and heat as noted above. Rather, I believe it should be viewed as a cosmetic feature. The use of the word “artifact” tends to imply an error in perception – the idea that leoparding implies quality is false; that it is simply an artifact of seeing so many pictures of NP with leoparding. While this may be the basis for the perception, that doesn’t in and of itself necessitate that such a perception should be summarily discarded. If anything, it would appear to support the belief. I would also remind that a lack of leoparding is just as much a cosmetic feature or artifact as is leoparding.
As noted in the original comment above, visuals are important. Like smell, the visual aspects play a role not only in taste but also in the total sensory experience. You can’t distill the total quality of a pizza down to simply flavor and texture as almost seems to be suggested above. If leoparding is not a feature that a particular pizzaiolo desires to maximize the enjoyment, then his pies should not have leoparding, but that is a decision that should be made as part of a larger set of decisions intended to achieve balance not because of a belief that leoparding is unimportant.
To me, perfect NP is like a ballerina: strength balanced by grace. The result is delicate beauty. I believe leoparding is in critical element in my NP. It adds greatly to my total enjoyment and appreciation of the pie, and it is something I work to create in my pizza – not for the sake of leoparding but rather for the sake of balance. It’s not simply cosmetic. You can’t just burn leoparding onto your pizza and expect it to be good. With respect to the comment, “More often than not, pizzas I bake that have pretty leopard spots are over-baked.”
Perhaps this is because leoparding is not an element that is set out to be achieved, and when it is, there has been movement away from the intended balance that began as the ingredients were measured? Every decision and action taken from the first measurement of the flour and water limits or changes what can be done farther into the process while still achieving balance. I don’t believe it is fair to link over-baking and leoparding as the connection was probably established by other choices before baking began, and if not before baking, by the choice of oven or oven temperature.
My dough formula, workflow, and baking technique are purposefully designed to produce leoparding without over-baking. Visual impact balanced by tenderness and silk-like texture that melts in your mouth. Caramelized flavors balanced by fresh flavors from the toppings. Like a ballerina, strength balanced by grace. Perhaps this is why Pizza Lolita is perfect with sautéed mushrooms and my mushroom pie is perfect with raw?
One other thing to consider that I don’t think is often discussed. When we talk about balance, it doesn't always mean balance in every bite. With respect to balance in the toppings, it often does (but not always), but it also means the cornice balances the interior of the pie. IMO, this is one of the most important aspects of a Margherita. Balance exists on many levels but it ultimately it means the total experience. Again, it’s like ballet. Ballet’s very history illustrates the concept of balance on many levels. The first ballets were woven into opera to allow a moment of relief from the dramatic intensity.