As any New York-style pizza supremacist will tell you, it’s the city’s water that give the big, thin-crusted slices their unique flavor and texture. This claim has been repeated so often it’s become conventional wisdom, but whether or not it’s true that New York City’s tap water has anything to do with making good pizza remains a controversial question for both chefs and scientists.
However, the makers of a device called New York WaterMaker, undeterred by the debate, burst onto the pizza scene at the 2018 International Pizza Expo in Las Vegas last week. As its name suggests, their device will make your water just like New York City tap water so you can crank out New York-style pies wherever you are.
“New York WaterMaker has created a groundbreaking water replication system that will allow restaurants and franchisors to offer customers improved food quality, consistency, and taste that can only be possible by cooking with NYC water, the best cooking water in the world,” reads a statement on the company’s website.
The company claims it will analyze your local tap water to calibrate a device that will tweak it to be just like New York City’s water, though its website is light on specifics and chemistry. It doesn’t list a price for the device, though there is information about financing, so it’s presumably quite pricey. Inverse has yet to hear back from the company for comment.
Nevertheless, if the device does what it claims to do, it will somehow change the mineral content of the water. This, in turn, is thought by some to have an effect on the baking process, though the science behind that claim is somewhat dubious.
High Mineral Content
Ninety percent of New York City’s water comes from the Catskill and Delaware Watersheds, according to the State Department of Environmental Conservation. This water source is so well-protected from contamination that state authorities allow it to operate with minimal filtration. Therefore, the water maintains a high concentration of dissolved minerals, which, some bakers argue, makes the water better for cooking.
It tastes better on its own, too, regularly beating out other water from other New York state municipalities in taste tests. In 2016, the New York Times reported that the water that comes through the Catskill and Delaware watershed does not pass through much calcium-rich limestone, and as such it contains many minerals but low levels of dissolved calcium. Water that passes through a lot of limestone tends to taste more bitter because of its higher calcium content.
High on pH, Low on Toughness
Kneading dough for bread, pizza, or other baked goods means combining two proteins, glutenin and gliadin, to form gluten, the substance that gives dough its chewy texture. According to Bakers Journal, dough made with water that has a higher mineral content can result in bread with a firmer texture because of minerals’ strengthening influence on gluten.
While New York City water does have a lot of minerals, it also has something that can inhibit gluten formation: a high pH. Typically, water with a lower pH (more acidic) is ideal for the action of the enzymes in bread dough that cause aeration and add flavor. New York City’s water has an average pH of 7.4, according to 2017 water samples. A truly neutral pH measures in at exactly 7, which makes New York’s water basic, or alkaline. This makes it less ideal for the natural fermentation process that makes chewy bread, but for pizza this is actually a good thing, as too much gluten formation tends to make pizza dough too tough. This suggests there may be something to the water hypothesis after all.
Dough is More Than Just Water
Just as important as the water, though, are the dang ingredients. New York-style pizza dough typically contains oil and sugar, which, as veteran recipe-designer and food writer J. Kenji López-Alt explained in 2017, both help make New York pizza a perfect balance of tender and crunchy:
New York pizza owes its unique texture and flavor to two key components added to it: oil and sugar. Oil coats individual granules of flour, effectively lowering the total amount of gluten formed and thus creating a more tender finished product, even though it takes a longer time to bake than a neapolitan crust. Sugar helps the crust to brown more evenly at lower oven temperatures. Without it, you’d end up with a paler, less flavorful crust.]
His 2010 investigation on Serious Eats explained the multitude of non-water factors that go into making a New York slice.
Lopez-Alt, asked how important New York City water is to its pizza, told Inverse via Twitter: “Short answer is no, the water is not really important.”