When it comes to overheated pizza arguments, people love talking trash about one variety in particular: St. Louis-style pizza. It’s a cracker-thin-crust square-cut pizza that’s topped with a very unique processed cheese product known as Provel. It’s the Provel that really drives people up a wall. (Notice I called it a “cheese product” rather than just “cheese.” More on that later.) When it melts, it doesn’t become stretchy like mozzarella, but rather gooey and almost like a sauce, which draws the ire of pizza purists nationwide. So just what is Provel, anyway?
The term “processed cheese product” is nothing to be scared of. It just means that emulsifiers have been blended with the cheese so that it melts uniformly and without separation (that uniformity is exactly what we love about Kraft singles). Provel is a combo of multiple cheeses—cheddar, Swiss, and provolone—fashioned sort of in the likeness of American cheese product. Provel also melts like American cheese, meaning its melting point is fairly low and it easily attains that gooey, gel-like texture. There’s a touch of smoky flavor to it as well.
Imo’s in St. Louis is the most famous pizza chain to feature Provel on its pies. I was so curious to sample Imo’s and its signature Provel that I briefly considered dropping a ton of money on Goldbelly just to purchase a four-pack of pies—but then I thought, “Well, I could just make a St. Louis pie, right?”
Provel is notoriously difficult to source outside of St. Louis, and a few years back I managed to tap a chef friend on the shoulder to see if he could source some here in Chicago. He was graciously able to get some for me, and if I couldn’t take the trip down to St. Louis, I figured I could make a version from scratch. I did exactly that, cobbling together ingredients from the pizzeria where I worked. I used a crust recipe submitted on good ol’ Food.com and gave it a shot.
The result was surprisingly good, with a thin crispy crust that tasted a little plain, but that’s fine, since the base was pretty much only there to serve as a vehicle for sauce, toppings, and of course, Provel. The Provel had melted down into an unusual texture for pizza cheese: soft like melted mozzarella, but with a nacho-cheese-like smoothness to it. Maybe the fact that its color is very similar to nacho cheese once it comes out of the oven freaks people out a bit. I can see why some people dislike it, but it’s so distinct in flavor and texture that I can also see why people go nuts for it.
Through my experimenting, I realized that the Provel, which comes in five-pound loaves just like any deli cheese bricks, is excellent for anything that would normally involve the use of American cheese, adding another layer of smoky flavor with its unique flavor profile. Grilled cheese, burgers, cold sandwiches—Provel is a good all-around star player. I imagine it would be terrific on a cheesesteak, too, and The Kitchn swears by its use in mac and cheese.
Honestly, if you come across Provel, I’d tell you to snag a pound of it just to play with at home. Don’t think too hard about how to use it—just dive right in. Best of luck to those in search of it outside of Missouri, because no matter how hard I try these days I can’t find any in Chicago. Oh well. Better plan a trip down to St. Louis for some Imo’s (which I still haven’t had yet) and a block of the good stuff.