After enjoying food cooked in a wood-burning oven, writing articles about ovens, and baking in ovens including an 11th-century oven in Tuscany, I succumbed to my desires and bought one.
So far, it’s been a great experience.
I was attracted by the completed — and somewhat portable — oven on display outside NapaStyle in Yountville, but ordered a size larger since I anticipated entertaining often. You can also buy one from Forno Bravo, Mugnaini and other companies.
Although the small ovens come with a metal stand, the one I bought weighs about 600 pounds, and I wanted a more permanent base, anyway. Fortunately, my son-in-law Steve is knowledgeable, as well as very generous with his time, and he did a major part of the work in building the base.
Once it was installed, before I could bake pizzas, I had to season the oven by building a small fire, then a slightly larger one for the next few days.
I bought the set of specialized tools including a pizza peel for inserting the pizzas, a scoop and a hoe-like device for removing ashes, a brass brush, and a palino, a small round peel used to rotate the pizzas so they cook evenly and remove them from the oven.
I already had a laser thermometer to read temperatures inside the oven, and I’d consider one vital.
Even my first pizzas were great, but I did want to learn more. I had a problem with pizzas that were too thin or had too many ingredients. I used flour or cornmeal to help them slide off the peel, but that flour burned in the hot oven.
A pizza lesson
Michael Dellar of Lark Creek Restaurant Group volunteered chef Christopher Hermsdorf at Cupola in San Francisco to give me a class. It was invaluable. He taught me a number of secrets. Among them:
• Make a fairly dry dough and knead it for 15 minutes in the mixer. Don’t add olive oil to the dough. Let the dough rise for an hour, then cut into small pieces. Hermsdorf uses 250-gram (9-ounce) pieces, but I find the 200-gram (7-ounce) size more practical. And yes, I weigh everything.
• Take each piece and pull over the top and tuck it in the bottom until you get a stretched exterior and a neat ball. Then roll it on the counter with a light dusting of flour, shaping your hand as a claw, until you get a perfect ball. Place each ball in a plastic container and let them rise overnight in the refrigerator.
• Don’t stretch the ball into a pizza disk until ready to use it. There are many techniques for shaping, but I find pulling it out, then draping over my fist and stretching, works well. You don’t need to leave a thick raised frame (corniche) as the pizza will rise in the oven. Anyway, there’s no sauce or oil.
• You can roll it out partway with a rolling pin, but finish by hand.
The tomato on a good pizza is just lightly chopped quality canned tomatoes, not a cooked sauce, as it cooks in the oven. I found that some of the expensive imported tomatoes are bland and mushy, but whole Muir Glen, Hunt’s plum tomatoes and especially Trader Joe’s San Marzano tomatoes are excellent.
I add salt and finely minced garlic to the tomatoes. Chunks of “fresh” mozzarella in plastic are fine and I am parsimonious with the cheese; the most expensive mozzarella is too watery.
Drizzle oil on after dressing the pizza. That’s the basic Margherita pizza. I add basil leaves after baking.
Tending the fire
You need to heat the oven to 850 degrees or more and have a flame burning to bake authentic pizzas. It takes about two hours from scratch.
I make a little “log cabin” in the center of the oven from unpainted softwood kindling like redwood or pine, using a small wax fire starter under it, and pile on some soft wood like dry scraps and hardwood. I have started a fire with newspaper instead of the starter, but I’ve also had to use my propane torch a few times when I did that.
The wood needs to be in fairly small pieces. I’ve used walnut but find it hard to keep going, hence always add a little pine or redwood with it. Chef Hermsdorf recommends almond and oak. As the fire burns, I add more wood, both soft and hard, to keep a roaring fire going, occasionally checking the sides of the oven with the thermometer.
The fire should be hot enough to burn soot off the roof of the oven.
When the oven is hot enough, push the fire to one side — not back — and make sure there’s a live flame as well as coals. I usually have to add a few small pieces of softwood or hardwood chips then.
Brush the embers into the fire and quickly wipe out the floor of the oven with a slightly damp cloth wrapped around the palino. Then slide in the pizzas.
Keep them simple at first. Rice flour seems to burn less than cornmeal or semolina, but I still had trouble getting thin, heavily laden pizzas into the oven neatly.
Fortunately, Tina Caputo, whose distant Italian relatives make Italy’s most famous flour, told me about the Super Peel. It has a “conveyor belt” built in that’s like magic. It will even pick up a snake-shaped pizza and deposit it perfectly.
You rotate the pizzas as they bake so they cook evenly, getting a few almost-burned spots, then take them out, cut into slices and enjoy. They have the wonderful soft-and-firm texture and slightly smoked flavor you can’t get even from a restaurant’s gas-fired oven.
For food other than pizzas, you use a “cooler” temperature like 350 to 500 F with no flame. Let the fire die down (or remove the coals) and let the oven coast to a lower temperature to bake bread, roast a leg of lamb, brown potato and artichoke gratins, and even make a fruit crostada as I did for a dozen relatives and friends at Easter.
True, I don’t need a pizza oven, but it sure is fun and it’s made my backyard a popular place for my friends.
You can still make fine pizzas in your home oven. Melissa Clark of the New York Times taught me a great way. Use a pizza stone on an oven rack close to the top. Crank the temperature up as far as you can go — typically 550 F — and leave it for an hour. When you’re ready, slide in the pizza, turn off the oven and turn on the broiler. This works very well.
Chef Christopher Hermsdorf, Cupola
Makes five 7-ounce pizza dough rounds.
Flour: 625 grams (1.875 pounds or 5 cups)
Water: 370 grams (13 ounces or 1.5 cups) at 55 to 60 degrees F
Salt: 17 grams (2.75 tsp.)
Yeast: 1.5 grams (1/10 block, equivalent to 0.4 tsp. or 1/5 package. One package is 2-1/4 tsp. or 7 grams.)
Dissolve salt in water. Work in yeast by rubbing it into the water.
Place water in the mixing bowl. Add flour to bowl. Mix at lowest speed in stand mixer with dough hook for 17 minutes.
Remove dough and cover with damp cloth. Let proof 45 minutes.
Cut off 200-gram (7-ounce) pieces and form balls. Use hand as “claw” to create a smooth skin on ball without overworking it. Place in proofing tray. Proof for 8 to 10 hours.
Note from Paul Franson: “Though I’ve included volume measurements, I definitely recommend using a scale set to metric measurements. Even at that, most can’t accurately measure that small amount of yeast. I use instant dry yeast with no problems. Note that this requires no sugar, cool water, and very little yeast, unlike many recipes.”