Wood-Fired Pizza Ovens
The very best way to bake a pizza
Wood Fired Pizza Ovens Make the Best Pizza
Pizza baked in a traditional wood-fired pizza oven is a little bit of heaven on earth. There is not much that compares to it, and it is probably the best tasting pizza you’ll ever have. If you are a true pizza devotee, it has probably crossed your mind a time or so that you would love to have access to such an oven. Well, it is possible. With a bit of space and some know-how, you can make your own wood-burning oven.
The basic wood-burning oven is made of clay bricks or a type of heat resistant concrete mix. These items can be easily found in most building supplies retailers. Once your oven is fabricated, you cook by simply burning a fire inside the oven. The food is cooked on a flat clay-lined surface by indirect, convention heat. The heat is distributed throughout the walls of the oven and radiates and spreads throughout the interior of the oven. The temperature inside a wood-fired oven can reach 600-800 degrees Fahrenheit.
As you can imagine, pizza cooks in just a couple of minutes in these temperatures. A wood-fired oven can also be used to roast meats and bake bread and cakes. These items need to be cooked at a lower temperature, so the oven is usually left to sit for a while before they are placed in the oven.
Wood-burning ovens are usually constructed in a dome shape, often with a chimney or flue. They are heavily insulated to allow the heat to remain inside the oven for long periods of time. A fire is built in the oven, and then it is swept out, leaving behind the radiant heat in the walls, ceiling, and floor of the oven. You can also build a small fire in the back of the oven and leave it burning. This technique works especially well for baking pizza.
There are several companies that specialize in custom wood-burning oven installation, or you can build one yourself and rather inexpensively too. Here is a general summary of the necessary steps:
- Build a base of rock, stone, or logs.
- You then set the floor of the oven by laying clay tiles or bricks on a bed of sand.
- The dome of the oven is then constructed.
- You can then finish your oven by adding details to the exterior using rock, brick, or adobe.
- Finally, a door is constructed, usually of wood often lined with metal to make it more heat resistant. When your oven is used, you soak the door to prevent it from burning and to add moisture for baking.
This is the simplest type of oven. How elaborate you wish to make it is up to you.
Building and using a wood-fired pizza oven is a special experience for the pizza aficionado. It is a fabulous way to entertain as well. For more information on building a wood-burning oven, check out these resources:
History of Cooking Over Fire
Humans first started cooking over fire in pits, wrapping food in leaves or tucking it into embers. Eventually, cookware was developed, allowing people to cook in pots over an open fire. The Dutch oven is a throwback to a cooking technique in which embers are placed on a lidded pot to cook from both the top and bottom–a type of mini-oven.
The ancient Egyptians also used ember-covered pots and then eventually transitioned to using ovens, clay structures intended for cooking food over high heat. The ancient Greeks were the first to use front-loading ovens. This led to the art of bread baking, and many Greek homes had a small domed oven. The Romans also cooked in ovens, built from terracotta bricks and tiles, seasoned in the heat of the oven, with small chimneys for the smoke to escape. The Romans also had ovens in their homes, along with bakeries serving the public.
In India, the tandoor oven is cylindrical in shape, allowing the heat to rise upward. Dough is stuck to the sides of the oven and marinated meat cooks in the center. The shape and process of tandoor cooking allows for chargrilling the food while keeping it moist.
In Europe, the wood-fired oven also played an important role in baking. Many villages had a communal oven, to which townsfolk would bring their goods to be baked. It served not only as a food preparation station, but also a community hub, allowing the villagers to visit and catch up on the goings-on in the town. Europeans often had a wood-fired oven in their yard and was fired up every couple of days.
The modern hey-day of wood-fired pizza ovens owes much of its popularity to the pizza and bread ovens in Italy. Today, you can get small ovens that generate high heat, perfect for baking pizzas right in your own home.
How to Choose a Wood-Fired Pizza Oven
Modern wood-fired ovens are very flexible, allowing you to cook a variety of items besides pizzas. One of the main considerations is the size of the pizza oven. You’ll also need to consider where it will go and how to support in after construction or installation. These ovens produce a very intense heat as well as a gentle lingering heat, so you are able to cook in two different ways. Quick cooking comes from the high heat and is perfect for pizzas, steaks, kebabs, and more. After the bricks have absorbed the heat, you get a secondary heating process from the radiant, residual heat being slowly released after the fire has died out. This heat will continue to cook dishes for a while after the fire is out at a lower temperature.
What oven you choose depends on what you’ll be using it for. Do you need a larger wood-burning oven to accommodate lots of guest and parties? Do you want a compact oven to just bake pizzas for your family on occasion? Remember that the larger the oven, the more fuel and attention it will need, so think about how you will use it when selecting one for your home. Also, double check to make sure that open burning is allowed in your areas, as some locales have regulations on smoke control.
Where to Put a Wood-Burning Pizza Oven
The outdoor area close to your kitchen is the ideal spot for your wood-fired pizza oven. You’ll want it to be easy to get to in any kind of weather, so that you can use it year-round. Plan to include some sort of finished surface around your oven, such as decking, bricks, paving stones, or the like, so that you will have a dry and stable area to stand on when using your oven. Placing an overhang or covering above that area as well means you can stay dry in inclement weather while baking your pizzas.
A wood-burning oven is a heavy structure, so you need a stable and strong stand or surface for it. The stand will need to lift the oven about four feet off the ground. This makes it easy to insert and remove your baked goods and keeps you from stooping when using it. The stand can be constructed of bricks, stacked paving stones, or metal. It is nice to include some cubbies in the space below the oven to store wood fuel, peels, and utensils. All materials used in the stand, oven surround, and cladding should be heat-resistant.
Finishing Up Your Wood-Burning Oven
Your oven needs to be protected from the weather, so you’ll want to clad it with insulation. A well-insulated oven uses less wood and gets up to temperature faster. If you do have a covering for your oven, make sure that there is space between it and the top of the oven. Having some sort of shelter over the oven will allow it to get to temperature faster, as a wet oven is harder to heat up efficiently.
While your oven should have a chimney, consider also adding an extension to the chimney. A longer chimney moves smoke away from your cooking area, making the process of using your oven more pleasant. A longer chimney also allows the fire inside to burn hotter. The top of the chimney flue should have a cowl. This covers the opening, but still lets smoke escape. A cowl keeps rain and critters from entering the chimney.
How to Season Your Wood-Burning Pizza Oven
A pizza oven constructed of bricks and mortar needs to be completely dried and cured before using. A brick pizza oven needs to be seasoned. This will help keep the high heat from cracking the bricks or mortar. Ready-built ovens could be retaining some residual moisture, so it is good to season them as well. It is easy to season a pizza oven. Simply build a series of small fires inside the oven. Let each one build up to about 400 degrees F (200 degrees C) and then them died down. Build three or four fires in a row before using your oven for cooking. The inside of the oven will begin to lighten in this process.
The Right Fuel for Your Wood-Burning Oven
Using the wrong fuel for your wood-burning pizza oven can not only impact the process of baking your pizza. It can also be very frustrating. Using the wrong kind of wood or wet wood leads to improper temperatures, lots of smoke, and inefficient burning.
The best wood to use is wood that is well-seasoned and has been left to dry for at least two years. It should be stored in a dry place. You’ll want most of the sap in it to have dried out. The top of the line fuel is kiln-dried wood, but it can be expensive and sometimes hard to find. When buying wood, ask how long it has been stored and if it has been kept out of the rain during that time.
Woods such as birch, ash, oak, beech, and olive are great for a wood-burning oven, as they release a lot of heat when burned. Pine logs should not be used if possible in your wood-fired oven, as they are usually full of resin that results in black unsavory smoke when burned. Wood from scrap sources, such as wood pallets, shipping crates, fence posts, or treated wood should be avoided as well. They can have chemical treatments that make them unsuitable for cooking food.
Wood pieces should be about 10 inches long for ease of handling. You’ll want both thin and thick cuts of wood. The thinner ones allow for easy starting and building up to temperature. Larger cut wood pieces allow for longer burning. Store your wood in a wood shed or covered area so it stays dry. There should be good air circulation around your wood stores, so don’t cover it tightly with a tarp. Leaving it open, but under a shelter is the best storage option.
Starting a Fire in Your Wood-Burning Oven
You will need some small, dry pieces of kindling wood to start your fire. Keep a box of small kindling, some old newspaper, and long matches near your pizza oven. The best kindling is very dry wood that is split into long slivers. You can also use dried twigs and pine cones as fire starter. The best kindling is no wider than about half an inch.
To start a fire, crumple up some newspaper and place on the floor of your pizza oven. Stack the kindling wood on top, setting the pieces at right angles to allow for some gaps between the wood pieces. Light the newspaper using a long match. The kindling should easily catch fire. Begin to stack slightly larger pieces of split wood on top of the burning kindling. Eventually, you can add some larger split logs. You can use flame-retardant gauntlet gloves to protect your hands as you build your fire. Keep adding wood until the fire has reached the right size. You don’t want to overload the oven. A gradually increase in temperature is best.
The ideal temperature for baking pizza in a wood-fired oven is 600 to 800 degrees F. Once the fire is burning well and steady, move it toward the back or side of the oven. If you wish, you can set the door of the oven in place at this time, but do not close it completely, as the fire needs oxygen from air flow to burn correctly. To determine the temperature of the oven, use a laser thermometer to take a reading from the floor and walls of the oven. You can begin to cook your pizzas just as soon as the oven reaches your desired temperature.
Cooking Pizza in a Wood-Burning Oven
Monitor the temperature frequently, adding more wood, one log at a time, if the temperature drops. Add the wood and then close the door, leaving it just slightly ajar for air flow. This will allow the oven to rise in temperature. If the oven gets too hot, you can leave the door open to dissipate some of the heat.
After the fire has been push to the side or back, use a long-handled fireproof brush to sweep the ash from the oven floor. To bake a pizza, roll out the dough and place on a peel sprinkled with corn meal or semolina. Top the pizza. Insert the peel into the oven and quickly flick the peel out from under the dough, pulling it sharply back. The pizza will slide off the peel easily. Bake for about 90 seconds until the crust is crispy and the toppings are bubbly and charred slightly. You can rotate the pizza during cooking using a metal peel. This will prevent the pizza from browning too much on the side closest to the fire.
Remove the pizza from the oven with a metal peel. Place it on a wooden board near your oven. Allow the pizza to set for a minute or two and then slice and serve immediately.
Once you are done baking your pizzas, you can simply let the fire die down. A warmed up wood-burning oven gives off residual heat for a long while. Use this heat to slow cook breads, meats, casseroles, baked beans, smoked meats, and other dishes that benefit from a long roasting time. You can even bake a cake in your oven.
When the fire is completely cold, use a peel to scoop out the ashes. Use a metal brush to rub off any residue from cooking. Then your oven is clean and ready for your next pizza cooking adventure!