WOOD-FIRED Pizza Ovens
What is wood-fired cooking?
When food is “wood-fired” it simply means that it has been prepared in a wood-fired oven of some type. This could be a traditional wood burning oven that is made of a heat-conductive material such as brick or clay. It could also be a steel lined oven such as a KettlePizza kit on a Weber-style grill. Wood is used to heat the cooking chamber, which reaches high cooking temperatures. When cooking a pizza, this means that it will take mere minutes to cook an entire pie to crispy, bubbly perfection. Wood-fired pizza cooking is usually done “Hot and Fast”.
WHAT makes wood-fired pizza different?
Since pizza cooks very quickly in a wood-fired oven, the bottom of the crust will cook very quickly, giving it a wonderful charred flavor on the edges that makes it taste just a little smoky and delicious. If the floor of the oven is made of stone (pizza stone) the moisture will be absorbed from the dough during the cooking process. This will make the dough airy and crispy. A wood-fired oven will also cook the cheeses and toppings very quickly, which allows them to retain their freshness and natural flavors. The toppings will remain nicely textured and take on a smoky flavor that makes wood-fired pizza stand apart from other pizza cooking styles.
What is “Doming” when cooking a wood-fired pizza?
If the chef is looking for a crispier top for their wood-fired pizza a method called doming is often used. To dome a pizza, the pie is lifted into the “dome” of the pizza oven with the pizza peel and held there for several seconds. The heat in the dome is considerably higher than that of the pizza oven floor. This process slows the cooking of the crust while cooking the pizza top very quickly. This video is a nice example of “doming a pie” in a traditional wood-fired oven:
Can you achieve pizza crust leoparding in a wood-fired oven?
“Leoparding” or leopard spots on a pizza occurs when the raised parts of the crust called the “cornicone” bubble and blacken in spots resembling the spots on a leopard. Achieving leoparding is no easy feat. An oven that can exceed dome temperatures in excess of 800 degrees F is usually required. Dough that has higher hydration and is properly fermented is also helpful in achieving leoparding on your pizza. The key to achieving the perfect spotting is the irregular textured surface of the dough.
Using a preferment (poolish) is the best way to prepare dough for leoparding as it gives the yeast more time to develop and makes the dough rise to form more prominent and more irregular bubbles instead of small ones. This article from Dishcrawl cites a great recipe for poolish: https://dishcrawl.com/poolish/
What types of wood do you use in a wood-fired oven? Can you use charcoal?
As long as the wood is a “hard wood” you can use it in a wood-fired oven. “Soft woods” such as pine should not be used in a wood-fired oven as it contains pitch that can collect in the chimney and will give the food an unwanted flavor. Soft wood also burns much too fast to be effective in a pizza oven. Never use treated wood or leftover pieces of lumber as these woods are soft and often contain chemicals which are dangerous to ingest.
Some favorite types of wood that I cook with are apple, cherry and the old standby oak. In the Northeast oak is readily available from most firewood suppliers. I often ask to have the wood cut into fist sized chunks which are easy to handle and replace during the cooking process. This article describes many of the hard woods in more detail: https://www.kettlepizza.com/best-firewood-choices-for-kettlepizza-and-wood-fired-pizza-ovens/
Charcoal is used in the KettlePizza ovens in the bottom of the Weber-style charcoal grill. This offers the base heat and then hardwood is placed on top of the charcoal just prior to cooking the pizza. The hardwood spikes the heat and adds the smoky flavor.
WHAT accessories will I need with my pizza oven?
One of the most important tools that you will need with your pizza oven will be one or two high quality pizza peels. Many people choose to go with two and I will tell you why. Wooden pizza peels are best for preparing your pizza on. Add a little semolina or corn meal under the dough on the wooden peel and it helps the pizza to slide off and onto the stone.
Metal pizza peels are best for retrieving the pizza and turning the pizza while it is cooking. Aluminum peels are light and easy to handle and slide right under the crust very easily. A wooden peel is a bit harder to retrieve a pizza because it is thicker. If you are cooking numerous pizzas, two peels is key. That way you can prep your next pizza on the wooden peel and still have the metal peel for turning and retrieval of the pizza that is currently cooking.