Crafting Your Own Pizza Oven

April 20, 2010

Some of the best advice I ever received came from a shrinking Mexican girl with transition lenses.  "Be smarter than the machine!" she would yell, over the tortuous soundtrack of my computer meeting the paper shredder.

And while today brought many failures and frustrations, it also brought successive good fortune as I was able to stick my finger into the latch of the oven door and trick it into thinking that it was locked when it actually wasn't!  Splendid! Why do we care?!  Because me MUST, if we are serious about making good pizza!

I am tired of reading about the drab reality where my oven is a KIA and a wood fire oven is a friggin' Mazzerati.  It wreaks of failure and self-limitation, which is just sad.

So, the Stephen Hawking that I am, I came up with some ingenious solutions to an otherwise doomed predicament:

Getting The Oven Hot Enough
Generally speaking, via J.Steingarten, pizza ovens are between 700F-800F. They cook pizzas at cosmic speeds, between 4-10 minutes.  The bottom is crispy and the top is bubbling and brown - none of these weepy Trader Joes situations where the crust is floppy and the ingredients are dried out.  Home ovens can only get to 550F; however, this is not due to a lack in capacity, but rather the fact that manufacturers choose liability over greatness.  Somewhere between 500F and 700F, manufacturers feel that the general public is be better protected by a latch that locks the oven door shut, when attempting to reach higher temperatures.  If they had it their way they would probably weld the oven door shut in fear of another Sylvia Plath.  But then they would be selling fused cubes of metal and not an oven.

The only situation where home ovens can reach these higher temperatures, is when they are on the "Self Clean" setting.  "Self Cleaning" ovens blast heat from top and bottom (baking+broiling) in order to get the temperatures to 700F-800F, charring all the food bits in sight, effectively 'cleaning' the oven. Well, perfect!

Now all one must do is figure out how to unlock the door and turn on the oven.  I haven't seen all the ovens in the world, but here is what I did for mine:

Disengaging the Oven Door from katie kwan on Vimeo.

Baking the Pizza Using Conductive AND Convective Heat Transfer
In order to get that crispy crust without drying out your toppings, you need to cook your pizza using BOTH conductive and convective heat transfer.

Convection cooking occurs when we put our pizza in a hot oven.  It will melt the cheese and brown your toppings.  It is the most common type of thermal transfer in baking.

Conductive cooking occurs when we put our pizza on something that is already hot, such as the floor of a pizza oven.  Heat will directly transfer from the clay into the crust, crisping it up.  There are many conductors of heat, such as metal and clay.  These two materials behave very differently.

After a discussion with my general chemistry teacher, I learned that metal has a low heat capacity, meaning that it is prone to give its heat away as quickly as possible.  It is also a smooth surface, making heating very uniform.  This may sound appealing, but upon testing, it produces a rather disheartening product.  The crust is too crunchy.  It is like biting into 4 crackers, topped with a dribbling of tomato sauce.  The heat is transferred too rapidly and the juxtaposition of textures is unsettling.  There is no chewy layer for your teeth to grasp.
Clay, however, has a high heat capacity and gives off its heat more evenly and sustained. It is also a porous material that traps pockets of moisture, giving rise to the micro-nooks and crannies that create texture.  The crust is crisp, with a seamless transition into a fine chewy layer and finally moist toppings. Perfect!
Now many people can drop the $40 it costs to buy a 'pizza stone', but I that's too rich for my blood.  Rather, I called up my local flooring company and asked them if they keep quarry tile in stock.  They sell 6"x6" for $1.20, but I was lucky and got mine for free!  A note on buying stones: thicker is always better.

Lining the lowest rack of my oven with quarry tile and an oven thermometer, I disengaged the oven door, and set it to "self clean".  Forty five minutes later, my thermometer wound past it's 600F max indicator to roughly 700F.  I shoved my pie onto the smoldering tile, shut the door, and waited four nail biting minutes.
What emerged was perfect.  Nice bubblage (making up new words as we speak), slight char on the edges, crisp crust, molten cheese, beautiful flavors.  This pizza was made from a slow risen "00" dough, tomate frito, mozzarella, and spanish chorizo.


Arcenia said...

Is there any left?

katie said...

Did you read the first sentence?

Elizabeth said...

come make pizza at my house please katie kwan. yes? like, saturday??

AGuyNamedBob said...

Gaflumoxed in San Diego - Katie, I saw your post on making bagels that were too light and fluffy. Mine are just the opposite and I wanted to trade information. My problem - I kettle them and as soon as they come out of the water, looking nice and fluffy, they start to drop. They continue to fall in the oven and when they finish are a doughy, heavy mess. I am using good fresh yeast, high gluten flour, kneading Bob Bekins 760-505-9397
them for five to ten minutes, letting them rise twice before kettling. Seem to be doing everything right, then they flop. Any ideas? How do you make yours light and fluffy? Sure appreciate your time and thought on this.

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