You can buy an expensive, hard-to-use pizza oven--but spending a hundred bucks or so on these 5 basic tools lets you Free The Pizza with the oven in your home kitchen.
The first thing you need to make pizza at home is the desire. Yes, that sounds like a given. But you’d be amazed how people can go through the motions without actually seeming like they want to be doing it.
I was at this one guy’s house. He had paid a truckload of money to install a huge, wood-fired pizza oven on his patio. He had all the tools, and he was making pizza as if he hated doing it. He stretched the dough as if it had insulted him personally. There was no clear evidence he either wanted to make pizza or even enjoyed eating it. But hey, he had the oven. Maybe it's eye candy for the next person to buy the house.
If we’re clear on the desire to make pizza, the next requirement is a willingness to fulfill that desire. I have the desire to circumnavigate the globe on a sailboat—but have no willingness to do it at middle age. But I have plenty of willingness to work on this pizza thing because I enjoy it, and so do the people I feed. And really, if you’re investing the time, why not raise the bar enough to make that investment worthwhile? All it takes is patience, persistence, and some insight into why you’re taking certain steps. (You’d be surprised how some simple context can change everything.)
So: a desire and willingness to do it well. Those are key. You’re not getting very far without them.
Next, you require a few simple tools. Besides the things you probably already have in your kitchen, like bowls and measuring cups, there are the key components:
Let’s break these down. Ready?
The baking surface is the single most significant tool in this box. We’re talking about thermal mass. It heats up slowly, and does not conduct heat well. As a result, it maintains a high temperature and is conducive to baking bread. Pizza dough especially requires a quick shot of high heat to make it “pop” before it begins to brown.
Like most folks, I started with a pizza stone. I also learned the hard way that cheap stones are not your friend. Under high heat, they will crack. So, there were several of them.
You don’t need to spend a lot of money on a stone. There are other, better ways to spend your money, namely on a steel. But let’s start with stone. There's a company called Fibrament D that makes baking stones out of the same material that's used for the giant deck ovens you see in mainstream pizzerias. I used a stone like this for years. It’s a massive, robust product. I still have two of them because, hey, ya never know.
Today, steel is the new stone. Several years ago, some enterprising entrepreneurs at Conductive Cooking decided that a baking steel would work better than a stone. The downside to steel is it’s more expensive. The upside is it’s a better thermal mass. And their ThermiChef pizza steel certainly changed my pizza for the better.
A way to slide the pizza onto the baking surface is a must. The tried and true tool is a peel, that thing that looks like a gigantic spatula made of wood. You also do not need a peel. A lot of recipes for pizza newbies suggest using a cookie sheet. I’ve always found the cookie sheet cumbersome, but I have used a cookie sheet successfully.
A way to retrieve the pizza from the baking surface is also, classically, a peel. How is this peel different from the peel above? Instead of wood, it’s made of aluminum. You do not need two peels, one of wood and one of aluminum. You can, again, use a cookie sheet. In a pinch, I’ve even used a sheet of corrugated cardboard. (DO NOT TRY THIS AT HOME.)
But, in a perfect world, I recommend having two peels, one of wood and one of aluminum. The surface characteristics of the wooden peel are ideal for launching the pizza. The surface characteristics of the aluminum peel are ideal for manipulating and retrieving the pizza. It also means you aren’t using the same peel for handling a raw pizza as you are a baked pizza. You’ll often see such a pair of peels at work in a professional pizza kitchen. (Operations with wood-fired ovens also have turning peels, which are typically aluminum, with a very small, round head. You don’t need that at home. And yes, I’ve had one at home. That’s because I used to have a big wood oven.)
Again, you don’t need two peels—or any peels if you’re trying to do this on the cheap. My encouragement for peels is based on my own experience that simple, purpose-designed tools are far easier to use and increase the chances of success. Also, they make you look and feel like you know what you’re doing. It impresses your friends—and it impresses you insofar as you feel like you have more control. That’s a bonus.
Cutting the pizza. How hard can that be? It depends on the size of your pizza. AND DO NOT CUT THE PIZZA ON THE PEEL. Sorry to yell. Had to say that. You’ll ruin the peel. Anyway, when my oven is big enough, I like to make 16-inch pies. When I make a 6-inch pie (which I do for home pizza lab experiments), I can use a chef’s knife. But using an 8-inch chef’s knife to cut symmetrical slices from a 16-inch pizza is an exercise in precision.
There are lots of people who love the flair of using that big, Italian-style rocker knife called a mezzaluna. And yes, it looks really cool to whip that out in front of everyone and BAM BAM BAM whack a pizza into eight slices like a mad Italian. Personally, I find the mezzaluna cumbersome and haven’t bothered to learn how to use it. I use the old-fashioned, tried and true wheel cutter—but a heavy-duty, professional-grade wheel cutter. The small, cheap, consumer-grade cutters do not, um, cut it. The wheel is easy to use, and can have its own flair if that’s what you’re going for.
Finally, serving the pizza. How do you do it? If you cut it on a cutting board, you can serve it on a cutting board. I’ve done that a lot. But if you’re like me, and you want the simplicity and appearance and “smoove” of restaurant service, you can do what I usually do: serve on aluminum, restaurant-grade pizza trays. The pie goes from the peel onto the tray, then you just cut the pizza and serve. I have two 16-inch trays, two 14-inch, and one each of 12-inch, 10-inch and 8-inch. (The smallest ones are really for show. I’m just as happy to serve a little pizza on a cutting board. But for photo opps, the tray gives it some cred. They’re also relatively inexpensive. And they just make things easier and more convenient.)
Want to know more about the specific tools I use? You’ll find steels, peels, cutters and trays in the pizza shop page called The Essentials, along with links to more details on Amazon. (Yes, I’m also an Amazon affiliate. Anything you buy through my links helps keep this silly little enterprise afloat.)
If you told me I could pick only one cheese for my pizza for the rest of eternity, the answer would be simple. It’s going to be mozzarella. BUT…not the lovely, high-moisture fresh mozzarella of the Neapolitan pizza Margherita fame, no siree Bob.
I pick the lowly, low-moisture mozzarella of commercial pizzeria ignominy! Why? Three simple reasons.
1) Low-moisture mozzarella has a longer shelf life than its fresh counterpart. Fresh mozzarella, as it ages, can begin to taste bad—and that process begins the second you break the seal on that little plastic bubble. Low-moisture mozzarella, on the other hand, always tastes bad—until you melt it on a pizza. That is where it becomes glorious.
2) It’s melty, not moist. The moisture content of fresh mozzarella is significantly higher than its low-moisture counterpart. It can turn a pizza into a soupy mess—especially when you don’t have a 900-degree oven. And who needs a soupy mess?
3) It’s what all my pizza-loving friends are used to. Yes, the American pizza landscape is overwhelmingly populated by low-moisture mozzarella pizzas. It’s what Americans have come to know and love. More important, it’s what they’ve come to expect. Some of the nation’s most famous pizzas are made with low-moisture mozzarella. And frankly, if it’s good enough for the gods of American pizza, it’s good enough for me.
I have nothing against fresh mozzarella, and I use it often. But it is not my cheese of choice. It is a special-occasion product used selectively with discretion.
Do I have a favorite low-moisture mozzarella? I do not. As long as the cheese is a whole-milk product and not part-skim, all brands I’ve tried have been acceptable for the job of making pizza at home. Based on the reports of third-party blind taste tests I’ve read, this is pretty much the norm. There are a few lousy outliers. But overall, taste testers agree that the rubbery, provolone-like cheese that comes in the one-pound pack is uninteresting until it’s given a chance to shine under the synergy high heat with the tomato and toppings of a composed pizza.
Free the pizza!
Pizza is a symphony of salt, fat and acid subjected to heat in such a way that simple ingredients become a complex and exciting serving of “I want more.” But the flavor bomb of pizza aside, why does making pizza matter? Other than as a staple food of the economy?
There are two important factors for the home pizzamaker in the 21st century. For the home pizzamaker, venturing into baking pizza is necessarily an exercise in patience, proportion, happiness and harmony.
Pizza patience comes from the simple inability to rush making it. It takes time for the biochemistry of pizza to happen. Need pizza in a hurry? One phone call and you’ll have it in 30 minutes or less. But you won’t love it. The love happens in your own oven. When you want the good stuff, the homemade stuff, the amaze your mouth and light up your friends stuff, it’s a process. It requires preparation and patience that no digital device or combustion-engine conveyance can hurry along or make better.
Pizza proportion is about understanding how to manipulate and combine the ingredients. How much to stretch the dough. How much cheese is too much and how to stop before getting there. How more toppings must be applied judiciously in order to have a composed pizza that still thrills and by rights delights.
And most important, pizza is people. It’s one of the true communal foods. A large pizza is sliced and served to friends and family at your table. Pizza is a rallying point, a conversation, a memory, a good laugh, it’s fun, happiness, joy and delight.
There just isn’t a lot of crying over pizza. There must be anthropologists out there who can opine upon the social nature of food that brings people together for common joy. The clam bake, the low-country boil, the pig roast—there are all kinds of regional specialties that uniquely bring people together around a table and make magic happen.
But pizza is unique, ubiquitous and cross-cultural. The basic delivery system of bread (the staff of life) topped with tomato (the love apple) and cheese (an opioid receptor stimulant) creates a rallying point for almost everyone. Even the gluten sensitive and the lactose intolerant wish they could indulge. Tomato haters who are legion among us set aside their distaste in favor of the seasoned paste that covers their pie.
Pizza brings people together around a common joy. It knows no politics or religion. It just brings the happy. That’s why making pizza matters.
Free the pizza!
Blaine Parker is the award-winning author of the new, unusual and amusing how-to pizza book, Free The Pizza. Also known as The Pizza Geek and "Hey, Pizza Man!", Blaine is fanatical about the idea that true, professional-quality pizza can be made at home. His home. Your home. Anyone's home. After 20 years of honing his craft and making pizza in standard consumer ovens across the nation, he's sharing what he's learned with home cooks like you. Are you ready to pizza?
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