It's All About Making Pizza In Your Home Oven. So Why Is There Suddenly A Huge-Ass Wood-Fired Beast Involved?
Last weekend, at a small gourmet butcher shop in Park City, Utah, it was a gathering of the pizza tribe. We were slinging pies of all kinds out of a giant, wood-fired oven. It was glorious. But…
If Free The Pizza is focusing on the simple joy of the home oven, why this wood-fueled monster? The lesson is simple: once you start practicing and understanding pizza, you realize that it’s about neither the oven nor the fuel.
It’s about having Pizza Mind. Pizza Mind lets you make pizza just about anywhere there’s any oven.
And why a butcher shop? That’s because chef John Courtney, co-founder of the joint, is the Chopped Champion who’s written the foreword that graces the soon-to-be-released book, Free The Pizza: A Simple System For Making Great Pizza Whenever You Want With The Oven You Already Have. John knew The Fabulous Honey Parker and I would be in town, and he said, “Hey, let’s have a party!”
The butcher shop is called Chop Shop Park City. Specializing in extraordinary meats from small farms, it has big, refrigerated cabinets with glass doors where enormous cuts of beef are aging before your eyes. When Chop Shop opened, it was an overnight smash among the foodie faction, with local gourmets flocking to the butcher case, snapping up glorious cuts of beef, pork, lamb and other viands for their home tables.
Why a butcher shop with a wood oven? The oven is for cooking all kinds of tasty things to eat, including the scintillating sandwiches that come sizzling hot for his loyal lunchtimers. John also makes flatbreads, along with a Detroit-style pizza that you’d never guess is gluten free.
But as an amateur pizza guy, the idea of working with a strange wood oven in a strange kitchen that belongs to a celebrity chef whose training is from Michelin-star restaurants in France? Admission: It was daunting. I’d already made a dough that had been fermenting for two days prior to the event. I prepped everything in the kitchen of the friends’ house where Honey and I were staying. That included all slicing, chopping, grating, portioning and pre-cooking for my planned pizzas.
I even went into our storage unit, grabbing a larger peel and a couple of big pizza trays to be sure that I had the equipment required for launching and serving the kinds of pizzas I like making: big, thoughtfully composed American-style pies that are somewhat different from Chop Shop’s smaller, European-style program.
When guests began rolling in the door of Chop Shop, I began stretching dough. Would I be making an embarrassment of myself in front of this excellent chef, his sommelier wife, my own wife the comic novelist who knows her pizza, and all our assembled friends?
It was fantastic. Sure, there were some minor errors. A strange oven and wood fire demanded more attention in a distracting environment where alcohol was involved. Occasionally, my pizzas had a touch more char on one side than the other.
When John generously told me to help myself to his gigantic stash of morels, I assembled a wild-boar salami and morel pizza. And upon launching, I rolled a couple of those magnificent mushrooms onto the floor of the oven and I had to retrieve them.
When assembling the now “legendary” shrimp, garlic and cilantro pizza, I used some colossal shrimp proffered by John. It was a dramatic statement pizza with much bigger shrimp than I’m used to—but it worked brilliantly.
Yes, it was daunting. But that’s the way with any uncharted journey, whether across a new ocean or around a new kitchen. Degrees of courage are required. And a kitchen, while potentially daunting, is unlikely to take down anyone. You can easily command a kitchen more readily than an ocean.
At this party, any errors were minor. People loved it. Everyone had a great time, and the event proved yet again: everyone is happy when they’re eating pizza. Making pizza for friends is easy, fun and fantastic. All it takes is understanding the dynamics, practicing the craft and preparing ahead of time.
Free The Pizza!
The first question you need to ask yourself before buying a pizza oven is this: Do I know how to make pizza? If the answer is no, you don’t know how to make pizza, the best thing I can recommend is to step away from the ovens and step towards your kitchen. It's less expensive than buying an oven. And the pizza you make will be far better than most pizzerias you've been to--and definitely better than any delivery pizza that's been steaming inside a cardboard box for 30 minutes or more.
It’s not sexy, but you’ve already got a pizza oven sitting right there in your kitchen. When you bring the right tools to your home oven, you can make some killer pizza. The trick is this: you need to know what you’re doing. And if you don’t know what you’re doing, and you start messing with little, annoying, hard-to-use pizza ovens, you could learn to hate making pizza and never want to do it again. The joy of pizza is lovely. Burning lots of starter pizzas is not.
It's possible that you’ve been enchanted by the new breed of outdoor pizza ovens. They’re made by companies like Ooni and Rocbox. These ovens can range anywhere from about 300 bucks to over $1,000. They’re usually fired with wood pellets or gas. And they have legions of rabid fans.
Want to know the dirty secret about these ovens? They will not make pizza for you. Just as a $900 camera does not know how take the pictures for you, a $900 oven does not know how to make pizza for you. That’s your job. And the oven doesn’t make it easier to bake a pizza. In fact, if used to the fullest extent of its thermodynamic insanity, it can make baking a pizza one of the most challenging things you’ve ever done. See also: black and charred crusty things.
There's nothing wrong with buying a pizza oven--but it helps if you do it AFTER you've made pizza one of your favorite bad habits. Habits are second nature. They can be practiced almost subconsciously. And you can get there with pizza. Knowing how to make dough without thinking about it, and going into The Zone, slinging half a dozen pies for a night of pizza with friends, is far more impressive than spending money on an oven that you can't use.
Nobody wants to hear it but developing the habit of making pizza is cheaper and easier than buying an oven. Don't buy a pizza oven. Yet. Buy the simple tools for your home oven. Read the right books. Practice the pizza. A dedicated oven can follow. And if you'd like to be on the mailing list for when the Free The Pizza book is released, click here.
Free the pizza!
Why am I sitting in a fantastic New Orleans seafood restaurant, having a thrilling conversation with another guy about kneading pizza dough by hand and boring everyone else at the table all to hell?
Because that’s what making pizza does to you. It gets you engaged, excited and perhaps boring to those around you who don’t share the thrill (but are nonetheless happy to shove your slices into their food holes).
To be specific, we were sitting at the table, awaiting our glorious fish dinners. The subject arose of my forthcoming book, Free The Pizza: A Simple System For Making Great Pizza Whenever You Want With the Oven You Already Have. (Someone else mentioned it. I try to not talk about it.) Another guy at the table was intrigued.
It didn’t take much discussion of pizza for him to start waxing poetic about kneading dough by hand to attain “the zen” of pizza. His words, not mine, but only because I try to resist making this seem in any way religious. (Though, the small “z” zen here is more an adjective related intuition, meditation and perceiving the true nature of things, and less about subscribing to a Buddhist religion. But I digress.)
If you take joy in pizza, and you find a simple thrill in making a pizza that is perfect (knowing, of course, that perfection is unattainable), you begin to take joy in things like kneading by hand. And you talk about it. And you share it as a revelation.
I can’t tell you how often people throw their dough into a stand mixer and let it grind away for far too long. They end up with a hard, chewy pizza that is unsatisfying and might even put them off trying again.
Pursuing the simple things. Kneading by hand. Shredding your own cheese. Shaping your dough with care. Even watching a pizza bake. All of these things are simple good fun, and they all contribute the satisfaction that results from making a pizza that rivals anything you’ve ever had in a restaurant. Most pizzas in this country are made on an assembly line. Very few are made in your own kitchen with love. Free the pizza!
If you want to be notified when the Free The Pizza book becomes available, click here.
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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