The three best holiday gifts for pizza-making newbies that they often won’t buy for themselves. (Hint: one of them is not an oven.)
“Here’s the wrong thing! Merry Christmas!” How do you know you’re buying the right gift for the hobbyist in your life? That’s one of the biggest, hairiest questions when it comes to buying specialty products for a specialized hobby like making pizza.
With pizza, the one question that’s off the table for me is, “What oven should I buy him/her?” Whenever someone asks me what my favorite oven is, I say, “My home oven.” I don’t know why it is, but some people just LOVE hearing that answer. But it’s an easy pick for me.
After learning to make pizza in a 1950s Wedgewood stove; after owning both a half-ton, $7,000 wood-fired dome oven and a $300 pellet-fired outdoor pizza oven; and after making pizza in the home ovens of friends from California to New Hampshire, it’s simple. The home oven can be set up quickly with a steel, gets to about the same temperature as the deck oven in a typical pizzeria, and it’s far easier to use.
So if you have a newbie pizzamaker in your life, scratch the oven off your list. Learning pizza in the home oven is about learning how to make pizza. It’s not about learning how to use a complicated oven. And the real estate in a $300 pellet oven is very small and very cruel. You have to move very fast with efficient movements, you have to keep a tiny fire going, you have to figure out a way to set up all your pizza-making mis en place—in short, it’s a pain in the butt. So my advice is scratch the oven for now.
Here now, the three most useful things that people most resist buying when they start doing pizza. They’re insanely simple. Ready?
1. A baking steel.
2. A wooden pizza peel.
3. A metal pizza peel.
Why do they resist buying these for themselves? I don’t know. Maybe it’s some kind of puritan restraint. Whatever it is, it’s a problem. Restraint leads to a subpar product, impaired performance and money wasted. When you’re trying to do a job that requires specialized tools, it’s often a good idea to invest in the best tools you can afford. And in the case of the tools above, they’re all pretty affordable.
So here now, an explanation: Why each of these items makes an excellent investment and should make you a very happy gift giver.
1. The Baking Steel
This is one of the single most important parts of making pizza: Thermal mass. The home oven is just a metal box with racks in it that gets hot. It has very low thermal mass. That’s the ability of a material to absorb, store and release heat. Without a concentration of high heat beneath the pizza, the physics of pizza is impossible.
The cheap thermal-mass alternative to the baking steel is a ceramic baking stone. Consumer-grade baking stones are of varying quality, and have a well-established reputation for cracking in half under high heat.
I cracked several baking stones before I found one that was seemingly indestructible. It’s made from the same material used in commercial deck ovens. It also doesn’t have as high a thermal mass as steel, yet it costs about the same. With steel, you make a better pizza. The price difference is little enough that I’ve finally removed the stone from my website as a recommended product. It just doesn’t make sense.
Baking steels come in varying thickness. I prefer the 3/8-inch steel because it holds more heat and is better for making multiple pizzas in succession. The 1/4-inch steel is fine, but it takes longer to heat back up when making multiple pizzas. There’s also a half-inch steel out there now. I’ve not used it. I’m concerned that it’s too heavy for my oven rack. And since I haven’t yet used it, I’m hesitant to recommend it.
IMPORTANT NOTE: Measure your oven rack. My preferred steel is 16 inches square. It also won’t fit in all ovens. The oven I have right now (which came with the house) can’t fit a 16-inch steel because there’s a convection fan taking away the space. A 15-inch steel barely fits if I lift the edge of it up onto the back lip of the oven rack. A 14-inch steel fits easily. So get a tape measure before committing to your purchase.
If you want to see the baking steels I recommended, click here.
2. The Wooden Pizza Peel
A wooden peel is the single best tool for launching a raw pizza into a hot oven. I’m also baffled by the resistance to buying one. It might be because most people have no frame of reference for using one. They often try to get away with using a cookie sheet, which is awkward and confidence busting. Assembling the pizza on the peel and then moving it straight into the oven is one of the single most efficient and confidence boosting acts in making pizza.
Granted, I’ve launched pizzas using a sheet of corrugated cardboard. It worked. But when I did it, I also had 20 years and about 1,000 pizzas under my belt. I don’t recommended cardboard for the newbie. The reason wood is so good for this task is it’s slippery. When you dust the peel with semolina or cornmeal, it’s like a little layer of ball bearings underneath the raw pizza. It slides easily and is easier to launch.
The wooden peel is a far better tool for launching than a metal peel. It’s too easy for the raw dough to stick to the metal. That’s why wood is often the choice of professional pizzerias. You will usually see traditional American pizzerias launching their pies with wood and then turning and retrieving them with metal. You can use a wooden peel for turning and retrieval, but the metal peel is better suited to the task. It has a thinner blade and is more like a spatula.
I recommend a 16-inch peel. That’s assuming your oven door is at least 16 inches wide. I recommend that size because as your pizzaiolo improves, making ever bigger pizzas is likely to happen. There’s no need to have a bigger peel. You can’t make a 20-inch pizza in a home oven. (As far as I know.) And a smaller peel will eventually be outgrown.
To see the peel I recommend, click here and scroll down past the steels.
3. The Metal Peel
This is the one item that a lot of pizza peeps wait to purchase. I recommend not waiting for a simple reason: it’s just more efficient. Worrying about whether the wooden peel is clean for working with a baked or parbaked pizza is eliminated. You can start building the next pizza on the wood while the first pizza is baking. The metal peel is easier to slide underneath the pizza—especially if something has happened and the pizza has stuck to the hot steel. It’s just easier, more effective and more efficient.
And again—people resist buying them. After working with only a wooden peel, I quickly got a metal peel as well and was glad for it.
You can see the peel I recommend by clicking here and scrolling past the steels.
These three items are the best way to help a pizza newbie feel good about the work they’re doing. They’re also the way for a beginner to accelerate to the next level of competence. And when you’re eating the pizzas they’re making, you’re going to be glad you did this.
Oh, wait. They don’t yet have a pizza book? I’m opinionated, for sure. But I do believe one of the best beginner guides to making pizza is the award-winning Free The Pizza! (A Simple System For Making Great Pizza Anytime You Want In The Oven You Already Have). It’s the book I wish I’d had when I was starting out, so I decided to write it myself. It’s available here. I will also happily send you an autographed book plate signed for the person you’re giving it to if you simply contact me through the website at 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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