What's the best beginner pizzamaker present this Christmas: a tiny, cruel oven for making pizza--or a good book and simple tools that make him look like a pro?
Are you thinking about buying a pizza oven as a gift for someone who’s brand new to pizza?
Here’s a tiny tale about three “first” pizzas.
The first time I made a “pro-quality” pizza was at my home in Los Angeles. We had a vintage 1950s Wedgwood stove that came with the house. It was retro cool.
I had just read Peter Reinhart’s book, American Pie: My Search For The Perfect Pizza. A bought a stone and a peel, and made a pizza using his instructions.
The fact that I was able to make a pizza that was so convincing was astonishing to me.
I'd spent years laboring under the belief that an incredibly hot oven was required. I didn't realize that a home oven was hot enough for making the kind of pizza I enjoy most.
My wife compared it to a long-lost pizza of her youth, one that her family maintains was the best they’d ever had. (My wife grew up in Philly and southern New Jersey—both of them vaunted pizza locales with great pizzamakers and strong opinions.)
The second “first pizza” was baked at 900 degrees in my 1,200-pound Earthstone oven. It was the first time I’d ever been able to get the oven that hot. Getting that professional-grade, wood-burning oven to such a high temp was almost as transformative for me as it was for the pizza. It was possibly the single best pizza I’ve ever made.
The third “first pizza” was the one I made in a tiny, pellet-fired portable oven made of sheet metal. The first pizza was a mess. Getting the oven to temperature was a struggle. Working inside the oven was difficult. The first pizza I produced was the single most unevenly baked pizza I’ve ever made in 20 years of doing this. I was not happy.
My point is this: pizza ovens don’t make pizza. You probably realize that a camera doesn’t take photographs. The photographer does. And if a newbie photographer buys an $8,000 camera, chances are that overwhelm ensues. A pro with a smartphone will take better pictures because he brings knowledge of composition and technique.
Similarly, the pizzamaker brings his expertise to the pizza oven. All the oven does is provide BTUs in the form of conductive, convective and radiant heat. And each style of oven does it differently.
My opinion is not always the most popular. But I believe the home oven is the single easiest and most forgiving pizza oven for a novice. And any novice pizzamaker who thinks a pizza oven is the answer to his pizza prayers is probably going to find himself with an unpleasant surprise.
To that end, if someone is brand new to pizza making, I recommend not buying them the oven they so desperately believe they want.
WARNING: The commentary here is personal opinion only. It is not to be taken as THE pizza gospel. Only my personal pizza gospel. Also, there are affiliate links to aid you in shopping and understanding what I describe. They do not change the price you pay for anything. So, are you ready? (Also, if any of the links don't work, or are trying to ship your product to Central America, let me know.) Let’s dive in…
Giving The Gift That Turns A Home Oven Into A Pizza Oven: Using a home oven for First Pizza is far easier, with a much faster learning curve. The chances for success are much greater.
The way I started making pizza was with a stone, a wooden peel, and Peter Reinhart’s book (mentioned above). And I admit that the book I wrote was inspired by his book.
As Peter does, I strive for context and clear, simple instructions.
He provides much more of the anthropology behind pizza than I do. I provide a little.
He provides many recipes for styles of dough. I provide only one, which is based on the most commonly available flour.
They’re two very different books. His is a tour of pizza from Naples to Northern California, with stops in New York, New Haven, Chicago, Los Angeles and the Pacific Northwest. It’s filled with several dough styles and relevant recipes.
My book is more like a technical manual with jokes in it.
But at their core, each book is looking to get you from zero to pizza.
Whatever book you choose, and there are many to choose from, it should be readable, with plenty of simple instruction about what pizza is, how pizza works, and how to make it. My personal favorites include Peter’s American Pie, Joe Beddia’s Pizza Camp, and Tony Gemignani’s The Pizza Bible.
The monster book is Modernist Pizza. It is three volumes in a steel case, weighs roughly 32 pounds, and is probably the single most comprehensive work on pizza in the world. I do not recommend it for beginners.
For most novices, this book would be like a pizza oven: an exercise in overwhelm. When I ordered it, and it arrived in my home, I looked at it and felt awe. (I’ve recommend it for only one guy I know. He has a PhD in oncology and consults to pharmaceutical companies. He’s also a yachtsman and understands marine navigation. And he’s a Deadhead.)
I admit, I’ve read the entire book. I’ve also written a review of it that’s more than 50,000 words long. I do not encourage you to read it.
BAKING WITH STEEL: I recommend baking on steel, not stone. Baking on ceramic stone works, but the stone doesn’t get as hot and doesn’t transfer heat as well as steel.
Another big problem: cheap baking stones break under high heat. The price of a 15-inch steel can range from just under $100 to over $150, depending on the quality of the steel and the merchant. Since the price of a good, high-end stone is competitive with steel, I suggest steel at the outset.
I admit to having a soft spot in my heart for Andris Lagsdin’s BakingSteel.com. He was one of the very first people to make purpose-designed and manufactured steel plates for baking in a home oven. He used to be a chef, and once ran the pizza program for Todd English at the Figs restaurant in Boston.
Andris also grew up in his father’s steel fabrication business. So you might say that steel is in his blood. Andris’s product is American made, his website is very useful, and he’s a high-energy character who provides good customer service.
Amazon has some less expensive steels from providers like Thermichef and Dough-Joe. I can’t speak to anything other than the fact that they are indeed steel and functional. I’ve interviewed Andris, he’s Mr. Enthusiasm, and he makes me laugh.
IMPORTANT NOTE ABOUT STEEL: MEASURE THE OVEN! Steels come in a range of sizes. I always recommend a 3/8-inch thick steel. It has more mass and is more effective than a 1/4-inch steel. However, steels typically range in size from 14 inches square to 14 x 16 inches to 16 inches square.
I prefer a 16-inch square steel—and I cannot use one in my oven. If I were to try it in my oven, the steel would smash the glass on the oven door. The steel must sit comfortably on the oven rack, and my oven rack will not accommodate anything larger than 15 inches square. (I could use a 14 x 16 steel, but I like to make big pizzas, and I like to make them round.) So measure, measure, measure.
AND FINALLY, THE PEEL—almost the least expensive part of the package, and the one most people are likely to ignore. They’ll say something like, “I’ll wait until I’m sure I want to do this. For now, I can do it without a peel. I’ll just use a cookie sheet!”
I say this as a guy who has used many improvised peels—including a piece of corrugated cardboard: A proper peel is one of those things that can help ensure success. It’s a simple tool that yields many benefits. Just one of them is the decreased likelihood of making the dreaded accidental calzone. Another is increased confidence. A third is it makes you look like a pro for your pizza-eating friends.
I try to use food-service grade products like this whenever possible. I use American Metalcraft metal peels for pizza retrieval. And these days, I use New Star wooden peels for launching. In my experience, the New Star products are less likely to warp or split. (Hey, it’s wood. It happens.) If you want to have only one at this juncture, I say go with the wood. Dusting a wooden peel with semolina makes launching a pizza much easier—both physically and emotionally.
I encourage avoiding the style of perforated metal peel that is so popular these days. Unless the pizzamaker has a significant degree of expertise, this peel can cause problems. People recommend it for both launching and retrieval, which strikes me as a recipe for potential cross contamination. Also, I’ve seen that go wrong. It’s also expensive. I say wood. As a guy who wants only success for your pizzamaker, that’s just my opinion.
So, there you go: the bare essentials package for an aspiring pizzamaker: A good book, a baking steel, and a wooden peel. You can see my entire roster of preferred tools (including many not listed here) at the Pizza Tools page at my website.
FINAL IMPORTANT NOTE: Pizza should be fun. Learning it should be as easy as possible. Everything here is my personal opinion after making pizza for 20 years. And if you click any of the links above and buy anything, I thank you for your support.
Blaine Parker is the award-winning author of the bestselling, 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, pro-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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