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Stone

The Pizza Oven -- Does it Matter?

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This stems from a discussion on another thread. You often see a pizza place advertise "wood burning" ovens or "coal".

Does it matter? La Nina points out that the much-ballyhooed DiFara's uses a gas oven. Seems that Mario went with newfangled griddle-pizza when he couldn't put a wood or coal burning oven in his place.

I assume that if the wood or coal is in the oven compartment with the pizza, it will affect the taste and texture. But if it's not, what's the diff?

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But it is, isn't it?

That's what I couldn't figure out from the other thread.

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Wood burning ovens I've seen, the wood is shovelled to the side to make room for the pizza. Same compartment.

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That's what I thought also. But the pictures from the Apizza thread don't seem to have the wood in the oven. And there's this exhange:

Nick: I'll defer to baking experts on this, but my understanding is that it's virtually impossible to satisfy the production requirements of a restaurant using a retained-heat hearth. You've got to have a live fire going. The only question is whether the fire will be in the oven compartment or in a firebox, and I don't really know that it makes a difference as long as the proper temperature is achieved.

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There is disagreement on this issue. I personally do not believe that in the amount of time it takes to bake a pizza there is any significant transfer of flavor from the fuel source to the pizza -- even if it's in the oven compartment. Likewise, with coal-fired pizza ovens ala New Haven, Lombardi's, Patsy's, etc., the fire is not in the actual oven compartment and therefore the fuel itself does not contribute to taste. Theoretically, a powerful enough gas fire or electric coil could produce the same pies. I have seen at least one professional baking text make the claim that you can accomplish anything with gas or electric that you can with wood or coal. I have also heard this from at least one professional baker who has worked with both. As for whether anybody makes a gas or electric oven powerful enough to blast at 800 degrees 24/7, I couldn't say. Nor could I say whether there would have to be some sort of compensation for humidity issues. But in the end heat is heat and the source is not as important as how it's utilized. That, at least, is my understanding.


Steven A. Shaw aka "Fat Guy"
Co-founder, Society for Culinary Arts & Letters, sshaw@egstaff.org
Proud signatory to the eG Ethics code
Director, New Media Studies, International Culinary Center (take my food-blogging course)

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So do you think that those places that make a big deal out of having "coal oven pizza" are just playing on nostalgia? Since coal was the primary fuel when the old places opened 100+ years ago. Or does coal actually give better heat than gas or electric (better = hotter if that's necessary, more even, whatever it takes)?

As I mentioned on that other thread, the two restaurants where I had to tend and cook in wood-fired ovens had the wood burning IN the cooking chamber. In those cases, the food was cooked for a longer time than pizza might be, and did pick up flavor from the smoke. I've always thought that if pizza (or food) picked up flavor from the burning coal (or oil), it would be inedible. Which is why I never understood the supposed charm of the coal oven.

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The charm is the charm of an old-world device, but the practical outcome derives from the combination of intense, dry heat and the properties of the brick/stone hearth.

As far as I know there is no relevant theoretical limit to how hot gas can burn. In other words you should be able to get well above 1000-degrees with gas as your fuel source if you build your oven right.

In terms of wood imparting taste to food, well there certianly is barbecue as proof. In a lot of wood-fired oven situations, however, I get the feeling the ash on the oven floor is contributing a lot more than the actual smoke.


Steven A. Shaw aka "Fat Guy"
Co-founder, Society for Culinary Arts & Letters, sshaw@egstaff.org
Proud signatory to the eG Ethics code
Director, New Media Studies, International Culinary Center (take my food-blogging course)

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Polistina's in New York City used the same Baker's Pride oven. The Garden of Eden downtown uses another type of gas oven -- I can't remember the name off the top of my head (Hearthstone?). They produce excellent technical results.


Steven A. Shaw aka "Fat Guy"
Co-founder, Society for Culinary Arts & Letters, sshaw@egstaff.org
Proud signatory to the eG Ethics code
Director, New Media Studies, International Culinary Center (take my food-blogging course)

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In a wood-fired pizza oven a relatively small fire is kept burning in the back of the oven and keeps the bricks (mass) up to temp. In a bread baking oven the mass is brought up to temp with a good fire which is then allowed to go out, and the damper is closed to retain heat in the oven. In a pizza oven it (the damper) is only partially closed to allow gases from the small fire to escape. In a pizza oven the door opening is always open and needs a fire to keep things up to temp. In a bread baking oven, the opening is closed up after the oven is loaded.

In either case, the bread or pizza is cooked by the heat radiating from the masonry. Though in the case of ovens where pizza and other food is cooked some heat from the fire in the back of the oven may have some effect on flavor. In a well-tended oven though, smoke would not be a part of the flavor as the oven is hot enough that the fire is burning cleanly.

I'd get Pat Manley who's been building ovens for many years to chime in here, but he's in Guatamala right now with his crew building clean burning stoves for the Mayans. I just make the dampers.

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If the fire is in the same compartment, then it does make a difference. This includes heat dynamics, humidity, and some flavour components.

If the heat source is in a different compartment, then I don't see what difference it can make.

I'm always puzzled by Poilane, who emphasises that they use wood burning ovens, but the semi-industrial ovens they use have no connection between the fire and the baking.

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So what produces that charcoal-y, black, slightly charred-tasting business on the bottom of a crust (DiFara doesn't really have that). I always thought it was the masonry the dough was sitting on, like brick...? But that doesn't have much to do with the heat source.

There are those places downtown now - Li'l Frankie's, and that other one - where they make a fuss about having a wood-burning oven, and not only for pizzas...

edit: I don't think that the black char thing is necessarily better - it's different. Sometimes when there's too much of it, it can overpower the other flavors of the pizza...but it can be very good, too.


Edited by La Niña (log)

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Being strictly naive about this, I find it hard to believe that the fuel doesn't make a difference. So much is made of it by pizza houses around the world ! Either this is a perfect example of hype becoming reality, or else there is some mystical characteristic of wood/coal pizza ovens that defies scientific explanation, but that really does make a difference. Please let it be the latter :smile:

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Burning wood produces water vapor. Don't know if it makes any difference, though.

Agreed.

The cooking of the dough and ingredients also releases water vapor, but an 800 degree oven would not likely retain moisture for an appreciable period of time.

I wonder if the moisture differences among various cheeses affect the finished pizza?


Apparently it's easier still to dictate the conversation and in effect, kill the conversation.

rancho gordo

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A couple of years ago I built a wood-fired oven in my back yard. In my oven, the wood burned in the same chamber where the pizza is cooked, as an earlier poster described. From a cold state, it would take a few hours to get it up to temperature. For thin-crust pizzas, I eventually settled on 700 - 740 degrees F as the right temperature range. Once there, I could maintain that temperature for hours with a small fire burning on one side of the oven. My oven came from a kit I purchased from www.earthstoneovens.com - check the website out for more details.

Anyway, about all I can say is that I'm sure the high temperature makes a difference, I'm pretty sure baking right on the tile floor makes a difference, and I think the wood makes a difference - though, as someone else said, it probably makes more of a difference for things that cook longer at lower temperature. And since I've never cooked in an oven like this with a different heat source I can't say anything definitive.

I moved to a new home a few months ago, and had to leave my wood-fired oven behind. :sad: But I liked the thing so much that I'll be building another one in my new backyard this summer.

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The high temperature probably does make a difference. But, I think the significant difference comes from the radiant heat that the surrounding masonry provides to what is being cooked. Rather than the food simply being surrounded by air that is of a certain heat, radiant heat is being provided from the fire that has (previously) heated the the surrounding mass.

In an oven that is getting it's heat from a gas fire for instance, the air is being heated and from that, the food is cooked. The same could be said for an electric heat source or, for that matter, coal which is being burned outside the oven and is merely heating the air that passes through the oven. I think that it's the flow of radiant heat from a hot surface to the food that makes the difference.

The same can be said of cooking in the oven of a wood range where the hot gases are passing by on the outside of the oven, losing their heat to the oven, which in turn provides radiant heat from its surfaces to that which is being cooked inside.

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In my midmarket home gas stove, I use 1.5" thick unglazed ceramic tiles, preheated for an hour at 500 degrees, to make bread. I know that they, and steam in the first ten minutes of baking, are essential to really superior results. Based on this, I tend to believe the idea that the transfer of heat from a massive surface is the key element in good bread, and pizza, baking.

I have this question for the experts: Is the fire and temperature in an oven with a separate firebox easier to control than one in which the fire is built directly in the cooking chamber? Is the successive cooking of foods requiring progressively lower temperatures easier or more difficult when the fire is directly in the cooking chamber?


Who said "There are no three star restaurants, only three star meals"?

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The high temperature probably does make a difference. But, I think the significant difference comes from the radiant heat that the surrounding masonry provides to what is being cooked. Rather than the food simply being surrounded by air that is of a certain heat, radiant heat is being provided from the fire that has (previously) heated the the surrounding mass.

Um. What you talking bout Willis?

What's the diff between food surrounding by 500 deg. air and food being radiated with 500 deg.

Heat is heat, non? A 500 deg. oven (assuming no dead spots) is a 500 deg oven whether heated by coal, wood, or lava, non? (Unless we're talking about "smoke" flavor being imparted by the source, which seems to have been dismissed, although rather quickly.)

I could understand a "dry" heat v. a "moist" heat making a difference. My guess is that the rest is marketing.

Hmm -- Maybe Mario will read this thread and quickly install gas pizza ovens so he can make decent pizza. Unless, of course, he prefers marketing to pizza.


Edited by Stone (log)

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Is the fire and temperature in an oven with a separate firebox easier to control than one in which the fire is built directly in the cooking chamber? Is the successive cooking of foods requiring progressively lower temperatures easier or more difficult when the fire is directly in the cooking chamber?

The fire in a separate firebox is more easily controlled, particularly if there is a grate allowing under-fire air (and its regulation) as well as over-fire air - and its regulation. These, combined with a good firebox design and construction, good wood, and a good damper pretty much ensure success once you get the hang of it.

As far as the temperature in the oven with a separate firebox - that's a different matter. Then it depends on the .......... I give up. I've been doing this for awhile and I just got lost in thought as I began to consider the whole thing. When you attempt to have an efficient transfer of heat from the flue gases to the oven there are lots of variables. It's impossible for me to try to explain here. Also, one has to consider having a good cook top at the same time as having a good oven.

Mainly, you try to get an oven that will have as even a temperature as possible throughout. Even then, in the baking of something you'll probably have to take it out and turn it around at some point because some parts of the oven will be hotter than others. In the case of a pie, you'll have to rotate it. You also try for an oven that maintains an even heat with fluctuations in the output of the firebox; but that is responsive if the fire gets too low and has to be built up. (I'm here speaking of say a 2-3 plus hours of cooking time.)

Considering all this, it's probably easier to bake or roast in a heavy masonry oven (a "white oven") that you build the fire in - once you get the hang of it. And yes, I think (though I have no direct experience) that it's easier to cook foods requiring progressively lower temperatures in a masonry oven that's been fired from within. The mass is there and you'll have a much slower and subtler decline in temp than in an oven of lighter construction that is separately fired.

In looking over some of the recipes and ways of cooking from France and Scandanavia, so much of their present ways are reflections of their past when various things were done as the heat slowly diminished in the mass that surrounded the oven. On my own range, there are times when I'll finish cooking something on the stove top over a "dying fire."

If anyone has an interest in learning to cook with masonry ovens that are fired internally, I'll see if I can get one of my friends to write something here.


Edited by Nickn (log)

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A couple of years ago I built a wood-fired oven in my back yard. - My oven came from a kit I purchased from www.earthstoneovens.com - check the website out for more details.

And as someone who has had pizza from that very same oven, and another egulleteers back yard oven (ReallyNice where are you?) It is, without a doubt, the best pizza I've ever had anywhere. And yes, I've had pizza in Italy (which was excellent). The temp makes a huge difference. The pizzas cook in just a few minutes and are crispy, thin, incredibly good. my fave topping: break an egg on the dough, add red onion, some creme fraiche and some caviar. pull out of oven when egg yolk is still runny. This was an epiphany pizza.


Born Free, Now Expensive

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I could understand a "dry" heat v. a "moist" heat making a difference.  My guess is that the rest is marketing.

duh. everyone knows it's not so much the marketing, but the humidity.

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