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Commercial Hardware and Techniques (part 10) - Cooking with Heat - High-heat ovens and pizza

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4.2. High-heat ovens and pizza

A serious—some might even say OCD—discussion of pizza is clearly a must-have for a cookbook for geeks. I’ve tried to restrain myself from dwelling too much on pizza, but it covers so many variables in cooking: flavor combinations, Maillard reactions, gluten, fermentation, temperature.

If you want to make a crispy thin-crust pizza, a high-heat oven is critical. It takes a sufficiently hot environment to set the outer portions of the pizza dough quickly enough to create the characteristic crispiness and flavors. How hot is hot? The coldest oven I’ve found acceptable for flat-crust pizza was a gas-powered brick oven at 550°F / 290°C, where the pizza was dropped onto the brick floor of the oven.

The better flat-crust pizza I’ve had is cooked either in wood-fired brick ovens or on a grill over wood, at 750°F / 400°C, with parts of the oven pushing 900°F / 480°C. For comparison, my local normal “thick-crust” pizza place runs its oven at 450°F / 230°C in the winter, 350°F / 175°C in the summer. (The oven can’t be run any hotter in summer without the kitchen becoming unbearable.)

By trying various temperatures, I’ve found 600°F / 315°C to be the lower limit for getting a crispy, flavorful crust. At 700°F / 370°C, the crust becomes noticeably better. And at 950°F / 510°C? It takes 45 seconds to cook a pizza. But how can you get these temperatures? Most of us don’t have ovens that normally reach 950°F / 510°C, let alone 700°F / 370°C, and few of us have brick ovens, either. What’s a thin-crust-pizza-loving geek to do? If only there were a flow chart for this...

Decision tree for how to cook a pizza.

High-Heat Methods for Pizza

Charcoal or wood grill method. This is by far the easiest method. Grills fueled by charcoal or wood get hot, easily up into the 800°F / 425°C temperature range. (Propane grills tend to run cooler, even though propane itself technically burns hotter.)



Place a pizza stone on top of the grill and light the fire. Once the grill is good and hot, use a pizza peel (a piece of cardboard works just as well) to transfer the pizza with toppings onto the grill. Depending upon the size of your grill and the size of your pizza, you might be able to cook the pizza directly on top of the grill, sans stone—give both a try!

Superhot cast iron pan method. What if getting a grill isn’t an option for you, as is the case for many apartment dwellers? There are still a few ways left to get up to sufficiently hot temperatures. While most consumer ovens reach only 550°F / 290°C, both the oven’s broiler and the stovetop can reach higher temperatures. Leave an empty cast iron pan on a burner at full throttle and it’ll reach 650°F / 340°C in 5 or 10 minutes. And the infrared radiation from a broiler is even hotter.

Preheat oven to 550°F / 290°C, or as hot as it goes.

Superheated cast iron under broiler.

Heat up cast iron pan on stovetop at maximum heat for at least five minutes.

Place cast iron pan upside down in the oven under a broiler set to high and par-bake the pizza dough until it just begins to brown, about one to two minutes.

Transfer dough to cutting board and add sauce and toppings. Transfer back to cast iron pan and bake until toppings are melted and browned as desired.

If you don’t have a broiler, you can try a doubled-up cast iron pan approach:

Doubled-up cast iron.

Heat up two cast iron pans on maximum heat.

Par-bake the dough, flip it onto a cutting board, add toppings, and return it to the hot cast iron pan.

Cover the first cast iron pan with the second one, preferably using a larger pan so that it doesn’t touch the pizza toppings.

Cleaning cycle method (a.k.a. “oven overclocking”). As we’ve discussed, one of the key variables for good thin-crust pizza is an extremely hot oven. Consumer ovens just don’t get hot enough; 550°F / 290°C is still a good 150–200°F / 80–110°C away from where the “real” thin-crust pizzas are cooked. If only there were a way to hack an oven to get it that hot! It turns out that there is, but it’s dangerous, voids your warranty, and, given that the alternative ways of getting this kind of heat are far, far easier, is really not worth doing. Still, for the sake of my readers, I tried this method, conceived by Jeff Varasano. 

Ovens get a lot hotter—a lot, lot hotter—when they run in the cleaning cycle. The problem is that consumer ovens mechanically lock the door, preventing you from slipping a pizza in and out at those temperatures, and leaving a pizza in for the entire cleaning cycle will result in a most unpleasant burnt taste, to say the least.

Cut or remove the lock, however, and ta-da! You’ve got a superheated oven. After a bit more fiddling and testing, I had an oven that I measured at over 1,000°F / 540°C. The first pizza we tried took a blistering 45 seconds to cook, with the bottom of the crust perfectly crisped and the toppings bubbling and melted.

However, the middle of the pizza—the top portion of the dough and the bottom portions of the sauce—never had a chance to cook, so the 1,000°F / 540°C pizza wasn’t quite right (too hot). Another attempt at around 600°F / 315°C resulted in the opposite outcome: the pizza was good, but it didn’t capture the magic of the crispy thin crust and toasty-brown toppings (too cold). Around 750–800°F / 400–425°C, however, we started getting pizzas that were darn good (just right).

Ovens aren’t designed to have their doors opened when running in the cleaning cycle. Honestly, I don’t recommend this approach. I broke the glass in my oven door and had to “upgrade” it, although it is cool to have bragging rights to an oven sporting a piece of PyroCeram, the same stuff the military used for missile nose cones in the 1950s.

There’s also the issue of how hot the surrounding countertop and cabinetry can get. Commercial stoves are designed for these sorts of temperatures and as a result require a large air gap between the appliance and any combustible materials. Given that an upside-down cast iron pan under a broiler or a wood-fired grill turn out delicious flat-crust pizzas, I’m afraid I have to recommend that you skip the oven overclocking, even if it is fun.

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