Guest post: how to improve your oven for pizza

Pita bread and pizza stone

Do you ever fantasize about what type of house you’d want to live in if you had access to an unlimited amount of money? Something that you would like to have, if you could and would afford a totally unreasonable luxury? I do, of course; and after careful considerations I have come up with two dreams.

One is a swimming pool – boring, I know, but I just love swimming. I need to sort out the details. I would want a house by the sea, a very warm and calm sea. However an indoors swimming pool makes sense at night or in winter: I’d want some limited winter in my dream world. Or actually, it may well be that my house is close to a very scenic ocean, which produces the most soothing background noise, but makes swimming in the sea a bit tricky. And I can’t rule out the possibility that I am going to learn how to surf and I’d want to live close to a good surf beach – again, not so great for swimming. Anyway. I still need to sort out the details, but swimming pool is totally unreasonable dream number one.

Number two is a pizza oven.

I have always wanted to have one. There is no substitute for a proper pizza oven to have a great pizza, and there is nothing like a great pizza. It is hands down the thing I miss the most of Italy. Such oven belongs to the ‘unreasonable luxury’ world. It is not as expensive as a swimming pool, but running one regularly is a luxury. Those beasts are huge, for one thing, and they need to be heated for hours, so they are just not really compatible with the scales of an average household. I even have a friend who owns one, and we used it once for a party. It was great fun and some hard work. But there are only that many times when I get to invite fifty people. And still, to make really good pizza, you need that proper oven.

So when Heather from Clay Ovens asked me if I would be interested to share with you a few tips on how to build your own stone pizza oven, I could not say no, literally. I had to know more. The Clay Oven Company is a family run business based in London, and they build ovens professionally. They build much more than pizza ovens, actually: I did not realize before how many interesting recipes you can prepare once you have the basic facility of a very hot oven set up and running. Here are the tips they have kindly agreed to share with us. I, for one, can’t wait to try them all.

How to create a stone pizza oven in your own home - provided by Clay Ovens

Domestic ovens, as a rule, just don’t generate enough heat to rival the massive clay
ovens you see in pizzerias. That’s one reason why it is almost impossible to make pizza
that does justice to the crispy, doughy, delicious ones you find all across Italy, from
Napoli to Turin.
But don’t abandon hope just yet, pizza nuts, there is a way to create your own stone
pizza oven in your kitchen, and make sure your pizzas are the best this side of Sicily.
Pizza Stones
Pizza Stones are funnily enough, stone slates that you place your pizza on in the oven
to help generate that stone-baked quality. The slates do this by evenly spreading heat
to the base of the pizza. Here’s what you need to know:

•They vary significantly in price

•It is not as simple as saying the pricier the better, read up before investing

•That said, the very cheapest ones don’t really evenly spread heat and can crack

•While they will make your pizza better, they are nowhere near as good as a stone oven

Modify your oven
The easiest way of creating a stone oven to cook delicious pizza is to adapt your
existing oven. None of the tips below will permanently alter your oven, so you will still
be able to use it normally when pizza isn’t on the menu. This method might require
you to buy a pizza stone to act as your base.

• Measure the dimensions of your oven

• Buy enough unglazed fire bricks to build an enclosure within your oven. This will soak up the heat and radiate it more intensely inside the enclosure

•The bricks must be unglazed. Glazed ones contain lead – and make sure they are fire bricks – also known as refractory bricks

•You can create a floor of bricks on the bottom rack of the oven, but you can

also cover a rack with foil and place a pizza stone on top to act as your base

•Lay the bricks that will make your roof on the top oven rack

•Prop the bricks that make the wall on their side on the base – the walls stay up easier if you use thicker bricks than the ones forming the roof

•Pre-heat the oven to maximum heat and leave the stones to absorb that heat for 30 minutes to an hour

•Make sure your hands are suitably protected when putting the pizza in – it is going to be very hot in there

•Wait around 10 minutes and enjoy the best home-cooked pizza you have ever had

Pita bread

Needless to say, I am already on the hunt for the bricks, now that I know which ones I need. I already own a pizza stone: it did improve my home-made pizza considerably. I did not spend much for it: it was actually sold as a replacement stone for an electric oven dedicated to making pizza. It seems the stone is no longer available, or at least, I could not find it. For more tips on making pizza at home, here is my post on the subject, and have a look at this excellent one by Melissa. Now, getting in touch with Clay Ovens has made me think that my pizza obsession has actually limited me a bit. There is more to pizza in the world of oven-baked food, although everything else comes far behind. One such thing is flatbread.

Cheating, you say? A flatbread counts as pizza? Well, I disagree. I turned to my well leafed copy of Claudia Roden for her tried and tested pita recipe.  Pita breads are ubiquitous here in the UK and normally better avoided. Most of the supermarket varieties manage to concentrate a perfect taste of preservatives with an uncanny tendency to grow mould. This is an easy bread to make at home, it freezes beautifully, and it cooks quickly. The only problem is to get your home oven hot enough to make it puff up properly. All of the above tips are working to this end, so implement as many as you can.

Wholemeal pita bread (baladi bread)

Ingredients:

250 gr wholemeal bread flour

250gr white bread flour

7 gr dried yeast

10gr sugar

about 250 ml water, blood temperature

1 teaspoon salt

about 1 tablespoon olive oil

Method:

Sift together brown and white flour and salt. Fill a glass with 100 ml blood temperature water, add the sugar and yeast to it and mix well; wait a few minutes until the yeast starts to foam slightly. Add the mixture to the flours, then add more water as you mix, until you get a soft, slightly sticky but not wet dough – it took me about another 150 ml of water, but it really depends on the flours. Err on the side of wet if in doubt at this stage. Work it by stretching it and folding it until perfectly uniform (Claudia Roden recommends working it for about 15 mins, but I found this unnecessary, although probably I did put more water than what she recommends, since my dough was quite soft). Cover the surface with olive oil and let it rise in a covered bowl for about 2 hours, until doubled in size. Heat the oven to maximum temperature (see tips above), with your pizza stone it it if you have one – otherwise use a baking sheet. Generously flour a surface, put the ball of dough on it, and cut it into about 10-12 portions. Roll each into a ball, then use the palm of your hand and flour to stretch it into an oblong shape about 1/2 cm thick. Don’t make it too thin nor too thick, aim for a uniform thickness. Cover with a clean towel and let rise for another 20 minutes, while the oven heats up. When the oven is as hot as it goes, take out your pizza stone or baking sheet,  put one or two breads on it, and brush quickly with water. Put back in the oven and don’t open it at all for at least six minutes. The bread will puff up. Make sure you take them out before they take any colour. Proceed with the other breads. If you don’t have a pizza stone it may be harder to make the breads puff up, but you can try this trick: put them on a baking tray, in a very hot oven, and cook them under the grill for a couple of minutes on each side. Make sure they don’t touch the grill as they puff up.

Keep them in a plastic bag until ready to eat them. When reheating pita bread, slightly sprinkle them with water and put them in a very hot oven for a few minutes.

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8 Comments to “Guest post: how to improve your oven for pizza”

  1. A very interesting post! I wish I had a pizza oven.

    Those pita look scrumptious!

    Cheers,

    Rosa

  2. Thanks for all this information. Always wanted a pizza stone but have not bought one yet. That pita looks delicious.

  3. This post was very interesting, thank you. The pita looks delicious too. I agree, no pizza can compare with real Italian pizza made in a pizza oven. My husband’s relatives in Sicily all seem to have a pizza oven and it is not uncommon to have 30 people over and to cook with it constantly… you know how it is. They also make bread in it, lamb dishes and so much more.

    • I so wish I had one of these in my family as well. One of the old nonne in Calabria still makes hand-made bread for the whole extended family once a week with one of them. She certainly saves on gym fees with all that hard work then…

  4. As far as your swimming pool dream, you may want to consider how long you want it to be. Location is certainly important, but if the goal is to have a good swim, in my opinion, length is fundamental. In the house where we lived whan I moved to California, we had a pool, but it was too short to be useful. Also, make sure it comes with a pool maintenance person: keeping a pool in good order is fairly intense. And when you want to know what happens when a buck falls in your pool, ask me. BTW, the place where you’d like to be could be Southern California. When I took my first bread baking class at the SF Baking Institute, we had a session on rigging your oven for sourdough bread. Most of the students were male engineers and they had done interesting experiments with various materials. I have a few thick clay tiles which I use instead of a pizza stones (the ones you can buy here are too thin) and they work great. When I went to buy them at the tile store, it was clear I was not the first one to ask for them for a purpose other than the one for which they had been made. Your description of packaged pita bread is very funny :)

  5. Interesting post! I finally broke down and bought a commercial-grade oven after suffering through a gas-stove that burned everything time and time again. This one is equipped with a steamer (connected to a bottle of purified water) and this is what makes a good crust in the bread. All the tiles I bought previously in the US would break. I am still studying the option of getting this oven for the mountain house. Sounds wonderful.

    • I hope I’ll get a really good oven too sooner or later – my current gas one is so frustrating, and the steamer must really make a difference. About the breaking tiles, I have recently bought a cast iron base (following Melissa’s suggestion): I’d recommend investing money into one of these rather than a pizza stone, since they certainly don’t break, and the results are even better.

  6. This is good idea which you have shared here but i think it require lot of hardwork like first get some bricks and make floor of bricks so as i think it’s time taking task. i would prefer to buy one.

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