A nearly-finished “salad pizza” (my own creation): pesto, caramelized onions, chèvre, topped with a salad of arugula, extra virgin olive oil, lemon juice, salt, pepper, pine nuts, and shaved parmesan
Anyone who knows anything about the near-cultic devotion to the famous “Napolitano” style of pizza-making knows that to make such pizza, you need to spend thousands of dollars to install your own wood-burning oven.
Actually, that’s wrong.
Ever since seeing a write-up on a guy known as the “Pizza Hacker” — who sets up his own little “pop-up” on the streets of San Francisco using a modified 22″ Weber Grill — I began to believe that the people who drop big money into a professionally-made custom oven — something that will (at best) only be used once or twice a month — were actually posers just looking to get in on the next trend.
But I was still pondering the possibility of going the homemade route and spending a little bit of money to make my own free-standing permanent oven in the backyard, believing that I’d never get to the necessary temperatures with anything else.
Most home and even commercial ovens will not produce an authentic pizza the way Giuseppe in Naples makes it. Traditional pizza is made in a wood-burning oven, at a high temperature. Good typical temperature is at least 700F, up to 1000F.
However, recently I learned that if you don’t care about showing off the latest cooking gadget with Coolness Factor, you can make your own wood-burning pizza oven for less than $30, using something you already have (and without permanently modifying it). For me, the Cheapness Factor way offsets any perceived diminution of Coolness.
Because of the high heat, the pizza cooks within a couple minutes, and the dough is crispy, crunchy, and also chewy, especially around the crust, and has just a whiff of smokiness from the wood fire. Without that blast of high heat, pizza cooked in a conventional oven will be more flat and lacking in the textural quality that exemplifies the style.
To make your own oven, you need a charcoal grill. In theory, I’ve heard that a gas grill can be used also.
As you can see from the pictures, my grill shows a lot of use. That’s ok. From the hardware store, you need some bricks and ceramic floor tiles. Ceramic tiles that are “unglazed” are best.
For my big old barbecue grill, I needed six 12-inch floor tiles ($9) and four or five 6-inch floor tiles ($5), and eighteen standard bricks ($12.50). You can play around with the configuration, but the goal is to make a reasonably well-sealed enclosure with adequate cooking surface.
You build your fire underneath (a grill like mine [with doors on the front that provide access to the coals/wood underneath without upsetting the structure above] is best, but as noted, a Weber can also be used) and will need to tend it as you go.
Once you’ve heated coals using a chimney starter and spread them out, you place the grill, and arrange your tiles on the grill surface, which you “surround” with an adequate number of bricks to make a “wall” with a small opening a front for accessing the oven.
Then you close the lid, add more coals and wood and watch the needle on the thermometer climb to a good cooking temperature. The bricks and tile provide a lot of thermal mass, which means they will hold heat for a long time, but it can take up to two hours to reach your desired temperature (N.B.).
We learned through trial and error that leaving an open space without a 6-inch tile in a back corner of the oven helps maintain good heat in the “hood”. We also learned that depending on the intensity of the fire below, you might want to use two tiles stacked together for your primary cooking surface, or alternately, two or more layers of parchment paper for sliding the pizzas. You will need to learn how your oven works best and make provisions for your experimentation.
After two cooking sessions with this thing, I can tell you that you will attain the necessary temperature if you use a combination of coals (to start the fire) and good hardwood (for use during cooking). With adequate wood on hand, reaching temps of 800-900F were well within range and capable of being maintained for adequate time to cook four or more pizzas. On one evening, we cooked 16 pizzas, and on another night, I cooked 8 pizzas.
Also, it seems fairly obvious, but please note that you are dealing with rather high temperatures, and the bricks and tiles (as well as the grill itself) will be exceedingly hot, and therefore dangerous, especially with children nearby. DO NOT permit children to operate the oven or be near it without adult supervision. DO NOT cook in an enclosed or unsafe area. Have a supply of long sturdy tongs, a pizza slide, and oven mitts on hand.
Due to this caution about the extreme heat, it is also important that in arranging the bricks and constructing the oven, you assemble it so that it is sturdy and does not permit movement. You will not want to be rearranging bricks or tiles when the oven is 700-800F.
Once you make your own oven using this method, I think you will be pleased with the result, and find it to be rather versatile and suitable for more than just pizza. Meats would do well roasted in the oven, and yesterday we discovered it works great (at a lower temperature) for baking bread: