Photos by Josh Keown
“There may be a hundred different stances and sword positions, but you win with just one,” said undefeated Samurai Miyamoto Musashi in 1643. Mushashi would have been a great pizza guy because he described pan pizza to the letter. Every town, village and territory in the world has their own pan pizza style: Chicago style; Sicilian Sfincione; Detroit Red Top; Tuscan Schiacciata; Old Forge style; French Pissaliadiere; Ligurian Pizza all’ Andrea; Philidelphia’s Tomato Pie; the Abruzzan Pizza Rustica from Renaissance times; stuffed pan pizza and pizza Pugliese. Even the centuries-old Chinese Scallion Pizza is baked in metal and some speculate that it was this idea that Marco Polo brought back to Italy to evolve into…(drumroll please) pan pizza!
For 13 years, I have used the 180 seasoned pizza pans in my small place to bake my own Athens-style pizza. Each pan sees action at least twice every day. During the rushes, they get tossed, slammed, slid, stacked and sometimes knocked over which, I will admit, is not a great way to treat the vehicle that crisps my pizza product (but each pan will again eventually don the high protein cloak of cold-fermented dough that it deserves). My pans have straight sides with a “nesting” indentation halfway up to stack the pans very high without harming the dough. I opted for this feature because I only have 1,200 square feet in my pizzeria.
Unlike pan pizzas on the East Coast, ours are not oiled but are just dusted with corn meal. These pans hold the dough crust vertically for a rustic look as it is docked, proofed, sauced, cheesed and topped before heading into our 475 F conveyor ovens. The pan heats up from 390 to 400 F after seven minutes, pushing the crust temperature to 315 F for a nice browning effect. It isn’t as hot as a wood-fired oven but heats up the 19 ounces of proofed dough nicely!
There are as many pizza pan designs as there are styles. If you are buying more than 50 at once, some companies may discount your order or deliver for free. Always ask (I only use credit cards that offer miles also!)
To find the one best pan pizza for your pizzeria, consider these factors:
- Your comfort zone. Are you and your staff willing to enthusiastically craft new pan pizza styles to generate more revenue?
- Your customer. What are they used to? How far can you stretch their culinary comfort zone? u Your market. Who has the best pan pizza in your area? (Be honest.) How can you beat them? These are very personal considerations for you and your pizzeria, but if you wish to take the leap to pan, let’s first concentrate on where the metal hits the road.
- Steel pans. Old-school steel pans are sometimes found in all their black seasoned beauty in the dark corners of used restaurant stores, these are the undisputed kings of golden crispy pizza pan crusts. The steel is strong (but does not conduct heat as quickly as aluminum) and they have better cook-ability and hold the heat longer. With thicker pizzas and larger pans, they don’t have a middle “skip” zone of un-doneness that aluminum pans have because of bending under heat. Some old pan pizzas were made in tin-plated steel pans, but remember that tin melts at 450 F, so these aren’t good for today’s high-heating ovens. I like the steel pans because some high seasoned sides seem to force a nice heat into the upper cornicione, or crust, of the pizza.
- “Nekkid” steel pans. New “bare” steel pans can be cheaper than coated steel pans, but buyer beware: thicker pizza pans with gauges below 16 are getting harder to find these days. If you are buying online, always ask what gauge the pan is. The lower the steel gauge number, the thicker the pan. These new bare steel pans need to be seasoned, which means you crank up your oven and coat each pan with a thin layer of lard, (really old school) vegetable oil or shortening. These have a low smoke point and you must ventilate your place well while doing this all day long until they turn color and eventually get blackened with carbon. (NOTE: never wash seasoned pans or bake with any liquid on the seasoning. If you absolutely have to wash them, use warm water and a weak soap quickly, then rinse and immediately run through another seasoning session.)
- Aluminum pans. Aluminum transfers heat four times faster than steel but I’ve found from personal experience I get a better golden brown crust in a deck oven from the steel. Because non-coated aluminum heats up fast, there is sometimes a “stickability problem.” Large aluminum pans tend to buckle in one corner under brick oven heat and that can affect cooking also.
- Coated pans. Aluminized steel pans offer both the durability and speed at heating up, while the “Anodized” aluminum pans coated with PSTK or pre-seasoned Tuff-kote improve durability and baking performance. These can either be as an electro-chemical process that converts the outside of the pan to aluminum oxide, or through multiple layers of sealant sprayed on an aluminum base that is absorbed into the pores for a tough, non-stick surface. This pan coating comes under numerous names depending on the company but they are all are twice as expensive as “bare” pans and, as I am finding out, will last forever — 11 years and counting for my pizzeria.
As you can see, many options are available for your perfect pizza pan. I’ve barely touched the surface here and most of my information just comes from personal experience. The best pan information will come from the company itself. If you are looking to open a new pizzeria, consider having multiple styles of pizza and don’t forget the pan.
In the next issue, I will delve into the differences in pan pizza dough styles and how the two most important aspects are achieved with the marriage between dough and pan: taste and texture.u
John Gutekanst owns Avalanche Pizza in Athens, Ohio. He is also a speaker at International Pizza Expo and a member of the World Pizza Champions.
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