October 4, 2012 |

Wood-Fired Oven Basics

By Pasquale Bruno, Jr.

Several years ago, my wife and I were in a restaurant in Tucson, Arizona. We had heard that the place had really good pizza, so we decided to try it. As it happened, I was sitting where I had a birds-eye view of the oven — a wood-burning oven. I suggested to my wife that we order a couple of appetizers along with a pizza. My wife said, “Why? I thought you weren’t all that hungry?” I said, “There’s no way that we are going to get a pizza too soon out of that oven; the fire is almost out.”

If it had been late into the evening and the restaurant was letting the fire die down I could understand it, but this was around 8 p.m. Admittedly, the place wasn’t too busy that night, but I could see a problem in the making. We ordered appetizers and a pizza. We ate our appetizers and I kept waiting for someone to throw another log on the fire. We finished our appetizers and the fire was still where it was when we first sat down. The server came by and told us that “the pizza was going to be a little while.”

Eventually some more wood went into the oven, and eventually we got our pizza.
My point is that wood-burning ovens can be like two year old kids: temperamental, unpredictable and must always be fed. With wood-burning ovens, there is always something to be done. Stoke the fire, add some wood, rake the ashes, swab down the hearth. The quality of a pizza coming out of a wood-burning oven is in direct proportion to time and effort that goes into it. It takes a real pizzaiolo to make a wood-burning oven worth the cost and effort.

Chicago has a dozen or more restaurants with wood-burning (true wood-burning, not gas-fired) ovens; I have had a pizza (or two) from every one of them. On the whole, I have been pleased, so it’s mostly raves, not rants, concerning those places. And to be honest, today’s restaurant owners that are getting into the wood-burning ovens have a better understanding and respect for how they work.

They’d better. It would be foolish to go with a wood-burning oven (over, say, a deck or a conveyor) and then fall short in using it the way it should be used. Yes, there are wood/gas combo ovens out there, and those should be looked into as well.

I have worked with any number of restaurants that decided to go with a wood-burning oven, so I know what’s involved and what to watch for cost aside. Should you decide that a wood-burning oven is for you and your market then stand by your decision. But you must face other factors and considerations and deal with them square up.

For example, before you do anything, you need to check your local codes as it pertains to venting, oven location, proximity to interior walls and heat exchange. Also, you’ll need to consider the size of the oven relative to number of seats and just how extensive your pizza menu will be. For example, with oven chamber size X, how many pizzas per hour can be produced? Now how does this relate back to the number of seats and the depth of your pizza menu?

In one situation I was brought in to consult after the investors had fired the initial consultant. The size of the oven ordered was way out of proportion to the space involved, to the point where a large portion of the back wall of the building had to be taken down to get the oven into the space and in place. It was a very costly situation.

Then there are a few other matters to be considered: wood storage (inside and outside, away from the elements). What kind of wood works best in a wood-burning oven? My first two choices would be oak and applewood. However, white birch, maple and beech work fine, too. In a nutshell, hardwoods that have been aged for at least six months to one year are the best. Why? Hardwoods, on average, give off three times as much heat as softwoods (pine, fir, cedar). Split logs start easier and burn brighter. Never use pressure treated woods, laminated woods, or firestarters in the oven.

The very idea of a wood-burning oven is to get the oven fired up to 700 F and higher. A wood-fired oven that gets up to 800 to 850 F can turn out a pizza in 2 minutes.
Now, the really good news: a wood-burning oven has the capability of producing some of the best pizzas you will ever taste, provided you understand the way the oven works. Considerations include:

  • Tending and maintaining oven temperature by adding wood as needed
  • Using the right dough formula for this style of oven (see below).
  • Topping placement, such as putting the toppings on sparingly (less tomatoes, less cheese) because the pizza is in the oven for such a short time.
  • Pizza placement in the oven — putting the pizza near, far, or t-h-i-s far from the fire
  • Rotating the pizzas through the oven (clockwise or counterclockwise, your choice) properly
  • Finishing off the pizza by holding it (on the peel) toward the domed top of the oven (where the ambient heat is the hottest).

Having digested all of that, let me add one more, one very critical aspect of working with a wood-burning oven: the dough. All is for naught without a proper dough. And I suggest to you that the dough to be made for use in a wood-burning oven be made with a soft flour (00, for example). A flour low in protein (11 to 12 percent) forms less gluten, provides a crispier crust, and gives that irregular hole structure in the crust that’s so typical of an artisinal pizza (aka Neapolitan style pizza).

But there are options. This recipe in the sidebar works great for just about any oven style, but is ideal for use in wood-burning ovens.

Neapolitan Pizza Dough

Yield: 30 ounces of dough

¼ ounce dry yeast

1 ¼ cups cool (80-90 F) water

2 teaspoons sugar

2 teaspoons salt

2 cups soft flour

2 cups hard flour

Put the yeast in the mixing bowl of a stand mixer. Add water, sugar and salt. Whisk to dissolve. Add the two flours. Mix for 6-8 minutes, until the dough is pliable and cleans the side of the bowl. Cover the mixing bowl with a damp, clean towel. Let rise for one hour.

Divide the dough into three equal size balls. Cover and put in the cooler overnight. Give the dough at least one hour bench time before forming the shells and baking.