December 15, 2014 |

Respecting the Craft: Wood vs. Coal

By Tony Gemignani

wood fired oven

Every time I teach a course at the International School of Pizza I have students ask me if my coal-fired or wood-fired oven is better. After all, Neapolitan, Old-World and artisan-style pizzas are still hot right now and people are still taken in by these styles. For me, though it sounds like an attempt to be diplomatic, both oven types are great. It really depends on the style of pizza you want to sell.

When you think of old-school New York/New Haven-style pizza, like Lombardi’s, Totonno’s, Pepe’s or Sally’s, these pizzerias have coal ovens. Typically these ovens run between 800-1,000 F … sometimes even higher. Specialty cheese like a dry mozzarella, also known as a Caprese loaf, is common. This cheese is typically sliced and applied before the sauce. Common pizzas are tomato pies, clam and garlic, and sausage. When you’re cooking at such a high temperature, even higher than a wood-fired oven, you still have a longer bake time because a coal oven doesn’t have a high flame like a wood-fired oven. The pizza is typically 16 to 18 inches in diameter and is charred yet pliable. It has a slight crispness, with some stability.

A wood-fired oven typically runs between 650 and 900 F. At 900 F, pizzas can cook in 60 to 90 seconds. Fresh mozzarella and buffalo mozz are typically used. The pizzas that come from these ovens are typically 11 to 13 inches in diameter and come out of the ovens charred, soft, delicate and sometimes wet (even soupy at times). They are not recommended for delivery.

When it comes to the price of wood and coal, they are very similar. My coal (anthracite) comes from Pittsburgh, so the fuel cost raises my price. I do like that coal is consistent all year long, unlike wood. When winter comes you need a good wood purveyor that stages, dries, and/or humidifies their wood. Otherwise it could come in wet, which makes it very difficult to cook with.

Both these ovens are considered solid fuel ovens. They can require a type-1 or -2 hood, so keep that in mind because that can get pricy. The size of these ovens vary. A coal oven is two to three times the size of a standard wood oven, so it takes up much more real estate. And these ovens are very heavy, so if you have a basement be careful because they may need to be reengineered and structurally supported. Remember that unless these ovens are built and masoned inside your restaurant they will eventually have to come through your doors, behind counters, etc.

During the buildout at my Slice House in San Francisco I had two ovens delivered on the same day. We had our contractor tear down the front of our building so we could get both ovens in. It was pretty devastating and an added expense, but that was the only way we could do it.

From my knowledge and experience a wood-fired oven is typically about half the price or even a little lower than that of a standard coal oven. A coal oven can hold more pizzas. Both of these ovens put out a lot of heat. The closer they are with the mouth of the oven to an open window or entry is recommended if possible. These styles are here to stay and are getting more and more popular unless air quality restrictions become more strict in specific counties.

RESPECTING THE CRAFT features World Pizza Champion Tony Gemignani, owner of Tony’s Pizza Napoletana in San Francisco and Pizza Rock in Sacramento.  Tony compiles the column with the help of his trusty assistants, Laura Meyer and Thiago Vasconcelos. If you have questions on any kitchen topic ranging from prep to finish, Tony’s your guy. Send questions via Twitter @PizzaToday, Facebook (search: Pizza Today) or e-mail and we’ll pass the best ones on to Tony.