You Should Probably Buy That Pizza Oven In Your Instagram Feed
Maybe it's this Groundhog Day hamster wheel year of hell, but when I want to really check out, I think about what it would be like to make one thing over and over again until I've mastered it. Like how a pizzaiolo makes pizza.
Sometime last winter in the Before Times (or was it before The Great Pause, as it's being called now?), the mini pizza oven company Ooni began targeting my Instagram feed with posts showing perfectly blistered and bubbly-charred crust pizzas being whisked out of sleek backyard ovens by happy cooks, so I gave in and reached out to the company to send me one its dual-fuel Karu models to test. Then I ordered the gray Roccbox from Gozney.
What followed was a 9-month trail of carbs, and the occasional skillet of wood-roasted mushrooms or steak. I cooked backyard pizza for the kids. I took the ovens on a road trip. I packed them for car camping and on a family beach vacation. I wasn't gentle on them. Here what I tell my friends when they ask: Yes, you should absolutely get one. Which model will depend on whether you like cooking with gas and using a dial to control the heat or whether you have enough time and patience to build and maintain a small wood fire (see below).
Now that we've gotten that out of the way, here are a few things I learned about cooking with outdoor mini pizza ovens. First, don't be a macho heat freak and try to cook pizza at 900 degrees just because the oven will burn that ripping hot. What you need to do is max the machine out in order to heat up the pizza stone and then ease the fire back down to a gentler 700 or so degrees. You want to crisp the bottom and cook the center of the dough through before the flame chars the cheese and top crust. In other words, you're baking, not broiling.
Another thing: You're going to mess up some pies. Dough will tear. Don't overload it with toppings. Sauce and cheese will scorch. There will be casualties. And that's OK. With practice you'll know inherently how much flour to put on the peel and how to do the shimmy-jerk with your wrist to free the dough from the peel and slide it onto the pizza stone. The motion will become as natural as cracking an egg with confidence. Keep tossing. You're awesome.
You can use store-bought dough, but buy the smallest dough balls you can find so they fit the width of the oven with a couple of inches to spare once you've stretched them into circles. And buy or make more dough than you need. Wrap the unused dough balls in plastic wrap and freeze them in a freezer bag for up to a month or so.
After firing dozens of pizzas this year I still haven't totally dialed in my crust, a hybrid recipe riff of a Roberta's recipe that Sam Sifton wrote about a few years back. Lately, I've been experimenting with the addition of a little beer mixed in with the instant yeast to boost the fermentation factor. Try a brown ale to give the dough a malty flavor, and the sugars will also encourage caramelization around the edges of the dough. I'm slowly leveling up to a sourdough starter and will soon christen a new rustic corten steel Stadler Made oven. Engineered by a Dutch designer, it requires smaller pieces of seasoned wood than what's in my woodpile, which means I need to split bigger pieces of oak into smaller pieces. This work is made easier by hammering a log with the flat end of an axe into the blade of a kindling cracker, which is basically the business end of a really sharp axe blade set inside an iron cylinder. This process is even more therapeutic than making pizza.
I'm no Dutch lumberjack or Brooklyn pizzaiolo, but I do know these machines help me turn out excellent pies at home on the regular. You might even say the pizzas are Instagram-worthy.
I fell in love with this 26-pound rectangular marvel of stainless steel and ceramic fiber during the first firing with charcoal and wood. Within 30 minutes, my infrared thermometer clocked the pizza stone at 900 degrees, and after I dialed down the power of the wood flame that licked the roof of the oven and washed over the dough, the machine turned out gorgeously charred pizzas with crispy bottoms and bubbly crusts in less than 90 seconds.
Pros: Lightweight and ideal for wood cooking and flavor. Fires burn hot and clean in the fuel tray.
Cons: The gas burner attachment ($90) is flimsy and doesn't generate enough consistent propane heat on windy days. Also, the oven worked great at home, but it wasn't as dependable or durable on road trips or for camping or tailgating.
Verdict: Buy the Ooni Karu to make killer backyard pies with true wood-fired flavor.
I put Gozney's 44-pound steel, silicone, and stone Roccbox through the same paces as its competition, and its propane-fired, 950-degree energy output is to a bulky restaurant pizza ovens what the computing power of modern smartphones are to those room-sized so-called supercomputers of the 1960s. In other words: the Roccbox is hyper-efficient and powerful. In fact, its gas heat is so powerful that you'll want to lower the flame once you've maxed out the temperature to ensure that the pizzas don't blister too quickly on the top before the interior dough finishes cooking.
Pros: Solid, thick-walled construction, super-stable tripod legs, and a nifty pizza peel.
Cons: Can't compete with Ooni for wood-fired purists. The hopper in the wood burner accessory fills too quickly with ash, clogging airflow, and snuffing out the fire, though a new 2.0 model ($100) promises better results and also accommodates charcoal.
To buy: Gozney Roccbox, $499; gozney.com
Verdict: Buy the dependable, durable Gozney Roccbox to make gas- fired Neapolitan-style pies at home, or at your tailgate or campsite.