Pizza…who doesn’t love it?
Cooking pizza in an outdoor oven has become all the rage for modern chefs and restaurants but, like many things in the food world, it’s really just a case of something very old being made new again.
A cookbook uncovered from the ruins of Pompeii (79AD) includes a recipe for a circular dough topped with chicken, pine kernels, cheese, garlic, mint, pepper, and oil.
Though it’s unclear who invented the word “pizza,” the first documented instance is credited to Gaeta, Italy in 997 AD, but foods similar to pizza have been prepared since the Neolithic age.
The modern versions, using dough, sauce, cheese, and toppings (typically smoked fish), were first served by street vendors to sailors and merchants in the bustling waterfront city of 18th century Naples, Italy (just a half-hour drive from Pompeii).
It was quick to cook, easy to eat on the go, and inexpensive... one of the original "fast foods." Local businessmen would have it brought in from the street to feed hungry workers and, not incidentally, keep them at their work stations, creating the first pizza delivery services (whether they had a 30-minute guarantee or not is unknown...)
These vendors bought their pizzas from “baking houses” where massive stone ovens, heated with wood, had been used to bake bread for hundreds of years.
Fast forward two centuries and Italian Americans arriving in the "new world" began introducing their favorite dishes, like pizzas cooked in brick-built ovens, in corner eateries from New York City to St. Louis.
Today, restaurant pizza sales in the United States are valued at more than $46 billion, and the average American eats a total of 46 slices of pizza a year (some of us, a lot more), totaling a whopping 3 billion pizzas annually.
Modern pizza ovens are smaller and made of lighter materials, allowing anyone to buy (or build) one for their own backyard. If you’ve considered buying your own pizza oven, you’ve likely noticed that there are two distinct options available: wood-fired or gas (propane) fired.
Wood-Fired Pizza Ovens
The history of the stone-built, wood-fired pizza oven, or "Masonry ovens" predates pizza by eons, reaching back as far as ancient Greece where they were used to bake a flatbread called plakountos, the first documented ancestor to modern-day pita bread.
A “wood-fired” pizza oven is exactly what it sounds like. Typically made of brick, stone, or thick metal, it absorbs heat from burning pizza wood and radiates that heat for cooking. Most wood-fired ovens use hardwood, preferably kiln dried, either in sticks or chunks, which are burned in the oven before cooking.
The type and quality of wood that’s used can determine the flavor and quality of the finished pizza. Most cooks prefer hardwoods like apple, cherry, or oak.
Using hardwoods not only creates a hotter flame (and longer-lasting radiant heat) but infuses the pizza’s dough and ingredients with a subtle smokiness that can range from sweet to spicy, depending on the type of pizza wood.
Wood-fired ovens are different in a few specific ways:
Gas or electric ovens work on the same principle as the oven in your own kitchen. Heat is generated and contained, food is added, and heat cooks the food. While, functionally, any oven that contains heat can cook a pizza, gas or electric ovens provide nothing but heat. There are no added flavors or textural interactions between the smoke and the ingredients.
Wood-fired ovens allow for that rustic, smoky, slightly charred crust that many pizza aficionados consider the most distinctive feature of a great pizza. Also, using ambient heat, radiating from pre-heated brick or stone, lends to gentler and more even cooking, so toppings, especially fresh vegetables cook crisp instead of drying out or becoming a soggy mess while retaining both flavor and nutrients.
The single biggest difference between wood-fired or gas-fired pizza ovens is the amount of work involved in preparing the oven to cook. For a wood-fired oven, a fire must be built and maintained.
In a gas or propane pizza oven, it’s simply a matter of flipping a switch and waiting for the oven to reach cooking temperature.
Are the results of a pizza cooked in a traditional wood-fired pizza oven worth the additional work required to make it?
Most pizza cooks and even more pizza fans would answer unequivocally… yes!
In fact, the Associazione Verace Pizza Napoletana (True Neapolitan Pizza Association) in Italy, states among its rules that the use of a wood-fired oven, and only a wood-fired oven, is a requirement for offering an authentic “Neapolitan pizza.”
This is due, in part, to the fact that a wood-fired oven can quickly reach temps up to 700 degrees, allowing pizzas to cook in as little as 90 seconds, which is traditionally how authentic Italian pizza is cooked and served.
Non-wood-burning pizza ovens typically use natural gas or propane to heat, allowing for less pre-heating time. Because of the need for natural gas or propane, these pizza ovens typically require professional installation and maintenance.
Also, they don’t allow for the combination and experimentation with different flavors of pizza wood and various ingredients that result in a truly unique pizza experience.
The fact of the matter is that wood-fired pizza has a vastly superior flavor, texture, and mouthfeel that simply can’t be matched by any other cooking method, while a gas-fired oven really only gets marks for convenience and simplicity of use.
And frankly, if convenience and simplicity are your only concerns, you can always call and order a pizza that's been cooked in a wood-fired oven...
…but where's the fun in that?