Metal Gear

Quality metalware is a must for any pizzeria, but aside from this basic tenet, there are few rules when it comes to choosing the equipment that’s ideal for your operation. What works best for you will depend on your dough and pizza type; your dough making, prepping and pizza assembly process; and your desired end results. We spoke to experts to find out what to look for in the main categories of metalware: pizza and dough proofing pans, cutters, racks and peels.

Panning Out

David Vella, president of Crown Cookware in Toronto—also known as the “pizza pan man”—notes that pans tend to fall into one of two categories: traditional flat varieties and deep-dish. Within these parameters, however, there are seemingly endless variations. “What you use will be determined by what you like, what you want to achieve, what oven you’re using and what market you’re catering to,” Vella explains. He lists the following typical variables in pizza pans:

• Hole patterns. This includes how many holes (if any) you want in the pan and the sizes of the holes. Heavy perforation, found in a screen, creates a toasting effect, while less perforation allows steam to escape from the bottom for a baked finish.

• Shapes and features. For example, the popular cutter pan has a sharper raised edge, allowing pizza makers to toss the dough on top and run a rolling pin over it so that the dough falls easily into the pan. Pizza screens are often used for thin crusts cooked in conventional conveyor ovens. Pans can be round, rectangular or square and come in a range of sizes.

• Special coatings. Anodized pans are treated with a protective film, while nonstick pans prevent unfortunate messes. Owners can prevent sticking on traditional pans through the seasoning process—oil the pan, put it in the oven until the oil smokes, let it cool and repeat (brush or spray a light layer of oil on the pan before use to maintain the seasoning).

Al Roma, president of National Marketing Inc. (NMI) in Livonia, Michigan, agrees that pan selection should be determined by the texture, bake time and crispness level you desire for your pizzas. “In Buffalo, New York, sheet pans are popular, which lends a doughy, breadlike result,” he says. “Jet’s Pizza (jetspizza.com) here in Michigan favors a crispier crust. There isn’t one pan everyone wants—some ask for self-stacking or tapered pans for storage; some want pans with lids; some prefer a screen or disk, or a 1.5”- to 2”-high pan. When possible, a manufacturer can send sample pans for the operator to test.”

For example, a screen or disk (both of which typically have a shorter shelf life than pans) will bake the pizza’s edges and top more thoroughly, but a screen lets more heat through than a disk; either option can work in a deck oven or even a wood-fired operation, says Roma.

Making a Choice

With thousands of varieties of pans to choose from, you can determine which type is right for you by looking at four key factors, according to Lee Ann Kelly, vice president of sales for American Metalcraft in Melrose Park, Illinois. She suggests pizzeria owners consider the following:

• Crust style. For thin pizzas that don’t need raised-side pans, a screen or disk might be a good option; hand-tossed might also use a screen or a pan up to ½” in depth; and thicker or deep-dish pizzas may require a ½”- to 2”-deep pan.

• Oven type. Pizzas made in deck or conveyor ovens might benefit from features such as perforated holes, superperforation (double holes) or anodized pans, which are darker and allow for more efficient cooking.

• Storage. When an operator with minimal storage requires deep-dish pans, a tapered design allows the pans to be nested when not in use.

• Size. Companies offer a range of sizes to accommodate everything from kid-size pizzas (such as a 6”) to massive pies (such as a 28” extra-large or party size).

Oven and pizza type are key factors in determining pan style, agrees Paul Tiffany, head engineer/chef at Lloyd Pans in Spokane Valley, Washington. “Deck ovens, although they don’t need a pan for other than deep-dish pies, can benefit from using a disk, as it allows you to make ahead for the rush without holding on a peel and gives a fine result,” he says. “For conveyor convection ovens, perforated disks and pans allow faster and more uniform heating for greater throughput, and special hole patterns and oven settings can be used to achieve a hearth-baked quality in this type of oven, creating the crispy and unique appearance of a stone hearth-baked pie. A dark finish, helpful in all oven types, is essential in an infrared oven, as it is the only heat-transfer mode available.”

George Franklin, president of Hillside Metal Ware Co. in Union, New Jersey, notes that any pan must be made out of a good heat conductor, and aluminum is top-notch. “But you can also have a steel pan with a black nonstick coating; black absorbs rather than reflects heat, so it helps cook faster and creates a crispier crust, even at a lower temperature,” he says. Deep-dish pans, he adds, are best when they’re stackable for space concerns, and the protective coating on anodized aluminum pans helps prevent the metal from reacting negatively to acidic foods such as cheese or tomatoes. You’ll also want to ask about the weight or gauge of the pan, as this will affect durability. Kelly explains that most pizza pans are 18-gauge, or medium-weight, aluminum, but 14-gauge aluminum can be used for coated or anodized pans; anodized tin-plated steel pans are a less expensive option.

The ideal pan will allow operators to cook at a high heat, so Arlene Saunders, owner of Allied Metal Spinning Corp., suggests a heavy-duty aluminum pan that can withstand temperatures up to 500°F. “The pizza chef must be very selective when choosing pans, because they have different gauges, alloys and tempers,” she explains. “If you buy a low gauge of aluminum, or it’s not the gauge the supplier claims, the pan can warp, and you’ve wasted your money.” She recommends a deep-dish pan for operators who have a hand-tossed crust but use a lot of toppings, while a tapered pan and a nonstick coating can help with easy removal of the pie after baking; screens and perforated disks are better for those who desire a crispier crust.

Holes in the pan, disk or screen create a crispier product because the holes allow the heat to draw the air out of the crust and draw moisture from toppings, says Jeff Dunnigan, manager of culinary research and development for Mazzio’s (mazzios.com), headquartered in Tulsa, Oklahoma. “We use aluminum pans for our thin-crust pizzas, but for our deep-dish pies, we use anodized aluminum and brush on a nonstick coating,” he explains. “We proof dough right in our pans, putting plastic disks between the pans to stack them during the process.” (If you decide to proof dough in the pans you bake in and the pans have holes, buy pans with smaller holes so the dough doesn’t get stuck in the pan as it proofs, Vella suggests.)

Pans made solely for the proofing process can also be utilized; they’re available in aluminum (with or without anodized finishes) or plastic. “Proofing pans can either require a lid to stack when in the cooler or be staggered in diameter to fit inside one another (leaving room for a skin) and proof without the separate lid,” Tiffany says. “If the proofed pie will be made and baked in the same pan, then a preseasoned, dark finish, ready-to-run pan is desirable. Sizes are available for all popular pie diameters.”

“Custom pans can distinguish a pizzeria’s product; they’re great for independents, which compete on quality. To enhance the look and feel of the pizza and to appear more professional, an owner might want a different kind of pan.”
– David Vella, Crown Cookware

Finally, keep in mind that you needn’t go with what is already on the market—some manufacturers create custom pans that are designed to an operator’s specifications. “Custom pans can distinguish a pizzeria’s product; they’re great for independents, which compete on quality,” Vella explains. “To enhance the look and feel of the pizza and to appear more professional, an owner might want a different kind of pan.” The initial costs of custom pans will be a couple hundred dollars, he estimates, but the investment can be a good one—take good care of the pans, and they can last 25 years. As Vella sums up, “A diligent owner will find the pan that gives the bake and taste he wants, because the pan will affect the flavor of the pie.”

On the Rack

Pizza racks can be used to hold dough that is proofing as well as premade pies. “They’re not just space-saving, but handy for prepping,” says Kelly. “You can get your pizza ready and put it on the rack; then, when you get an order, do the final prep and get it into the oven. It’s kind of like a middleman in the kitchen.” Dunnigan’s chain uses the racks to hold proofing dough as well as preprepped pizzas for buffets. In the case of the former, a bag is put over the top of the rack, creating a “proof box” that speeds up proofing time and maintains dough moisture.

Racks can also help out during a pizzeria’s busiest times. “Being able to make pies ahead of time—partially or fully—and hold them for the rush is a big advantage,” says Tiffany. “Vertical storage uses little precious floor space but gives a big boost in leveling out your demand peaks.” Tiffany advises seeking out a rack with an air-blocking cover to prevent crusting and drying.
Racks can offer a variety of additional features to fit your operation. Vella suggests wheels for easy movement and adjustable sides to fit a particular pizzeria’s spacing needs for dough; specialty racks can be designed for transport in vans for special events or catering, or they can have three attached cavities to fit different pizza sizes. “Racks can last a long time and make pizzerias more efficient with space, ultimately enabling you to make more money,” Vella points out. “If you can store dough or pizzas in half of the space, then the one-time $300 to $1,000 investment frees up that space for other equipment to grow the business, like a second oven or a deep fryer.”

Peel Appeal

Peels are available in metal as well as wood, and many find that each has its place in the pizzeria. While chefs often use wooden peels to prepare a pizza, metal peels can be easier for handling pizzas that are already in the oven. Metal peels are sturdier, thinner and easier to slip underneath pans, and they’re also ideal for pizzas made in wood-burning ovens, Kelly notes.

Marco D’Annibale, president of GI.Metal, with U.S. headquarters in Yorkville, Illinois, praises the light weight of aluminum pizza peels, which encourages makers to prepare pizza on a prep table instead of on the peel, and the smoothness with which employees can slide pies in the oven. Mazzio’s employees use metal peels exclusively, thanks to their thinness, quickness and easy-to-handle format; at the company’s second concept, Zio’s (zios.com), which features brick-oven pizzas and calzones, metal peels help transport pies being cooked in very high temperatures. Tiffany adds that metal peels won’t split or splinter and (if made of aluminum) won’t corrode or swell, making them easier to clean. “Most are lighter than wood and more pleasant to use repetitively,” he opines. “They can be purchased with handles of various lengths for any type of oven.”

Metal peels can also be useful for pizzas cooked on screens and disks, and their care—usually a simple wipe-down after use (though they are durable enough to be scrubbed)—is simple and straightforward, says Roma. “Quality aluminum peels can handle pizzas bigger than their size; depending on the pizza style, you can take out an 18” pie with a 12” or 14” peel,” he adds. “But you can buy peels as big at 30”-by-30”.”

Vella notes that basic inexpensive peels are available, but, for greater longevity, owners might consider features such as square handles (making it less likely for the peel to spin in an oven tender’s hand) and replaceable handles in case of damage. “If you spend a little more, your pocketbook might not be happy, but in the long run, you will be happier, because you’re not constantly fixing and replacing,” he concludes.

Making the Cut

Cutters can take the form of rocker knives or traditional wheel cutters—and, like pizza pans, the choice of one type over another is largely based on personal preference. Vella believes the wheeled types show off a more authentic tradition to customers, but many people value the speed with which a rocker knife can slice through a pizza. “Wheel-type cutters are low-cost but make it difficult to get even slices,” says Tiffany. “Rocker knives are a step up in durability and power for heavy-duty cutting but likewise require skill to achieve uniform slices. There are gang rocker knives that produce perfectly even slices without the demand for great skill and are particularly useful in institutional settings, such as school lunch programs where uniformity is crucial.”

Dunnigan agrees that slice guides can be useful for school lunch programs, where nutritional content is closely watched, or even in traditional pizzeria settings for consistency.

When determining what option is right for you, evaluate your crust style, toppings and employees’ habits. Bertaglia says that cutter wheels easily go through finished pies and cut very quickly, while rocker knives are ideal for deep-dish pizzas. Kelly believes that, for speed and crispier crusts, rocker knives can be a great option, while a cutter might work better for a thin-crust or hand-tossed style. “Look for those that maintain their sharpness and those for which you can change out components,” Kelly recommends. “The nut that holds the blade in place, after constant pressure, can wear down.” She recommends stainless steel blades for their easy cleaning and maintenance.

Regardless of which type is used, Roma stresses the importance of keeping those blades sharp. “A stainless knife or blade can be sharpened, which is crucial because there’s nothing worse than when a customer can’t separate the pizza slices,” he laughs. “A dull blade won’t work!”

Tracy Morin is PMQ’s senior copy editor.