Playing with fire: Experts offer their top tips for working with wood-fired pizza ovens

Wood-fired ovens: They may be the most primitive way for man to cook his food, so it’s likely no coincidence that they can give the most mouthwatering, customizable results and offer incredible versatility, creating amazing outcomes on everything from pizzas and breads to vegetable sides, pasta mains and meat-based entrees.

“Before working with wood-fired ovens, we should first identify some of the benefits and reasons for using these types,” notes Oluwakemi Oladipo, an event planner with Annie’s Scrumpchies Events Company in Lagos, Nigeria. “For me, the most important factor is the unique flavor they give your food, and they also help to preserve most of your added ingredients and increase the retention of nutrients. Plus, these ovens can be used for various purposes, such as baking bread, roasting meat and more—while saving energy because they don’t require electricity.”

But wood-fired ovens also demand more knowledge and expertise than a modern model, from painstaking dough production to fine-tuned finishing flourishes. Here, top wood-fired experts share their tips for ensuring the perfect fire-fueled bake.

“If you are not consistently using the same species, size and moisture content in yourwood, it will make baking a pizza difficult.”
—Linda Black, Smokin’ Oak Wood-Fired Pizza

Linda Black

president and operations officer, Smokin’ OakWood-FiredPizza, based inSt. Petersburg, FL, with a location in Ames, IA

A consistent and excellently bakedwood-firedpizza starts well before the pizza is launched into the oven.Awood-firedoven requires artistry and a keen eye on the technical details.It is not like a typical gas oven, where the only action needed is to flip a switch.Awood-firedoven requires constant focus and creating solid procedures for those running the oven. Here are our suggestions:

Consistentwood: Of course,woodis a big deal. If you are not consistently using the same species, size and moisture content in yourwood, it will make baking a pizza difficult. If thewoodis inconsistent, the person operating the oven must spend more time on correcting the oven temperature and holding it there rather than cooking the perfect pizza.Having consistentwoodwill help the oven operator focus on the bake.

The right dough. Not all dough recipes are created equal.Make sure your dough recipe iswood-fired-friendly.A recipe that works in a gas-firedoven will not translate to baking well in awood-firedoven, since awood-firedoven is several hundred degrees hotter and bakes pizzas in less than 90 seconds.An example of this would be the sugar content; sugar helps to brown a crust when baking in a gas oven, but in awood-firedoven, sugar browns much more quickly on the exterior of the crust, which makes the pizza appear fully baked when in reality it isn’t.

By establishing proper procedures, employees can be quickly trained to operate a wood-fired oven. Photo courtesy Smokin’ Oak Wood-Fired Pizza.

Flame height: Most people don’t realize that no matter how hot yourwood-firedoven is, if you don’t have a flame, the pizza won’t bake correctly. Usually, the bottom of the pizza will burn, while the top will still be uncooked.When the floor temperature and flame height are at the optimal temperature and height, you will get a consistent bake.Always measure (and keep a log) to monitor what is working and isn’t working regarding the flame height.Once you find that optimal flame height, document it and develop an appropriate procedure for the oven operators.

Training and procedures: Solid training and procedures must be in place.It does not have to take months to train a very good oven operator.Take away the chance of any potential inconsistencies, and employees can focus on what’s really important, which is to get the perfect bake every time.Have a procedure for starting thefire, what time to start thefire, how muchwoodto use, the size ofthe wood, and the markers of where your temperature should be at certain times.Also make sure to let your oven cool down before you start cooking pizzas for customers. You shouldn’t go from a full-onfiringof the oven to cooking pizzas; give the oven some time to calm down from thefiring!

Customers at Smokin’ Oak Wood-Fired Pizza are privy to all the wood-burning action, thanks to the pizzeria’s open kitchen.

Oluwakemi Oladipo

event planner,Annie’s Scrumpchies Events Company, Lagos, Nigeria

Heat regulation is key. These ovens don’t have any knobs or buttons, so operators must have a unique technique to maintain the right temperature so you don’t burn your food—or turn it to complete ash! I prefer to use what I callthe add/withdrawal method to achieve this. Simply put, I just keep addingwooduntil I achieve the desired temperature or withdraw the wood when things get too hot.

Ensure you have the right type ofwood. I use kiln-driedwood,which should be chopped into the right size; I prefer them to be about 9” to 10” long, with thickness of about 2” to 4”. Other accessories to have in handy include protective gloves, a thermometer and a naturalfirelighter (you could even use newspaper in a pinch!).

Here’s another thing you want to take note of: Observe how thefireis distributed in the oven. You need to know this because you may have to move the food around a bit to achieve a uniform bake or crust. And don’t forget that thewoodshould be a little bit spaced out to allow the air to aid combustion.

Malawi’s Pizza doesn’t just serve up famously delicious wood-fired pies. For every meal an American customer buys, the company donates a nutritious meal to children in the African nation of Malawi.

“Maintaining an even temperature within the core of the oven’s deck and within the ambient dome of the oven is key to producing perfectly prepared pizzas.”
—Kent Andersen, Malawi’s Pizza

Kent Andersen

executive chef,Malawi’s Pizza, Provo, UT, with locations inVirginia, Texas and Utah

The essential element for perfectly cooked pizzas in awood-firedoven is maintaining even temperature throughout the oven.Maintaining an even temperature within the core of the oven’s deck and within the ambient dome of the oven is key to producing perfectly prepared pizzas. Oftentimes, the difference in the deck temperature and the dome temperature within awood-firedoven can vary several hundred degrees, resulting in pizzas that are unevenly cooked.

At Malawi’s Pizza, we use a combination ofwoodand gas to create steady, even heat in the dome and on the deck of our pizza ovens.The optimal internal temperature of our pizza deck is about 480°.At this internal temperature of the pizza deck, the temperature of the ambient dome of the oven is about 760°. Our pizzas spend between 90 to 100 seconds in the oven.

In addition to maintaining the perfect temperature, it’s equally important that the pizza be specifically formulated for the oven that you are using.The key components to formulate are the pizza crust and the cheeses used in the creation of your pizzas. The moisture content in your cheeses will brown differently at different temperatures and in different ovens.Developing even browning of your crust, the toppings, and cheese on your pizzas requires carefully engineering the time, the temperature, and the ingredients you use. There is definitely an art in the development of gourmet pizzas prepared in awood-firedoven!

Tracy Morin is PMQ’s senior copy editor.