By Pat Teti –
I’ve had the pleasure of using an outdoor pizza oven a couple of times and they are a joy, producing a thin char on dough and cheese that’s not possible in a domestic oven at 500 degrees F. A little bit of open flame can also impart a wonderful smoky flavour. However, they’re expensive in time and/or money, take up a lot of space, and burn a lot of firewood. A typical scenario would be to start a large fire at 3:00 p.m. to pre-heat its large mass and then bake several pizzas starting at 6:00 or 7:00 p.m., followed by a couple loaves of bread or a roast.
Lacking an outdoor wood oven but possessing a perfectly good fire pit, I started re-heating leftover pizza over a campfire several years ago. This is an absolutely heavenly way to heat pizza and other flatbreads because it can produce the high temperature char and impart a smoky wood flavour. Even if you stop reading here, the rest of your gastronomic life could already be changed. Take leftover pizza to your next campfire!
My first method for heating leftover pizza on a campfire was to use a lightweight griddle with a handle that I had extended by several feet. If you can cook over an open fire on the end of a long stick, you’re on your way to being able to bake pizza from scratch in a wood heating stove. The only real difference between this method and baking pizza in a wood-fired pizza oven is that you don’t place the pizza on the floor of the stove. You bake it while holding it inside the stove on the end of a stick with the door open. It’s important to note that an open campfire is not suitable for the initial baking of a pizza because the top won’t get hot enough. However, the inside of a wood stove provides very high baking temperature from the top as well as the bottom. A thin pizza will bake in a couple minutes.
What you need is a front-opening wood heating stove, a chimney that draws well so you don’t smoke up your house, an uncoated stainless steel pizza pan, and a way to safely hold the pizza pan in the stove above the coals. My first pizza pan holder was a lightweight campfire griddle with a home-made extension handle. Now I use a thing that I made from thin steel hardware and a fir pole.
Getting a wood heating stove ready to bake is a lot simpler than preparing an outdoor wood oven. All you have to do is let a load a firewood burn until the flames are nearly gone and you have a good bed of hot coals. This can take less than an hour depending on your firewood and your stove should be good for baking several pizzas.
When you’re ready to bake, sprinkle some cornmeal on the pizza pan, place the dough on it, and add the toppings. Place the pan on your pizza pan holder, open the stove door, and hold the pizza a few inches over the hot coals. Take the pizza out every half minute or so to check. The back of the stove will likely be hotter than the front and you might need to rotate the pan. Bake it until the crust and topping start to scorch. Just like a real wood-fired pizza oven, one of the characteristics of pizza baked this way is that the scorching will be a little uneven. It’s a lot easier to know when pizza is done than when a loaf of bread is done. It’s done as soon as it looks done! Although the stove door has to be left open while baking, a thin pizza should take no more than 2 or 3 minutes.
If you’re making more than one pizza, be sure to close the stove door while getting the next one ready. I’ve made six 10-inch pizzas on one load of coals.
Based on my experience, there’s very little difference between pizza baked this way and one baked in a real wood oven. The very high temperature results in similarly charred edges and distinctive flavour. In theory, you might expect a proper wood-fired pizza oven to bake the bottom crust better because the dough is in contact with preheated stone. However, I’ve found that the intense heat from the coals bakes the dough on the bottom quite well.
You can’t beat an outdoor wood oven as a focal point of gatherings but if you already have a suitable wood heating stove, all you need to create wood oven pizza is a device to safely hold a pizza pan over the coals. All the parts that are exposed to high temperature should be steel and a wooden handle obviously mustn’t be too close to the fire. I made the “hot end” of my pizza pan holder out of 1/8-inch x ¾-inch steel, ¾-inch plumber’s strapping, some nuts and bolts, and baling wire.
Tips for baking pizza in a wood heating stove:
• Spread the coals out evenly before baking.
• Don’t use a pizza pan with a non-stick coating. Your pizza pan will be subjected to temperatures above 1,000 degrees F, far above the maximum temperature of a domestic oven. Non-stick coatings will burn, giving off unhealthy chemicals.
• Don’t use an aluminum pizza pan. Aluminum softens at these temperatures and is not desirable in contact with food anyway.
• Avoid hitting your stove’s firebrick liner.
• For faster and easier baking, keep the crust thin and don’t load up on toppings.
• Use common sense and be safe.
This method can be used for baking any kind of thin bread or other types of grilling. However, do not try to bake or grill anything that could drip or splatter liquids. This could create a fire hazard or damage the firebrick in your stove.
If you would like a more detailed description of my pizza pan holder, contact me at email@example.com.
Pat Teti was a research scientist with the BC government for 18 years and has always enjoyed making things.