What's definitively the best way to make a pizza? In an 800 F wood-fired oven. The insanely high heat cooks the pie and produces the blistered, perfectly crispy crust that makes pizza so good—all in less than two minutes.
The difference isn't just the temperature of the oven, but also of the baking surface itself—the "floor" of the oven. A hot oven makes a hot oven floor and a hot oven floor bakes a crispy crust. This bottom heat also radiates upward through the pizza, so that the cheese and other toppings are cooked both by the hot air above it and the heat from underneath.
This is all well and good, but we home cooks don't have have a wood-fired oven sitting in our kitchens. Does that mean you should give up on making homemade pizza? No way! There's an easy and inexpensive tool that can help reproduce the conditions of a wood-fired oven in your regular kitchen oven: a pizza stone.
But First, What Exactly Is a Pizza Stone?
A pizza stone is a flat slab of stone or ceramic that sits inside on your oven rack, where it soaks up and, more importantly, holds onto heat. Because unbaked pizza dough rests directly on it, the hot stone transmits its heat to the bottom of the crust, just like the floor of a wood-fired oven.
Pizza stones are a subset of what's known broadly as baking stones. The main difference is that a pizza stone might be round, whereas a baking stone is probably rectangular. Basically, all pizza stones are baking stones, but not all baking stones are pizza stones. But you can certainly use a rectangular baking stone for pizza.
Different thicknesses are available and the thicker ones work better and are generally more durable, but they're more expensive and take longer to heat up.
How It Works
Most of what a pizza stone does is transmit heat to the dough from underneath it. You may hear that a pizza stone produces a crispy bottom because its porous surface "absorbs moisture," but this isn't quite true. When dough is heated to 500 F, it isn't absorbing any moisture at all because liquids are rapidly being converted into steam and evaporating.
Where porousness does become a factor is that—unlike a metal baking pan—a pizza stone's tiny cracks and crevices allow the evaporating steam to escape better than a metal pan. Ultrasmooth metals surfaces tend to trap moisture, leading to a soggy crust rather than a dry, crispy one.
But mostly, a pizza stone works because it just gets really hot.
How to Use a Pizza Stone
To use a pizza stone for baking pizza, follow these steps:
- Place your pizza stone in a cold oven.
- Preheat to 500 F. Once the oven is preheated, so is the stone.
- Slide the pizza onto the stone.
- Bake until cheese is lightly browned.
- Remove the pizza and turn off the oven.
- When cool, brush the stone, don't wash it.
Caring for Your Pizza Stone
Different manufacturers will offer their own specific guidelines, but in general, what you want to do is keep it dry and store it in the oven.
Pizza stones are susceptible to what's called "thermal shock," wherein rapid temperature changes (like going straight from a hot oven to a cold countertop) can cause it to crack. (Indeed, cooking a frozen pizza on a pizza stone is another no-no.) Likewise, adding a cold stone to a hot oven can also cause it to crack. The obvious solution, then, is to never take it out of the oven.
This might seem extreme, but if you bake enough pizzas to need a pizza stone in the first place, it kind of makes sense.
Another reason to store your pizza stone in the oven is that it will help equalize the oven's heat, minimizing so-called "hot spots." The disadvantage is that keeping the pizza stone in your oven will make preheating take longer.
Still: You've got to keep it somewhere. And leaving it in the oven means you don't have to worry about sudden temperature changes; you won't be tempted to wash it; and if you never try to move it, there's no way you'll ever drop it.
After all, dropping a pizza stone on your toe is not just bad for your pizza stone.
Other Uses for a Pizza Stone
There's a common notion (and it's not entirely unreasonable) that any kitchen tool must be able to perform a variety of additional functions beyond what its name suggests.
Thus, to justify its existence, a pair of tongs also needs to be able to juice a lime and a Bundt pan isn't worth buying unless you can also roast a chicken in it.
There are indeed a lot of things you can do with a pizza stone besides bake pizza, but does that mean you should? Keep in mind that just because it's made of stone doesn't mean it's indestructible. Pizza stones can and do crack. And the fact is, some ways of using a pizza stone make that more likely than others.
Take, for instance, searing a steak or roasting vegetables. Both of these will work fine as far as the vegetables or steak are concerned. But the problem is that the oils and fats from the food will soak into the stone and make cracking more likely. Similarly, after you cook a steak on it, you'll need to wash it, which is another no-no. Not only does absorbed moisture lead to cracking, the stone will also absorb detergent.
On the other hand, definitely use your pizza stone for baking bread (especially flatbreads, like pita bread and English muffins), homemade crackers and quesadillas.