There are two kinds of pizza: pizza baked in an electric or gas oven, and pizza baked in a wood-fired oven, which is far superior. Only a wood-fired oven can reach the soaring temperatures required for a properly cooked, slightly charred Neapolitan-style pizza.
Setting up an oven is quicker and easier than you might think, and you'll be amazed by the pizzas that it will yield. You can also use a pizza oven to bake bread and roast meats, fish, and vegetables.
Pizza ovens have circular floors and domed ceilings that reflect the heat down. Because of the circular floor they provide nicely organized workspace: Since pizza baking is a dynamic process, in which the oven door stays open while you add, turn, and remove your pizzas, you have to keep a fire going in the oven or it will cool. The circular floor allows you to simply keep the fire to one side where the roof slopes down, and have most of the floor area free for pizza.
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How to Make Pizza Dough
We'll begin with the dough; making it the traditional way will take about 3 hours, most of which is rising time. If you instead use a bread machine, it will take about 90 minutes. Neapolitans, the masters of pizza baking, say the dough should be made from brewer's yeast, flour, salt, and water. Many people also add a little olive oil.
- 4 cups (1/2 kg) stone-milled flour (bread flour will work perfectly)
- 1 cup (250 ml) warm water
- 1 ounce (30 g) brewer's yeast or 2 teaspoons active dry yeast, dissolved in the water
- 1 tablespoon olive oil
- A pinch of salt
If you are working by hand, make a mound of the flour, scoop a well in the middle, and add the salt and olive oil. Next, mix in the water-yeast mixture, and knead until the dough is smooth and elastic, and comes easily away from the work surface – about 10 minutes, kneading energetically. Shape the dough into a ball, put it into a lightly oiled bowl, cover it with a clean kitchen towel, and put it in a warm place to rise for 2 hours or until doubled in volume. Punch the dough down, knead it briefly, and divide it into 4 balls. Put them on a floured surface, cover them, and let them rise for an hour.
Need more dough? For a dozen dough balls, you'll need 4 1/2 pounds (2 k) of flour, a quart (1 liter) of water, more salt, 1/4 cup olive oil, and 8 teaspoons yeast.Continue to 2 of 7 below.
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Heating the Oven
While the dough is rising, heat your oven: build a fire in the center of the oven floor using several sticks and let it burn; when the oven ceiling reaches a temperature of about 700 F (350 C) the soot will vaporize and a white patch will appear, which will expand, migrating down towards the floor as the oven continues to heat. When all the soot is burned off, the oven is hot enough.
How long does this take? It depends upon the materials used to build the oven and its shape. Rectangular barrel-vault-roofed bread ovens and brick pizza ovens can require as much as 3 hours. A pizza oven built with modern refractory materials will require about 90 minutes to come to temperature.Continue to 3 of 7 below.
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Preparing the Hot Oven
Once the oven is hot, use a long, metal-handled scraper to push the coals to one side of the oven, and brush the ash from the floor with a metal-bristled brush, again attached to a long handle. Some people also swab the floor of the oven with a damp rag, but this removes heat.
To maintain the oven temperature, add a stick (well-seasoned hardwood, 3 inches in diameter and 18 inches long [10 cm by 45 cm]) to the fire every 10 minutes or so. Some pizzaioli also put a small andiron near the coals, to keep one end of the stick raised so it will burn better.
In terms of measuring the temperature, you can buy an infrared thermometer, though the hand is sufficient: put it into the oven, a few inches above the oven floor, and if you can hold it there for more than 2 seconds, add another stick to the fire.
And now, cook your pizza!Continue to 4 of 7 below.
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Shaping the Pizzas
Pizza dough should be shaped into a disk by hand because using a rolling pin will result in a thin, tough disk. Also, work quickly because overhandling will toughen the dough.
Take a ball, leaving the others covered, and put it on a floured work surface. Flour your hands too, and begin spreading it from the center, splaying your fingers and working clockwise; don't touch the rim until the disk is at least 8 inches (20 cm) in diameter. Lift the disk with both hands and flip it, rotating it from one hand to the other, and return it to your work surface, with the unpressed side up. Continue to stretch the dough, leaving the rim a little thicker, until your disk is 12 inches (30 cm) across.
With practice, you'll learn how to stretch the dough with your hands without pressing it down on your work surface, and you may even get to the point of tossing the disc in the air.Continue to 5 of 7 below.
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Topping Your Pizza
The most classic Neapolitan pizza is the Margherita, topped with tomatoes, buffalo-milk mozzarella, and basil; popular tradition attributes it to Raffaele Esposito, who in 1899 selected ingredients in colors of the Italian flag in honor of Queen Margherita di Savoia.
There are, however, a great many other options for pizza toppings, and you are pretty much free to do as you wish. Do keep in mind, however, that less is more; too much topping makes for a heavy pizza.Continue to 6 of 7 below.
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And Put It in the Oven
After slipping your topped pizza onto a lightly floured pizza peel, put the pizza into the oven and give the peel a deft jerk to transfer the pizza from the peel to the floor of the pizza oven. The crust will begin to puff up and cook immediately; after about 40 seconds, slip the peel under the pizza and rotate it 180 degrees to ensure that it cooks evenly. Don't shift it to another part of the oven when you rotate it, lest it burns.
The cooking will be much faster than it is in a kitchen oven – the specifications for the government-certified Vera Pizza Napoletana state that the pizza should be done in 60 to 90 seconds. It will be done when the crust is nicely browned, the cheese is melted, and the other ingredients of the topping are bubbling. If you are making a calzone, don't be surprised if it swells like a football.Continue to 7 of 7 below.
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