Anatomy of a Pizza Oven
Are you thinking about adding an outdoor pizza oven to your back yard living area? If so, then it’s probably a good idea to understand the basics of pizza oven construction. The good news is that the basic design of this type of oven has been the same for generations. Have you seen drawing or pictures of American Civil War cooks baking bread in an earthen oven? What about World War II bakers cooking in makeshift ovens while serving in the Pacific, Africa or anywhere else bread needed to be baked? Think about all of the images you’ve seen with wood fired ovens grills in magazines, books and even movies… it’s the same basic oven.
Before deciding on your pizza oven purchase I suggest that you read over this article and look at the large selection of outdoor pizza ovens available from Outdora.
The Basic Oven
In general, a pizza oven is just an oven. For this conversation I’m going to focus on ovens that feature a dome, a door, a base and a flue as well as some other features. Don’t limit your oven choice to only cooking pizzas! Depending on the size and design of your oven you can cook everything from bread to casseroles and even stews.
How they Work
The traditional design of this oven is straight forward. There is a domed chamber, a door, a flue, a base and a heat source. The dome is insulated which allows for the oven to heat up when a fire is built inside of the chamber. Once the oven reaches a desired temperature the coals are either removed or partially removed. The food to be cooked is then placed inside the hot oven chamber. At this point the door can be closed, slightly closed or even left open. The flue is used to help maintain temps and to allow for some air flow if needed.
Since the temperature is slowly falling you would want to cook different items at different points. At first the oven would be almost white hot inside which would be perfect for crispy pizza crusts and gooey melted cheeses. As the temperatures falls, you can start baking bread or cooking other items. This is a problem for some because it takes a while to bring some ovens up to temperature and the falling temperatures can vary depending on the oven, materials and even weather conditions.
Heat is regulated in two ways. In a standalone oven where the coals are either removed, or partially removed, the heat has built up inside of the oven chamber as well as in the material that the dome is made from. When the coals are removed the internal temperature decreases as your food is cooked. This is often referred to as the “falling temperature” method. The second way to regulate heat is to either leave some of the coals burning in the oven while you cook or to have an additional space on the oven that maintains a steady fire or heat source. Each method is used in conjunction with the doors and flue in an effort to better regulate the internal temperature of the oven chamber.
The dome is the dominant feature. Historically it could be made of mud, rocks, and brick or like material. The design and chosen materials allow for heat to build up as well as provide insulation. The majority of the heat inside of the oven chamber is actually captured by the surface of the chamber wall which then heats the air. This is called refractory cooking. Take a look at your local hardware store or home center for refractory materials ranging from brick and mortar to stones and more. These modern building products are simply newer versions of adobe, clay, rock and dirt used to build domes in the past.
Sure, your oven has to have a base. Keep in mind that the base not only provides a surface in which to cook but it also has to withstand internal temps and a fire being built on top of it. In addition the surface needs to be a smooth as possible to allow for cleaning, moving embers around and for cooking. This will be slightly different in modern ovens that have alternative or offset heat sources.
Today many pizza ovens are fitted with a door on hinges that allows for easy opening and closing. This was not always the case. The function of a hinged door is to help regulate heat and to provide a level of safety. In the past, and with some oven designs today, the door could simply refer to the opening to the chamber.
The flue can come in many forms depending on your pizza oven. It could look like a small smokestack near the top, front or back of your oven. It could even be a simple hole located at the top of the dome or even a series of vents which act as the flue. It all depends on the design and manufacture. What’s important is the purpose of the flue. The flue is used to regulate temperatures, air flow and allow for excess smoke to escape if needed. The flue is often adjustable. The little smokestack, or flue, often has a small piece of metal on a screw hinge that can be slid back and forth in order to open or close the flue. Do you remember the classic Weber grill? On top of the Weber Grill lid was a small vent like flue that could be closed. Most grills, smokers and outdoor ovens are designed with one or more flues. The door can also act as a flue.
Traditionally the heat source for this type of oven is wood and hot embers. With modern oven designs you can also choose propane and other sources of heat. Many designs allow for the use of wood chips and wood pellets. Some designs feature the single chamber method while others include a secondary firebox or heat source. There are many designs to choose from, I suggest going with something that fits your needs, location and level of outdoor cooking desire. If you are not the type of person that enjoys an hour or two of preheating the chamber and then allowing for the falling temperatures to cook your pizza then you might want to consider a more modern design that heats up faster and maintains heat levels efficiently like Earthstone Models available at Outdora.
Here are a few things to consider besides the basic features listed above. I prefer an oven that allows for a water pan. Water adds moisture to the oven chamber which is desired when cooking certain items. This is also essential in slow smoked barbecue cooking. I also would look for a design or oven that allows for the use of racks which opens up the cooking space inside of the chamber. Some ovens are built with rollers so that you can wheel them into place when needed instead of having a permanent structure built next to your patio or deck. Your personal tastes and sense of design will also play a role in choosing which pizza oven best suits your needs.
ABOUT THE AUTHOR
Kent Whitaker, known as The Deck Chef, is a cookbook and culinary writer. His books are available nationally and include Smoke in the Mountains – The Art of Appalachian Barbecue, Checkered Flag Cooking – Tailgating Stock Car Racing and the state by state Hometown Cookbook series which he co-authors with Sheila Simmons. To date the series includes the Tennessee Hometown Cookbook, The Georgia Hometown Cookbook, The Mississippi Hometown Cookbook, Louisiana, Texas and South Carolina.
Kent is the winner of the Emeril Live Barbecue Contest on Food Network and Gold Medal recipient from the American Authors Association in the culinary and cookbook genre. You can contact Kent via email – thedeckchef[at]hotmail[dot]com or visit him online at www.thedeckchef.com.