Penny Wise and Pound Foolish

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A fundamental truth about me that you may have picked up on is that I love pizza.

In fact I’m obsessed with pizza.

There is something elemental about the satisfaction of sinking your teeth through a thin veneer of crispy charred crust encompassing a springy and open crumb redolent with sourdough aroma, topped with a bright , acidic, and sweet tomato sauce, and mixed with a scant amount of high butterfat Buffola mozzarella and a drizzle of green olive oil. It just kills me, and it always will.

Early on in this blog I promised to share my pizza making method. But I haven’t yet. And you may be wondering why.

And the answer is simple. My oven broke. Or more specifically my oven got fixed.

You see, anyone who knows anything about pizza will tell you that there are four essential ingredients to a great pie. They are, in descending order of importance:

1. High heat.

2. Slow fermentation, (preferably with a wild sourdough starter.)

3. A high hydration dough with good gluten structure.

And

4. Good ingredients.

And by far the most important factor is number one, high heat. Which is a constant struggle for a person with a conventional oven.

550° is not “High heat.” It is not even close. In pizza terms 550° is like a lukewarm hot tub that starts making you feel clammy and cool the minute you get into it.

Which brings me to oven hacking.

The classic oven hack is to clip off your doorlock and cook your pizza on cleaning cycle (about 900°.)

And I tried that simple hack. But my oven is a fancy Viking Professional number. And it is smarter than me. And it automatically shuts off the heating element on cleaning cycle whenever I open the door.

So then I experimented with an “oven within an oven” concept making a separate chamber within my oven out of firebricks. This allowed me to creep just past 600 for my stone temperature. Not nearly enough.

The next step was creating “ice sleeves.” These were nifty little condom like devices fashioned from wet paper towel and insulating tape and tinfoil that I would slide over my thermostat whenever the oven turned off at high temperatures.

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Ice Sleeves = Better Pizzamaking

Which unintentionally led to my final strategy. The broken thermostat.

Which was a giant leap forward. Once the thermostat broke I could turn my oven on to virtually any temperature, and it would not turn off until it reached a stone temperature of at least 750°.

Sure, the oven became unusable for baking cookies or turkeys or anything else. But that’s not the point.

The important thing was that I needed only to turn my oven on and I would have a blazing inferno ready for 1 to 3 minute pizza pies a mere 45 minutes later.

And so for the last four years that’s what I did. I made good pizzas. And It was great. No complaints.

Our social life was largely inviting friends over for pizza. And it was fun and delicious.

But then a couple of months ago I turned on my oven and it only went to 200.

It was broken. And not in the good way.

And so we called the oven repair man.

And for $500 he pulled out a bunch of little melted bits from the inside of my oven circuitry and replaced a number of parts including the thermostat.

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Little melted bits pulled from my oven

And now it turns off at 550° again.
And after discussing the options with my wife, it has been decided that there’ll be no more oven hacking.

So the only real option now is to build an outdoor woodfired pizza oven. And this will happen, for it must.

But until then you’re on your own.

If you’re truly interested in embarking on your own pizza quest in the meantime, a good place to start is over at pizzamaking.com on their forum. There are a lot of smart pizza obsessives over there.

But beware. The search for great pizza is not unlike Capt. Ahab’s search for Moby Dick. It is fraught with risk.

(A.k.a. if your house burns down, don’t blame me, I’m only a doctor.)

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10 Responses to “Penny Wise and Pound Foolish”

  1. Maverick March 14, 2014 at 12:58 pm #

    Uh, yeah, you are obsessed with pizza. :)
    I’d love to be able to bake my pizza at high heat also, but I will not ruin my vintage Chambers range. Will wait for your next pizza blog entry…soon I hope!

  2. Miles Dividend M.D. March 14, 2014 at 1:25 pm #

    Mav,

    Guilty as charged.

    Is it weird that I’m jealous of cheap GE ovens that need to only have their door lock clipped off In order to reach a reasonable temperature for cooking pizza?

    AZ

  3. G-dog June 15, 2014 at 12:03 pm #

    I make homemade pizza in a standard oven with a pizza stone (no other options). So, why is great pizza not possible at ~550F? What am I missing?
    I think my pizza is pretty damn great! Still better than any purchased pizza – but if it could be better…
    Maybe what you need is a kiln 😉 ?

    • Miles Dividend M.D. June 15, 2014 at 11:30 pm #

      I can believe that your pizza is very good. (And I will try it any time (after 6:00 of course) and give you honest feedback for free!) But at 550 great pizza is exceedingly rare. You must do crazy things like put a preheated upside down cast iron pan right beneath the broiler and get the pizza onto it and fully baked before the thermostat shuts off the broiler. Consistency is virtually impossible under such conditions.

      At 600 the crust starts to get some char.

      At 700 you get oven spring with a rapid rise of the rim with a thin veneer of crunch.

      At 800 the crust gets softer and more blistered and more neapolitan tasting, and less crunchy.

      My favorite is a 120-150 second bake at 725-750.

      Just trust me on this one….

  4. G-dog June 23, 2014 at 6:07 pm #

    I definitely get char, not sure I get the rise you get or the ” softening”. Not sure how much I adjust by using a wetter dough…
    Still damn good though. I like the cheese to get brown and bubbly – do you get that at the ultra high heat?
    Mmmm…. Pizza!!!

    • Miles Dividend M.D. June 25, 2014 at 5:13 pm #

      G dog,

      I think of the bubbly brown cheese as more of a sign of a long bake at a moderate heat like 550.

      My preferred she’s style is when the cheese doesn’t break down, it just softens, and some of the butterfat mixes with the tomato sauce and make some more rich. I think 800-850 Fis just about perfect for this type of cheese and one to 1 1/2 minute bake.

      In terms of hydration I favor the 60% hydration Dough for my pizza.

  5. G-dog June 25, 2014 at 7:45 pm #

    After all this talk of pizza, I had to make some tonight! Started the dough this am with a very loose flour + water + yeast (small amount) like for no knead bread. Mixed in more flour (tried to leave the dough a little wetter) and salt when I got home, knead, brief rise, prep and pizza in baked in 6-8 minutes (way more than your 2-3 minutes). I got some decent spring around the edge, some char — quite tasty! It may not compare to yours, but it is way better than what I can usually buy. I get some melding of cheese and tomatoe sauce good, that is really nice!
    Though, even mediocre pizza is pretty good pizza….. Unless they use fake cheese ….

    • Miles Dividend M.D. June 25, 2014 at 8:40 pm #

      Man,

      That sounds awesome. I completely agree with you that any pizza is good pizza.

      I don’t mind admitting that I enjoy the hell out of a slice of Costco pizza from time to time.

      But your pizza sounds far from mediocre.

      If you want to take your dough to the next level, I would suggest procuring a copy of the book Tartine and focusing on their country loaf recipe the beginning of the book.

      This technique taught me many things including proper sourdough management, proper gluten development with hand kneading, and working with very wet dough (up to 95% hydration).

      Once you get the hang of that, is 60% hydration pizza Dough will be a snap. And the sourdough as just adds so much flavor.

      AZ

  6. Bob Werner February 19, 2015 at 7:27 am #

    Curious if you ever created the outdoor fire oven. There is a local winery here that made their own very simply dome wood fired oven that I think holds two pizzas at a time. I’m not sure their cooking temp. I’ll ask my friend over there next time.

    As I recall my friend made the oven for less that $200.

    I’m curious about the temperature though. Another local restaurant has a very large wood fired oven and I seem to recall their temperatures being in the 1200-1500 F range.

    If you’re interested, I’ll take some pics and ask him about the cost and process.

    • Miles Dividend M.D. February 19, 2015 at 8:52 am #

      Bob,
      It’s on my list of things to do. I really miss making pizza. The usual floor temps for a neapolitan pie are 900-1100 F, with a sub 60 second baking time. The sweet spot for me is about 700-775, with a 2 minute bake time. at that level the dough has good spring but also a crispy veneer of char.

      AZ

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