There’s nothing as wholesome and rustic as a homemade pizza cooked to perfection, but any chef will tell you there are a seemingly infinite number of missteps and pitfalls to actually getting it right. If you’ve just picked up an expensive cooker then you need to know the most common wood-fired pizza oven mistakes to avoid.
The most common mistakes that you are likely to make while you’re getting used to a wood-fired pizza oven are using the wrong fuel, heating the oven incorrectly, and not preparing your oven properly before you cook.
If you’re worried about making any of these errors or wondering what’s gone wrong in the past then do not fear – I’ve come up with a list of the worst wood-fired pizza crimes and some simple tips on how to make sure you’re not committing them yourself.
Using A Wood-Fired Pizza Oven
Before we get into the mistakes you want to be avoiding, let’s first have a quick talk about the value that a wood-fired pizza oven brings to the table in the first place – so that you know what you’re aiming for when you cook.
For most people, a wood-fired oven is easily the most authentic and effective way to make a traditional Italian pizza, just like a real nonna would. The idea is that you cook the pizza by first heating the walls and base of the oven itself, which then transfers that blistering warmth quickly and evenly across the dough and toppings all at once.
You’ve probably noticed that proper pizza chefs can throw pizzas in and out of their ovens at breakneck speeds, and that’s all to do with the type of oven they’re using.
The flames themselves add a subtle amount of charring and a smoky flavor that you can’t get in a gas oven, and the extreme heat allows the dough to rise up really quickly so that the crust becomes light and airy. The super-heated base of the oven also perfectly crisps the base of the dough, so you don’t end up with the dreaded soggy bottom.
Traditional vs Modern Wood-Fired Pizza Ovens
Another quick note that you should be aware of is the difference between traditional ovens and the ones that you are much more likely to be using at home.
The pizza ovens of Napoli, which you tend to find in authentic Italian pizzerias around the world, are massive brick domes with large chimneys on top.
They have a huge ceramic stone base on which the chefs throw the pizzas, and the flaming wood sits around the back edges of the whole interior space. They are incredibly hot and can usually cook around three whole pizzas in 60 seconds.
Your oven is probably a lot smaller, but it’s designed to replicate many of the same qualities without taking up as much room.
The size of home wood-fired pizza ovens (and the fact that they’re sometimes made from things like stainless steel rather than brick) mean they don’t retain and transfer high heat as efficiently and consistently, or for as long, as traditional ovens.
You might also have a separate compartment for your fuel, which makes it easier to clean and less dangerous to fill and light. This will also mean, however, you have to be pretty careful about what you’re putting in there to get the best results, and you may need to make some adjustments if you want the perfect level of char.
5 Common Wood-Fired Pizza Oven Mistakes
Now that we know more about what your pizza oven is trying to do, and what you’re aiming for, we can talk about the mistakes you’re probably making already. Don’t worry, I’ve made every mistake on this list at least once – but with a little bit of practice and some know-how, you’ll have golden, charred crusts and soft, chewy toppings in no time.
1. Not Enough Heat
This is the big one. Almost every first-time pizza oven user will underestimate how far in advance you should be lighting the wood, and it’s easy to see why.
Generally speaking, it takes 1-2 hours to get a wood-fired oven up to temperature, and if it’s not hot enough, your pizza will take too long to cook – leaving it doughy, unrisen, and not quite as crispy as you want.
Each dough has a different ideal cooking temperature, but you should be aiming for at least 500 Fahrenheit for a New York pizza, and more than 900 F for a real Neapolitan.
2. The Wrong Fuel
Wood is a tricky beast, as there are so many different kinds and forms it can take. Poplar burns differently from oak, and pellets are nothing like logs. The wrong kind of wood can be too moist and smoky, it can spit and cause irregular burning, or it might not give off enough heat.
I prefer to use small fragments of kiln-dried hardwood. The exact species is up to you, and each one can transfer different flavors through the smoke, but beech, oak, hickory, and birch are all good options.
Manmade fuel or kindling (like paper and plywood) tend to turn to ash too quickly, which won’t produce any heat and give the char a slightly odd flavor.
3. Improperly Building The Fire
Setting fire to the wood might seem like the easiest part of the whole process, but it’s easy to make mistakes here too.
First, build up your logs with enough space between them for the oxygen to fuel the flames – either as a small pyramid or stacked like a log cabin. Then, you can light a small amount of kindling (preferably wood shavings or similar) under the logs, and give them a good amount of time to catch before adding any more.
Don’t overdo it. Too much fuel will be difficult to manage safely, and you won’t get the even level of heat that you’re looking for. Once the wood has started to burn down, make sure you’re clearing out the old ash to stop it from building up underneath and preventing the heat from spreading.
4. No Curing
A brick or clay oven needs to be properly cured before you use it, to make sure that all the moisture has been removed and the entire inside will heat up evenly. Curing involves bringing the oven up to temperature for at least 4 hours a day multiple times.
I would recommend curing your oven over at least 5 days, just to be sure. You can start at around 100 F on the first day, then raise that temperature by another 100 F every day until you reach more than 500 F.
Every oven is a little different, though, so what works for mine won’t necessarily be perfect for yours as well.
5. Imperfect Dough
When everything else is done correctly, then you have to look at your dough rather than the oven. There are so many things that can go wrong with pizza dough, and nobody gets it right on their first go.
If your pizza isn’t coming out crispy despite the oven being at the right temperature, then you might have too much oil or water in the recipe. If you’re not getting a light and airy crust, you might be using poor-quality or out-of-date yeast or flour, you might not be kneading it right, or you might not be letting it proof for long enough!
Ask any Italian and they will tell you: you really should be leaving your dough to proof for at least 24 hours if you want the best results.
Summary: Wood-Fired Pizza Oven Mistakes
So, what are the most common wood-fired pizza oven mistakes you might be making? Well, you might not be letting it heat up for long enough, you might be using the wrong fuel and/or building and lighting your fire incorrectly, or you might not have properly cured your oven before you started. If all else fails, then the problem might lie with the dough, not the equipment!
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