Ring of Fire: The Thermodynamics of Good Pizza

Ring of Fire: The Thermodynamics of Good Pizza

October 31, 2009
Photo by: Courtesy Kalamazoo Outdoor Gourmet

Although they may look primitive, wood-fired pizza ovens are actually incredibly nuanced cooking instruments. Lighting seasoned wood and positioning it in the rear and to one side of the igloo-shaped structures sets up a complex process. Warm air and smoke make their way from the back of the oven and up the chimney (located near the front of the oven on most models). As the smoke and hot air exits, it creates a vacuum, which draws in fresh air through the mouth of the oven that stokes the fire and creates more heat. At first intermittent and billowy, the exchange becomes a steady flow that lets off a low roar and creates a miniature tornado of blazing-hot air directly above the floor of the oven. As the oven itself warms, it begins to release a slow, steady heat, creating two different cooking zones: a conductive cooking surface on the floor that reaches 650 to 750 degrees and a convective cooking zone of 900-degree air circulating in the dome, above the pizza. This temperature difference is essential for a good pie. The air above the pizza needs to be much hotter than the oven floor to cook the sauce, cheese, and any toppings (traditionally applied raw). The lower-temperature floor cooks the crust thoroughly yet quickly enough that it doesn’t dry out or become tough.

“It is a brilliant, complicated dance,” says John Thess of Mugnaini Imports, a California pizza oven company. “A well-built, well-installed oven allows flame and heat to circulate but keeps hot smoke, which tastes like creosote, away from the food.” Pizza-making is just one of the ways to use these ovens. Mugniani, whose oven components come from Tuscany, Italy, offers cooking classes to its clients, teaching wood-fire enthusiasts how to modulate a pizza oven’s temperature. “Once you understand how to control the heat, you can cook pizza as an appetizer, roast a leg of lamb for dinner, and bake tirimisu cream puffs for dessert,” says Thess.

Fast Delivery: Which Oven Is Right for You?

Muganini Prima 120
1. Mugnaini Prima 120 Along with crafting wonderfully precise modular kits for built-in pizza ovens, Mugnaini offers factory-assembled models that are popular with home and professional cooks alike. ($9,550; mugnaini.com)

Mugnanini Prima 120

2. Chicago Brick Oven Amici Grande This Mario Batali-branded, preassembled oven can cook up to three 12-inch pizzas at once. It has casters that make it a (relative) breeze to move. ($6,457; chicagobrickoven.com)

Kalamazoo Outdoor oven

3. Kalamazoo Outdoor Gourment Artisan Fire Pizza Oven For those who prefer not to use wood, Kalamazoo’s gas-fired oven can be placed on an outdoor countertop. It heats up quickly:  no need to build a fire hours before you want to cook. (From $6,495; kalamazoogourmet.com)

Fontana Forni Gusto

4. Fontana Forni Gusto This cast iron and steel, wood-fired oven heats up quickly and has modern conveniences, such as an interior light and convection fan. ($6,299; fontanaforniusa.com)

This article was first published in Garden Design September/October 2011