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Tips for Cooking Wood Fire Pizza

by Pat Polito
Wood Fired Pizza Oven Sydney

Nothing compares to a traditional wood fired pizza. Cooking with wood delivers flavours and textures that you simply can’t get from a conventional oven. However, using a wood fire alfresco pizza oven is a little more complex than a standard gas or electric oven. It requires practice, attention and instinct.

So let’s have a look at a few tips to help you master the art of cooking wood fired pizzas. But first…

Why is wood fire pizza so good?

Ultimately, it’s all about taste and texture. Wood firing a pizza cooks it very quickly (often under two minutes) at very high temperatures (upwards of 400℃). This delivers flavours and a mouth feel that you can’t get with a conventional oven. The high-heat cooking gives the crust a charred, smokey flavour. And while the crust crisps up, the centre of the base remains light and chewy. In a conventional oven, where pizzas are cooked at lower temperatures, the base and crust take longer to cook and will become more dense and dry.

The high heat of a wood fire oven will also cook toppings like cheese and meats very quickly, allowing them to retain their moisture and freshness. Cheese in particular, an essential ingredient on any pizza, will bubble and melt without getting tough and dry.

All this makes for an incomparable pizza experience that is fresher and lighter than pizzas cooked in standard ovens. But to achieve this pizza perfection, you need to know what you’re doing.

Make the perfect dough

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You can’t have a good pizza without making a great dough. Using a store-bought dough or pizza base in a wood fire oven is just a waste of firewood. For the best results, you have to make a homemade dough from scratch. There are plenty of good pizza dough recipes around the place. It’s always a good idea to do your research and try a few different recipes until you find one you like. You can experiment with different types or blends of flour, change up your sugar-to-salt ratios and experiment with different raising times to achieve the perfect texture.

The dough is quite literally the base of any good pizza, so make sure you take the time to get it right.

Use the best ingredients

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When it comes to wood firing pizza, you should always use the freshest and highest quality ingredients. Because wood pizza ovens cook at such a high temperature, pizzas usually only take one to two minutes to cook. The fast cooking time ensures the ingredients keep their flavour and don’t dry out. In some cases, fresh ingredients like tomato, basil or rocket are added to the pizza after cooking. Since the ingredients are given so little cooking time (or not cooked at all), it’s extra important to only use the best and freshest ingredients, especially when it comes to pizza essentials like cheeses and meats.

Don’t overload the base

When adding ingredients to your pizza base it can be tempting to really pile on the toppings. Bad idea. Overloading the pizza before it goes into the oven increases the risk of the base not cooking properly. Additionally, since you’re aiming for a crispy crust and soft, chewy base, overloading the pizza with toppings can mean you end up with a soggy base that’s difficult and messy to eat. When it comes to wood fired pizzas, remember that less is more.

Get the oven temperature right

Before throwing your pizza in the oven, you want to make sure you have the oven at the right temperature. For cooking pizzas, you want your oven to be at about 350-400℃. There are a few different ways of testing the oven temperature. Some ovens will have a built-in temperature gauge. If not, you can use a hand-held laser thermometer to check the oven’s internal temperature

Once you’ve had a bit of practice with the oven you can start to gauge the temperature by feel. You can also throw a pinch of flour onto the oven floor. For the perfect pizza cooking temperature, the flour should burn and smoke within a couple of seconds.

Once you have the right temperature, position the fire off to one side to make space on the oven floor and help the heat circulate around the oven.

Know how to get the pizza in the oven

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For the inexperienced pizza maker, getting the pizza in the oven can be surprisingly difficult. Rolling the dough too thin, overloading the base or struggling with the pizza peel can make a mess of the pizza before it even gets in the oven. To make this process a little easier, make sure you have all your sauces and toppings ready to go. Roll out and shape the base and add the sauce and ingredients. Make sure your pizza peel is generously floured before trying to slide it under the base. Once the pizza is on the peel, it should just take a deft jerk to slide it onto the oven floor. Try to minimise how much you handle the pizza before it goes in the oven to prevent stretching and mis-shaping.

Don’t forget to turn the pizza

Since the fire should be positioned to one side of the oven, you will need to turn the pizza about half-way through the cooking process: that is, after about 40 seconds to a minute. Slide the peel under the pizza and rotate the base 180 degrees. You should only rotate the pizza, not move it to another part of the oven, otherwise it will cook unevenly.

Don’t overcook the pizza

At temperatures upwards of 400℃ a pizza will cook in under two minutes. That doesn’t leave much room for error. The difference between a perfectly crisp and lightly charred crust and a crunchy black mess can be a matter of seconds. So it’s essential that you don’t overcook the pizza or leave it unattended while it’s in the oven.

Cooking the perfect wood fire pizza is a skill that requires some serious practice. But once you have it mastered, you’ll never look at pizza the same again.