The goal seems simple; make a quality pizza at home. But the hype of all the cool tools, and perhaps the budget to get them, make it seem like such a daunting task. We will help you wander this path, showing you some of the best trails to making a pizza in your trusty conventional oven that most of us already own.
The limitations of a radiant oven come down to two key elements. First, the heat source is generally the bottom element or burner. Second the air is static and doesn’t have any help moving throughout the oven area beyond the natural physics of convection. Let’s look at overcoming these obstacles.
Putting a cookie sheet with beautifully built pizza directly from the counter to the oven will not typically give you the results you want. Most often you will have a soggy bottom part of your crust by the time the toppings have cooked well. If you look at most every cooking device known to the pizza world, they have one thing in common. A solid bottom surface that is hot, often really hot, when you put the uncooked pizza on it. This gives you that well browned bottom surface. thinking that through, the best thing we can do is emulate this aspect, usually by heating a flat area in the oven as a destination spot for our pizza.
The obvious solution is a pizza stone, they are readily available at less than exorbitant prices. Not to worry, there are other options too. When you crank that oven up you can put a large cast iron skillet in there upside down, and size your pizza accordingly to fit that bottom surface. Any oven proof flat bottomed skillet, stove top griddle or very shallow pan can be used this way. A simple baking sheet or shallow pan can serve the same purpose. Don’t use quilted or insulated sheet pans, they are made specifically to minimize the heat transfer to the bottom surface, the opposite of our goal for crispy crust.
We generally like to put the cooking surface in a cold oven so that you only have to wait a couple minutes after the oven reaches temperature to have your hot area ready. If you like to live on the edge, an old bread making tip when you have shiny or light-colored pans is to place the loaves in the cold oven on an upper rack to get a good crustiness while the oven is heating up. This technique works, but has a decent backfire potential in terms of scorching the surface. Judiciously you might explore this alternative by using a thin baking sheet with your fully built pie on it, all started in the cold oven when you turn it on.
In general, we advise leaving your preheated cooking surface in the oven and taking the pizza to the stone as it were. What we mean by that is to build your pizza in one spot and transfer it to the other. Again, there is a device specifically for this, called a peel. You’ve seen them, the very broad flat spatula type thing made of wood or metal often with a long handle.
Again, there are workaround choices. Building your pizza on another movable surface works just fine. Think cutting board or a truly flat baking sheet without sides, or the bottom side of a pot or pan that will sit flat. Building your pie elsewhere then placing it on the hot surface gives you a great shot at a nice crispy crust.
Another tip is to ‘lubricate’ the bottom of your pie. In this case you are using dry lubricants to keep things slippery. Again, thinking back on your pizza experiences, you’ve likely noticed corn meal or some other slightly gritty or powdery stuff on the bottom of your pizza.
Cornmeal is the cheapest, the most common, but also the most noticeable. Plain old flour works quite well, you just want to be certain to get a very even, thin coat so there not large pockets of flour for people to bite into. Semola flour and rice flour are both super fine, slightly less prone to scorching than regular flour, and sluff off well leaving less residual powder. Semolina is somewhere between corn meal and flour, very slippery for the pie to move and becoming more readily available in the market.
Without getting too nerdy, there is this great aspect of cooking called the Maillard reaction. You may not know the name, but you certainly know the results. This is when the sugars and enzymes in food combine with heat to give delightfully browned food from crusts to meat to melted cheeses to fried foods.
You can influence this in the preparation of your dough. A slight bit of sugar for example will give the yeasts something to grow from, as well as providing the caramelization that is part of the Maillard reaction. Oils also help. Olive oil has a relatively low heat tolerance meaning it will add to browning at lower temperatures. We are talking about incorporating oil into your dough, not oiling the bottom of the crust. You can certainly brush oil on the exposed crust on the upper surface for browning and flavor, but on the bottom it will tend to add to sogginess.
The hardest item to make in a conventional oven is the artisan or Neapolitan style thin crust pizzas. These are geared toward the very high temp cooking of fired ovens in 2 minutes or less. About the closest you will come is to preheat your oven to the highest heat available. Then preheat a low sided skillet or griddle on your stove surface over medium high heat. Slide your stretched and topped pizza onto the pan. Let it cook for one minute still on the heat, then put it in your oven for 3-5 minutes. This should give you a somewhat close to wood fired result.
The other option is to understand the limitations and build your pie accordingly. A good American style pie with heavier ingredients and cheese will do well with a 20-30 minute cook time at 400 degrees when you slide the pie onto a preheated surface. Or try a truly deep-dish pie in thinner cooking vessel such as a layer cake pan. Using a slightly heavier crust and ingredients stacked almost an inch deep you will get great results with a 45-60 minute cook time at 350.
Trying to accomplish the current trendy artisan style thin crust pizzas will always be a challenge in standard ovens. While they may be less than ideal, understand that you can still get a great pizza pie to enjoy. Set the right expectations, know your ingredients and utilize the equipment you already have to get really good results. Buon appetito!