So, you’ve purchased, or are considering purchasing, a small outdoor pizza oven? In this guide we take you through everything you need to know when making homemade pizza in these styles of tabletop ovens. Unlike traditional brick pizza ovens, your portable oven is uniquely designed to be compact and affordable. We’ll look into some of the drawbacks , solutions, and tips to yield a restaurant quality pie with ovens like Ooni, Bertello, Camp Chef, Roccbox and others.
“Everyone is ignorant, just on different subjects” the all too true quote of Will Rogers continues to plague the best of us. Just when you think you have something down, some skill mastered, a game changer shows up to remind us that we still have lots to learn. Enter the tabletop pizza oven.
Yes, these are the game changer to homemade pizzas that everyone says they are. And yes, there is still a learning curve, even if you have spent time with a classic brick wood fired dome oven. The heat characteristics and small cooking environment are just different enough to throw a whole new paradigm your way. Our goal here is to help you avoid some of the pitfalls and to accelerate your learning curve to the same speed these ovens are cranking out fully cooked pizzas.
There are really only two steps in the process of using a tabletop pizza oven that allow, much less require, being patient. The obvious first step is making your dough. As we know, and shared with you in our article ‘Specialty dough for pizza ovens’, you should start your dough preparation literally days before cooking day.
The other step of being patient, albeit to a much less degree, is when you pre-heat your oven. Take the time to be sure the unit is heated thoroughly. At this point we encourage you in the strongest of terms to have an infrared thermometer that will scan your cooking surface and chamber. Use it on the hottest portion, usual the back section closest to the flame, focusing much more on the surface temp versus the ambient temp. Be sure the gradient from front to back is minimized in the preheating process to insure more even cooking.
One way to help this is by purchasing a model that comes with a door for the front of the oven. Typically, this is not used during cooking. But it will help with your preheating process by trapping the heat and thereby getting the entire unit up to a more even temp at the beginning of your cooking cycle. Yes, it will still be essential that you turn the pie during cooking, we’re just looking for the best starting point in your process.
Another pizza making tip is about sizing, and patience again. Your oven may say it accommodates a twelve-inch pizza, perhaps through an opening only 12-½” wide. Make it easy on yourself and keep your pies a couple inches smaller than the opening. Inserting, turning and removing will be much safer, and much simpler if you do this. After all, you have the oven fired up and cooking, so make your pies a bit smaller and cook more of them with ease. You’ve got the time.
The target temperature for cooking your pies has a lot of components for you to consider. Many of these portable tabletop pizza ovens are rated to achieve a blazing 900°F plus, and they actually do. That means your thin crust pizza will be done between 90-120 seconds. Everything about your preparation process needs to gear toward having an evenly cooked product at the end of this rapid time frame.
There is nothing wrong with working at slightly slower speeds. Many of your pizza oven manufacturers will recommend, and experienced pizzaiolos agree, working at 750-800°F is just fine. You still get great leoparding on the top crust and a crisp bottom surface, plus your ingredients have more chance to get heated through and your cheese will get a better melt. This is probably the biggest learning curve, or conversely your biggest opportunity to experiment and see what suits your fancy. Enjoy the process of learning this aspect, after all this is supposed to be a fun avocation, and you get to eat the results.
Always be prepared can be a trite adage, but in the pizza game that is your cardinal rule. Obviously if you plan to incorporate a meat product it needs to be fully cooked or cured before adding it as a topping. Having all your toppings cut to size and precooked if they are harder veggies is essential. The build stage for your pie needs to happen quickly to avoid having the dough stick to your working surface.
Much of cooking in general is drying food out while applying heat. What that means in the pizza context is that ingredients with more moisture will take longer to cook. We are focusing on extremely fast and short cook times in theses tabletop pizza ovens, so you need to be very aware of the moisture content of the ingredients being used in the process.
This includes your sauce…which by definition is wet, we get that. You can control how ‘wet’ it is in your preparation process. Drain the ingredients if you are starting with canned tomatoes for instance. If you are cooking them yourself, use the minimum amount of fluid or drain them well before pureeing or incorporating into your sauce. Think this through on all the ingredients as you prepare them. Squeeze extra moisture from blanched veggies and cut your fresh items thin enough to cook to your liking in a fast setting.
Most of us have seen a professional pizza prep line with all the ingredients in individual containers ready to use. In their case this is an indispensable time saver when producing pizzas again and again. For you it is a time saver that expedites getting your pizza from a skin to a pie and into the cooking chamber. On a similar note, get all your equipment out, ready and cleaned for use…your pie can burn in the time it takes to find your hot mitts or such.
Moisture is a factor in the cheese we use as well. Most of your mozzarella is already low moisture. Fresh mozz should be very well drained before using, possibly left overnight in the fridge to dry for a better end result. Oddly, fresh mozzarella sometimes will benefit from being in bigger chunks in order to melt without getting overly scorched. Your other choice may be to add thin slices, held at room temp, placed on the pie immediately after cooking.
Fortunately, there is a great palette of cheeses from Italy that will add huge flavor in small amounts for these fast cook times. Obviously high-quality parmesan and Pecorino Romano are well known choices. Less hard, but with good flavors and a little more melt to them; a good aged asiago cheese, picante provolone, or even fontina. Sneak in a little grated mizithra or cotija cheese to add a tang and stump your guests with a ‘guess that cheese’ round of pizzas.
Setting aside the fermentation process of getting your dough ready to use, the next step is handling the dough on cooking day. A well hydrated dough, slightly moister, is easy to stretch and gets good coloration with a nice chew. It can also be more difficult to work because it wants to stick to things. Your counter, the tabletop or the pizza peel for instance. What’s a poor pizzaiolo to do?
First, we are fans of building the pizza on our peel. Yes, you stretch the dough initially on a work surface, then transfer it to the peel and finish the process. Our preference for this step is a wooden peel, it seems to stay more slippery when the time comes to deliver the pie to the oven. There are more things you can do to enhance the slipperiness.
Well-floured surfaces are the key, and within that parameter you have choices as well. Rice flour is a very slow absorber of moisture which makes it a good anti-sticking agent for your peel. Semola, or it’s more coarse cousin semolina, are both good lubricants for your peel being slower hydrating forms of wheat-based flour. A mix of these with all-purpose flour will work. The super fine aspect of both semola and rice flour means that more of it will be sluffed off in the handling process, yielding a less gritty experience for your pizza diners. Regardless, making sure the surfaces are well coated with flour will make managing your pie much easier.
Back to the process. There are a couple schools of thought when it comes to something as simple as getting your pie off the peel and onto to the stone. Our preference is to get the pie back toward the rear of the oven, and basically slip the peel out from underneath in a quick pulling motion. The counterpoint to that is sliding the pizza off toward the front, then scooting it toward the rear of the oven. If you prefer this method, consider sprinkling a small line of extra flour along the leading edge of your peel to keep the pie slick after it hits the stone. For both techniques, give the pie a little jiggle on the peel beforehand to be sure it is still slippery.
Do not leave. Period. Not only is this process quick, it involves some attentiveness. Plan on turning your pizza at least once, likely twice during this rapid-fire cooking. We actually prefer a slightly smaller metal peel for ease of maneuvering when rotating your pie. Wait a good 30 seconds, this should allow the bottom crust to cook enough to be loose on the stone. Slip the thin metal peel under the pie. Slide it just far enough out of the oven to grab an edge, turn 120-180°F and slip it back in the oven.
We hope you’ve enjoyed this overview of what feel are the most important things to know when it comes to working with a compact oven. Let us know what you’re favorite tips or hacks are in the comments below.