Sunday, March 27, 2011

Technique: Cooking Surfaces for Pizza (Part 1)

There’s more to baking pizza than just shoving it into a hot space. That dough needs to sit on top of something. You can cook your pizza on a stone, on a pan, or some special pizza baking device – but are the results different enough to recommend one surface over another? What are those differences?

Whenever someone asks this question, inevitably someone else will say “I use this thing and I love it!” That’s a great endorsement, but it doesn’t offer comparisons. Would you love a different baking surface just as much? Is a cheap alternative just as good – or better – than something more expensive? Does weight, thickness, or mass matter?

I'll be testing a variety of cooking surfaces, one at a time, to see how they perform. To make the test fair, I'll be using the same recipe each time. For baking, the oven will be set at 550 degrees and preheated for one hour. The pizzas will be baked for 8 minutes and I'll take photos so we can compare them, and I'll continue baking any that aren't done.

When I'm making the pizzas,here might be some slight differences in size and shape, but I'll try to keep them as consistent as possible.

I decided to start the testing with a cheap, basic pizza stone – the sort of stone that you’d own if you got it as a gift from someone who doesn't bake a lot. The stone is just under 13 inches in diameter and stands slightly less than 1/2 tall when measuring it standing on a flat surface. But since it has ridges on the bottom, it’s actually less than 1/2 thick. It weighs 3 1/4 pounds.

The material is (was) a light-colored ceramic. This stone has been around for a number of years, as you can see by the charring and stains, and has stood up to high temperatures in my grill.

At 45 minutes into the preheat, I measured the surface temperature with an infrared thermometer, and the stone was at 524 degrees. At one hour, it was still at 524 degrees.

On the plus side, this sort of stone is small and lightweight, so it’s easy to move around and to store. On the downside, it’s small. My pizza placement wasn’t perfect and one edge of my pizza crust fell over one side of the stone when I tried to get it positioned.

Overall, the cooking performance wasn't terrible. The pizza could have used another minute - or maybe two - for those who like their crusts a little darker, but it was perfectly acceptable. Not great, but better than many pizzas I've paid for. This will be my baseline pizza that I'll compare the others to.

Because of the size of this particular stone, I wouldn't recommend it unless you tend to bake small pizzas or you have a small oven that won't accommodate a larger stone. Similar stones sell for about $20, so it's not a big investment.


Anonymous said...

If you hadn't already planed to.. give a steel sheet a try.. there's been a discussion (started mid Feb) at The Fresh Loaf about this:

Suzzanne said...

Thanks for the informative post. I finally got the nerve to crank my oven up to 550 degrees, using my 15 year old Pampered Chef stone. Used your pizza crust recipe. Tunred out great! Thanks.

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