Before Stella Rossa opened its doors, chef Jeff Mahin was testing his dough recipes -- and holding out hope he'd be able to use fresh mozzarella on the restaurant's pizzas -- not in the restaurant's high-powered pizza oven, but in his everyday home version. Like many of us without custom backyard ovens, Mahin says his run-of-the-mill apartment oven fueled some pretty great Saturday night pizza parties.
While "monkeying around at home," Mahin also stumbled upon a few simple adjustments to his home oven and grill to yield a better crust. Get his tips after the jump.
"The trick for cooking pizza in an oven is the same as a restaurant," Mahin says. "It's all about your crust. We cook our pizzas longer, and at 600 degrees [at Stella Rossa]. Not much higher than a home oven, actually, since we are not making Neapolitan-style pizza."
"Everyone buys these pizza stones that are all 1/4-inch thick at places like Williams-Sonoma, maybe a little more," he continues. "No pizzeria has a pizza stone that's that thin. It's sort of crazy, if you think about it. Two or three inches is what you need to retain the heat in the stone. You put your dough on a thin pizza stone and right away your cold dough makes a stone that thin lose its heat. When you're not dealing with a very long cooking time, that's not good."
Mahin's began experimenting with other pizza stone-like options. "I went to Home Depot and got about a 1-inch-thick slab of stainless steel." The logic, says Mahin, was similar to cooking on a stove top. "I was thinking it's like a sauté pan: The thicker the sauté pan, the better it holds heat. Why not try it in the oven?"
Mahin seasoned his stainless steel slab "like you would a sauté pan: Put oil on it, let it sit in the oven overnight at a low temp." He says the steel resolved his stone-temperature issues. "Because of the radiant heat, you get a really nice crust, it really holds the heat." [Add firebrick along the sides of your oven, and you're even closer to pizza oven temps.]
It worked so well, he hasn't removed the steel plate from his oven. "My oven is small, and it's a pretty heavy piece of steal, so it's not coming out anytime soon," he says. "It's sort of an investment for the real home pizza cooks." An investment in that your ambient oven temperature is going to be higher with a steel plate at the bottom, so you need to keep that in mind when you are baking more delicate pastries and other dishes.
And it turns out when chefs like Mahin are trapped in their small, hot-as-hell apartment kitchens testing recipes at 600-plus degrees, they're not much different from the rest of us in the summer looking for any excuse to cook outside. So we leave you with what Mahin calls a "great backyard wood-burning oven on the cheap" when you don't have the custom pizza oven funds; it's also quite handy for apartment patios. Though if you're going to try his fan + fire equation (Yikes?), we urge you to keep a fire extinguisher at the ready.
Go buy a basic Weber grill and make a small fire in the bottom with your charcoal. Put a steel slab or pizza stone inside. Get a small office fan. Let the pizza stone sit and get really hot. Take the fan underneath and blow it upwards toward the fire -- the fire makes the embers and your stone hotter. Put the pizza on your stone, close the lid, and you've got a mini pizza oven. You can get it to 600, 700 degrees or more. Pretty great.