On our quest for the perfect pizza crust, we've broken pizza stones (more than one), tried all of the mock pizza oven tricks (Bricks!) and talked with chefs like Jeff Mahin over at Stella Rossa about our unfulfilled crust expectations. And now, the Baking Steel.
Baking pizza on steel is an idea Mahin turned us onto when he shared his own crust revelations. While experimenting with pizza recipes at home while Stella Rossa's pizza oven was being installed, he decided to toss a steel slab from the hardware store into his oven. "I was thinking [steel] is like a sauté pan: The thicker the sauté pan, the better it holds heat," he says. "Why not try it in the oven?"
Baking Steel founder Andris Lagsdin stumbled upon the same idea after reading a newspaper review of Modernist Cuisine. Nathan Myhrvold includes the suggestion to make your own pizza stone out of a steel sheet in the book. Or, if you happen to work for your family's steel manufacturing company, as Lagsdin does, you could launch a Baking Steel Kickstarter campaign to manufacture a line of pre-seasoned baking steels. Presto. Very heavy -- and very good, if a bit pricey -- baking steels. Get the review after the jump.
The Basics: Baking Steels aren't inexpensive at $72 for 16 x 14 x ¼-inch slab. The website says each weighs 15 pounds, though our minimally packaged box clocked in at 18 pounds per UPS ("I don't know what you have here but it could kill someone," joked our UPS guy). That's heavier than it sounds when you're trying to slide a large flat, and very awkward, steel plate out of the oven. (The company also makes a 1/2-inch thick version in the same dimensions that weighs 30 pounds. We tested the thinner 1/4-inch version.) The good news: there's really no need to ever take the steel out of your oven, other than the occasional cleaning (like an iron skillet, don't wash it, just scrape off any charred bits).
The Competition: Why not go to the hardware store? You very well could. Most of the steel plates we found online in a quick search were sold in half-foot increments. A 12 x 12-inch square that is ¼-inch thick can be nabbed for around $20, 12 x 18-inches for around $25. In our small oven, 18-inches is a very tight squeeze; a smaller 12 x 12-inch is a bit small for many of our pizza and oval flatbread experiments. Sure, you could have steel custom cut to the ideal dimensions to fit the size of your oven, or perhaps find one pre-cut to those dimensions (by all means, go for it, and let us know in the comments the best place to find it). Nor is seasoning a steel plate particularly difficult (Baking Steels come pre-seasoned). Just follow Mahin's advice to season the stainless steel slab "like you would a sauté pan: Put oil on it, let it sit in the oven overnight at a low temp."
Still, despite our "bargain find" logic, it's pretty great to be able to order a seasoned steel plate that fits in your oven, no fiddling with size or shopping for the best shipping price at steel manufacturer websites (the Baking Steel is shipped free of charge; many slabs we looked into were pricey to ship due to their weight). And considering the price of a box of handmade chocolates these days (?!), this is one Valentine's Day gift with lasting heft -- and if you're lucky, promises of pizza for years to come.
The Verdict: When we tested the Baking Steel, we initially had a few temperature issues. The promotional material recommends 375- 400 degrees, we eventually settled on 450 degrees to get the crispy crust we were seeking. We were also short on a few pizza ingredients, including our usual homemade sauce, though that imported Mutti sauce we subbed was a pleasant surprise (a well-balanced, bright flavor and color that was a much better backdrop for cheese than so many of those muddied, over-spiced commercial jarred sauces). Homemade sauce or not, it was the best pizza we've ever made. The crust was thin and crispy, perfectly charred on the bottom, the toppings bubbling but not parched from over-cooking.
Bonus: We don't foresee ever needing to buy a new pizza stone. Drop the Baking Steel, and sure, it might break your foot, but the steel won't break. A minor sacrifice, really, for a stellar slice.
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