Making authentic Italian pizza requires you to cook at extreme temperatures. Wood-fired ovens are the go-to – not only for reaching beyond 500 degrees F but also for infusing sweet, smoky flavor.
However, several potential pitfalls could turn your pizza night into a disaster.
Therefore, educating yourself on these common mistakes and learning how to avoid them before using a wood-fired pizza oven is crucial.
It’s easy to assume that chopping wood and feeding the rolling flames are all required for a traditional oven, but most pizzaiolos, including myself, have learned otherwise.
So, to achieve Instagram-worthy results, check out these seven common mistakes to avoid.
Reason to Cook With A Wood-Fired Pizza Oven
Before I dive into the common mistakes you should never repeat, let’s consider why anyone should cook in a wood-fired pizza oven, to begin with.
If you want to make true Italian pizza, then the traditional pizza oven is a must-use. It’s ideal for crisping the pizza exterior without drying out on the inside.
The primary idea is to get the dome and deck floor up to an insane temperature. This allows the oven to churn out crispy pizza crust with beautiful leopard spots in less than 2 minutes.
At such extreme temperatures, a long peel is needed to successfully launch and retrieve the pizza without accidentally burning yourself. Top pizzaiolos go through what many people might deem stressful for a gentle infusion of rich smoky flavor. This is what truly separates wood-fired pizza from the rest.
If you dread soggy bases and need to make iconic pizzas, you need to learn how to use the traditional oven like a pro.
7 Common Wood-fired Pizza Oven Mistakes With Solutions
I’ve been baking pizza for close to a decade now. I’ve made many mistakes and learned quickly from them while cooking in wood-fired ovens.
These are mistakes prone to beginners and amateurs. So, avoiding these 7 mistakes takes your pizza-making game up a notch or four.
Not Curing Properly
When you fail to cure your wood-fired oven, the resulting problem is almost endless. The most prominent are cold spots and hot spots. This might be why you can’t bake with any degree of consistency.
Furthermore, you may observe that your pizzas stick to the cooking surface during baking. This increases the likelihood of tearing the crust when retrieving or rotating the pizza. If your oven has yet to be properly cured, there is no telling what other issues may arise.
Not sure what curing is?
For brick ovens, you need to heat and maintain the high temperature for about 5 hours over 5 days. This helps get rid of the clay’s moisture content. This process is called curing.
Here’s how to properly cure your brick oven: I often recommend home bakers cure their newly-built outdoor oven for 5 days. On the first day, heat the oven up to 140 degrees F for a couple of hours. The next day, you want to maintain 215 degrees F. On the third, fourth, and fifth days, keep the oven’s temperature steady at 300, 400, and 500 degrees F, respectively.
Remember that your oven might require a different temperature before it’s properly cured. Therefore, it’s essential you play around with temperatures until the clay is moist-free.
Cooking with the wrong wood type
Most first-timers, including me, often make this mistake. We build fire and cook with just any wood within arm’s reach. Using the wrong wood tends to create an overwhelming plume of smoke. This is probably why your pizza has an overpowering smokey flavor.
In my experience, the best wood to cook with is natural hardwoods like hickory, beech, and oak. They burn cleaner without releasing toxic components or scary smoke like the softwoods.
That’s not all;
There are a couple of other things you need to factor in when choosing a type of wood to cook with:
- Avoid cooking with fresh wood (greenwood) as they are still moist. This leads to longer cooking time, lots of smoke, and loads of ashes to clean out after baking.
- Stay away from softwoods. They break easily and generate too much smoke.
- Choose woods that have low resin or sap content for less smoke generation.
- Also, some hardwood bark tends to produce lots of smoke. So, it might be best to remove the bark before using them.
What to do:
For wood-fired ovens, I recommend using seasoned, kiln-dried hardwoods like cherry, maple, or oak. They burn clean and leave less ash to clean up afterward.
Adding Too Much Kindling and/or Wood
Novices often rush to heat their ovens, resulting in poor decision-making, such as adding excessive fuel. This can result in uneven baking, difficulties in maintaining the desired temperature, and the possibility of a fire hazard.
With too much fuel, you might be unknowingly building a big fire. If it’s too intense and large, it might damage your oven and cause you to lose surrounding properties.
Furthermore, it’s difficult to regulate and maintain the temperature for the finest baking results. The end product is usually some spot on your pizza being under or overcooked.
Besides, it can be a lot challenging to handle such a large amount of kindling. They are meant to be used as fire starters, not as ongoing fuel. It’s problematic and counterproductive as you’ll be smothering the fire.
Here’s what to do instead:
While it might be tempting to start the fire with small pieces of dry wood, they create too much ash and burn faster. I suggest using large chunks and introducing the small pieces to maintain the oven’s temperature.
Remember that you want to avoid jam-packing the fire tray with hardwood. It’s going to be more problematic if you build the fire. Plus, you will have lots of unwanted ash to clean out later.
Wrong Cooking Temperature
This is a common pitfall almost every top baker I know has experienced in their early baking career. Most newbies want to start launching the raw dough once they feel like the oven is hot enough.
But the question is, how hot is hot enough?
If you want that crispy pizza crust and fine browning, then you need to wait until the oven has exceeded 800 degrees F. This would take anywhere between 1 – 2 hours. You only need to crank up to 500 degrees F for New York pizza.
You need to be patient and keep overseeing the fire. Else, you would have to cook the pizza for a longer period. The result is a soggy, doughy, and unrisen pizza.
Guessing the Oven’s Temperature
I’ve done this several times, and it usually ends with an unpalatable pie. The key to baking FAN-TAS-TIC pizzas is temperature. So, it’s paramount that you know precisely the deck’s temperature before launching your pizza.
So, I recommend using a thermometer to monitor the cooking surface temperature. In most cases, there are inconsistencies in the oven’s cooking chamber. Some spots are hotter than others. This helps you decide where to launch your pie for the best results.
Also, you want to avoid using the integrated temperature gauge to monitor the oven’s temperature. It’s a good indication that the oven is coming to temperature. Sadly, it’s not precise as external conditions easily influence it.
Do this instead:
Purchase an infrared thermometer. They are designed to measure any area on the deck from a safe distance. They come with a digital display to read the temperature at a glance. I love its convenience and accuracy, which have helped me level up.
Leaving your Oven Dirty
I understand that we might be too tired to clean the oven after successfully baking a couple of pizzas. However, wood-fired ovens are self-cleaning to a large degree. Its extreme temperature burns off any food residue or spillage. No bacteria or germs can survive at a scorching hot 800 degrees F.
But there’s always soot and ash building up over time in your oven. Not only does it make your oven look unkempt, but it also blocks air flow affecting your baking performance. Therefore, it’s paramount to clean out the ash regularly.
Wood-fired ovens offer the most rewarding baking experience when making pizzas. Their ability to churn out authentic Italian pizza is unmatched. However, you need to learn the ropes to achieve excellent results. If you are looking to get ahead quickly, avoiding the common mistakes mentioned in this post is important.