Pizza Oven Refinement: Enhancing the Dome and Cooking at Home

Pizza Oven Refinement: Enhancing the Dome and Cooking at Home

In 2021 I set out to build an outdoor pizza oven in what I had assumed would be a roughly 1 month process. The goal was to create the pizza oven, develop dough recipes, and learn basic oven cooking techniques. In short, the 2021 project took just shy of a year to build and could still use some refinement. I shared a presentation on this process as a series of mistakes made and lessons learned, which can be seen here. That effort was incredibly humbling and an amazing learning experience that I hoped to build upon in my next scholarship project.

The goals of my 2022 Scholarship Project were to reinforce and improve the pizza oven to finally make some great pizza!

Left to right: Scholarship 2021 start; Scholarship 2021 end

Refining the Dome

The dome was initially built with a mixture of perlite (expanded silicon granules) and Portland cement. Perlite is a great insulator because of the air trapped within the silicon shell. Cement acts as the glue to hold it all together. Unfortunately, the perlite I used was too coarse and the mix was too dry. This resulted in a dome that had a hard time holding its shape while I formed it and had space between the grains that leaked air. This was all too clear the first time I lit a fire in the dome and smoke was visibly leaking out of the top. If you look closely at the picture above you can see the smoke.

I had spent a lot of time researching this mixture and unfortunately it didn’t pan out. I wasn’t able to build another one as I had already fixed the first dome to the oven’s base. Instead of trying to find a shortcut solution to save cost, I essentially reinforced the previous dome by building another dome on top it. This was done by first wrapping the perlite dome in ceramic fiber insulation blanket. This needed to be fixed tightly to the dome with chicken wire so that it would act as one mass. The blanket was then clad in an air-tight and weather resistant GFRC shell. I learned my lesson from previously working with cement on the 2021 project and spent a few hours softly texturing the finished product into a smooth and even surface.

The results? This thing cooks! The inside of the oven heats up to between 800-1000 degrees F and the outside of the oven remains cool to the touch (below 100 degrees F)!

Left to right: Cutting insulation blanket; Fixing the blanket tight to the first dome; Applying the GFRC shell

Once the dome was complete I added a redwood countertop (naturally weather and insect resistant) as a prep station and wood storage area. Connecting wood to concrete is much more difficult than I originally expected so I tried to keep it simple for this build. One of the key lessons here is to make sure you have the correct tools. Drilling into concrete requires a hammer drill, proper screws, and a decent amount of strength.

Left to right: Reinforced dome complete; Preparing to install countertop; Countertop installation complete

Left to right: Before scholarship 2021; After scholarship 2022

Using the Pizza Oven:

Now for the fun part! There are so many things I want to try cooking in the oven, but I felt it was only right to start with pizza. Before I started lighting fires and tossing dough, I went to a couple of my favorite restaurants that use wood fired ovens. I was looking to learn from their technique and ingredients by watching and eating, but I also asked as many questions as the chefs would let me. I’ll break down what I’ve learned so far about fires, recipes and technique below, while sprinkling in some additional lessons from my experience.

First things first–lighting a small fire inside the dome, building up the heat, and maintaining the internal temperature. Surprisingly enough, lighting a fire with only matches and sticks is really hard. I tried using fire starter, firewood from the store, and too many matches to count, but the flame kept going out after a few minutes.

Realizing a good learning opportunity, I asked my brother-in-law (a fire fighter) for some advice. He taught me that the method of stacking wood in a pyramid or cabin is great for building large fires, but not for starting them. He shared that the easiest and most consistent method of starting a fire is to simply collect dry leaves and small sticks from the surrounding area. This is the cheapest, most effective tinder and quickly goes up in flame. As the fire starts to grow, add in progressively larger sticks. Wow, the simplest solution is absolutely the best and I’ve started stockpiling dry leaves for the winter.

Left to right: Collecting materials; Starting with leaves and sticks

Left to right: Collecting materials; Starting with leaves and sticks

As I moved into recipe research it was clear that pizza dough only has a few ingredients and the best pizza places add in some secrets to make it shine. Before I go down that rabbit hole, I started easy with store-bought dough. Both Trader Joe’s and Whole Foods have great options. For the toppings, I’ve found a small local butcher and farmers markets make a huge difference. After exhaustive research—Chef’s table episodes and A16, a restaurant in SF—it seems many people slightly pre-cook their toppings before putting them on the pizza. This gives the pizza a flavor head start that the oven enhances. It also helps you not worry if your meat is undercooked with only 1-2 minutes in the pizza oven. My favorite tip here is to get a really good fresh sausage. squeeze the meat from the casing, break the meat up, and lightly brown in a pan with fennel or other seasoning before adding to the pizza. The rustic sausage looks great and tastes even better with a drizzle of pesto. One last tip here–I’ve started adding pesto after the pizza comes out of the oven to avoid any oil separating and drenching the pizza.

Once the pizza is dressed and ready for the oven, there is a tricky dance of sliding the pie off your paddle without all of the toppings falling off. Trust me, this is harder than it sounds. Adding flour to the paddle helps a lot and dressing the pizza on top of the paddle helps even more. The trick seems to be speed and paddle material. If the dough sits on flour for too long, the moister seeps in and glues the two together. It also appears that wood paddles are much better for sliding pizzas into the office, whereas metal paddles are better for rotating the pizza inside the oven.

Using the oven is actually the easy part. The dough starts to crisp up on the oven floor quickly (~30 seconds). From here, rotating the pizza helps give an even cook. As the dough starts to bubble I give it a little quarter turn. Something I picked up from the Chefs at A16 is to lift the pizza up towards the top of the dome if it is not browning as much as you would like. The oven is hottest at the crown and works like a traditional oven on broil.

The last thing to keep in mind while cooking with the wood oven is how to maintain temperature. I am still working on this, but it seems best to add in a new log after 15-20 minutes. You will also want to avoid cooking when adding in new logs as that is when there is the most smoke and ash floating around the top of the dome. When I start branching out on types of dishes cooked in the oven, I’ll be using a Dutch Oven to avoid this issue.

Left to right: Building up heat; Cooking up pizzas

Closing thoughts:

Cooking with the wood fired oven has been the most fun, satisfying, and easiest part of this whole multi-year experience. There are a lot of other cooking skills to develop, but once something goes in the oven it seems to come out great no matter what you do! Next up for the culinary adventures is brick chicken, wood fired veggies, cast-iron deserts (s’mores, crisps), and more. I would love to make a big family style meal using only the brick oven. Tasting menu to follow!


Link here to Scholarship 2021 Presentation & Construction Research for anyone curious!