In the Kitchen
Tools of the Trade
The Pizza Chef: Oven Showdown
By Diana Coutu
By Diana Coutu
I’ve been a die-hard deck oven fan for years, even though
they used to scare me. It’s the classic pizzeria style oven that the
first pizza place I ever worked at used. Some people think it’s the
only way to cook a pizza.
I’ve been a die-hard deck oven fan for years, even though they used to scare me. It’s the classic pizzeria style oven that the first pizza place I ever worked at used. Some people think it’s the only way to cook a pizza.
When my husband and I opened our own shop, there were deck ovens that came with the deal. There was never the question of upgrading; we didn’t have the space, or the desire. Decks were the ovens I got my initial third, second and first degree burns from. My staff and I still get burns from our decks from time to time. We call them battle-scars.
I remember 15 years ago when the pizza chain that I worked at upgraded to conveyors. It was a big deal. These were the first generation conveyors, which cooked the pizzas through convection air. I don’t recall the manufacturer, but I do recall that it took all the skill out of baking the pies.
No more rotating spots, no cold spots to worry about, and no spinning the pies part way through baking. And no burnt fingers, hands or forearms either. The only thing you had to do was make sure someone was at the other end to pull the cooked pizza out – or splat, upside down pie on the floor.
The other thing I remember is that they were as loud as jet engines, and they tended to dry out the pizza. Although now I think, maybe, that was the cornmeal.
I recently had the pleasure of attending the Pizza Production Technology course at the American Institute of Baking, where on one day we had presentations from equipment manufacturers.
I learned that they made leaps and bounds with ‘impinger’ technology from those early days.
I also learned that each oven is custom built to order, with specific applications in mind. Some manufacturers will build an oven to cook roasts, chickens, tapas, all sorts of things, if that’s what your menu is made up of. This option provides a huge amount of flexibility in your kitchen, and requires a little culinary forecasting if you have your mind set on expanding.
Not all impingers are calibrated to cook pizzas, so be careful not to buy a used one assuming it was designed for pizzas. Get the information off the product tag and call the manufacturer. They’ll tell you when it was made and what it was made to cook. They should also have some temperature recommendations, which will help you calibrate to your own needs.
At the AIB, I got to test out two of the latest impinger ovens. And I was quite impressed.
While there, I met a couple of guys from Middleby Marshall and they told me about another style of hearth bake oven that uses infrared heat to cook pizzas. This oven line is meant to cook a pizza like a deck, only it’s a conveyor oven.
The AIB didn’t have the hearth bake oven, and I later found out there isn’t one in Canada (yet). But the guys invited me down to the plant in Illinois to test one. As fate would have it, I had a chance to take them up on their offer.
I packed my seven-day extreme cooler with my own dough, sauce, cheese and pepperoni for a baseline test. I got the grand tour and even a sneak peek at some up and coming ovens that are really smart, but that’s top secret right now.
I tested both the hearth bake and the impinger ovens with my recipe. After just two test pizzas we had adjusted the settings perfectly on both ovens to get the bake I was after. To my surprise, the impinger oven performed wonderfully, and in seven minutes my pie was baked to a perfect golden brown. It wasn’t too dry, rather nice and crispy.
But it was the hearth bake that I was most impressed with. We put the pie right on the belt – no screen. Using infrared heat, it baked the pizza almost exactly like my decks. Only I didn’t have to spin it part way through baking – I just stood there watching it cook my pie. And it was quiet.
This oven also has a self-cleaning mode – so at the push of a button the oven heats up to 1000 F and bakes itself clean. Twenty minutes later it shuts off on its own. All you need is a shop vac to suck out the ash. Talk about low maintenance.
So I’m no longer a die-hard deck oven fan. We’ve grown very busy over the last few years and, in fact, we’re moving into a bigger location within the next couple of months. It takes a lot of time to gather the skill necessary to man the decks. It takes a lot of time to train someone. I don’t cook every pizza in my shop anymore, but with ovens like these calibrated to my needs, it would be like I still do.
There’s something to be said for consistency, for near perfection, especially when you don’t have to be there to achieve it, every time.•