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Thinking of cooking with fire?

We examined the pros and cons of cooking with fire to help you decide whether it’s the right


April 9, 2010
By Clare Tattersall

Topics

Once considered a peasant’s meal, Italy’s national dish has become an international phenomenon.

Once considered a peasant’s meal, Italy’s national dish has become an international phenomenon. Today, approximately three billion pizzas are sold each year in the United States alone, accounting for more than 10 per cent of its total foodservice sales. This crowd-pleaser has evolved into a multi-billion-dollar industry and, in keeping with the back-to-basics trend of today’s menu, some restaurants are returning to pizza’s historic roots. This is not to say North American operators are swapping out home-grown menu favourites like pepperoni and cheese, barbecue, and Hawaiian for traditional Neapolitan pizza made with tomatoes, oregano, garlic and olive oil; rather, a number are opting to install the artisanal wood-fired ovens found in most (if not all) traditional pizzerias in Italy.

“We wouldn’t open a restaurant that didn’t have a wood-burning oven,” says Don Bellis, co-founder of Seattle-area-based The Rock Wood Fired Pizza & Spirits, which is set to open its first Canadian location in Red Deer, Alta., this spring. “It makes a fantastic pizza.”

Introduced to the idea of cooking with wood more than 25 years ago, Bellis has been enamoured with the method ever since. And with good reason. Wood-fired ovens offer benefits such as a considerable reduction in cooking time. Using high heat (a minimum of 650 F), a well-designed wood-burning oven can cook a medium thin-crust pizza in less than two minutes and 30 seconds (depending on the size of the oven).

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“The very high, dry heat of the oven seals in the natural juices of the pizza toppings, sauce and cheese very quickly and creates a crispy, beautifully coloured crust,” says Bellis, noting the wood also gives it a mild smoky flavour and aroma that is unique to this type of oven and sets The Rock apart from other restaurants whose specialty is pizza.

Additional benefits include the oven’s Old World charm and interactivity, which take pizza-making to another level of excitement. Varying little from the original Roman design, today’s wood-burning ovens ooze authenticity. Often built of brick, stone, terra cotta or clay (though some ovens are now made of refractory concrete to withstand prolonged high heat conditions), the easily viewable cooking flame creates an instant connection with customers, whetting their appetite for wood-fired pizza.

 “It’s a show-stopper,” says Kurt Eickmeyer, vice-president of sales and marketing for Wood Stone Corp., which has 20 years’ experience manufacturing stone-fired cooking equipment for the foodservice industry. “There’s something really unique and personal about seeing someone hand toss dough and then slide it into the oven next to an open flame and watching it cook right before your eyes.”

Beyond the visual appeal and entertainment value, wood-burning ovens are efficient, eco-friendly as they produce no chemical gases and more economical to operate than conventional and conveyor ovens in the long term. Though their price tag may cause initial sticker shock – most wood-fired ovens range from $2,500 to $10,000, with the traditional terra cotta brick and stone ovens being the most expensive and sometimes costing more depending on quality and size. They also offer countless cooking possibilities. As soon as the fire is blazing, operators can pop in any number of side dishes, from ratatouille to potatoes gratin to eggplant Parmesan, and entrees, including chicken marsala and pork chops with pears.

“Basically, anything you cook in a regular conventional oven you can cook in a wood-fired oven,” says Eickmeyer. “And the beautiful thing about a wood-fired oven is if anything spills in it you can push it over to the fire and it’s instantly consumed.”

At the end of the day, after the final pizza’s been served, there is no need to remove the grease left inside the oven as it will burn off. Instead, operators simply attach the heat retention or “night” doors. The following morning the doors are removed and any ash is swept into a non-combustible insulated container and left to cool before being disposed in a dumpster.

In addition to this daily duty, the ductwork or chimney above the oven should be regularly cleaned to avoid the buildup of creosote. A natural byproduct of burning wood, creosote is a sticky substance that can affect the passage of air through a vent, reducing the amount of air needed for a fire to burn at high temperature. Creosote is also highly combustible, so a thick accumulation creates a fire hazard.

“It’s recommended you contact your installation company to determine how often the chimney should be cleaned,” says James Bairey, president of Forno Bravo, a company that provides wood- and gas-fired pizza ovens for pizzerias, restaurants and homeowners.

While it varies from operation to operation, cleaning the exhaust system bi-monthly is a good estimate; however, if using a softwood, like fir, cedar or spruce, or wood with a high moisture content, such as sappy red pine, more frequent cleaning may be necessary because both produce more creosote. For this reason, as well as the fact that these woods impart an unpleasant flavour to the food, Bairey recommends hardwoods such as oak, maple, ash, beech and birch as well as fruit or nut woods, including apple, almond, cherry, pear and pecan.

“Fruit and nut woods not only burn well but are fragrant, adding another layer of flavour to the pizza,” he says, though the wood choice is for naught if the operator fails to properly store the kindling.

If left unprotected wood will become wet, resulting in a smoky fire with little flame and therefore low heat output when burned and excessive fuel consumption. For these reasons, wood should be left to “season” or dry in a shed for six months or longer (depending on the wood type) prior to use. This requires outdoor space, which not all operators mayhave access to.

“A wood-burning oven is not for everybody,” says Bairey.

While offering many benefits, wood-fired ovens can be limited by their size – a true Neapolitan oven is generally quite small and will hold only five pizzas (though there are ovens today that can accommodate 12 large pizzas at one time), and require more skill to operate. Employees must be trained to be both fire tender and pizza chef. Every 15 to 20 minutes a new log must be placed on the fire to maintain the oven temperature and prevent it from dropping. Additionally, oven operators have to constantly rotate the pizzas inside the baking chamber to ensure all sides are evenly cooked.

“Just because you have a wood-fired oven doesn’t mean you’re automatically going to make a great-tasting pie. It requires an investment of time and energy,” he says. “(But while) it might be more of a challenge, it’s very rewarding and the final product is well worth it.” •


Clare Tattersall is a Toronto-based journalist providing freelance and contract writing and editing services to print, web and non-profit/corporate clients countrywide. Her experience includes serving as the editor of a recognized food service news magazine.