How To: build the ultimate, cheap home pizza oven

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For years, I’ve baked pizza on an unglazed, 15″ terra cotta stone that cost around $30. It radiates heat more evenly, which seemed to do the trick (What do I know? I grew up on Boboli).

Then my pal Jon, a pro pizzaiolo, starting coming around. The pies he crafted with our stone are delicious: light homemade dough, fresh local ingredients (including sunny-side egg). When he reported not being especially pleased with the results, I figured he was being modest. Nope. I began to realize he’s right. Every slice from an artisan-style pizza joint just tastes better. Why?

Cooking at 700F+ vs. the puny 500F pumped out by my standard oven/range is part of the secret. Turns out baking with a lone stone is too. The solution: $13.50 worth of ceramic firebricks plucked from a landscape supply yard. Details after the jump — plus, the taste test that convinced me you don’t have to shell out big bucks or construct a huge outdoor oven to boost the quality of a homemade pie.
To start, do you need to buy the priciest pizza stone available? “Note that more money does not necessarily buy a better stone,” according to Cook’s Illustrated. OK, that’s your cue to be cheap. Drop $30 on a basic pizza stone and you’re literally half way there. You just need the firebricks…

firebrick.jpg

Where to buy:

I called a fireplace supplier near my home. 9 times out of 10, these shops don’t sell firebricks (mine didn’t), BUT, they are excellent resources for recommending who does. Five minutes later I was on my way to Broadmoor Landscape Supply. Tip: if you want to sound like a pro, refer to them as “refractory” bricks.

What to buy

Measure your oven and get the measurements of the bricks on the phone to make sure you get the right size and #. The types: straight, split, arch and tile. I purchased 8 “splits” which are 4.5″ x 9″ x 1.25″, figuring the smaller the better for my oven (well, yes and no — see below*). Each stone cost $1.50 (a 2.5″-thick straight is $1.95).

Firebricks also come in various colors/compositions. I chose gold merely because that’s what was cheap and readily-available. Feel free to experiment with other ceramics. Just know that the ones that contain a higher percentage of alumina can withstand higher temps. Tips: you want unglazed bricks (glazed ones may contain lead); don’t use standard construction bricks (they can’t withstand high temp and won’t conduct heat).

How to set up

Give your pizza a house: a roof over its head and walls. I placed 6 stones on the rack above and 2 on either side of the stone. My splits were too thin to balance on my rack, so I had to use strips of foil to hold them up (*should have listened to the LA Times and bought 6 splits and 2 straights).

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Be patient, get a temp read

You’re going to pre-heat to 500F. But how do you know when the stone is ready? You could give it maybe 30-60 minutes and hope for the best. Or, splurge a little. A $45 infrared digital thermometer is not only a fun toy, it’s the perfect way to assess surface temp from a safe distance.

Open the oven and quickly shine the beam onto the stone every 15 minutes. Any more often than that will a) let more heat escape, and b) lower your spirits. Compared to when I pre-heated the pizza stone all by its lonesome, getting the stone up to 470F when surrounded by the brick house took 30 minutes longer. Makes sense, you’ve just added twice as much ceramic or terra cotta to the mix.

What to expect

We baked two pizzas for ~11 minutes each using premade dough, bottled sauce, prepackaged four-Italian blend cheese, freshly-sliced onion, and then topped with basil chiffonade. Not super DIY locavore-style, I know, but it’s what we had. We didn’t take the time to measure everything out with a scale, but eyeballing got us close enough in my book and this isn’t molecular gastronomy. But I digress…

Each pizza was placed on the stone when the temp read between 465-470F (reason I’m hedging is that every time we took a final reading, grabbed the pizza stone, transferred the raw pie, and put it back in the oven, we lost some precious heat — and stopping to take another reading would have made it worse).

Pizza #1: Doughy crust that had brown edges, but was slightly white on the entire bottom. Brown and bubbly cheese. The onions tasted lightly steamed. Sauce tasted reheated. Decent flavor and mouthfeel. Overall: fair – good.

Pizza #2: Crispier crust with browner edges, but neither dry nor burned. More evenly-browned cheese. Onions and sauce tasted practically cooked. Much fuller, richer flavor. Hotter first bite. Overall: good – wouldn’t be bummed out to order in a reasonably-priced cafe.

pizza ex.jpg

Verdict: The additional stones clearly refract heat from all directions, not just the bottom, giving you a more concentrated bake.

Of course, if you have more space and want to go for something more complicated, a variety of ovens abound:
- Earth
- beehive
- igloo
- Peruvian
- barrel dome
- indoor brick
- trailer
- solar
- what I’d call “The Chapel”

All potentially cool as heck. Be prepared: the effort and skill it takes to construct a proper woodfired pizza/bread oven is astounding (3 dudes working for 3 days!). And don’t bother with user-friendly, mini, tabletop remedies like the PizzaDome. Just plain laughable considering it’s $130.

You can also try broiling your pizza, which includes setting your oven to “clean” so it gets up to 800F. Go for it. Just don’t get too close. You might lose an eyebrow.

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61 Responses to How To: build the ultimate, cheap home pizza oven

  1. billstewart says:

    Friends of mine are renting a house that has a big wood-fired pizza oven in the back yard. They tried using it for a party the other week – the digital thermometer on it said it was a bit over 1000 degrees F when I first got there, and pizzas were cooking in about a minute. Even after the fires died down and it had cooled to 800F, it was still doing an amazing job.

  2. Art Carnage says:

    I suppose if you’re gullible, you’ll think this tastes like a real brick-oven pizza. But it’s not the bricks that do it, it’s the high heat – far hotter than you can achieve in your home oven. Piling bricks in your oven won’t change that.

  3. lrivers says:

    Something that I do to help with sticking is to sprinkle some stone ground cornmeal on the hot pizza stone. It smells like burned popcorn and if you don’t get the pizza on quick enough, it will set off your smoke alarm, but it works a treat and adds some authenticity as well.

    I can’t wait to try this!

  4. boingguy says:

    I have been making my own pizza for 12 years. I have broken 2 pizza stones, have one ‘decorative’ one bought as a gift (it looks good, it sucks for cooking) and a cast iron version also given as a gift. When the last stone broke, I switched to the cast iron and will NEVER buy another pizza stone again. The cast iron is just as good, if not better – I should note that I make extremely thin crusts, almost cracker-ish, with toppings from standard pepperoni to spinach/feta, mushroom ragout, and an especially awesome salad version I stole from Todd English. Screw the stones unless you have money to burn.

  5. Tim Nowaczyk says:

    I just baked a loaf of bread in my new oven. Thanks!

    http://twitpic.com/9qyan
    http://twitpic.com/9qxxt

  6. guysnape says:

    If you want perfect home made pizza, the way to go is to get a cast iron pizza pan, preheat it on the stove top and cook the base on there, then put the toppings on and put it under the broiler/grill. You get a perfectly cooked base with just the right level of charring, total cooking time is 5 minutes max. Getting the dough right is very important too. I’ve been working on my home made pizza for years and I think the results I get now are better than anything I’ve ever had in a restaurant, even the authentic wood fired, brick oven places (and my friends agree). Complete method and recipe is at http://www.breadsecrets.com/pizza.html – if you give it a try, please post on the breadsecrets forum, I’d love to hear what you think.

  7. Anonymous says:

    Invest in a home WoodStone oven.

    http://www.woodstone-corp.com/products_ovens_wsbl3030.htm

    Also, pizza dough is best if you age the dough for 2 to 3 days in the refrigerator.

  8. Anonymous says:

    what I do is Pre-heat the stone on bake, then I broil when the pie is in the oven. I get some decent results, but the find the door doesn’t have the same heat as the back of the oven.

    another method I some time use. is simply

    another stone above the pie.
    I also use a pizza peel, so the stone never leaves the oven.

    -Rod

  9. Anonymous says:

    @Art Carnage – BUT regardless of the heat levels, baking on a brick makes it taste *so* much better — a homemade pizza baked on a stone as hot as I can get my oven still tastes way better than something out of a cardboard box delivered by some acne-scarred little dweeb who couldn’t care less whether my pizza arrives in edible condition or not.

  10. Anonymous says:

    One of the links posted above(varasonosdotcom) is triggering my anti-virus(avast is indicating some kind of javascript exploit). It might very well be a false positive but I just thought I’d throw it out there just in case.

  11. Anonymous says:

    I bought a generic version of the ‘ferrari pizza oven’ (http://www.google.co.uk/search?q=ferrari+pizza+oven&ie=utf-8&oe=utf-8&aq=t&rls=org.mozilla:en-US:official&client=firefox-a)
    There is a ceramic tile in there, and the tile is heated by heating elements over and under the ceramic tile. The thing works absolutely fabulous!!

  12. userw014 says:

    @duskiboy: I’m no dog star :-) But more seriously, I don’t quite understand your point – other than even when the price of electricity is twice what it is here in south-eastern Michigan (USA), that the cost is still low.

    These days, the pizzas I bake are gluten free (I’ve got a kid sensitive to gluten.) Think of a large, flat, crumbly pancake – covered in cheese and red-sauc (I can’t get them to accept any toppings.)

    I think I’m starting from such a low standard of “pizzaness” that this technique wouldn’t help.

  13. Anonymous says:

    Does this work on frozen pizza like totinos??
    i dont have time to “make” pizza.. but i love pizza!

    http://www.pillsbury.com/products/pizza/frozen/Totinos-Pizza.htm

  14. Anonymous says:

    I like a very thin crispy crust, but always had trouble transfering the pizza on to the hot stone. This is what I do: have dough and cheese room temp, warm up sauce in microwave, heat up stone on bottom of oven set to 500, roll out dough on floured cookie sheet very thin, take stone out of oven, rub in a little olive oil with paper towel and immediately place on top of dough, (use glove style pot holders) flip the whole thing over and remove the cookie sheet, quickly put sauce and toppings on, put back in oven until cheese bubbles-about 7 mins.

  15. Pensador says:

    I make my own pizzas as well, and I will definitely try that! Thanks for posting this article!

  16. RexallWodehouse says:

    Waldo@15 — actually, drippings on your bricks are a good thing.

    You only want to clean the bricks with a stiff brush to knock off the worst of the cheese and other detritus that burns onto the surface.

    The first time you use it, the pizza will want to stick tight to the surface.

    As you continue to use the bricks, they’ll get a patina of burned stuff on it — that will become virtually non-stick — kinda like a well-seasoned cast iron skillet. (don’t ever wash those with soap — wipe out the grease and clean with a quick rinse in hot water — you’ll hate yourself if you destroy the seasoning!)

  17. Anonymous says:

    If I am not mistaken, setting a modern stove to the “clean” cycle will lock the stove door to prevent people trying to cook while the stove is cleaning.

  18. Anonymous says:

    Bookmarked. And I’ll share my superquick pizza dough recipe as a thank you:

    • heat 3/4 cup water in microwave till hot (about 110 degrees)
    • add one package of yeast (instant or normal) to water
    • add one pinch of sugar to water
    • let water/yeast mixture sit for about 15 minutes
    • in a medium sized boll mix 1 and 2/3 cup flour with a pinch of salt
    • mix in water/yeast mixture and stir with a wooden spoon until you’ve got a big clump of dough (about a minute)
    • roll onto a floured surface, and keep on sprinkling flour on it as you roll into a 14″ circle with a rolling pin.

    That’s it. Top it as you like, I bake at 450 for about 12 minutes – judging it done when my cheese just starts to brown.

  19. Anonymous says:

    your ceramic warehouse is also a good supply venue for refractory bricks.

    And even better- investigate ITC refractory coatings to increase the durability of your brick. Refractory bricks are typically soft and flaky.

    Typical descriptor of ITC 100:
    “Our most versatile high temperature coating has proven to achieve outstanding energy savings and refractory protection. Use it alone and as a base coat for other ITC products. Applications include coating Kaowool, Inswool or other soft friable refractories including lightweight castable and insulating bricks to make a hard reflective surface. ITC-100 and 296A improves the IR reflectivity of all forge and furnace linings increasing efficiency and throughput. Stocked in pint jars, half gallon and gallon buckets. Five gallon buckets available on order.”

  20. MarkM says:

    OK. Im hungry.

  21. Anonymous says:

    Broiling a pizza ISN’T the same as hacking the self-cleaning cycle. That’s a TON of work to get 700+ degree air and more than a bit scary.

    Try the cast iron skillet method referred to above. I used these instructions
    http://www.seriouseats.com/2007/03/broiled-pizza.html

    The setup time is near zero (turn on the over while you ready ingredients, 4 minutes to heat the upside down skillet and less than 5 minutes cooking time on top of the skillet under the broiler in the now warm oven.

    Nice crispy/chewy crust and everybody can throw on their favorite ingredients. (I cheat by buying Whole Foods frozen dough).

    I’ve got a gas IR broiler which probably makes mine hotter than electric and more even than regular gas.

  22. Anonymous says:

    Wow, what an incredible waste of electricity.

    Yet again, way to go America.

  23. sanity says:

    All this work and it still takes 11 minutes to cook a pizza? Check out Varasano’s page for a whole lot of research in this area, including the aforementioned “self cleaning cycle problem”.

    I just use a standard pizza stone, a simple dough recipe and an oven as hot as I can get it, maybe followed with a minute under the broiler to brown the cheese. Total time is about eight minutes.

  24. MadDuck says:

    Build this in your grill for lovely 700°F pizza baking. And go buy a couple of $2 16″ square ceramic floor tiles, they don’t need the support that refractory bricks do and you can get them just about anywhere.

  25. userw014 says:

    30 extra minutes to pre-heat the oven? How much extra does that cost?

    My residential electric rates are $0.06486/kWh for the first 17 kWh per day, then $0.07896/kWh after that. According to http://www.gohonda.com/sizing.html, an electric oven draws 4kW. This means that cooking like this is going to cost you an extra $0.16 cents just for the pre-heating…

    Maybe my point isn’t very sharp.

  26. alexpeterson says:

    Brickstructures has added two more models to their series of architectural LEGO microscale models, both designed by Frank Lloyd Wright: The Guggenheim Museum and Falling Water. The Gugg is $55, shipped, within the U.S.; it doesn’t actually appear that Falling Water is on sale yet. [via Prairie Mod]
    Online Finance degree AND PhD history

  27. alexpeterson says:

    I want to decry the use of specialized pieces in the Guggenheim model, but really I’m too starstruck to do so. I’ve found some good presents for people.
    online phd degree

  28. alexpeterson says:

    I bought the Sears Tower. I liked it a lot more than i thought. As a Chicago native who works a few blocks from it, it gave me a new perspective on it.
    masters degree business AND Online School

  29. Anonymous says:

    In Brazil I’ve seen a lot of wood-fired brick pizza ovens in the shape of a half-cylinder on it’s side (electric pizza ovens are rare there). The oven floor is about 8 feet deep, 5 feet wide and fired with logs along each side. The cook uses a spatula with a handle about 10 feet long. He uses it to move and rotate the pizza while it’s being cooked as well as putting it in and taking it out. I timed a pizza being cooked by this method – under two minutes!

    I went to one restaurant where they had a row six ovens like this with twelve cooks working them.

    … and OMG, the pizza in Brazil is awesome!!!

  30. joelfreeman says:

    I use the clean cycle to get the oven up to 700-800. There is a locking latch but it is easily cut if you have a reciprocating saw or a hacksaw if you’ve got the inclination.

    While my oven is heating up i pre-cook any ingredients that need it in my cast-iron skillet.

    Once I’m ready to go i flip my skillet upsidedown and slide my pizza on top. I quickly open the oven door and in it goes.

    Unbelievably it takes about 90 seconds to fully cook the dough into a crispy bottomed yet chewy big air pocketed with some slight browning crust.

    A big operation but i’m getting it down to a science and the show is all part of the fun.

  31. Anonymous says:

    You can also get good results using unglazed quarry tile, for both pizza and bread. I have 6 I use in my standard oven that have lasted me decades.

    The unglazed part is very important: Some glazes will emit poison when heated.

    The comment about refractory coatings gives me pause. Have they been tested for food use?

    Since quarry tile and bricks are so cheap, they are worth getting, even if they break they are easily replaced.

    Just remember: UNGLAZED

  32. Grrrrrrrr8 says:

    I have a gas oven so my trick is to place the pizza stone on the bottom of the oven. This puts it right on top of the flames and gives a great crunchy bottom to the pizza.

  33. icky2000 says:

    I would like for this comment thread to evolve into arguments about how different bricks effect the taste and crust and for a superclass of pizza tasters to emerge who will then happily buy my $25,000 bricks which I promise will improve the taste of your pizza by at least 13.794%.

  34. caipirina says:

    can any1 indicate how much it cost you (or in carbonfootprint) to preheat an oven for 30 – 60 mins ??? I feel it might be a bit much unless you bake a bunch of pizzas …

    amazing .. i live in Italy .. and where i am .. there is no pizza delivery … sad

  35. Anonymous says:

    A good supply house would keep their refractory brick indoors, so that they don’t absorb moisture and pose a hazard to being heated…

  36. buddy66 says:

    All that for some baked dough slathered with tomato sauce and a bit of cheese?

  37. duskiboy says:

    @userwo14
    not to speak of the appr. 0.17-0.22 € (0.23-0.30$) a kWh cost in most parts of europe.
    and for what: premade dough? are you sirius?

  38. Anonymous says:

    OOhh-#3… Just a caution to investigate refractory coatings for brick ovens…

    Some products like ceramic fiber may produce unhealthy tiny particles that are dangerous to ingest. Ceramic fiber blankets are not unlike fiberglass, fine dust bits fly when it’s moved, especially after firing.

    I have built a few kilns for firing clay and this pizza oven sounds great! Once when my mom was visiting our oven wasn’t working and we had to cook a koogle in our brand new wood fired kiln. It worked very well.

  39. dculberson says:

    Wovixo, you must not have had very good pizza yet. Or, come to think of it, very good mac and cheese.

    Anything can be minimized by putting “just” in front of it, but that doesn’t make it actually insignificant. Food is one of the most important thing in an organism’s life. Enjoy it.

  40. dculberson says:

    $.30 to preheat isn’t a lot if you’re making a half dozen pizzas or so. If $.30 hurts you, you’re probably very, very far from the type of person that’s making or eating pizza.

    This post was awesome. It got me all excited to build an outdoor pizza oven at my new house! Pizza parties with a hot tub? Yes please!

  41. Anonymous says:

    There is a VIRUS in the “verasanos” link above. Beware! Avast just caught it for me.

    I would be nervous about using any building materials as food cookers. Who knows how much lead/asbestos/etc. is actually in those bricks..?

    I like a food-grade pizza stone on a grill with it BLASTING HOT.

  42. redsquid says:

    I’m a long time pizza pro (boy is my mom proud!) One secret to restaurant quality pizza that is often overlooked is the box. After the pie is cooked in a high temp oven it goes directly into a box for at least 15 minutes where it steams. There is definitely a differance in crust texture between a boxed pizza and one just left on a tray. I’ve had regular customers ask that I not close their box or cut holes in the top to preserve the crispness of a well done pizza. I like my crust softer and a little chewey. The box is the key. Try it! It even works on (cringe) frozen pizza.

  43. Waldo Jaquith says:

    This is all accurate. But there’s a catch.

    If you get any drippings on your bricks, you’ve got a smoking, nasty mess on your hands. Good luck cleaning cheese and oil off of brick, because it’s probably just not going to happen. Do yourself a favor and a) be careful not to spill ingredients and b) buy extra bricks for when some of yours get spilled on.

  44. mrfantasy says:

    This gives me an idea.

    Use my pizza stone as usual, heat it up for half an hour, then turn on my broiler and finish the pizza that way. The heat from the stone plus the heat of the broiler (my oven has an infrared broiler) should do a number on it.

    Alternately, heat the stone with radiant heat from the broiler. But I have no idea how long that would take.

  45. dculberson says:

    Caipirina, using duskiboy’s calculations, it was around US$0.23 – US$0.30 to preheat the oven for 1/2 hour in most of Europe. Not a huge deal, especially if you’re making a few pizzas.

  46. Tidmarsh says:

    For another pizza stone option, check your local art supply store: kiln shelves make great pizza stones. I’m still using one my mom picked up in the late 70s.

    As far as cleaning baking stones: leave them in the oven during the clean cycle. The heat won’t hurt them.

  47. Anonymous says:

    Pizza cooking for non-deep dish styles is a solved problem, and you don’t need your oven. THIS is what you need:

    http://www.walmart.com/catalog/product.do?product_id=3218

    This solves EVERY pizza cooking problem. You can see when the cheese is *perfect*. You can brown the crust independently of the add-ons.

    Seriously — I am the world’s number one pizza fan, and I own a now unused full scale pizza oven. Because of the above gadget. For $50, you can have perfect pizza. Every time.

  48. Anonymous says:

    The extra bricks are probably fine, but really unnecessary. I recommend getting a spray bottle with some tap water and spraying (mist setting) water all around the oven every two minutes for the first 8 minutes of the 11 minute cook time. That extra humidity gives the dough an extra push and transfers heat faster. Works well for bread, too. Oh, and make sure your stone is on the bottom.

  49. Blaine says:

    I’ve had surprisingly good luck using a toaster oven. First baking it for about 12 minutes at 450, then setting it to “toast” for 3-5 minutes (watch it like a hawk).

    It comes out very, very good… depending on ingredients.

    Only real negative is you can only make pizzas the size of tortillas.

  50. ANON says:

    Use low-protein flour for the dough if you are baking at 500F, the high-protein bread flour is for 700F.

  51. benofben says:

    I’ve had good luck with the oven clean method. All you need is a hacksaw to destroy the lock.

    boingboing covered this a couple years ago:
    http://www.boingboing.net/2006/09/17/geek-reverseengineer.html

  52. Anonymous says:

    Yes, the electricity is astoundingly high. No, don’t use a gas oven – you don’t want the convection and moisture it causes. Don’t use non food grade stones – ceramic and clay tiles can have any poisonous ingredient in the world. My suggestion? Build one outdoors. Buy a cheap (or broken) oven and drag it in the back yard. Make a brick oven inside it, and burn either wood (small pieces, many of them) or coal under the bricks. I like to cook at 550, but that requires even cooking. Keep in mind second and third pizzas usually turn out better than the first.

  53. ruhigrom says:

    roll out dough. place on oiled baking sheet. put ingredients on it. put into a 425 degree preheated oven. let it bake for about 12-15 min until cheese starts turning brown. slide the pizza off of the baking sheet directly onto the rack to finish baking for about 5-8 min. crust will be crispy and cheese will be golden yellow.

    i’ve got a grilled pizza that’s even better.

  54. Anonymous says:

    Note: Do NOT use the self-clean option on the oven to cook with. First, it mostly likely locks the oven door so you can’t get in, and Secondly it will probably blow your TCO (thermal cutoff) switch, which is a booger to replace by yourself and expensive to call the Sears guys in for a service call. Just use the highest temp setting the oven will allow for cooking.

  55. Wovixo says:

    Seems like a lot of work just for pizza.

    What’s next? A how-to guide to building your own mill to grind flour to make pasta for Mac-and-cheese?

  56. w000t says:

    Pizza is another thing a kamado is great for. Admittedly, they are not cheap, but they give great results reliably and last for decades. I can get mine to 750F without much effort, or even higher with a little fan pointed at the respirator in the bottom. Plus, the charcoal and/or wood adds to the gourmet pizzeria flavor.

    Another nice option for wood-firing pizza is to build a cob oven. They can be made very cheaply and you get to play engineer and design it to your liking.

  57. Marlet says:

    Oh wow, massive epic fail? Maybe not, quite nifty but i mean you do have an overn at home so best just to use that just incase, dont want to starrt some unncessary fires now
    Free iPod | Free iPhone

  58. Anonymous says:

    Please for the love of god make it VERY CLEAR that people are NOT to use regular bricks. All you did was say that people should buy fire bricks without mentioning why or what the consequences would be.

  59. Anonymous says:

    No. You need precisely one piece of unusual equipment for a decent pizza: a pizza stone. Most gas ovens will reach 550 degrees. At that temperature, and using a stone, you can achieve outstanding results.

  60. Anonymous says:

    #2 and #18 thanks. Conventional over pizza at its best

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