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...

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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.

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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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