The Cast-Iron Secret to Serious Pizza
Pro ovens are overrated. Get just the right blend of char and chew with this home method.
Photo by Vaughn Tan
If you are lucky enough to live in Brooklyn, close to Di Fara Pizzeria, you have the opportunity to eat, daily if you so desire, a pizza that will cause you to jump up and down with pleasure during and after each bite. The tremendous heat of a commercial pizza oven (more than 700 F) cooks the pie in just a couple of minutes, yielding a crust that is lightly charred on the underside and on the rim, moist and tender within, light and airy, chewy yet crisp, with sauce and toppings bubblingly hot but not desiccated. If you do not live nearby, and you have high standards for your pizza, you may be forced to go to great, often costly, lengths.
Fortunately, there is an inexpensive, easy, and incredibly effective solution: make a similar pizza at home. I tested a method recently (making eight runs in total) and can confirm that there was, indeed, jumping up and down with pleasure both during and after each bite, and sounds of pleasure also.
A cast-iron skillet and a broiler in combination are the secret to an airy, moist, chewy, and lightly-charred pizza.
This is the result of experiment seven: "fresh tomato sauce with garlic, basil, and pesto blobs. left it in the oven maybe 30 sec. longer than we should have, hence the excessive charring on top. the second pizza we made, which we didn't photograph, was perfect. perfect."
Let us review.
Commercial ovens designed for pizza or bread have thick stone or refractory brickwork floors, which are preheated to high temperatures and have sufficient thermal mass that placing wet dough on it reduces the temperature by only a small amount. The side effect is that whatever is on the oven floor cooks extremely quickly. Commercial ovens are also free of the thermostatic regulators that prevent most home ovens from reaching the high temperatures of which they are almost all capable—during a self-clean cycle, the a home oven reaches north of 900 F.
Clearly, of the many trials faced by the home cook hell-bent on the pizza of his or her dreams, the two biggest are achieving both a high-temperature cooking surface to crisp the bottom of the pizza and a high-temperature cooking environment to rapidly cook the top. Attempts to surmount these twin problems have included (but are not limited to) the following:
• Buying or building a pizza oven much like a serious pizza restaurant would have. While solving both problems, this solution is not feasible for those with insufficient room (or floor strength) for an 800-pound brick structure.
• Using a pizza stone. These stoneware discs are usually ½" to ¾" thick and take more than an hour to heat up fully in a very hot oven. This solves problem one, but in a spectacularly energy-inefficient way.
• Jerry-rigging home ovens to cook on the cleaning cycle. This involves subverting the automatic lock that usually engages when the cleaning cycle is turned on. If successful, a magnificent pizza. If unsuccessful in opening the oven and retrieving the pizza, ashes, a damaged pizza stone, and the smell of smoke pervading throughout. I know this from bitter experience as, apparently, does Jeffrey Steingarten.
• Investing in specialized home pizza-oven machines that surround the pie with ample heat. Perfect, but at what price? Also, I despise equipment that has only one purpose.
Who can really identify the thought processes behind breakthrough ideas? In any case, about two weeks ago, it occurred to me to ask three questions:
1. Does a cast-iron skillet have enough thermal mass to cook and lightly char a pizza base if thoroughly preheated, then taken off the heat?
2. Does a broiler generate enough radiant heat and hot air to cook and lightly char a pizza top fast enough to not dry it out?
3. Can the combination of a preheated skillet and broiler produce pizza awesomeness?
The answer to all three questions, as it turns out, is yes.
A cast-iron skillet and a broiler in combination are the easy secret to a light, airy, moist, chewy, crisp, lightly-charred pizza without an expensive wood-fired oven or a potentially-expensive experiment with your home oven's safety lock. This pizza will not be quite as good as something baked in under a minute in a roaring-hot pizza oven, but it comes awfully close, all things considered. After several trial runs, I am ready to share the following learning.