Pizza oven buyer’s guide

Pizza ovens are the hot thing—and for good reason. They get food on the table in a flash, and everyone can DIY their dinner. What’s more cottagey than that?

As people dry off from their last swim of the day, the balls of dough are finishing their second rise. The dough is ready to be hand stretched, and the canned San Marzano tomatoes have been crushed, not pureed, so the slightly bitter seeds remain whole.

You’re ready for the three very opinionated camps among your friends: sliced buffalo or fior di latte mozzarella, olive oil, and fresh basil for the Margherita purists; tomatoes, oregano, and garlicky sauce for the Marinara crowd; and a hodgepodge of prepped toppings for the kitchen-sink fans—who are planning to ignore your advice and overload their pizzas.

Luckily, your new pizza oven only takes about 20 minutes to heat up, and it can blast each pizza to perfection in as little as two minutes, so you can feed everyone their custom pizzas almost as quickly as they can make them.

More heat gives you more pizza options. A kitchen oven maxes out around 500°F—too cool for a Neopolitan thin-crust pizza, but okay for thicker Sicilian-style pies. Although a barbecue gets hotter, the heat comes from below. That’s great for steak and roasted peppers, explains Rocco Agostino, the executive chef of and partner in Toronto’s Pizzeria Libretto restaurants, but “pizza crust on the barbecue cooks through too much before the toppings get hot.” To meet the official standards of a Naples-style crust—blistered surfaces, leopard-like spots of char, and soft, moist interiors—pizzas need at least 905°F.

About a decade ago, massive brick and concrete ovens, the ones that cottagers sometimes build as DIY projects, started to see serious competition from smaller backyard pizza ovens. Made with a shell of heavily insulated sheet steel, many of the newer ovens are big enough for a pizza but not much more, so they heat up faster with less fuel. Some ovens use a small wood fire to heat the chamber. Others use propane or natural gas flowing into barbecue-like burners, and a few burn wood pellets or charcoal.

The choice of fuel divides cottagers along the same lines as the barbecue wars of the last century: charcoal and wood for flavour, propane for convenience. Agostino uses propane in his backyard Ooni Karu. “I have two kids who won’t wait around for pizza,” he says, “and it’s not in the oven long enough to absorb much smoke anyway.”

That’s true, agrees Glenn Satnarain, but “I can smell wood smoke around the oven. And on my clothes. It’s ambiance.” As the operations director for barbecue retailer Turn Up the Heat, in Concord, Ont., Satnarain has tried many different ovens. Propane, he says, is surprisingly popular for pizza parties, even without the ambiance. “Guests are actually more willing to cook their own pizzas in a propane-fired oven. Nowadays, everyone is familiar with gas barbecues.”

Cottagers who choose built-in pizza ovens, which need a masonry base and typically cost between $3,000 to $5,000, often incorporate them into a full outdoor kitchen project, says Satnarain. The large ovens are versatile and can fit several pizzas at once, alongside big chunks of wood. (Once large pieces start burning, the fire needs less babysitting than a small oven requires, explains Satnarain.)

Freestanding ovens, on their own integral stands, can be moved inside for winter storage, while portable, countertop ovens—most costing less than $1,000—can sit safely on a wood picnic table while in use and are easily stored away. The lightest “tailgate” ovens, including the 12-kg Pizzeria Pronto, can travel to the beach or to your favourite picnic island.

Most ovens—even the tailgaters—rely on a cordierite ceramic base, similar to a pizza stone, to retain heat and absorb some steam from the crust. Thick bases retain heat but add weight; lightweight ovens tend to cool quickly and need time between pizzas to reheat.

There’s a similar trade-off between portability, durability, and cost. Some inexpensive ovens reduce the weight and price tag by using less cordierite and thinner steel.

If you’re not ready to try a dedicated pizza oven, there are accessories that improve the pizza capabilities of a barbecue. Some add-ons sit on top of a kettle grill; others fit inside the grill chamber. They typically can’t get as hot (or stay as hot) as a dedicated oven, so they’re better suited to pizzas with crisp “Roman-style” crusts.

No pizza oven? No problem

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