Tips for Making Pizza in a Wood-Fired Oven

A wood-fired oven can make you feel like a pizza-making pro. Only a wood-fired oven can achieve the soaring temperatures needed for a deliciously charred Neapolitan-style pizza. Once you bought one or installed one in your backyard, you finally joined the elite ranks of backyard chefs who bring traditional and timeless flavor to the pizza. Say hello to the opportunity to make the freshest, most delicious, gourmet pizza you can ever taste!

But cooking a great pizza won’t be automatic. It doesn’t mean that if you own a high-end coffee maker, you will enjoy a delicious café-style coffee every morning. The same goes for wood-fired pizza ovens. You must learn how to use them and properly prepare pizza dough and ingredients to achieve the best results.

What is a Wood-Fired Oven?

Wood-fired pizza oven heating

A wood-fired oven is a self-contained oven that uses wood as fuel to make a fire. It works by reflecting heat, and this does the cooking. Though the fire created using wood gets the oven hot, the bricks lining the inside make it work. It might seem like the fire is doing the cooking, but the oven can actually cook due to the heat radiating from the brick back into the oven.

The fire also lends a unique flavor and caramelization to the crust, which is part of the secret behind making wood-fired pizza extra delicious and special. It doesn’t compare to pizzas cooked in a gas oven. For a pizza chef, there’s nothing like watching the rolling flames of a fire, inhaling the aroma of baking dough, followed by taking that chewy, crispy bite into the pizza you created by hand.

How to Make and Cook Pizza in a Wood-Fired Oven

Setting up an oven is easier and quicker than you might think, and you’ll be amazed by the pizzas that it can produce. Here’s how you can make your own pizza and cook it properly in a wood-fired oven: 

1. Create your dough

Chef’s hand spraying flour over the dough

The best foundation for a fantastic pizza is good dough. You can buy pre-made dough, but creating your own is fun. Half the fun of making your own pizza is adding your own twists, which can start with the dough. You may want to add herbs and extra olive oil or make recipe variations like focaccia dough.

You only need a few ingredients to make your own dough, and you can make it any time. All you need is flour (bread flour or stone-milled flour is best), water, yeast, oil, and salt. Once your dough has risen, stretch it out to a 12-14” diameter circle with your hands, a rolling pin, and some TLC. And when mashing and rolling your dough, you must coat your hands and your table or working surface with flour. With practice, you will learn how to stretch the dough without pressing it down to your work surface.

The amount of dough (measured in weight) you need will depend on the size of the pizza you want to make and its thickness (thick crust, regular crust, or thin crust).

2. Preheat your oven

A wood-fired pizza oven temperature has a higher, hotter temperature range than a conventional oven. It must be at least 700 degrees to cook pizza, but ideally, it must be more than 800 degrees.

While your dough is rising, heat your oven. Using several wood sticks, make a fire in the center of the oven and let it burn. When the oven ceiling reaches a temperature of around 700 degrees, the soot will vaporize, and a white patch will appear, which will expand, going down towards the floor as the oven keeps on heating. When the soot is burned off, the oven is hot enough.

To build a nice fire, layer kindling and add small pieces of wood as if you are building a log cabin. Once the fire is going, add larger pieces of wood, and when it has been burned into coals, push the fire deeper into the oven while making room for the pizza. You will want to wait until your oven is fully preheated before baking.

How long will this take? It depends on the shape of the oven and the materials used to build it. Brick pizza ovens and barrel-vault-roofed bread ovens may need as much as three hours to preheat. But a modern pizza oven with refractory materials will need about 90 minutes to reach optimal temperature.

High heat is needed if you want a crispy crust with perfectly cooked toppings. And this is where pizza ovens shine, as they can withstand temperatures far greater than regular home ovens. You may need an infrared temperature gun to ensure you have reached the ideal temperature without the lag in precision common when using oven thermometers.

3. Add toppings to your pizza

Pizza toppings on a table

While your oven is still preheating, you can get your toppings ready. With a wood-fired pizza oven, you can cook as many as you like (even side to side, if the oven is large enough) because it takes only a couple of minutes to cook, and the oven will stay hot for hours. So while you’re at it, you may want to try a few different combinations, mix and match, or maybe even invent your own topping combinations. That’s the beauty of making your own pizza – there’s no wrong way to top it.

Pizza sauce is typically based on tomatoes, but there are no constraints when it comes to the sauce. Alfredo, barbeque sauce, pesto, or even beet sauce can be used to coat a pizza dough. Spread your ingredients – sauce first – on the top of the dough and arrange them how you prefer. To be fair to the people who will share a pizza pie, spread the toppings evenly. Although, you can make pretty shapes and get creative if you like. You can also just toss the toppings if that’s what you like!

The most classic Neapolitan pizza is the Margherita pizza, which is topped with tomatoes, basil, and fresh mozzarella. And one of the most popular pizzas is the pepperoni pizza. You can make your own version of them, but you are free to do whatever you wish. However, keep in mind that less is more – putting too many toppings (in terms of volume, not the variety) makes a heavy pizza that’s difficult to cook and get done.

4. Prepare the oven

Once your oven is hot, use a long, metal-handled ash scraper to push the coals to one side of the oven, then brush the ash from the floor with a metal-bristled brush.

To maintain the oven temperature, add a stick of wood to the fire every 10 minutes or so. Some also place a small andiron near the coals to keep one end of the stick raised so it will burn better. Use an infrared thermometer so you can measure temperature without getting in contact with extreme heat.

5. Put the pizza in the oven and turn it on while it’s inside

A raw pizza to be placed in a hot oven

Once the oven is prepared, the dough is rolled, and the toppings are arranged, it’s time to cook your pizza in the wood-fired oven. It’s best to place it toward the front of the oven and lay it directly on the oven floor. Slip your pizza into the oven using a lightly-floured wooden pizza peel, giving the peel a deft jerk to transfer the pizza from the peel to the pizza oven floor. You will notice that the crust will start to puff up and cook right away, after about a few seconds to a couple of minutes at most.

Achieving an evenly-cooked pizza takes a bit of effort. While the pizza is cooking, you need to use a pizza turner peel to rotate it 180 degrees to ensure that it cooks evenly. This requires your diligence, so a pizza-turner is a necessity. Some pizza pros only use a regular peel for turning because they can rotate it inside the oven on their own after years of practice. Remember, keep the pizza from another part of the oven when you rotate it because it might burn.  

When the pizza is done, the crust must be nice and crisp, with cheese that is soft, bubbling, melted, and gooey. It is usually done in 60 to 90 seconds, and you can cook another batch.

6. The key is in the peel

The best pizza peel you can use is large enough for the pizzas you are creating. It must also have a handle that’s long enough to protect your hands from high heat. A pizza peel is essential when baking pizzas, and you will need more than one for the best results.

When putting a pizza peel in the oven, it’s best to use a wooden peel because it sticks less to the dough. You also need to sprinkle flour on the peel to keep the pizza from clinging to it, which can result in tragic results due to its hampered momentum, like having raw pizza on your patio’s concrete.

Using a pizza peel can take a bit of practice and hand-eye coordination, so make sure the peel is a bit larger than the pizza itself to allow yourself some room for error. When putting your pizza in the oven, you have to move the peel slowly, then slide it off in a quick forward and backward motion.

And when the pizza is cooked, it’s best to use a long-handled, metal pizza peel to take it out of the oven. Wooden peels are usually thicker than metal peels, so the latter is better to use.

Place it in a pan and use a pizza slicer to slice. Enjoy it while hot!