Hey ray, we have plenty of room at Chez Taylor. Just one rule you may want to be aware of; come hungry. I mean ravenously so. We do not tolerate guests who claim “we didn’t think there would be enough so we stopped by McDonalds on the way.” That will get the offender thrown into the pool – which might not be a bad thing since the weather is so nice this time of year.
As I patiently await delivery of the elusive Santos fork mixer, I wanted to share my personal perspective on wood-fired ovens. Now this post is not intended to be a treatise on wood-fired ovens though it is quite long. Nor is it an attack on or in support of, any wood-fired oven builder, company, buy vs. build decisioning, design, style, domestic or international type, etc. I just want to share some of what I think I’ve learned from my recent journey over the past couple of years of information gathering tempered with real life observations. Here goes nothing.
The wood-fired oven business is chocked full of purveyors who claim to offer the best of the best, no matter what your application, and with little objective information to back up any of their claims. Therefore, it pays to be an educated buyer if that’s the way you choose to go. Even then you run the risk of making a poor decision because you don’t know what you don’t know. There are so many dimensions one needs to consider in order to make a quality decision. Becoming a wood burning oven owner is a complex decision.
Along the way I’ve spoken with perhaps a dozen or so manufacturers and nearly as many pizzeria owners who own wood-fired ovens, not to mention home oven owners. As a group they are some of the nicest people I have ever encountered. Pizza people are special whether they are enthusiasts or professionals. That doesn’t mean they aren’t biased but most everyone was helpful and willingly shared their knowledge. Oven choices are almost endless though; assembled, unassembled, built on site, cast, build your own from plans, palletized kits, dual fuel gas-assisted, infra-red, commercial, residential, to name a few. So it pays to be as informed as possible. The goal is to make a wise enough decision so that you don’t need to replace it under normal circumstances. Ideally it is a once in a lifetime decision.
Most oven companies seem to be quite sure they produce the best oven and are even surer that the “other” guy doesn’t. Doesn’t mean they are correct, just means they are typically not shy about sharing their opinion. Yet how do they really know? How does anyone know? The factual answer is they likely don’t. They’re guessing based on their experience. Maybe that’s why most manufacturers are secretive about what they do and how they do it.
But the important question is; what is the best oven for your specific requirements.
Most manufacturers aren’t large conglomerates rather they seem to be dominated by family run small businesses. As such they don’t need to conquer the world, they just want to produce what they produce and live a reasonable life. They offer honest products at honest prices. They don’t necessarily want to do anything else for it is their way of life. That is where the pride angle comes into play which leads to sometimes questionable claims which can’t be verified easily if at all.
What I do know is that the traditional wood-fired oven as we know it is ripe to be dramatically improved by the application of new technology. It’s happening sporadically right now. My guess is newer technology is trickling down today and in the near future, the flood gates will be opened by entrepreneurs who recognize an honest-to-goodness opportunity when they see one.
There is no doubt that the latest refractory materials, when used correctly, can produce superior results in most, if not all, settings. But most oven builders are not exactly risk takers. It takes an open mind to want to incorporate something new when the old way of doing things isn’t exactly broken. Lots of ovens bake pizza well. Some do it better than others. But I’m convinced that if most of the manufacturers started out with a fresh, clean sheet of paper today, they wouldn’t build what they are currently offering.
The pace of innovation in the refractory space, outside the oven building business, is so rapid that even an oven manufacturer whose designs are only a few years or so old would be obsolete compared to what is available today. The convergence of knowledge is intruding into wood-fired oven design because it has to. It is inevitable.
It reminds me of the movie Other People’s Money, where Danny DeVito plays a Private Equity raider. He describes to shareholders of a financially ailing company that companies must continuously innovate or be run over and go out of business. The example he used was the last company to produce a buggy whip. They must have produced the best buggy whip ever made because they outlasted every other competitor he said. Nonetheless, they went out of business too because they didn’t innovate and catch the winds of change. Not much need for a buggy whip when someone owns a car he said.
I can’t help but draw the comparison of buggy whips to wood-fired ovens, especially in a residential setting. This in part explains my particular journey. Rather than try and force a commercial oven to work for my intended use, or accept the current crop of residential ovens, I built my own. Mind you, commercial ovens are fundamentally not that much different than residential ovens but they are generally built better. But they may not be suitable for residential use. From my experience however, they may not be any more innovative or up to date though.
The Raquel Oven was designed with innovation woven into its genetic core. Granted, I had the luxury of starting with a clean sheet of paper. Clearly Raquel benefitted greatly from the inexorable pace of technological improvement. My goal was to push the envelope of what was possible in residential oven construction and design. Not what was the norm. Not to see if we could imitate. But the mandate was to break new ground.
In the design phase, we challenged every single assumption my master builder had accumulated over his twenty some odd years of practical experience building ovens. Not an easy task nor always a comfortable one since he is mechanical engineer by trade and is a subject matter expert in most all things refractory. To be told by a lay person such as myself, “that’s not good enough, we can do better” had its risks but thankfully he did have an open mind and that’s all I asked for and needed. That is why Raquel’s vent is not yet completed. While we are close, we have so far scrapped two designs and think we’ve nailed the third. If not, we’re going back to the drawing board. Plain and simple.
The fact that we had access to state-of-the-art computer technology didn’t hurt either. The technology I’m referring to is not used for building pizza ovens as far as I can tell. I sincerely doubt any oven manufacturer has access to what we did since it is used to create commercial refractory solutions which costs millions if not tens of millions of dollars.
But that is how innovation sometimes occurs. I can see one day soon where an existing manufacturer or perhaps someone in a related field, who gets smitten by wood-burning oven pizza, applies what they know in new ways with new materials. Eventually they will produce a new design which incorporates the latest and greatest technology which improves the process and produces a demonstrably better result. It will happen sooner rather than later.
Since I’m a residential user, I’ve restricted my focus to that setting but the fact remains that traditional building materials are so far outclassed these days it’s not even a fair comparison anymore. When one considers the breakthroughs with insulation materials the comparison is even more tilted in the favor of newer is better.
As an example, just a couple of nights ago the Raquel Oven was blazing away at ultra high temperatures and the outer surface of the dome was actually cool to the touch. In fact, the laser gun registered ambient temperature and no more. What does that mean? Well, for me it means a few things; dramatically reduced consumption of wood, shorter heat up times, a safer environment for unsuspecting guests who all seem to want to touch the exterior for some reason. In short it means that the new technology performed as intended.
Now I know I need to be careful with my statements about efficiency because there are other technologies and designs out there which recycle the exhaust and reduce fuel consumption by a multiple of my chimney based design. But, I chose to not go in that direction.
In summary, while I’ve only been baking wood-fired pizza for a short time here’s what I’ve observed from my experience. Whether you build your own or buy one off the shelf, you can bake killer pizza. But there are a few key thoughts to keep in mind:
- A low dome oven is unequivocally better suited for pizza applications than a high dome. Raquel’s dome is less than 13”. So far I have uniformly baked pizzas made from 00 flours, bread flours, and high gluten flours with equally impressive results. Most domestic manufacturers don’t make low dome ovens. Only a handful of international ones do.
- The slope and shape of the dome is critical to ensuring a uniform bake and even internal temperatures. Round is better than rectangular.
- What separates a wood-fired oven from all others is the live flame component which bathes a pizza with a third type of heat other ovens either don’t have or don’t have enough of.
- Insulation is like money; you can never have too much. But proper insulation can reduce excessive wood costs. Much like the Fram oil filter commercials of yesteryear, you can either pay me now or later…
- Short start-up times can be vitally important for residential oven users like myself. The other night I fired the Raquel Oven to operating temperatures in just a smidge over an hour and a half. Flat out pegged the laser gun all over the oven dome. The deck was in the mid eight hundred degree range. I was so happy I was giggling at the results. Less firing time equals less wood consumption which equals more efficiency. For a residential pizza maker, this may be the single most important aspect since we typically bring an oven up from a completely cold start. Pizzerias, on the other hand, can keep an oven charged overnight and this aspect is therefore not as important to them.
- If you are considering buying a fully constructed oven, make sure you understand all the costs and the impact associated with locating it in its final position. Pizza ovens are huge and cannot fit through a typical doorway. Double doors maybe, but not a single door. Plan accordingly.
- Bigger isn’t always better but neither is smaller. I may have lucked out with a 43” diameter cooking deck. It is the sweet spot for home pizza baking in my opinion. Much smaller and the fire could interfere. A larger size really doesn’t get you any more of what you really need. Funny thing, most of the manufacturers advertise how many pies can be loaded at one time. For me, that is a totally irrelevant factor since I bake one at a time. Yet, most of them describe their oven that way. Must be commercial issue…
- Building your own oven is not for everybody. It may not save you time or money. Heck, it may not even work correctly. Weigh this decision carefully. Are you handy with tools? Have you ever worked with cement before?
- Seasoned hard wood is an absolute necessity to bake pizza properly. Properly seasoned wood has the right humidity content to produce exquisitely bubbled crust. The harder the wood, the longer it takes to season. Here in Tampa I am fortunate to have an abundance of Live Oak which burns really hot (one of the highest BTU ratings of any wood) if seasoned correctly or really cold if not. Do not skimp here. It can make a real difference. Buy more than what you need, store it properly, and let father time be your friend.
- Proper oven tools are also highly desirable; a shovel, a brush, and a couple of different sized and shaped peels make all the difference.
- Why go through the expense of building or buying a wood-fired oven? Simply put, it is the ultimate method of pizza baking. Remember, I come from the land of coal fired pizza. Nothing else, not even coal fired pizza comes close in my experience. Perhaps I’m biased but I base this on my personal progression of baking pizza in a home oven (though never modifying the cleaning cycle), and then baking pizza on an 800 degree grill. I won’t explain here in succinct details why those approaches are compromised but suffice to say, my pizza just tastes better in a wood-fired oven and I’d bet your will as well. A residential wood-fired oven is therefore an investment. I consider it an investment of a lifetime. For all I know, it might add to the resale value of one’s home whenever that fateful time comes.
- Be a good citizen and invite your neighbors over for pizza. You’d be surprised how pizza can forge friendships.
- If you are thinking about opening a pizzeria, and you have limited or no experience, please consider hiring a consultant. They will pay for themselves many times over.
Finally, wood-fired ovens are like a fine precision tool. They take time to understand and use properly but the payoff is undeniable. Pizza bliss. Though I’m still learning, I can think of nothing else which has brought the amount of pure satisfaction to me that the Raquel Pizza Specific Wood-Fired Oven has.
Thanks for letting me share. I would be interested in comments and feedback from other forum members whether they be professionals or not. My altruistic goal is to help others make better pizza. I trust this post is a step in that direction.