wood holder pizza oven

How Does a Pizza Oven Work?

Years ago when I first became interested in the concept of a pizza oven, one of the first thoughts through my head was “what makes a pizza oven so special?” I mean, really, why is there even such a thing as a pizza oven that is not just an electric range in a kitchen? How does it work to make it so special or unique compared to any other oven without the name “pizza oven”?

I’ve since learned so much more about this wonderful little entity (sometimes not so little) and I’m chomping at the bit to answer the question “how does a pizza oven work?”

FIRST THINGS FIRST

It’s important to note that the so-called “pizza oven” is not a different entity than what some might call an outdoor brick oven or brick bread oven. It’s just that “pizza oven” is probably the most universally popular and recognizable name for this creature!

WHAT MAKES IT SO UNIQUE?

For the purposes of this article, I’ll often be talking about outdoor, wood-fired pizza ovens, and also any other configuration that accomplishes some of the main cooking features of a pizza oven in general. That can include some really cool alternatives to the outdoor, wood-fired pizza oven models! Ovens like indoor electric, or stove-top models are great options in a whole host of circumstances which we deal with in other posts on our blog, like what’s the best oven for college students in teensy weensy dorm rooms, etc. For now, in reference to a wood-burning model, most traditional pizza ovens are made from clay bricks. More modern versions are made from refractory concrete which is a special mix of concrete that is made to handle high heat over a long period of time. There’s typically a door in the oven, but many models have only an opening with NO door at all. There’s usually a flue or chimney to help manage the heating process and allow air to move and escape.

unique dome-shape of a pizza oven directs radiant heat

Let’s start with some basics. Generally, the concept of a wood-fired pizza oven is pretty simple. Its interior is shaped like a dome (and the exterior in many cases) and a fire is lit inside the dome on the brick base. The fire can be in the middle, back or side, and it can be a roaring fire or just hot coals. All of those variables will depend on what and how you’re cooking, but we want to know how the oven itself works so specially to warrant a construction project in your backyard to get one, or a purchase of thousands of dollars to get one of these bad boys! Keep in mind that with all the benefits we’ll discuss in the next few minutes, it should be noted that it can take up to 2 hours to fully heat an authentic pizza oven with high-quality hardwood, which can seem like a brutally long time to wait (for the un-initiated newbie that is!)

ANOTHER NAME?

Another name for a traditional pizza or bread oven is “retained heat oven”. Hmmm… does this give you any clue as to how it actually works? You detective you!!
A typical pizza oven has at least 3 different ways it heats your food, and you have the choice of which one of these methods to enhance for your style of cooking.

RADIANT HEAT

Radiant Heat

This type of heating comes directly from a source. For example, in a typical wood-fired pizza oven, the heat comes from both the direct source of the fire itself and from the heat in the surrounding brickwork, hearth, etc. The heat radiates or travels directly from the heat source to the actual food in your oven. This type of heat is both even and uneven in a wood-fired brick oven. It’s even in that once the walls and ceiling of the oven are hot, the heat itself radiates from all those sides or angles. However, it’s not totally even in that the fire itself is actually most likely to be the hottest source, and that means you’ll probably need to rotate your food more or less during the baking process. This is the main process for making pizzas which require high heat and short baking times. The even-ness can be enhanced by using coals (no direct flame) and baking at lower temperatures over a longer period of time.

 

CONDUCTION

conduction heat in pizza oven

Another baking method (or inherent characteristic actually) is conduction heat. This refers to the type of heat that happens when you place a cold item of food on a hot surface, and heat is simply transferred from the hot surface to the cold food. You can imagine there are a number of variables that affect the nature of the conduction like the difference in temperature between the hot surface and cold food, and also, the material (if any) between the hot and cold items. The ultimate example of this (as far as we here at pizzaovenreview.com are concerned) is a pizza that is placed directly in a super hot oven (around 750˚F) right onto the floor (hearth) of the oven. That’s when the heat shoots right through the crust and bubbling it up into an authentic Neapolitan style piece of savory, mouth-watering artwork!

CONVECTION

convection pizza oven

The idea of convection heat is that heated air circulates around the oven interior and passes over the food. This method is tweaked, controlled and enhanced with the use of a door on the opening of your pizza oven, which allows you to control the amount of air being sucked into the oven. As air is drawn into the oven it gets hot in a hurry from the open flame or heating element and then passes over the food evenly. The process is repeated again as the air continues to heat and travels to the back of the oven. It rises because it’s even hotter than the first time, and then passes over the food again on its way to the chimney or flue where it exits the oven. The amount that you open both the oven door and the flue will determine the specifics of the convection airflow. By eventually perfecting the process of knowing what to do and how to do it is what makes a true master of authentic pizza oven baking!

That’s really the jist of how things work from a technical standpoint, but we’re pretty sure you’ll want a few more bits of really helpful information before you click away from here and google something else like “best deadlifting shoes” or something crazy! (yes, random)

BUT WAIT, THERE’S MORE

An outdoor wood-fired pizza oven is designed to not only create these different types of heat very efficiently, but it’s also designed to hold its temperature for a very long time without adding additional or continuous heat. Around 700˙F is a basic temperature that a good oven is meant to hold for an extended period of time. Actually, only wood-fired traditional pizza ovens offer such a HUGE range of temperature capabilities for baking. They have been traditionally used for trying fruits, mushrooms, herbs and such, at low temperatures for long periods of time. They are also the only type of controllable baking apparatus that can hit 1000 degrees for specialized baking projects. Take that fancy, electric ovens!!!

pizza oven interior

A steel wood holder keeps the oven interior clean while enhancing radiant heat

One of the issues that first time pizza oven buyers sometimes do not consider is that larger ovens take longer to heat up (not to mention the fuel requirements) which means that quite often they will be used far less frequently than you thought when you purchased it! We are very familiar with this phenomenon, and that’s exactly why our pizza oven is SMALL!  The flip side of the larger oven is that it holds its heat longer than the smaller ones. In case you’re wondering how long an oven can maintain heat after it’s brought up to maximum temps, have I got a surprising answer for you! It’ll hold pizza-making temperatures for up to 6 hours with little or no additional coals or wood added, as long as the walls are around 4 inches thick.

I can’t move on until I tell you that in order to optimize all those three types of heating methods for the best final product (FOOD!), it’s ideal to quickly bring the oven up to a super-high temperature (exceeding 1000˚F if you can believe it!) and then let it die down a bit while sweeping embers, coals, and ashes to the side. You’ll want to shut the door at this point and after the heat has evened out for a minute or two, the oven is ready for pizza!

EVEN MORE STILL

Because we’re talking about how a pizza or bread oven works, it can’t go unsaid that one of the unique qualities of a wood-fired oven is that it handles steam in such a unique way! Steam is often created by introducing atomized water into a hot oven, to give the bread a unique crust. Read more about that HERE.

WHAT ABOUT FUEL?

Of course, you know there are lots of different pizza oven models that come with different fuel source options, and whichever one you choose will be vastly different than another option. For example, an indoor electric pizza oven is pretty much maintenance-free and does not really require any special skills or experience to use. Outdoor wood-fired pizza ovens often require some finesse and skill from an experienced operator/chef. The fuel type and construction of the oven will change some of the variable characteristics of how the oven actually works. Many commercial pizza oven models do not have a dome-shaped interior that directs and manages heat in a certain way. They simply have very hot heating elements directly above the food. Other ovens use wood pellets, propane or coal briquettes.

One of the big considerations when using an authentic wood-fired option is the interior space requirements for wood or coal. A significant chunk of real estate can be needed for proper heating and baking in a wood-fired pizza oven (for the wood/fuel), while no space at all is needed for an electric model.

pizzas placed beside coals to take advantage of radiant and convection heat

REALLY?

That was my reaction when I found out that in many cases, a commercial, authentic, wood-fired pizza oven is often NEVER allowed to cool off in its ENTIRE LIFETIME!  That means super high-quality brick and other materials are needed for these beasts, and that’s why the price tag is often an eyebrow-raiser!

REALLY? #2

Did you know that if you end up being the proud owner of an authentic outdoor wood-fired pizza oven, any grease from anything (casseroles, roasts, really greasy pizzas, etc.) will just burn off and you’ll never need to clean the oven! It’s basically like your self-cleaning electric oven during the cleaning cycle – except it’s the full-time temperature that’s being used on a regular basis in your pizza oven!

BENEFITS?

Okay, so we’ve talked a bit about how a pizza oven works from a technical perspective but what about the reasons for wanting a pizza oven? We’d love to introduce you to one of our articles called “Why Should I Buy a Pizza Oven, and What Should I Look For?” For now, let me just say that there’s something “special” about owning and using a wood-fired oven that ALMOST defies words. I’m talking about a description of an experience that encompasses things like “attractiveness”, “eco-friendly”, “fun for guests or customers to watch” and “the centerpiece of any home or establishment that owns one”. I could also take the time to mention that a wood-burning oven is EXTREMELY economical. I mentioned earlier that an oven holds its heat for a long time, and that’s where the true economy comes from. With only a tiny bit of extra fuel (hardwood) an oven can keep going all day. That’s a timeframe that would render an electric oven hopelessly expensive to operate!  Did I mention there are NO chemical gas emissions?

Yes, I could go on and on about how various other pizza ovens work (This one is very cool for what it is!), but I hope to have stimulated your curiosity for one of these extraordinary and time-tested baking machines! I really hope you’ll have fun exploring more about pizza ovens and what they can bring to the table – figuratively AND literally!

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Comments

    1. Author

      Hey Connie;
      Of course, without seeing your fire, there could be dozens of reasons for this. Likely, the most common reason is that you don’t actually have hot coals which are only possible after some hardwood (or softwood if necessary) is burned for a long time, and the larger pieces are glowing. If you throw in some twigs and sticks and light them, they’ll burn out within a few minutes. On the other hand, if you start with those twigs and sticks, and then slowly add larger pieces on top so they catch on fire before the smaller sticks burn out, then your fire will grow. Once you have larger wood burning (several inches in diameter), then let them burn down so the flames get smaller. THEN, you can push that pile to the side (to create pizza space) and that should last for 30-60 min. The bigger the pile of burning coals, the hotter and longer it will burn.
      I’m not sure if that helps, but we really do wish you the best!
      blessings,
      Pete

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