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Pizza - why high temperature?

Hi all,

it is commonly suggested to use as high a temperature as possible when making pizza, sometimes the traditional wood-fired brick ovens of pizzerias, reaching 600 F or more, are mentioned. But how, exactly, does temperature affect the pizza, and why are higher temps better? E.g., why is 3 minutes at 600F different than, say, 15 minutes at 500F, or 25 minutes at 400F (just guessing cooking times here, for illustrations).

And what are the limits, theoretically? Would a few seconds at a couple of thousands degrees work? Or some milliseconds or microseconds at a million degrees?

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  1. I can't be of much help to you about the hows and whys, but I can recommend that you google search Heston Blumenthal In Search of Perfection Pizza - he researches the whole process and covers many of the questions you've posted here.

    1. Me think (after less than 10 secs. of thinking about it)

      The only thing really needing cooking in a pizza is the dough; you want to cook it as fast as possible without over-cooking the other ingredients.

      1. To get the crispy crust. Lower temp would work but then you get a soft crust. A million degrees and you'd liquefy it. I bake focaccia pizza at 350ish because it's not a thin crispy crusty chewy pizza.

        1. The longer bread is subjected to heat, the drier it gets. That doesn't stop every corner pizzeria from cooking their pizzas for 10-14 minutes, and all of the leftover crust in the box is the proof that it's not good.

          1. The best reasons for high heat when cooking pizza are well described here so I will only add that some brick ovens reach well over 1000 degrees at various points and it is not uncommon for some bakers to prepare a pizza in ovens reaching 800 or 900 degrees.

            1. It's a little bit like popcorn. Popcorn needs extreme heat for the moisture inside the kernel to convert to steam, expanding rapidly and exploding the outer hull. If you cooked popcorn at a low temp, it would dry out and never pop.

              With pizza, you don't don't have a hull containing this pressure, but the pressure of the expanding gases is still vital to the volume achieved in the baked product. Without intense heat, the gases don't expand as rapidly and you don't achieve the same volume/oven spring. Longer bakes produce denser crumbs. Dense crumbs are perfectly fine for bagels, but, for pizza, you want puff.

              As you get into more advanced home pizzamaking, you learn that temperature is relative. It becomes less about high temps and more about high heat transfer and increased thermal mass. Certain materials conduct heat faster, so a thin $15 Walmart ceramic stone may give you a mediocre 12 minute bake @ 550, while a 1/2" thick piece of steel will give you phenomenal puffy pizza in 3 minutes. When you're aware of the properties of different materials, you can use them to your advantage and produce wood fired results in cooler home ovens- without pushing the home ovens to extreme temps or baking your pizza using a cleaning cycle- as some fanatics are known to do.

              The limits are raw dough. As you increase the heat/heat transfer, you'll hit a point where the outside of the crust is cooked but the inside is still raw. In fast baked, less than 90 second Neapolitan pizza, this is called a gum line, and, while you can find some Italians that tolerate a little rawness, it is generally considered a massive defect. 45 seconds is the cut off point. Any lower than that and you risk the dreaded gum line.

              8 Replies
              1. re: scott123

                Scott nailed it, but I would add that if you think about the dough's internal structure, you might like to compare it to bubble wrap. Layers of protein reenforced starches are created by the kneading, which rolls and folds the dough repeatedly. Fermentation of sugars and starches by the yeast creates CO2 and alcohol, with some of the CO2 getting trapped between the dough layers (called the gluten net). The alcohol contributes to flavor by facilitating creating more complex molecules out of dead yeast, etc.

                When the dough hits the oven, three forms of heat transfer occur, conductive, convective, and radiant. The heat transfer causes the moisture and CO2 remaining in the dough to expand rapidly (oven lift), but also rapidly dry and start to harden the outer skin (which can prevent expansion). This is why you dont want too much wet stuff on top of your pizza, pushing down and creating the gum line.

                Balancing the expandion process to produce what you want is part of the art of pizza construction and baking. For example, one can coat the outside of the cornice of the dough (crust) with an oil which may help expansion a bit, but also impacts flavor. If you want to try a secret of mine, coat the outer crust with duck fat on some pizzas (ideally one with duck) and notice the flavor and rise impact.

                Have fun and yes, use the stone, but heat for at least 30 min to soak up the heat. That is critical. Using Parchment paper to prevent sticking at pizza start is a huge help to home chefs.

                1. re: scott123

                  I've considered trying a 1/2 inch thick steel plate (approx. 20x20 inches) but when I realize that it would weigh somewhere in the neighborhood of 55 - 60 pounds (mild steel) I'd hate to have to load that into my kitchen oven every time I baked a pizza. For those who have a brick oven or other dedicated facility for baking pizza that might work fine, but I'm stuck with a 1/2 inch stone (which is heavy enough all by itself) and 500 degrees (the limit of my kitchen oven) for now.

                  1. re: todao

                    While large NY style pizzas can be pretty magical, I think an 18" square plate is really all you need for a home oven. 18 x18 x 1/2 is 40 lb. A 40 lb. plate is still going to be a hassle to get in and out of the oven. I work with a 40 lb. hearth and leave it in the oven all the time, but it does require some tweaks to bake times/temps when I bake other foods.

                    This all being said, 1/2" steel is great for 550 deg. ovens or even 525, but, at 500, 1/2" steel isn't going to buy you a very fast bake time. 500 is really anemic.

                    Unless your oven runs on the hot side. I've seen a few ovens with 500 on the dial actually hit 575 temps in the oven. I would start off with a $20 infrared thermometer and see how hot your oven can actually go.

                    It's still a bit untested, but if you really want a light stone that will bake fast pizzas, and don't mind spending a bit, 3/4" silicon carbide looks very promising.

                    Or, you can go with a more traditional cordierite baking stone (3/4" or thicker) and cover the temperature probe with an insulating material to push the oven to 600. A hundred degree bump in temperature is pretty benign.

                    1. re: todao

                      Modernist Cuisine recommends a thick aluminum plate. What it loses in thermal mass, it makes up for in conductivity. Obviously, it weighs a lot less than a steel plate of similar thickness would.

                      Both Modernist Cuisine and seriouseats.com recommend using a broiler in conjunction with a preheated metal surface, btw - more intense heat to the pizza, even if the oven temp is no hotter.

                      1. re: cowboyardee

                        Cowboyardee, in both the Modernist Cuisines and the press surrounding it's release, Chris Young (the author of the pizza section), makes some specious claims about Neapolitan bake times and different metals (including 1/4" steel plate). Chris also, like his mentor, Heston Blumenthal, wouldn't know great pizza if it bit him in the behind:

                        http://forums.egullet.org/index.php/t...

                        Modernist Cuisine is great for sous vide (and other areas of molecular gastronomy), but when it comes to pizza, it's really not much better than American Pie.

                        I'm not writing off aluminum completely, but, until I see it in the hands of a competent pizza maker, I can't get behind it. Conductivity is usually a good thing in pizza, but, in the case of aluminum, it's extreme conductivity might change the way the pizza bakes in some way. Silicon carbide has about half the conductivity of AL (167 vs. 255) and I'm not sure even that will work well for lower temp NY style bake times. I've seen silicon carbide do undercrust Neapolitan leoparding at 600, so it has no problem delivering heat quickly, but a NY style crust might need a more sustained level of heat.

                        1. re: scott123

                          Right off the bat - I should have clarified initially that the recommendation for an aluminum plate was geared toward making a neapolitan style pizza in the home oven. It seems you knew that, but I wanted to point it out for anyone else following along.

                          Aside from your objection to anyone considering Young or Blumenthal authorities on neapolitan pizza, I'm not sure I fully understand your objection to the method.

                          - Is it your contention that a slab of steel will work better than aluminum for neapolitan style pizza? For other styles of pizza? Why?

                          - Or that you simply can't make neapolitan style pizza in a home oven (at least without messing with the self-cleaning cycle)?

                          - When you use a steel slab as you recommend, do you also recommend using it in conjunction with the broiler?

                          - You quote some bake times in your original post - limits imposed by the raw dough. Have you managed with any material and/or set up to get a cook time down to around 90 seconds in a home oven? Even with a fully preheated metal slab and my broiler on high, I don't think I've ever gotten the cook time down that low, though admittedly I haven't timed it.

                          In the interest of disclosure, I haven't tried using aluminum personally; it just makes a kind of intuitive sense to me as a way to push the cook time lower in a home oven (and like I've said above, too-low cooking time is not a problem I've managed to have). I have tried cooking under the broiler on an overturned cast iron griddle (maybe 1/3 inch thick), the seriouseats method of cooking on the stovetop and then under the broiler (in a Lodge cast iron skillet in my case), and a slightly modified version of that method wherein skillet is preheated in the oven to get the sides of the pan hotter before cooking (compensating for the too-steep sides of the skillet). All three methods work better than a pizza stone without the broiler in a home oven.

                          1. re: cowboyardee

                            Cowboy, my contention is that aluminum is entirely unproven and has no track record whatsoever. Out of about 2,000 home pizza makers that I've spoken with, no one's ever tried it. Until someone with more pizzamaking skills than Young and Blumenthal give it a try, I'm not recommending it. Silicon carbide has a track record for Neapolitan undercrust char at typical home oven temps- it's not fully fleshed out, but it has more history than AL. Steel has a very proven track record (for Neapolitan undercrusts) at safe, slightly modded (no cleaning cycle) oven temps.

                            I sincerely hope that, at some point, someone spends the relatively big bucks ($150ish for a 1" thick plate) for aluminum so we can see what it can do. Until then, though, silicon carbide and steel are much safer bets.

                            This is all kind of moot, though. You might have noticed that my previous posts reference Neapolitan 'undercrusts,' not Neapolitan pizza as a whole. Matching top heat to bottom heat for a 90 second bake from above is a function very few ovens can perform. Neapolitan top browning/leoparding requires incredibly powerful broilers, broilers that maybe 1 in 50 home owners possess. If one is a big Neapolitan pizza fan, then the first thing to do is check the broiler specs- wattage, btu, number of passes, etc (if you post them here, I can tell you if they're up to par). If you end up being one of the lucky 2%, then it's time to go hearth shopping for the kind of materials we're discussing or, if one is a bit more adventurous, using more extreme oven mods (such as cleaning cycles) with more traditional ceramic materials.

                            In other words, in my previous posts, I mentioned Neapolitan undercrust browning in reference to silicon carbide's history of use, not as a typical hearth requirement. When I talk about 1/2" steel plate it's primarily focused on the 98% of oven owners without Neapolitan grade broilers who's only option is NY style. For NY style, right now, in a 550 oven, 1/2" steel is gold. For NY at 500, that could be silicon carbide, or it could be aluminum, but I'd definitely try silicon carbide first.

                          2. re: scott123

                            To clarify, I never said that Heston makes great pizza, I simply said that he'd researched the process and answered the OPs questions regarding temperatures.

                    2. crisp on the outside, tender on the inside perfect crust. 600 is still fairly low though. Traditional wood fired ovens are much higher. I cook mine between 800-1000 and the 800 is when I'm feeling lazy about getting a higher temp. Yes the temp can be too high, because you aren't just cooking the crust but also presumably melting cheese and cooking toppings. Temp is relative to time and the thickness of the crust and amount of toppings. At least that is my experience cooking them on my Big Green Egg.

                      1. High temperatures for pizzas generally imply that you have a thinner crust pizza.
                        The high temps crisps the bottom of the crust, the inner layer to cook and the cheese to melt.
                        I define thin crust as crust around 1/4 thick.

                        For thicker crust pizzas (bready pizza around 1/2" thick crust, you would use a slightly lower temp to cook longer. This allows the inner parts of the dough to cook and not be soggy/raw doughy., but not burn the outside of the pizza.

                        1. my last experiment- crank oven to full temp, while i heat my largest cast iron fry pan on the stove top. flip pan over, slide pizza onto pan bottom and place in oven asap. im going to try parchment paper next time- thats a good idea.

                          1 Reply
                          1. re: rich patina

                            I have a cast iron griddle - might be a little bit less clumsy than an upside-down pan?