Optimizing Your Home Oven with a Baking Steel - Modernist Cuisine

Optimizing Your Home Oven with a Baking Steel

MCNovember 21, 2023

Making pizza at home is incredibly fun—but it can also be a challenging endeavor. If you’re a home pizza maker, the only thing standing between you and pizza greatness is your oven. Home ovens unfortunately aren’t optimized for making most styles of pizza. For example, if your intent is to bake Neapolitan pizza, you’re not going to get true Naples-style results in a home oven. It just doesn’t have enough juice to reach the super-high temperatures you need. There are some appliances that can do that and some small outdoor units that can get ripping hot; however, they might not be in everyone’s budget, especially if you’re just starting to make your own pizza. On top of that, safely transferring a prepped, unbaked pizza into a hot oven can be a harrowing exercise.

Don’t worry—you can make fantastic pizza at home, with your own oven. Keep reading to learn about the science of how pizza bakes and how you can get the most out of your home oven using a baking steel.

Understanding Your Oven

Baking a pizza is all about the transfer of heat energy from the oven to the dough, causing a delicious transformation. The water in the dough turns into steam, expanding bubbles created by yeast fermentation, resulting in that sought-after “oven spring.” Meanwhile, proteins in the dough unravel and create a stretchy web inside the crust, while starch on the surface turns into a crisp “starch glass,” giving you that satisfying crunch in your pizza crust.

Not every oven is good for every type of pizza. The pizza deck oven is the most versatile and is recommended for all our styles except Neapolitan. Thin-crust and medium-crust pizzas, like Neapolitan or New York–style, rely heavily on infrared light for baking. Traditional wood-burning ovens are masters of this technique, with their high, asymmetric heat. Ovens that are not specifically designed to bake pizzas can present some challenges to the pizza maker. Most home ovens use air temperature as their primary heat source, which can create a challenge for the home pizza maker.

Pizza ovens have a hearth floor that gets extremely hot and retains a substantial amount of heat when it is preheated. So when you put a pizza on it, there’s significant heat transfer from conduction. In a traditional pizza oven, the ambient temperature of the air is vastly higher and air makes much less of a contribution (see Modernist Pizza, vol. 1, page 354).

By contrast, home ovens work by heating the air within the oven. Because home ovens operate at temperatures that are hundreds of degrees colder than a pizza oven, heat transfer from the air is important. If a home oven has convection heat, the oven has a fan that blows the heat around the oven. This speeds up the cooking time, but it can set the pizza crust too quickly and contribute to a reduction in volume. When you load the pizza into a home oven and close the door, the oven will take some time to recover. Combi and convection ovens will take less time to do so since the circulating hot air makes the oven come up to temperature faster than in a still oven.

Additionally, a home oven doesn’t have a floor like a pizza oven, and the thin metal walls don’t help the situation because they don’t hold enough heat. We tried using a baking stone to mimic the hearth of a pizza oven. The problem is that the stone in a pizza oven is much thicker and gets much hotter, so even though the material is the same, using a baking stone isn’t that great at improving the performance of a non–pizza oven.

Here’s where a baking steel comes in. It can seriously transform your oven’s performance. Providing a direct heat source to the bottom of the pizza and getting the oven as hot as possible are two of the most important factors to improving your home oven—regardless of pizza style. Thin-crust and medium-crust pizzas need the high heat for their crust development, but even pan-baked pizzas benefit from the heat in order to achieve a crispy bottom crust.

How to Use Your Baking Steel to Maximize Your Oven’s Performance

The best way to try to replicate the floor of a pizza oven in a non–pizza oven is to preheat your oven with a baking steel or baking stone for 10–20 minutes (home ovens benefit from a 30-minute preheat). For most pizza styles, we recommend you place the steel on a shelf 10 cm / 4 in from the broiler in combi, convection, or still electric or gas ovens. (Be sure to check the individual recipes for specific recommendations.)

For home ovens, you can preheat the oven 15°C / 25°F higher than the recipe’s baking temperature calls for, if your oven allows it. This is so the temperature drop from opening the oven door isn’t so dramatic. Make sure that after you close the door and the oven returns to the desired temperature, you set it to the correct temperature in the recipe.

Sometimes, we recommend turning on the broiler at some point during baking (see the individual recipes for specific recommendations). Make sure that your oven is calibrated and that you use an oven thermometer to verify the temperature of the oven (see Modernist Pizza, vol. 1, page 392).

You can also stack two baking steels on top of each other to retain and radiate heat more evenly. Or you can separate them and cook more pizzas at the same time. If you are making pizzas frequently in these ovens, it might be worth investing in two steels. Keep in mind, however, that some oven racks can’t support the weight of two steels and the racks can bend and fall in the oven. Most baking steels won’t fit exactly on the shelves of a combi or convection oven, so you might consider getting custom-cut steel if you make pizza often. We recommend 1.25 cm / ½-in thick-cut steel or 2.5 cm / 1-in thick-cut aluminum.

We recommend using a pizza screen or parchment paper to safely transfer uncooked, floor-baked pizzas onto preheated steel. If you go the parchment-paper route, cut a piece of parchment paper slightly larger than your pizza prior to shaping your dough. For a 30 cm / 12 in or 35 cm / 14 in pizza, cut a 38 cm / 15 in round or square piece. From there, shape your dough and place it on the parchment paper or screen. If you are using a screen, be sure to coat it with a light layer of cooking spray and shape the dough on a generously floured surface. Apply the sauce, cheese, and toppings. Transfer the pizza, parchment paper included, onto a peel or the back of an upside-down sheet pan or cookie sheet. Then carefully slide the pizza onto the hot steel in the oven.

Baking Steels vs. Baking Stones and Cast-Iron Skillets

The next best thing to a baking steel is a baking stone. This functions in much the same way but doesn’t retain heat as well as the steel. You can use untreated paving tiles to replicate a baking stone, but you’ll likely need to put a grid of them in your oven to create an area large enough to bake a pizza on, which can be unwieldy. Paving tiles fit nicely in toaster ovens and can be used to improve pizzas that you bake or reheat in them.

Another great alternative to using a baking steel is making pizza in a cast-iron skillet or griddle, either in the oven or on a stovetop. You want to use something that is flat, shallow, and large enough to cook your pizza. We prefer round cast-iron skillets to rectangular griddles, but either will do (round cast-iron griddles with handles, similar to what sizzling fajitas are served on, work well). Be sure to preheat the cast iron to the temperature indicated in the recipe before making your pizza.

While cast-iron skillets provide consistent bottom heat to the pizza, they aren’t capable of giving you top heat. We like to use them in conjunction with a heat gun for the stovetop or a high-heat broiler in the oven to bake the cheese and toppings to the perfect doneness. We tried using a blowtorch to brown the top of the pizza, but it was less successful than the heat gun. The other benefit to using cast-iron skillets is that they are multipurpose. As a last resort, you can preheat a stack of three or four upside-down sheet pans to try to provide extra bottom heat to the pizza as it bakes.

Baking Steel Maintenance

Keep in mind that you need to maintain your baking steel (in much the same way as cast iron). Before using the baking steel, season it with oil and burn it off. Don’t wash your baking steel. If something gets crusted on it, scrub it with salt to clean it. Rub the steel with coats of oil in between uses so that it doesn’t rust. Using a pizza screen (see Modernist Pizza, vol. 1, page 388) makes it easier to load the pizza into the oven. Be sure to coat the screen with spray oil before using. Remove the pizza from the screen a couple of minutes after it goes into the oven so that the bottom of the pizza can brown properly. Slide a peel in between the pizza and the screen and then take the screen out of the oven with tongs or a kitchen towel.

If you want to master the art of pizza making, it’s important to have an understanding of how pizza bakes and how to work with your particular oven. While home ovens may present challenges, a baking steel can be a game changer. Whether you choose a steel, stone, or cast iron, these tools will help you achieve that perfect pizza crust, turning your home kitchen into a pizzeria. So shape that dough, top it with your favorite ingredients, and let your optimized oven work its magic!

Baking steels aren’t limited to just the oven—unleash the full potential of your new equipment with these five additional uses. Be sure to also check out our Pizza Gear Guide for more valuable recommendations on pizza-making equipment.