Best Tips and Techniques Using an Outdoor Pizza Oven

There's a learning curve when you begin to use an outdoor pizza oven. Get the hang of it ASAP with these expert tips and techniques.

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If you’re just starting to use a outdoor pizza oven, there are bound to be some burnt pizzas in your future. But that’s okay! Trial and error comes with learning to cook with a wood-fired oven, which can be more challenging than cooking with gas. To help you get warmed up, we’ve compiled eight tips and techniques to get the most out of your wood-fired pizza oven.

Begin With the Right Wood

Use seasoned (meaning air-dried) hardwoods for your fires — never pine or other conifers. Seasoned hardwoods like oak, maple, beech, birch, hickory, ash and walnut burn at higher temperatures so your oven heats faster. And unlike conifers such as pine, cedar, spruce and fir, hardwoods don’t emit sap (which can gum up your oven) or terpenes (which can result in unpleasant odors and funky-tasting food).

Start the Fire

Working in the center of your oven floor, start your fire with kindling. This is the one time pine wood is okay to use, though crumpled-up newspaper works as well. Add a few pieces of hardwood on top of the kindling, and light the fire with a cube or bundle of non-toxic fire starter. Never add scrap wood like particleboard, plywood or other treated woods, even if it’s just to get the fire going.

Keep the Fire Going

Once the fire gets going, add a few pieces of hardwood at a time to keep up a lively but not roaring flame. Keep the oven door open during this phase so plenty of oxygen can enter. Use wood that’s no more than two to three inches in diameter — it will burn more quickly and help the oven heat up faster. Keep the fire in the center of the oven.

Depending on the type of oven you have and how well it’s insulated, reaching the desired temperature (typically 700 F) could take between 30 to 90 minutes. Older ovens, poorly-insulated ovens or those built by hand with brick and mortar may take even longer.

Distribute the Heat Evenly

How much wood you need to burn depends on how long you plan to cook and how many pizzas you want to make. Push the burning wood and embers to the left or right side of the oven, or divide between both sides, and make sure there’s always at least a little bit of flame to the fire — you don’t want just smoldering embers.

To ensure an evenly-heated cooking surface, Stefano Graziani, owner of a pizzeria in Allerona, Italy, recommends spreading a layer of red-hot charcoal with an oven rake over the center of the oven, where the pizzas will cook. Close the door for about 10 to 15 minutes and let the embers go to work heating up the cooking slab.

Cool Down the Oven, If Needed

At first, your oven deck may be too hot to cook. Once you’ve pushed the embers aside, do a quick test by tossing a handful of flour on the surface. If the flour catches fire or burns black right away, the surface is too hot and will burn your pizzas. Correct this by leaving the oven door open for 20 minutes or so, then trying the flour test again. In the unlikely event that your cooking surface becomes too cool, reheat it with another layer of embers.

Clean Up

The safest way to clean your wood-fired pizza oven is to let it cool down completely, even overnight, says Graziani. Using an oven rake or brush, or an all-in-one tool, scoop the cooled ash, embers and wood refuse out of the oven. For cleaning any spots of baked-on food, only use a brass or copper brush head because other metals will damage the stone or brick heating surface. If your wood-fired oven is made of metal, you can wipe it down with a damp rag. Otherwise, there’s no reason to introduce water into a brick or masonry wood-fired oven.

Scatter the Ashes

It won’t take many firings for you to accumulate quite a pile of wood ash. Gather ash in a covered garbage can. Instead of dumping your ashes in the garbage, use at least some of it in your compost bin or garden. Rich in lime and potassium, wood ash is a great fertilizer, although experts warn that it’s not for azaleas, rhododendrons, berries, potatoes or other plants that thrive in acidic soil.

Take Notes!

Firing up and cooking with a wood-fired pizza oven is a learning experience even for the most seasoned backyard cooks. During some sessions you may turn out perfectly cooked pizzas; and at other times you’ll burn several in a row.

Celebrity chef Rick Moonen, who has a Mugnaini residential pizza oven in his backyard, tells us that he keeps a notebook of what works and what doesn’t. “Take note of how you started the fire, which way you positioned the fire and embers, how long you let the oven warm up, and how long you cooked the pizzas,” he says. “There’s no guarantee you’ll nail it the next time, but at least you won’t make the same mistake twice!”

Elizabeth Heath
Elizabeth Heath is a travel, culinary and lifestyle writer based in rural Umbria, Italy. Her work has appeared in The Washington Post, HuffPost, Frommers.com, TripSavvy and many other publications. Her guidebook, An Architecture Lover's Guide to Rome, was released in 2019. Liz's husband is a stonemason and together they are passionate about the great outdoors, endless home improvement projects, dogs, their unruly garden and their slightly less unruly eight-year-old.