Cooking in a wood-fired pizza oven in 5 Steps (Beginner Friendly)

baking pizza in a wood-fired pizza oven

How do I cook pizza in my wood-fired pizza oven?

As someone who has taught pizza oven-build courses for over seven years, I have heard this question many times. There is nothing better than hot fire kissed pizza, and I am here to help answer this question!

The ideal setup for baking pizza in a wood-fired pizza oven:  Two peels (pizza spatulas), a large round peel, and a thin rectangular one. The round one is used to prepare the raw pizza on, and to put the pizza into the oven, the thin peel is used to spin, move and take the pizza out of the oven. You will need an oven rake to move the coals and a mop to clean the ash from the hearth. It is best practice to have thick leather gloves, a poker stick, and a 5-gallon bucket of water to wet your mop and poker. Ideally, you have a food-prep table near the oven, but not in the way of the baker. You will also want to have at least one cutting board large enough to hold a pizza, this helps the baker to remove the finished pizza from the oven. Let’s take a closer look at how a pizza bake goes step by step!

Like with everything oven and baking related, there are many variables. These variables will make your process a little unique from anyone else’s. Some of these factors are; what kind of wood you are burning, what kind of oven you have, how many pizzas you are baking, what king of dough are you making, etc. Take these into consideration if you are finding that your process can be improved.

5 Star Pizza Preparation the Wood-Fired way!

Be sure to have the dough prepared enough ahead of time, that it is ready to be shaped into pizzas when the oven is ready. This is the dance of timing and the art of baking pizza in a wood-fired pizza oven!

At the latest, prepare the dough a couple of hours ahead of the bake and put it in the fridge. Even better, make it the night before the bake and leave it in the fridge overnight (no longer than 20 hours).  Twenty to thirty minutes before you are ready to make your pizza remove the dough from the fridge, divided it into the number of pizzas you are making, and shape each piece into a ball (if it is very risen kneed it as you roll it). Put the balls of dough to rest on a well flour-dusted surface. Roll each ball out into the crust shape just before you are ready to make your pizza, use plenty of flour when you do this. You can use this amazing pizza dough recipe from the Taste and Tell Blog.

1. Account for Preheating Time

 If you have a dining schedule, account for enough time to fire your oven to baking temperature and to bake. How much firing it will take to get your oven up to temperature depends on many factors. Your typical home clay oven takes about 1 hour to get up to temperature. Commercial pizza ovens bake at 700 – 800 °F ( 370- 420 °C). Pizza likes it hot! If your oven doesn’t get that hot, or you can’t fire for that long, it will still bake amazingly,  650 °F is good. 

2. Preparing the Fire

Ideally, use good dry hardwood. You should have a variety of firewood sizes (split wood is best as it won’t roll around).  Your firing wood consists of kindling and tinder (small sticks and birch bark or newspaper for starting the fire), medium sticks to put on top of your kindling, and then larger logs, 3-6 inches in diameter and 18 inches long, for your main fuel. Your baking wood is best to be prepared as small, 1-2 inch in diameter split logs. Your baking wood will be used to sustain the fire and grill the top of your pizza once your baking. Any wood will do as long as it’s dry and free from paint or other chemicals, like you find in particleboard and pressure-treated wood.

3. Firing the oven

First, clean out leftover coals and debris. Make a nest of your tinder, newspaper, and kindling just about six inches inside the oven door, pile on the medium-sized sticks, and flank the nest on either side with two large logs (pointing towards the door). Having the base of the fire open towards the door allows for the intake draft to feed the center of the fire.  Stack two more logs on top of these logs going the opposite way (like a log cabin), and make one more layer of medium-large logs. Never overfill your oven with wood, you need sufficient air all around the fire to keep an efficient burn, use your judgment.

Use caution when firing, do not come too close to the top of the oven door, as this is where the hot air will exit the oven! Light your tinder and watch the beauty of your oven come to life! Once the logs have caught fire use your rake to push the two base logs deeper into the middle of the oven without collapsing your structure. Add wood as needed to keep the fire sustained. If the fire collapses use your poker to adjust two pieces with a gap towards the door, as you did when building the fire, and pile the new wood on top of them.

It might take you a couple of bakes to know your oven. Avoid having the fire pushed up against the oven’s back wall, as it has a good chance of choking the fire out. If it is a mass oven, meaning it’s built with clay, bricks, or refractory cement, I recommend starting with a one hour firing time and then to test the hearth’s temperature as described below. 

4. Preparing the Oven to Bake

Now your oven is up to temperature and you’re ready to start baking. Move the coals and the remaining fire with your rake (wet it if it is a wooden rake) over to one side of the oven wall. If you are right-handed try moving the fire to the left-hand side. Keep the fire going by adding a few of your baking logs. Use your rake with a wet cloth (or mop) to clean the ash and remaining coals from the open hearth.

Wait 15 minutes to test the temperature of your hearth. Exercise extreme caution whenever reaching into the oven, stay low and wear your leather gloves if needed. To test the hearth temperature, drop a small pile of flour on the hearth where you would put the pizza. If the flour burns at the edge of the pile your hearth is too hot. Mop it out, wait and test again. Repeat until the flour at the edge is just browning after 20 seconds, and mop it out. The oven is ready! Some people use laser thermometers which I have yet to try.

5. Ready to Bake

To prepare a pizza take your round peel and put it on your prep table, if it has a long handle find something to prop up the handle, like a sawhorse. Put a generous layer of cornmeal down on the peel and move your dough onto the peel. It is easiest to move pizza dough by flouring the surface and folding it into quarters. Layer on your sauce, cheese, and toppings, being conscious that, the heavier your topping are the harder it is to slide the pizza off the peel.

Bring the pizza to the oven and place the front lip of the peel on the hearth, where you want the back of your pizza to lay. Rise the handle of the peel to an angle of 20 – 30 degrees and give the peel short swift push-pulling movements (cautiously avoiding not to lose your toppings) only until the back edge of the pizza touches the hearth. Once the back edge is on the hearth lower the angle of your peel and continue the swift push-pulling movements while sliding the peel out from underneath the pizza. Be aware that when the dough is unbaked wherever it lands is where it stays until the crust has started to bake.

This might sound complicated but trust your feeling and know that you will probably mess up a pizza or two while learning, and it’s ok. Do your best to recover any disasters and clean the hearth the best you can with your mop. Baking pizza in a wood-fired pizza oven takes practice and determination.

Now that your pizza is in the oven, you want to be careful about how you add wood. One wrong move and your pizza could be covered in ash and coals (not an issue for larger ovens). A technique to avoid this is to use your peel to add wood, simply place a log on the peel put the edge of the peel over the location you want the log, and slowly tilt the peel dropping it into place. Put a couple of your baking logs onto the pile of coals and watch as the crust puffs up and begins to golden.

Now you will need to rotate the pizza. Baking pizza in a wood-fired pizza oven is extremely fast! It might only take a couple minutes for your pizza to be done. Once the pizza has started to bake, the crust should be firm enough to slide the peel under and maneuver it without any issue. If its not, you either need to wait longer or your hearth is lacking the heat needed to bake the pizza. To rotate slide your peel under the pizza and pull it out toward the door and spin the pizza a third of the way around by hand. Put the pizza back to continue baking and rotate as needed. You can also learn to rotate the pizza just using a thin peel. Slide the peel under one half of the pizza and angle the side of the pizza that your peel is under, by twisting your wrists, now pull the peel towards you. Repeat the rotations until your pizza is perfectly fire kissed! Slice and Enjoy!

YES! Baking and eating wood-fired pizza is one of the most satisfying things in life! Happy baking and bon appetit! We would love to hear about and see photos from your bakes, share them in the comments or on our forum!

Bonus

This is a nice trick whenever you are heating up your oven. After you have finished baking (being sure you have extinguished any coals) carefully load your split fire wood into the oven. Stacking the wood from the back of the oven to the front, then close your oven door. The residual heat from the oven will essentially kiln-dry your wood for your next firing!
 
If your Pizza oven has cracks you should read our easy to follow comprehensive guide on Patching Pizza Oven Cracks. Following is a great video tutorial on baking pizza in a wood-fired oven by Fornieri – Wood Fired Ovens. Enjoy!

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