Each week J. Kenji Lopez-Alt drops by with a tool you might want to stock your kitchen with. Kenji also writes The Food Lab column here on SE. You can follow him as The Food Lab on Facebook or on Twitter for play-by-plays on his future kitchen tests and recipe experiments. —The Mgmt.
To get a good, crisp, well-charred undercarriage on a pizza, you need to have some means of transferring it to a blazing-hot surface (like a pizza stone or a grill) without any intervening pan. The best way to do this is with a peel—the long handled tool with a flat paddle on the end that pizzaioli use to deposit and retrieve pies from hot ovens.
Most professionals use extremely long (think 40 inches or more) peels with heavy-duty, rounded metal heads to poke their pies at a safe distance from the mouths of their 1,000°F wood-burning, fire-belching ovens. But what about the rest of us? The home cooks for whom pizza is not a lifestyle, but who still enjoy hosting the occasional pizza party? Which pizza peel works best for the home oven or grill?
Professional peels generally have a rounded head, and with good reason: a professional has to be able to work with pizzas in all corners of a large oven, all from a single small doorway. A square-headed peel makes it much more difficult to maneuver pies at the sides of the oven because of the angle of insertion. So for them, a peel that's symmetric no matter what angle it's inserted (I.E. round) is a necessity.
A home cook, on the other hand, works in a single small oven or a grill. You only ever have to attack your pizza head-on. For that reason, a square-headed peel makes the business of inserting and retrieving much easier.
Square it is.
Pizza peels come in three basic materials:
Wooden peels, like the Wooden Pizza Peel by ABC Valueline ($29.98) are very pretty. Wood is also the best material to prevent sticking of raw pizza dough—essential for inserting a raw pizza into the oven without disturbing the toppings. You can also cut and serve your pizza directly off the peel without damaging your knife or pizza wheel. However, there are some major downsides.
- Maintenance is a pain: The peel must be carefully dried after washing to prevent warping. You must rub it regularly with mineral oil to keep it from absorbing odors or staining.
- Wooden peels are not fireproof: Even exercising great caution, it will develop burn marks if used on a grill or in a wood-burning oven.
- Wooden peels are thick: There's no way around it. Thick peels make it extremely difficult to slip under a half-cooked pie to rotate it, or even a fully cooked pie to retrieve it. You are forced to go into the oven with a smaller spatula or tongs to slide it up onto the peel.
- Composite peels, like Natural Pizza Peel by Epicurean Cutting Surfaces ($32.95) are easier to care for than wood, and slightly thinner, but still suffer from the same basic problem: they are too thick. Additionally, I have yet to see a composite peel with a handle long enough to reach to the back of a really hot oven without singing the hairs off the back of your hand.
- Metal peels are made from the material of choice. Easy to clean and long-lasting, metal blades are super-thin, making them easy to slip under a pie whether its on a stone or on the grill. The only downside? Raw dough has a tendency to stick to it more than to a wooden peek. This can be easily compensated for by either making sure to dust the peel generously with flour or corn meal before adding the dough and working quickly, or by lining the peel with a piece of parchment paper. The pizza can be constructed on the parchment, and slipped onto the stone parchment and all (this obviously won't work for grilled pizza).
We'll stick with metal.
The handle of a peel needs to be long enough that the head of the blade can reach all the way to the back of your oven while allowing you to keep your hand a good 4-5 inches away from the door. That means that despite the offset blade on the Offset Pizza Peel by Outset ($24.95) which is designed to keep your knuckles from coming in contact with a hot pizza stone, the shortness of its handle negates its usefulness.
Much better is the Wooden Handle Aluminum Pizza Peel by American Metalcraft ($9.95), which features a flat, thin, lightweight aluminum blade, and a wooden handle in a variety of lengths to suit any oven size.
It's also extraordinarily cheap. $10 for a peel that outperforms all the other $25+ peels ain't half bad.
The one problem with is is storage: many people, myself included, might have trouble finding a place to keep a 26 to 40-inch long piece of not-too-oft-used equipment. A nail on the wall works well, or if you can fit it, slide it into the space between your fridge and its housing (like I do). But for those of you who are willing to shell out a bit extra for convenience, go with the Mario Batali Pizza Peel ($32.95).
It's got a stainless steel blade with a sturdy, fold-out beechwood handle. Yes, it's from a celebrity chef, yes it costs three times as much as the American Metalcraft model, but it's well constructed, handsome, and folds down to a mere 16 1/2-inches long (fully extended, it's nearly 30 inches), making cabinet-storage a possibility.
The Late Contender
There's been some discussion here about the Super Peel, a wooden pizza peel with a cloth conveyor belt that helps transfer the pizza to a stone much more easily than a regular peel. I've not had the opportunity to test one, so I'm not qualified to make any statements on how well it actually works.
I will say that from watching it in action: it seems like the shortness of the handle and the proximity of your hand to the stone when operating the conveyor belt would be a problem if you are using a really hot oven (550 degree +). It also seems like although you can transfer the pizza to the stone, you'd need a separate peel to rotate and remove the pie, as the super peel is pretty thick, and the cloth would not make it conducive to sliding under a cooked pizza. The cloth is also made of a cotton/polyester blend, making it unsuitable for use over an open flame. Grilling pizza requires you to constantly be monitoring the underside and rotating the dough as needed for even charring. I'd hate to have my peel catch on fire while I'm doing this.
I'll be getting one for testing soon. In the mean time, anyone who's used one of these for high oven temp pizzas or on open-flame grills have comments?
Got a suggestion for an upcoming topic? Email Kenji here, and he'll do his best to answer your queries in a future post. Become a fan of The Food Lab on Facebook or Twitter for play-by-plays on future kitchen tests and recipe experiments.