My Pizza Oven: Mike Shimpock Builds a Cheap, Fast Wood-Fired Earth Oven
Earlier in the year, I posted a link to an article about building your own wood-fired earth oven for $20. At some point, Mike Shimpock of Los Angeles mentioned that he had done something similar. Guess what happens when you mention you have your own WFO? You become the next victim for My Pizza Oven. Let's put Mike in the hot seat! —The Mgmt.
When did you put it in? Where did you get the plans? And how long did construction take?
I built it about two years ago over the course of three months. it only took about three weekends to actually build. The rest of the time was spent collecting the materials. My wife challenged me to build it for $200 or less, so the only things I paid for were about 30 firebricks for the oven floor, concrete sand, and a bag of perlite. Everything else I scrounged: The base is built from salvaged concrete from an old patio and concrete blocks I found on Craigslist, the mud for the oven itself came from a friend's hillside, and the insulation is mud and empty wine bottles (I emptied them all by myself.)
I based the oven on Kiko Denzer's book Build Your Own Earth Oven, although that book can be maddeningly imprecise in critical areas. My building partners, the internet and improvisation, were a great help as well.
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How often do you use it?
When I'm not in a crunch at work, about 3 to 4 times a month. I usually don't cook in it unless we have other people over, because it really isn't nearly as much fun if you aren't cooking a lot of pizzas in it. We cure all our own meats, make our own sausage and brew beer as well, so getting folks to join in usually isn't that hard. Now if I could just train them to stretch dough.
Do you cook anything besides pizza in it?
I challenge myself to cook as much as possible in the oven for each firing. I'm a bread baker, and I've done 12 loaves in this — it's great for baking bread because the thermal mass of the oven holds temp so well. A staple is roasted vegetables, but we cook chickens, roasts, and even cookies in it.
What style of pizza do you normally do?
A cross between Neapolitan and Roman. I try to combine a nice cornicione with a thin, crisp crust. My toddler loves pizza as well, but she's into what my wife calls "cafeteria pizza," essentially a pizza focaccia that I make in the oven. Lately we've been using a variation on Peter Reinhart's Roman pizza dough with a three-day ferment.
What's your favorite topping or topping combination to make?
I've shamelessly stolen Flagstaff Forno and Paulie Gee's idea for brined greens. Right now the big hit is a brined-kale-and-goat-cheese pizza with housemade fennel sausage. Another good one is the Wakey-Wakey Eggs and Bakey, a tomato sauce, four-cheese pizza with home-cured, smoked bacon with two eggs.
Do you cook for friends/neighbors?
Oh, yes. I need their goodwill.
What does your family think of your pizza madness?
They are supportive, as long as they aren't on a diet. My wife is really into it and is pushing hard for whole wheat pizza. I roped my dad into helping build the thing at some key points, and he still complains about my 18th century building methods.
The Pizza Cognition Theory states that "the first slice of pizza a child sees and tastes ... becomes, for him, pizza." Do you remember your first slice? Where was it from, is the place still around, and if so, does it hold up? On that note, has your taste in pizza evolved over time?
The first slice I remember is from a local place near where I grew up. it had a crisp, bready crust with cheese, then a tangy tomato sauce, and then a complete covering of ground sausage. The place is still around, we still go, and I have to say it holds up. That said, I have other places that I prefer, but by category. Pizza comes in so many types now that it is hard for me to say that I have a favorite.
Where do you go for pizza in your area (when you're not making your own)?
Casa Bianca in Eagle Rock — a fantastic pie that's been around for 50 years with house-made sausage and really unlike any other pie around here. I used to go to Pizzeria Mozza quite a bit. Lately it's mostly my backyard.
What's most important to you: crust, sauce, or cheese?
Crust, by far. That's the foundation and the holy grail. It's the single hardest thing to master and produce consistently.
What one thing should NEVER go on a pizza?
I'm not a purist. I've had enough weird pizzas that blew me away that I am not willing to rule anything out. That said, a pizza should never come in a box that says Domino's, Papa John's, or Pizza Hut.
Weirdest pizza you've ever eaten?
Black bean and queso Mexicano pizza with chicken. It was actually really good.
What's the farthest you've traveled for pizza?
I got stranded at Pizzeria Bianco without a ride, and a cab driver got us lost on the way back to our hotel. Does that count?
What's one pizza place you've always wanted to try but haven't yet?
Pizziaolo in Oakland. I keep hearing great things about this place but have yet to make it. I keep getting distracted by Pizzeria Delfina.
I love Delfina, but you really have to get to Pizzaiolo. And while you're in the East Bay, try Emilia's, too. So ... any other bits of wisdom you've picked up that you'd like to pass on?
You don't need a lot of money or space to have a wood-fired oven. I built this oven by myself (not recommended; get friends or a cement mixer) in less than a week of actual work for less than $200. It makes excellent pizzas, and with a live fire can make easily more than a dozen 12-inch pies, bake tons of bread, and even roast a chicken. I had zero masonry experience (or any other real experience for that matter) and still pulled this off. While I'd still like a masonry oven at some point, this simple, cheap oven pumps out great pizza at a low cost. Go for it! What's the worst that can happen? You have a pile of mud in your backyard?
Nomination time! Who would you like to see interviewed next?
Paulie Gee's tomato supplier.
Wouldn't we all? Thanks for playin', Mike. I hope people take inspiration from this — there's still time left in summer to build one!
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