The Joy and Economics of Cooking Pizza At Home
Dear Mr. Yglesias,
Boy, have I got a crust to pick with you. I'm talking, of course, about your post on Slate yesterday called The Folly of Cooking Pizza at Home, a post whose title alone could potentially stir up the regulars on this site to demand that you be forced, heretic-style, into the mouths of a 1,000°F converted kettle grill pizza oven. Or, at the very least, to start thinking of creative ways to repurpose their pizza cutters and baking steels.
I am honor-bound to rebut your profane attacks on the sanctity of hacked-together, strapped-on, jury-rigged home pizza ovens the world over and call upon my fellow pizza obsessives to rise up against your words like a perfectly formed cornicione of justice.
Before we get into this little bout, I want to clarify that Mr. Yglesias and I go back a ways. We went to the same high school at the same time. We chat on Twitter. I enjoy his work and he seems to enjoy mine. I know he can take it, so I'm holding no punches in explaining to the gentlemen exactly why he is completely and utterly wrong on every level. If you haven't read the article yet yet, go ahead. It's a fun read, and humorous, if only for its complete lack of a valid point.
So, Mr. Yglesias, let's begin, shall we?
From your first paragraph:
You can get a kettle grill and then add the KettlePizza attachment and use it in combination with a pizza steel for what's apparently the best at-home pizza solution yet. But why bother?
There are many reasons, but lets start with the one you probably care about most:
Reason 1: The Economics
Now, Mr. Yglesias, you mention that for the price of the attachments I've used to convert my Weber kettle grill into a wood-burning pizza oven (about $300, actually, not the $200 you generously calculated), you could buy 16 pizzas at your favorite pizza joint, Red Rocks, in D.C. Let's forget for a moment that 2Amys is a superior establishment and just point out the obvious flaw in this statement: What about the 17th pizza?
According to the always-reliable fact checkers at funtrivia.com, there are 3 billion pizzas sold in the US every year. That's an average of nearly 10 pizzas for every man, woman, and child. Chances are, if you're the type of person who would even consider buying equipment to cook pizza at home, you consume more than the average. Let's say, oh, 15 pizzas per year or so. Judging by the regularity of My Pie Monday contributors and pizzamaking.com visitors, I'd say the spread is most likely much bigger, so we're being generous here.
Once you've made the capital investment, pizza is extremely cheap to make at home. like, really really cheap. Even when I go with fancy toppings, I'm still maxing out at around $4 a pie, which going by the $12.50 cost of the pizzas from Red Rocks, is an $8.50 savings on every pie I make at home. That's not counting delivery fees, of course.
Assuming I'm making 8-slice pies, at that rate, I recoup my investment and break even somewhere between the third and fourth bite into the third slice of my 36th pizza. Assuming I started cooking pizzas on January 1st and that there's an even distribution of pizza-making and eating throughout the year, the watershed moment comes on precisely May 6th of the third year.
2 years and a few months is a pretty reasonable timeframe to expect a return on an investment on a piece of equipment that will last you a lifetime. And again, for the people actually buying these things, that watershed will come far, far sooner. Last month alone I made 18 pizzas, and I plan on hosting pizza parties at least once a month during the summer, cooking 6 to 10 pies at each gathering.
Of course this equation doesn't factor in the one thing that really matters here: the cost or utility of actually making pizza yourself. But we'll get to that.
Reason 2: The Quality
Another quote from your article.
Pizza is just a great instance of a complicated modern economy in action, and the best way to enjoy pizza is to purchase it from a specialized pizza fabrication facility.
The issue is that while great pizza is fairly simple to make, cooking it properly requires an expensive piece of capital equipment. Your oven can't get nearly hot enough to cook a pizza correctly. To do it, you need a pizza oven.
I'm going to give you the benefit of the doubt and assume that you are talking only about Neapolitan, New York, or New Haven-style pizza here, as those are the only major styles that require the use of specialized equipment.
I know you probably think that your statement is true (I mean, you'd never write something online just to get a reaction, would you?), and it's a perfectly understandable sentiment. We've all had moments when friends offered us strips of cardboard, saying, "hey, try this pizza, I made it myself!" followed by polite smiles and liberal application of beer and water, right?
The psychological seasoning that home-made pizza gets sprinkled with is often enough to fool those who made it into believing that their homemade pies are better than the pizza joint down the street. In some cases—many, even—this may be true, but it's by no means the norm. Unless you are cooking with, at the very least, a stone or a steel, chances are the local delivery joint is producing a superior pie.
But!—and it's a big but—once you've invested in that equipment and have a good recipe or two under your belt, what you can produce at home is vastly superior to what you can get at all but a handful of the best pizzerias in the country.
At the risk of sounding like a show-off and knowing full well that I am paid to make pizza and that I am distinctly biased towards my own work, I can say with utmost confidence that in terms of New York-style pizza, there are only a couple of establishments in New York that produce pizza that would even be considered in the same ballpark as what comes out of my hacked KettlePizza, and precisely zero in Manhattan. I'm still working on my Neapolitan recipe, but it's getting better all the time.
Fact is, Matt, most of the very best pizzas in the country are being produced in people's homes and backyards. Perhaps if you were a bit nicer, you'd get invited to those parties.*
*You have an open invite to have pizza on my deck any time you are in New York, by the way. Seriously. You bring the beer.
Reason 3: Customization
For many people, this is the primary reason to make pizza at home. No limits on topping combinations. No limit on the quality of ingredients. The ability to modify a recipe to suit any kind of diet or allergy. Got a kid with a dairy allergy and another with a wheat allergy? Not a problem when you make pizza at home.
Reason 4: Availability
Now of course, to each his own. If what you want is some home-cooked pizza, I'm sure this is a great way to do it. But it's a bit nuts. And excessive focus on the issue obscures one of the great economic triumphs of our time--the enormous increase in the availability of quality pizza all around America.
Matt, first off, thank you for calling me nuts. I mean that.
But let me defend myself against the second half of your statement by saying that my focus on cooking pizza at home may be excessive, but our coverage of home pizza-making versus ordering pizza out on Slice is pretty far skewed towards the order-out crowd. If you check out the front page today, there's one article reviewing the new KettlePizza, one recipe, one taste test, and a 15 reviews or pizza news stories. Do you really think so little of our readers' intelligence that they'd be so blinded by our obsessive 3-article coverage of home pizza-making that they'll completely bypass the other 15 articles on the page, or worse, forget that Domino's is just a few clicks away if they suddenly crave it?
And while it's true—there has been an enormous increase of the availability of quality pizza all around America, that increase is largely irrelevant to the majority of the population. For your average American living outside of, say, Brooklyn, New Haven, Chicago, or the immediate vicinity of Pizzeria Bianco in Phoenix, getting great pizza is still not easy. When you do happen to live in vicinty of decent pizza, it's easy to forget that.
Even the mom and pop joints in small towns are often no better than the nationwide chains, and many times worse. From a macro perspective, the map of the U.S. may be slowly filling in with good pizza, but drop a pin in a random location (or even a location weighted by population), and you're unlikely to hit one. Fact is, unless you are lucky enough to live in delivery range of one of the good ones, are willing to travel great distances for good pizza, or make it yourself, America remains a pizza desert.
Heck, I live in Manhattan, and I can't even get good pizza delivered to my door. Domino's is literally the best pizza I can get through delivery. For decent New York pizza, I've got to take a train five stops, then walk six blocks to Sal and Carmine's. For really great New York Pizza that can match what I make at home, I'm looking at an hour long trip each way.
The terrible pizza blight known as the dollar slice has become so rampant in New York that it's now difficult to find good New York-style slices in once pizza-rich neighborhoods like the Lower East Side. Possible, but more difficult.*
*Neapolitan pizza, on the other hand, is increasingly widely available in and out of New York
My paternal grandfather was an old-time New York pizza snob, and he'd be amazed by the quality of the pizza you can buy these days in a California airport.
Ah, Mr. Yglesias, I think we've finally revealed the crux of the problem here: You simply don't know what good pizza is. Any self-identifying New York pizza snob would turn their nose at the topped flatbreads that Firewood café produces. Not that there's anything inherently wrong or un-tasty about topped flatbreads, but to compare them to a good New York pizza whether from a home oven or a slice joint is to display a lack of understanding of the very fundamentals of pizzology.
But that's ok. You can't be blamed for ignorance. All we can do is try to guide you down the right path.
Reason 5: It's Fun
In reality, this is the only reason that matters. Pizza obsessives make pizza because we are obsessed with pizza. Even if it wasn't cheaper and better to make pizza at home (which, as I've already shown, it is), I, and many others, make pizza at home because we enjoy making pizza at home. I like the experimentation, the thrill of seeing a pie that comes out exactly as I pictured it in my mind.
Now, you might say that we are a minority. An imperceptible dip in your graph, and that may well be true. But my goal as a pizza writer is threefold: First, to be as thorough as possible. Second, to test the things that my readers wish they had the time to test for themselves. And third, to identify those folks in the general population who may be close to the edge and give them the little push they need to dive head-on into the lifestyle, because once you buy that first baking steel, there ain't no turning back.
Surely you understand the appeal of a hobby with expensive bits of capital investment and a marginal monetary return on each use, right?
I mean, in a display of psychological projection so shockingly obvious that I can't help but wonder if this whole thing is a high-level trolling,* you yourself wrote the following in an article about pasta** not two weeks ago:
For the home kitchen, these kind of pasta attachments have long been available for KitchenAid's stand mixers. My wife and I have both the roller/cutter attachment set and the extruder set, and it's great. In a brilliant display of household complementarities, she makes the pasta and I make the sauce.
*Strike that thought. I'm sure this whole thing is a high-level trolling.
**An article in which he does not seem to realize that dried pasta is not simply a dried version of fresh pasta. Matt, for the record, they are two completely separate products with different intended uses and different traditions. One is not an inferior form of the other.
You go on to say:
The entire setup of a commercial mixer and pasta attachments would still be expensive, but the incremental cost of adding the attachments once you have the mixer is low.
Mr. Yglesias. "Incremental." I do not think it means what you think it means. Stand mixer: $299.99 suggested retail price. Two pasta attachments for said stand mixer: $439.98 suggested retail price*. That's $439.98 to make fresh pasta at home, that you then have to not only cook yourself, but also sauce yourself, plate yourself, deliver to your mouth yourself, and—fercrhissake—even chew yourself?
*Even for commercial grade Hobart mixers, a pasta extruder attachment will cost you an extra 39% on the cost of the stand mixer alone. A roller and cutter will tack on even more to that cost.
What did you say about my $300 pizza oven? Oh right, It was this:
For the roughly $200 that Alt wants you to spend on equipment to turn your grill into an ersatz pizza oven, you could just buy 16 margherita pizzas at my favorite D.C. pizza establishment.
Gimme a break! For the roughly $440 that you want me to spend on equipment to turn my house into an ersatz pasta factory, I could just buy 14 orders of transcendentally good pasta at my favorite New York pasta establishment. Or better yet, how about I buy 110 boxes of Italy's best selling brand and spend my remaining $300 on training a monkey to chew my food for me and feed me baby bird style? After all, I couldn't possibly take pleasure in cooking and eating my own food, could I?
I hope you don't take this rebuttal the wrong way, Mr. Yglesias. Next time you're in New York, hit me up and I'll cook you a pizza. Or better yet, I'll just buy you one.
About the author: J. Kenji Lopez-Alt is the Chief Creative Officer of Serious Eats where he likes to explore the science of home cooking in his weekly column The Food Lab. You can follow him at @thefoodlab on Twitter, or at The Food Lab on Facebook.