It's time for another round of The Food Lab. 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 follow it on Twitter for play-by-plays on future kitchen tests and recipe experiments.
It's exciting times indeed in the world of backyard pizza-making. Last year, I tested out two fantastic products that improved the quality of my home-baked pizzas by leaps and bounds. This year, I've combined their powers to produce the ultimate—and inexpensive—home pie-slinging setup.
The first was the KettlePizza, a third party after-market contraption that turns a kettle grill into a wood-burning pizza oven. The second was the Baking Steel, a 1/4-inch steel plate designed to take the place of your baking stone (see my full review here).
The KettlePizza consists of a foot-tall folded stainless steel cylinder that raises the lid of your grill and adds a door through which you can transfer pizzas to a preheated stone inside.
I had a bit of trouble getting it to work straight out of the box, but after a few minor modifications (adding a second stone to the top, along with a layer of foil), it was pumping out beautiful pizzas with bake times under four minutes.
This is what the original model looked like, with the grill's lid removed.
I had a few issues with it. Primarily, the round shape of the stone made it tough to launch pizzas—you had to hit dead center with a large pie or it would drape off the sides and burn. The other problem was that adding extra fuel proved very difficult. You essentially had to remove the entire contraption, including a 600°F stone, to refuel your grill. This severely limited baking times.
Last summer, former Slice Queen Meredith Smith and I took a trip out to visit Al Contarino, the inventor of the KettlePizza, in his workshop outside of Boston. After a long, interesting conversation, he assured us that he'd start work straight away on a new model that would address our concerns.
A few months later, he revealed the KettlePizza ProGrate & Tombstone Combination Kit ($129.95). I put it through its paces last week.
Among the improvements: The new tombstone-shaped stone is heavier, sturdier, and larger, making it easier to properly launch pies. The sides and backs of the insert are cut out, allowing you to add extra coal or wood to your fire in between pies (I used my metal steel to load extra coal). Finally—and this is the real kicker—there's a basket that slides into the back of the Tombstone ProGrate, elevating a small portion of your fuel and drastically increasing the air temperature above the pizza. The result? Pies that puff and brown properly, not to mention easily.
Every one of these design changes was a noticeable improvement over past models. I can now fully endorse this product with no real reservations. It's well-constructed, performs as advertised, and doesn't have any more annoying, "if only it did this it'd be great," features.
Even so, you still need to add some thermal mass to the upper surface of the insert if you want the best pies—the thin lid of the kettle grill simply doesn't radiate enough heat to get maximum oven spring and leopard spotting.
In the past, I'd used a stone and a sheet of aluminum foil; I also ended up cracking my stone in the process.
But this year, we've gone and one-upped ourselves. The Baking Steel is the most pie-changing piece of equipment I've ever tested. It's also one of the simplest. Essentially just a 1/4-inch thick sheet of steel, it takes the place of a traditional baking stone, offering better thermal properties (it both conducts heat faster and stores more heat energy per unit volume than a pizza stone), and a more robust design (good luck ever breaking this thing).
So I thought to myself, these products are great on their own, but with their powers combined, could they—dare I say it?—take over my grill?
I built a big ol' coal fire, laying out about a chimney-and-a-half (roughly 7 quarts) of charcoal briquettes along the back of my grill. I added the KettlePizza insert, along with the Tombstone ProGrate combo, followed by a second grate and my baking steel*. I then covered the second grate with aluminum foil (in order to direct flames forward towards the mouth of the kettle), put the lid on, and let the sucker preheat.
*For the record, I accidentally left my steel out during a freak rainstorm in which the rain knocked the lid off my grill and the steel got wet, hence the rust. It all came right off when I heated it.
I sat, staring into the mouth of the beast as it slowly came up to temperature.
About 45 minutes later, here I was:
The base stone temperature varied between around 530°F and 650°F. That's just below the range of a full-fledged Neapolitan pizza oven—and hotter than most half-fledged pizza ovens. What I was really interested in was the upper temp:
Bam. 718°F. What's also important to note here is that the baking steel is more radiant than a baking stone. That means that given identical surface temperatures, a steel will actually heat an object below it faster than a stone.
The setup was so darn hot that I completely miscalculated the time it would take for a pie to cook and ended up burning my first one, a plain cheese pizza using my New York-style dough.
Here's what we got:
It took under four minutes to reach that state. Get a load of the bubbling!
The underbelly is equally pretty, with plenty of nice dark spots.
I paid a bit more attention to my next pie—another New York number topped with a bacon-cherry pepper relish and coppa (get the recipe here)—and it came out gorgeously. I mean, just check out the coloring on that crust!
This is the stuff NY pizza dreams are made of.
The crust was also perfectly poofy with an airy, tender, moist crumb. With a bake time of under four minutes, it's not quite as cooked or crisp as what you'd find at a typical slice joint. It reminds me more of a typical coal-fired NY pizzeria (like Patsy's or Lombardi's), but with a definite Neapolitan bent.
With those successes under my belt, I decided to see what this puppy could do if I loaded some wood into the new basket insert that comes with the Tombstone ProGrate. With my coals blazing, I added two big chunks of oak and watched as they ignited, burying the needle of the built-in thermometer and pushing my infrared thermometer past its 800°F maximum threshold. Without a thermometer to measure it, I can't be positive, but I'd conservatively guess that air temperatures under the steel were pushing past 900°F and inching on toward 1,000°F.
Now we're playing with fire!
Of course, every new setup takes some getting used to, so once again I burned the bejeezus out of my pepperoni pie* pie, this time actually setting one edge of the crust on fire.
*Have you ever wondered why pepperoni curls? Here's your chance to find out!
Luckily, I have a friend who enjoys eating burnt crust (and yet oddly has never been to DiFara), so all was well. It's a pity, because if you take out that burnt edge, that's one mighty fine looking pepperoni pizza.
For my final pie of the evening, I went again with a New York-style dough, this time topping it with more traditional Neapolitan margherita-style toppings: fresh San Marzano tomatoes crushed with salt, fresh buffalo mozzarella, basil, and olive oil, being extra careful to keep an eye on it during the entirety of its 2 1/2-minute bake time.
Here's what emerged:
As far as New York/Neapolitan pies go, this is the best pizza I've made at home. Supremely tender and chewy, with a paper thin crackling crust and plenty of smoky charred spots around the edges.
A quick look at the underbelly reveals a near picture-perfect char pattern.
I felt as giddy as I did the very first time I pulled the head off of my sister's Barbie doll.
I just can't wait to try it out again on a straight-up Neapolitan-style pizza dough.
There was only one way I could think of to really improve this latest setup: What if Andris Lagsdin, creator of the Baking Steel and Al Contarino, inventor of the KettlePizza were to get together to create a model based on their two products that works exactly like my set up straight out of the box?
What if I told you that perhaps the inklings of such a project are already in the works?
Like I said, exciting times indeed!
I know I might sound like a broken record or even a shill about these products, but seriously folks, I don't know anyone who hasn't been pleased with the results they deliver, and if you're the type who can tell the quality of a pizza through photos, then I can only say scroll up and take a look, the proof is in the pudding.
Get The Recipe!
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.