I imagine that if my rice cooker got it on with my Roomba, their offspring might look a bit like the new Breville Crispy Crust countertop pizza oven. It's a new plug-and-go appliance that promises "professional brick-oven results right in your own kitchen" for about $150.
Considering how poorly our testing of previous countertop pizza cookers has gone, we weren't holding out too much hope of the Breville contraption producing anything but middling results.
Happily, I can report that the oven does indeed perform as advertised, pumping out 10-inch pies in about 7 minutes, crisp bottom crust, decent charring, and all.
On top of the PizzaPod (as we affectionately call it), you'll find an on-off knob, as well as a temperature knob and a "heating" indicator light. The temperature knob is labeled from "thick" to "thin," I suppose because thicker pizzas need to cook at a slightly gentler pace than thin ones in order to cook all the way through without burning the exterior. We cranked this baby up to 11 in order to see what she could do at full throttle.
After waiting a good 45 minutes, we opened her up to take a look. Inside you'll find a thin, 12-inch stone with vents cut out of its sides on the bottom, with a double-coiled heating element on top. The stone is heated by an element below, and registered 633°F on our IR thermometer at the time of testing. That's a good 27°F lower than the promised 660°F on the packaging. But still, that should be ample heat to cook a pizza.
For testing purposes, we used my New York-Style Pizza. It's got olive oil and a bit of sugar in it, which makes it a much more forgiving recipe to cook at relatively low temperatures than, say, a lean Neapolitan dough which can rapidly dry out and turn crackery. We topped it with my simple New York-Style Pizza Sauce along with some grated whole milk mozzarella (our favorite brand is Polly-O), some fresh basil leaves, and a drizzle of extra-virgin olive oil before tossing it in the oven and closing the lid.
I watched through the nifty little observation window while the timer counted up, feeling like I was getting a glimpse of what it'd look like to see R2D2's brains fry...if he had organic brains, that is. The cheese started bubbling almost immediately, and at one point actually bubbled so vigorously that it reached up and touched the heating element, causing the machine to spew out a stream of smoke.
"Smells like burning new electronics," said Food Lab kitchen intern Luke. It did.
Seven minutes later, we popped open the lid to take a peek, and came away pretty impressed by what we saw. There wasn't quite as much puffing or coloration of the edges of the pie as we would have liked to have seen (an issue we had with the Deni Pizza Bella we'd tested previously), but the cheese was plenty melty, and there was promising looking browning around the edges.
Taste-wise, the most impressive characteristic is the bottom crust. We cooked a pie in our regular, stone-less convection oven at the office to see how it'd compare to what your average home cook could do in an aluminum pan and found that the Breville version was far superior. It cooked a few minutes faster, came out moister and crispier, with a puffier lip to boot.
Check out the very decent level of charring on the undercarriage. It's not the kind of pizza that'll make you kill your siblings to get in line for, but it'll definitely make you want to push and shove your way to the front.
And despite a lack of good char on the outer crust (A.K.A. the cornicione), it still has a decent hole structure, though given its rather long baking time, it had started to become slightly dry and crackery by the time it was done as opposed to the hybrid pliant-crisp chew you'd expect from a more traditional New York pie.
The question is, with such a hot stone underneath and an electric element directly above, why does the pizza still take so long to cook?
Two factors. First, the coil above cycles on and off based on a thermostat. Catch the thing during an off cycle, and you greatly increase your cooking time. I'd suggest leaving the lid open for about 10 seconds while loading the pie in order to cool down the thermostat enough that the top element will cycle back on.
Secondly—and this one is important—with a complete enclosed, small airspace, there is very little air movement going on, and thus convective cooking is greatly reduced. In a standard pizza oven, heat is generated inside, causing air to flow in and out of the door and creating strong patterns of convection that carry hot air over and around the pie as it cook. With the Breville Crispy Crust, the stagnant air offers no such advantage, increasing the time it takes to cook the top of the pie.
Bottom Line: It's a pretty nifty product that might have a place in the home of somebody who doesn't like to heat up their stone and oven to bake their pizza. It'll never take the place of a Baking Steel and a hot broiler, but as a countertop appliance, it's the best I've seen.
The Breville Crispy Crust is available from Williams-Sonoma for $149.99.