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Wood-fired ovens

Sometimes the secret in doing something right is simply a matter of going back to basics. When it comes to pizza, that means using a wood-fired oven to give the crust a slight char and the toppings that savory “fire-roasted” flavor. Since a wood-fired oven impacts your kitchen design (not to mention cash flow), some input from operators who currently use them may prove useful.

Getting started

Perry Smith, managing partner of the Matchbox Food Group, scoured the Internet to find a builder for the ovens in his four Washington, D.C.-area Matchbox restaurants. He found Pat Manley in Maine who “was really the only one who understood what we were trying to do. He drove down [to D.C.] in his pickup truck to help us build our wood-fired oven.” Nathan Shea, owner of Urban Crust in Plano, Texas, was fortunate enough to find Renato Riccio locally. “He was in the restaurant business years ago and then he got into building ovens. He’s probably 15 minutes from our location, and he builds a really quality oven.”

Heating things up

Both Shea and Smith run fairly high-volume operations, producing 300 to 400 pizzas on a weekend night. But their ovens are slightly different. Smith’s is strictly wood-burning. “From day one, we’ve burned hardwoods—oak and a bit of cherry wood—to maintain temperatures close to 800°,” he says.

Shea’s oven is a combination of wood- and gas-fired. “We use the gas just to maintain temperature but we use wood in it every day,” he says. “The gas helps us only in the really peak times. If we weren’t as busy as we are, an all wood-fired oven would have been great.” His oven also includes a rack for cooking fish, steaks and chicken, and a “back door” opening for easy access.

Fuel for thought

  • Unless you’re planning on specializing in wood-fired pizzas, a “double duty” oven may make more sense, providing you with other menu opportunities. Take that into account when determining oven size and when in doubt, err on the large side. “Several people who have done ovens say, ‘I wish I’d put in a bigger oven,’” says Shea.
  • Be sure that replacement parts and service providers are readily accessible. A downside with imported ovens, say some operators, is difficulty getting repairs made.
  • With that wood-fired flavor comes more labor; a crew member will need to handle the daily firing and stoking. “In a way, your oven is almost a living, breathing thing,” notes Smith.

Did you know...

  • A wood-fired oven may save energy costs. “Because the oven is fired all the time, you get an extra heat source,” says Matchbox’s Smith. “It’s actually helped with our heating bills. We keep the ovens in the bar area, close to the front door, providing an additional heat source. It’s a warm and inviting feature as well.”
  • You can take it with you. “I hated doing catering functions and having to bring the pizza after it’s cooled down,” says Shea. So he worked with Riccio to build a portable wood-fired oven on a trailer, one size smaller than the oven in Urban Crust, that visits festivals.

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