I have a 22-pound toy in my kitchen.
As the weather changes and we head into an actual winter (rather than a collection of seasons that has already felt like a winter due to us staying at home more), I’ll be learning more about how to use a slab of steel to bake pizza and bread.
When the pandemic started, I was among those who made a sourdough starter and returned to baking bread. That soon led to working on perfecting a home pizza, both in the oven or on the grill.
The biggest challenge in making pizza at home — and the reason so many of us rely on our array of great local pizza-making restaurants — is getting a great crust.
Peter Reinhart, one of our country’s leading bakers and writers about baking, said in a recent webinar sponsored by oven-maker Breville that if the crust isn’t great, the pizza will at best be interesting. A memorable pizza will always have a great crust, he said.
You need heat — a lot of heat — to get a great crust.
Many restaurants have gas-powered ovens with stone decks. Many of us at home try to approximate that place where the crust cooks with a pizza stone. I’ve used one for years in those rare cases when I made pizza at home and let’s be honest, they even improve frozen pizza over just putting it on the oven rack or a pan.
Yet as I was making pizza with my own dough earlier this summer, a fellow food-lover responded to an Instagram post saying I needed a pizza steel.
That led to research and inevitably to calling Andris Lagsdin, founder of Baking Steel. He worked as a chef with Todd English in Boston, but left the restaurant business to go back to work with his father in the steel business.
After reading in Nathan Myhrvold’s “Modernist Cuisine” that a slab of steel conducts heat better than an oven stone, Lagsdin made one and tried it. “It blew me away how it could function in a home oven,” he said. After he sent me one, I have to agree with him.
It took time to figure out how to bring it to market, and a Kickstarter campaign helped launch the company. He claims that he was the first to sell a baking steel and his version is 99% iron. He and his customers can make pizza after pizza without it losing heat. “The steel continuously bounces back to 500 degrees,” he said.
Pizza stones absorb some heat, but can’t rebound as quickly to make that memorable crust. Cast iron is more brittle and porous, so it can convey heat better than many products, but still not with the brutal efficiency of the steel. The steel can hold so much heat that Lagsdin’s company sells silicone bands (similar to LiveStrong bracelets) on which to perch bread loaves so they don’t burn during a bake longer than that needed for a pizza.
He’s high energy and not only sells steels, but teaches folks on YouTube how to make dough and pizza. The father of two boys was inspired to plunge ahead with this product. Now he’s selling stones for the oven and griddles for the cooktop, and having a blast along the way. The demonstrations he posts are filmed in a barn with a test kitchen on his home property. “I’m a family guy and one thing about me and what I love about being a family guy is doing things together,” he said.
Several brands of backyard and countertop pizza ovens have hit the market in the past several years. I may end up with one eventually, but for this fall and winter, I hope to perfect making dough and crafting pizza on this baking steel perched in an oven or on a charcoal grill. The first time I used it produced the best pizza I’ve ever made at home. The second effort wasn’t as successful. But I expect this fall and winter will offer plenty of time and opportunity to continue the effort.
We’re approaching what is likely to be a long, hard winter. “Normal life” isn’t likely to return any time soon. The opportunity to create a dough, top it with a few amazing ingredients, and then bake it in a way that creates a memorable pizza may become a bright spot in the coming months. Learning and playing with my food always excites me.
I’m hungry. Let’s eat.
Marshall V. King is a food writer based in Goshen. You can find him on Facebook (DiningALaKing) and on Twitter, Instagram and Snapchat (@hungrymarshall).