To get a good, crisp, well-charred undercarriage on a pizza, you need to have some means of transferring it to a blazing-hot surface (like a pizza stone or a grill) without any intervening pan. The best way to do this is with a peel—the long handled tool with a flat paddle on the end that pizzaioli use to deposit and retrieve pies from hot ovens.
Most professionals use long, heavy-duty, rounded metal heads to poke their pies at a safe distance from the mouths of their 1,000°F ovens. But what about us home cooks? Which pizza peel works best for the home oven or grill?
What to Look for In a Good Pizza Peel
Professional peels generally have a rounded head, and with good reason: a professional has to be able to work with pizzas in all corners of a large oven, all from a single small doorway. A square-headed peel makes it much more difficult to maneuver pies at the sides of the oven because of the angle of insertion. So for them, a peel that's symmetric no matter what angle it's inserted (I.E. round) is a necessity.
A home cook, on the other hand, works in a single small oven or a grill. You only ever have to attack your pizza head-on. For that reason, a square-headed peel makes the business of inserting and retrieving much easier. Square it is.
Pizza peels come in three basic materials:
Wooden peels are very pretty. Wood is also the best material to prevent sticking of raw pizza dough—essential for inserting a raw pizza into the oven without disturbing the toppings. You can also cut and serve your pizza directly off the peel without damaging your knife or pizza wheel. However, there are some major downsides. Maintenance is a pain. The peel must be carefully dried after washing to prevent warping. You must rub it regularly with mineral oil to keep it from absorbing odors or staining. Also, wooden peels are not fireproof. Even exercising great caution, it will develop burn marks if used on a grill or in a wood-burning oven. Finally, wooden peels are thick. There's no way around it. Thick peels make it extremely difficult to slip under a half-cooked pie to rotate it, or even a fully cooked pie to retrieve it. You are forced to go into the oven with a smaller spatula or tongs to slide it up onto the peel.
Composite peels are easier to care for than wood, and slightly thinner, but still suffer from the same basic problem: they are too thick. Additionally, I have yet to see a composite peel with a handle long enough to reach to the back of a really hot oven without singing the hairs off the back of your hand.
Metal peels are made from the material of choice. Easy to clean and long-lasting, metal blades are super-thin, making them easy to slip under a pie whether its on a stone or on the grill. The only downside? Raw dough has a tendency to stick to it more than to a wooden peel. This can be easily compensated for by either making sure to dust the peel generously with flour or corn meal before adding the dough and working quickly, or by lining the peel with a piece of parchment paper. The pizza can be constructed on the parchment, and slipped onto the stone parchment and all (this obviously won't work for grilled pizza).
So where does this leave us? Pick up a wooden peel for launching and a metal one for retrieving.
The handle of a peel needs to be long enough that the head of the blade can reach all the way to the back of your oven while allowing you to keep your hand a good 4-5 inches away from the door.
The Best Pizza Peel for Launching: American Metalcraft Wooden Pizza Peel
If you go to a professional pizzeria: They’ll assemble their pizza on a marble or wooden surface, then they drag it onto a perforated aluminum pizza peel. This is a process that’s designed for restaurants because they're moving much faster than you would at home.
At home, if you try to stretch on a solid metal peel or a perforated metal peel, the dough will stick when you try to transfer it to the oven. That's why I recommend using a wooden peel at home. A wooden peel that’s well dusted with semolina or cornmeal buys you a lot more time to work with the dough.
The Best Wooden Pizza Peel Upgrade: The Baker's Board Pizza Peel
If you're okay with spending a bit more, I'd recommend the Baker's Board Pizza Peel. It's handcrafted in the USA, comfortable to use, and lightweight for easy maneuvering.
The Best Pizza Peel for Retrieving Your Pizza: American Metalcraft Aluminum Pizza Peel
When it comes time to retrieve your pizza, a wooden peel will be too thick. That's when it's time to bring in an aluminum one. This peel, also by American Metalcraft, features a flat, thin, lightweight aluminum blade, and a wooden handle in a variety of lengths to suit any oven size. It's also extraordinarily cheap. The one problem with is is storage: many people, myself included, might have trouble finding a place to keep a 26 to 40-inch long piece of not-too-oft-used equipment. A nail on the wall works well, or if you can fit it, slide it into the space between your fridge and its housing (like I do). You could also get creative and use a guitar mount.
The Super Peel: There's been some discussion about the Super Peel, a wooden pizza peel with a cloth conveyor belt that helps transfer the pizza to a stone much more easily than a regular peel. I've not had the opportunity to test one, so I'm not qualified to make any statements on how well it actually works. I will say that from watching it in action: it seems like the shortness of the handle and the proximity of your hand to the stone when operating the conveyor belt would be a problem if you are using a really hot oven. It also seems like although you can transfer the pizza to the stone, you'd need a separate peel to rotate and remove the pie, as the super peel is pretty thick, and the cloth would not make it conducive to sliding under a cooked pizza. The cloth is also made of a cotton/polyester blend, making it unsuitable for use over an open flame. Grilling pizza requires you to constantly be monitoring the underside and rotating the dough as needed for even charring. I'd hate to have my peel catch on fire while I'm doing this.
Offset Pizza Peel by Outset: The offset blade on the Offset Pizza Peel by Outset is designed to keep your knuckles from coming in contact with a hot pizza stone. However, the shortness of its handle negates its usefulness.