I got a gas-fired outdoor tabletop pizza oven this past summer (an Ooni Koda), and when I first fired it up I had a little trouble working with it, which left me feeling a little perplexed. I’ve been making pizza for nearly 40 years, and consider myself something of a pizza expert, at least when it comes to making it at home. Pizza was the first thing I taught myself to cook, and I've been tweaking my own recipes ever since. I've also developed pizza and flatbread recipes for publication for more than 10 years now, starting with the New York-style pie I created for Cook’s Illustrated magazine.
Add to that the fact that I’ve owned a clay "beehive" oven and a larger oven made from a repurposed oil barrel (which I wrote about for Serious Eats years ago), and you can understand why I was a little freaked out when the first wave of pies I made in my Ooni—which burns at wood-fired oven temperatures approaching 900°F and cooks a pizza in under two minutes—started burning before the toppings and underside were fully baked. Not charring, mind you, but burning, sometimes quite literally, with flames dancing along the edges of the pie.
At first I wondered if there was something wrong with my choice of oven, but then I remembered the beautiful pies I saw coming out of the same oven all over my Instagram feed. In order to get to the bottom of my problems, I decided to ask some of those Instagram pizza-pros for advice and reassurance, among them Christy Alia (a.k.a. Real Clever Food, from New York), Feng Chen (Leopard Pizza, in Bangkok), Ines Glaser (of LA's Lupa Cotta), and Elizabeth English (of Quanto Basta in Portland, Maine). With their expert help, I was eventually able to extinguish the fires and turn out the sort of top-notch pies I could be proud of.
The first thing they schooled me on was the crucial importance of having the proper dough formula, particularly avoiding any ingredients that tend to promote browning, like oil or sugar. But they gave me lots of other useful advice for working with tabletop pizza ovens, which I'm now going to share with you here, along with some advice of my own, now that I've got a method I'm happy with. As far as dough formulation, ideal dough-ball size, and fermentation goes, I cover all of that extensively in my outdoor pizza oven dough recipe, so you’ll want to head there for all the details first. In this post, I'm going to cover everything that happens after the doughs are ready to stretch and bake.
Oven Temperature and Preheating
As I said, these tabletop ovens are designed to quickly reach temperatures of 900°F and above. My Ooni takes about half an hour to come up to temperature, compared to the hours I'd need to spend tending my wood-fired ovens before I could launch my first pie. That said, most everyone I spoke to recommended using the oven at slightly more moderate temperatures.
“I like to bake my pizzas between 850 and 900 degrees,” said Elizabeth English. “I find that anything hotter and the bottom gets too dark before the top does, which means you run the risk of the center not being fully cooked.” As for how she knows when the oven is ready: “[An] infrared thermometer [is] a must-have if you are going to use these ovens, as the temperature can fluctuate drastically with a huge gust of wind, if it is ten degrees cooler that day, you name it.”
After many rounds of testing, I settled on a target oven temperature of 800°F for the dough and four topped pizza recipes that I developed. The slightly lower baking temperature is more forgiving, but still plenty hot enough to achieve a crisp undercarriage and leoparding on the crust.
When taking the temperature of your oven, you want to temp the surface of the baking stone, particularly in the area closest to the flame. In my Ooni, which has an L-shaped flame that runs from the front left to the back right corner of the oven, that’s the back left quadrant.
One thing that I noticed with my particular oven was that a lot of heat escaped from the front of the oven as it preheated. While some ovens include a built-in door, mine did not. I was able to find one made by a third-party on Etsy that was an easy add-on, and it made a big difference in how long it took the oven to heat up, saving both time and fuel. Because the pies cook so quickly, I never close the door while I'm doing the actual baking.
However, if you're thinking about purchasing a third-party accessory for your Ooni, I don't recommend it. Ooni unequivocally states that any modifications to your oven invalidates its warranty. The company also warns about the dangers of using third-party accessories on the oven, and specifically warns against attaching a door to the oven, as it "traps heat, builds up unsafe gasses, and creates unsafe conditions." The door I use is vented, with perforations all along the front, and with a substantial gap around the opening when closed, which I think will reduce the likelihood of dangerous gas buildup or heat buildup. However, different people have different levels of risk tolerance, and my recommendation is to purchase a pizza oven model that comes with a door, as that will reduce the amount of time it takes to get the oven to temperature.
That’s not to say that you can’t put your oven to use while it’s heating up. In fact, I developed two recipes that involved cooking toppings in the oven as it heats up to baking temperature. For my burst cherry tomato, shallot, and herb pizza, I use the preheating oven to make a bright, fresh tomato sauce. And the preheating time window is perfect for charring broccoli rabe for a pizza with Parmesan, Pecorino Romano, and anchovies.
Make sure to use a skillet that can withstand high temperatures—stainless steel, cast iron, and carbon steel all work well—and always use a completely dry kitchen towel or oven glove when retrieving a pan from the oven. Burning yourself on a skillet handle that’s been in a super-hot oven is no fun.
Learn Your Oven Settings
Gas-fired tabletop ovens have adjustable flames, but they aren’t necessarily continuously adjustable in the way a stovetop burner is; the difference between high and low on my Koda is pretty narrow. You’ll need to play around with your oven to get a sense of how each end of the dial behaves and to look for ways to control oven temperature.
Christy Alia—who has the same model I do—mentioned her approach to getting a super-low flame: “I use the lower ‘secret’ setting that is between the off and the ignition setting.” I discovered this not-in-the-manual setting myself and found it very helpful to use when the oven runs hot. Christy uses it when she wants to bake at lower temperatures in the 600°F range, for things like New York-style pies: “I preheat on ‘regular’ low for 45 minutes and then go to that super-low [setting]. If I overshoot the temp I’ll sometimes shut it off for a minute then go to super-low.”
Mise en Place Is Critical
Mise en place—a.k.a. having all of your ingredients prepped and conveniently located—is crucial for all kinds of pizza-making, but it’s especially important for pies that are topped and launched from a peel onto a baking surface, as opposed to pan pizzas, which are topped and baked in their cooking vessels. You need to work quickly when topping and launching a pizza, to prevent the dough from sticking to the peel (more on that later). Having all your ingredients ready to go and close at-hand is critical. Ditto for your tools. “When you're cooking pizza in 60 to 120 seconds, you don't have time to look for your missing pizza peels,” as Christy said to me.
Feng Chen mentioned another bit of useful advice regarding ingredient prep and mise en place: “[You want to] have everything chopped and ready to go, but for ingredients you're worried might burn, keep them in the fridge until needed.”
Consider Your Toppings
While you can put anything you want on a tabletop-oven pizza—how you dress your pies is entirely up to you—the moisture level in your toppings will determine how quickly they cook.
Ines Glaser had lots to say about this aspect of the process. “I go very lightly on my high-moisture ingredients," she told me. “Since [these are] such high heat ovens with small spaces [to cook in], there is not a lot of time for the evaporation of water in cheeses or sauces.” For that reason, she tends to use “a very light combination of well-drained fresh mozzarella, dry low-moisture mozzarella, and a hard cheese like Pecorino or Parmesan” on her pies. And she's not averse to adding certain cheeses post-bake, to preserve their texture: "If I want a bigger bite of fresh cheese, I'll wait until after cooking the pizza to top it with a very good buffalo mozzarella, burrata, or ricotta.”
Feng had some cheese advice of her own to share: “If you find that your cheese burns in the time it takes to cook the crust, [then] cut the mozzarella into thick chunks, [to slow down how quickly it cooks].”
As far as tomato sauce goes, I’ve found that you want to keep its moisture level on the low side, which is why I tend to drain canned tomatoes before blending or crushing them into a sauce. But as Ines mentioned, sometimes you might want a wetter pie: “Remember that more cheese and sauce equals a soggier pizza, which there ain't nothing wrong with! That's what a knife and fork are for, Napoli-style.”
Loading and Launching
Getting the pie topped and into the oven cleanly is one of the most fraught moments in the pizza-making process. But it doesn’t have to be, as many of the pizza pros I talked to emphasized.
“[I]t just takes repetition and flour, especially when you are first starting out,” said Elizabeth. “Don't be afraid to use more flour than you think you will need if you are new to handling dough. The worst thing is having your stretched dough stick to your peel, so flour your bench, slide your stretched pizza across the flour and onto your peel, then lightly stretch it again to get that nice round shape. Don't let it stay too long on your peel before launching it, otherwise you risk more sticking.”
Feng had similar thoughts. "When you're first learning to launch a pizza, don't be afraid of generously flouring your peel to ensure that the pizza does not stick to the peel,” she said. “Over time and with practice, you will learn to launch with less and less flour.”
I concur, though I have one bit of advice for beginners, a trick I learned from Dan Richer, chef and owner of New Jersey's Razza Artiginale and author of the book The Joy of Pizza, and it's this: Try flouring your peel and your bench top with a 50/50 mix of white rice flour and white flour. Rice flour is very resistant to absorbing moisture, so it's especially good at preventing sticking. And it tends to fall off the bottom once the pie is cooked, so it doesn't leave a gritty texture behind.
The style of peel you use matters, too. Ines said she prefers to use a wooden peel for loading the oven: “[It provides] more control for launching a pizza into the small space.” Others—myself included—like perforated metal peels, since the perforations limit the amount of surface area the dough can potentially stick to.
Feng also had advice on how to launch the pie onto the stone, something she picked up by watching other pizzaiole do their thing: “[M]ake the launch as much about the backwards movement (pulling the peel [out] from under the pizza quickly) as it is about the forward movement, to cleanly get your pizza into the oven in a round shape.” The idea here is a little like the magician's tablecloth trick: You put the loaded peel right where you want the pie to end up, give it a quick shake to make sure it's not stuck, and then quickly pull it backwards, allowing the pie to drop straight down onto the stone.
Pie Placement and Rotation
As for where to place the pie, my advice is to move it as far away from the flame as possible, especially at first. That's why I tend to think it's best to stretch your pies to a diameter an inch or two narrower than your oven, to provide some side-to-side wriggle room. I make 12-inch pies in my 16-inch Koda, and recommend 10- or 11-inch pies for 12-inch ovens.
When pizzas cook in two minutes or less, there’s almost no room for error. As Christy mentioned, “The rapid cook time is…why pizza makers need to keep a close eye on their pizza throughout the entire bake.” And it's also why you want to rotate the pie regularly for an even bake. But don't rotate the pie too quickly at first, as she pointed out. “[M]any users…make the mistake of trying to turn their pizza...before the bottom sets, and this can result in tearing. If the oven floor temperature is hot enough, the bottom of the crust should be ready to turn within about 30 seconds.”
While I find my perforated metal peel to work just fine for both launching and turning pies, others, like Elizabeth, prefer something more compact during the baking stage. “Another absolute must-buy is a smaller turning peel,” she said. “[Y]ou want to be doing quarter turns of your pizza for the 90 seconds [or so] it is in the oven. The only way to achieve this is with the turning peel—it will be your new best friend!”
Keep Pizza-Making Fun
I’m living proof that practice (and learning the proper technique) makes perfect when making pizza in a tabletop oven. And while my early pies were failures in my own eyes, my eaters still wolfed them down eagerly and happily. So, most of all, try not to be too hard on yourself at first; eventually you'll get there, too.
“The most important thing for people new to high-heat pizza ovens is to expect a learning curve,” as Christy told me. “Practice is crucial to getting better at pizza making. [And] you need to have fun not just when your pizza comes out perfect, but even when it is a disaster!”
*Editors' Note: An earlier version of this article omitted information about third-party accessories for Ooni ovens. It has since been updated.