There is a right way and a wrong way to start a fire. A dropped cigarette in a garbage can = wrong. The carefully planned ignition of arranged logs in a pizza oven outdoors = right!
Getting a good fire going seems like the easiest thing in the world. Anyone can throw a match on a pile of logs. But starting a fire that will burn in a pizza oven and create an even distribution of steady heat requires skill. We know all the secret tricks of the trade to start the perfect pizza oven fire and keep it burning!
Building a Fire the Right Way
When we were kids learning how to build a fire, we learned to start small. Begin with a small amount of kindling and twigs, then gradually add larger bits of timber until your fire is the size you want. But what works for warming your hands and toasting marshmallows on a camping trip, doesn’t necessarily work for a pizza oven.
Experienced pizza oven firestarters know that the bottom-to-top method of fire building is for amateurs. The top-to-bottom method is the only way to go. As recipe writer Genevieve Taylor describes, the best way to start a fire in a pizza oven is, to begin with a game of Jenga.
Start with a few decent-sized pieces of hardwood, around 3-4 inches thick and 15 inches long, and stack them. Stack two pieces one way and two pieces the opposite way, like in Jenga, using sticks of dry kindling for the top layers. Place a firelighter (see more on firelighters below) on the top of the stack and light it. Once the firelighter has caught it will light the kindling underneath and in turn light the hardwood below.
Where you build your fire depends on the type of pizza oven you have. If you can build your fire in the very center of the oven and light it safely, then go ahead and do that. If not, you can build the fire on a peel and slide it into the oven once you’ve got the firelighter going.
Expert Tip: For an efficient fire that will heat your whole pizza oven evenly, try the walled-in technique. Before you light your stack, take three logs and place one flush with each wall of your pizza oven. They should look like a short wall around your stack. Gradually, the burning stack will light the wall of logs creating an intense heat that the walls of the oven will absorb. Using the walled-in technique guarantees an evenly heated oven that stays hot for longer.
How Long Does it Take to Heat a Pizza Oven?
It can take anywhere between half an hour and an hour and a half for your pizza oven to reach its desired temperature. It depends on the size of the oven. Like cooking a pizza, the bigger it is, the longer it takes.
Pizza ovens cook your food using radiant heat. You can monitor the radiant heat present in your pizza oven by looking at the center of the oven dome. After around thirty minutes of your fire releasing smoke, a clear spot will appear at the center of the dome. That clear spot will expand until the whole oven is clear. This happens when the carbon that fills the oven reaches a high enough temperature that it turns from black to clear.
If you need to, add more wood to the sides and back of the oven to help the process along. The aim is to reach a temperature of around 700ºF. Only when the entire dome is clear is your pizza oven ready.
Expert tip: Seasoned pizza oven chefs let the oven rest a little once it reaches optimum temperature. By moving the fire to one side and allowing the oven to cool a little, you lessen the chance of burning your first pizza. Many chefs also use this period to cook simple pita bread or something similar. This gives the chef an idea of how the oven is working and what sort of temperature has been reached.
The Right Firelighter for a Wood Fired Pizza Oven
There are many different types of firelighters. When lighting a fire in a pizza oven, it’s important that you only use non-toxic firelighters. Not only is this a good choice for the environment, but it also ensures you’re not introducing any toxicity to the food you’re cooking in your pizza oven.
Most eco-friendly firelighters are made from a combination of sustainably sourced wood and wool soaked in wax. Some firestarters are made with sawdust although this can affect the taste of your food. Light your fire with a small butane torch if you have one. After all, there’s only so many times you can burn your fingertips with a match!
The Right Wood for a Wood Fired Pizza Oven
Firelighters disintegrate minutes after being lit, so as long as you choose a non-toxic firelighter, you can’t really go wrong. When choosing the wood, we need to be more specific. The fuel you use to heat your pizza oven has a huge impact on how your oven operates and the taste of your food. Here are a few tried-and-tested tips for choosing the right wood for your wood-fired pizza oven:
- Never use charcoal. Charcoal burns hot and bright but it will not heat your pizza oven. Charcoal does not produce any flames which are one of the key factors for heating the dome of your oven evenly.
- Never burn water. Green wood is around 50 percent water. Only use wood that has been properly dried out. Collecting your own wood and drying it out is the most cost-effective method, but bear in mind that it takes at least one, but preferably two, summers to dry properly.
- Never use softwoods. Softwoods like cedar, yew, and redwood burn too quickly to heat your pizza oven. Before your oven is even close to the temperature it needs to be, these low-density woods are always ash. Softwoods are also full of sap and resin that, when burned, create soot in your pizza oven. The soot can turn to creosote which can ignite.
- Choose hardwoods. Hardwoods like oak, ash or mesquite are dense and will burn long enough to get your pizza oven to that all-important temperature. Different hardwoods will impart different flavors to your food. Hickory is a smoking hardwood that gives meat, like pork and ribs, their chargrilled taste. Walnut wood also has a strong, smoky flavor that goes well with earthy foods like mushrooms and root vegetables. Wood from fruit trees like apple, pear, apricot, and nectarine gives food a subtle and slightly sweet smoky taste.
Now you know how to light your pizza oven outdoors the right way! Practice makes perfect so experiment with different woods and burning times until you know exactly what works best for your pizza oven.