For anyone who dares to try making it, pizza is more than food. It’s a time-honored quest that promises challenge and frustration and, most importantly, a sense of delight that transcends bodily nourishment. Building my own outdoor brick pizza oven was a fun and fitting way to start a journey toward making the perfect pie. I feel compelled to express gratitude for those who navigated me toward the fiery brick clad road to pizza bliss.
Like man’s serendipitous creation of fire, the initial spark didn’t happen in a vacuum. A sequence of fortunate events was set in motion about a year ago when my friend (and hobbyist maker) Dave sent me a link to a September 22, 2016 Make: post about a DIY brick pizza oven that can be built, used, and broken down in a single day. Make: Magazine editor and pizza enthusiast, Mike Senese, was putting the oven on display at the World Maker Faire in New York and, better yet, advertised a special offer for some eager maker to take away the half ton of disassembled bricks on a Sunday night after the faire.
I crafted a reply email to Mike, with the requested subject line “I want the pizza oven,” and stated a case to justify why I would be the most suitable parent for the orphan bricks. Wind the clock back to a few months earlier and you’d find me telling Dave about a life dream of building a backyard pizza oven. Thanks for remembering me, Dave. Even though this urban North Jersey apartment dweller doesn’t own a backyard to store it or a truck to move it, that didn’t stop me from getting a free brick pizza oven. I was happy to get Mike’s response that I could take the materials and I showed up on the fairgrounds with a borrowed truck at a specified time. After working through some issues with a broken latch on the truck bed door, I loaded the bricks with Mike and he shared some key insights and details about assembling the oven. I was soon on my way to store it in my father’s backyard while I figured out a long term plan.
Though my dad wouldn’t mind me staging the oven in his backyard, he suggested bringing it to our family’s summer getaway place in the Pocono Mountains instead. I hadn’t thought of it, but it was a nice idea to leave it in my vacation space, where I’d have the certainty of leisure time to enjoy giving proper focus to the craft. So I put it under cover for the winter.
When summer finally came around, I laid out a plan to build the oven and pushed through some logistical issues (i.e. finding a truck, willing friends available to help transport, and getting a permit to build an outdoor masonry oven that exceeds three cubic feet). After all that was settled, construction began in early August. I had some help from my brother and a couple friends while my wife supervised. We built a stand with 2” x 4”’s and ¾” outdoor grade plywood. I dug out a level space for the stand, laid out an insulating base layer of square foot concrete pavers, and then a base layer of bricks right on top of that. It was shaping up nicely to start building the oven.
The next step became a little more puzzling. I had the materials, pictures of the assembled fixture, and some basic instructions with neat diagrams. But they didn’t align on all the details. After thinking through it for a while, it became clear that the angle iron frame was actually the cornerstone because it was the least flexible piece of the puzzle. I didn’t have the ability to drill new holes or change the length of the iron with the tools I had on hand. So I set the angle iron and rods in place, arranged the walls of the oven to fit that frame and set up the top angle iron frame to hold it all in place. The pre-made wooden jig for building the arched roof was a really nice innovation by the designer, though it was slightly shorter than the dimensions that I had in progress. The arch shaped wood frame helped to keep the bricks suspended in an arch pattern, and allowed me to strategically insert some small stone spacers between the bricks. My first three attempts to raise the arch and pull the jig resulted in bricks toppling like a failed move on a Giant Jenga set. But then I found a rhythm and put up three arches in a row to complete the basic framework. From there, I placed a clay chimney at the front angle iron and filled in bricks around it to keep it in place. The final design was not perfectly symmetrical, but it was stable and functional. The final phase was sealing all the cracks and seams with fire clay. This got a little messy, but it was fun and worthwhile knowing that it would help get that oven up to blazing heat to cook a pizza in under 3 minutes.
I let the clay set overnight and started a fire the next morning. While waiting for the oven to heat up (which does take at least two hours), I mixed a batch of dough and let it rise for an hour. Only it didn’t rise. It turns out using dry packets of yeast and hot water is more reliable and forgiving than using the wet compressed kind that resembles a pad of brown butter. The texture of the sub-optimal rise dough is more rigid and starchy, but I decided to go ahead with it anyway. I pushed the fire to the back of the oven with my 4’ wire brush/scraper combo tool and cleared a space in the center of the oven. I set the first pizza on my brand new 12” aluminum paddle and slid it off in the center of the oven. I watched closely and saw the crust rise and brown slightly over the course of 2 or 3 minutes and then turned it 180 degrees for another 2-3 minutes. The result was a simple and adequate margarita pizza with fresh mozzarella, fresh Jersey tomato slices, and fresh chopped basil added at the end. The crust took a bit too long to attain a crispy and puffy edge, and the top was cooked but with very little sign of the quintessential crispy brown spots and intermittent bubbles one would expect from a brick oven. I didn’t go through all of this effort for adequate pizza. It was obvious I needed to adjust the technique and get a better handle on the three main variables: the fire, the dough, and the technique. That will of course be the thrill of the journey ahead.
Subsequent attempts offered me a lot more learning experience, as well as fun and hope to one day achieve the perfect pie. I came back a couple weeks later armed with an instant read digital surface thermometer, a better-researched dough technique, and the resolve to build a better wood fire. That weekend, I mixed a batch of dough that rose to double its volume in 45 minutes and then punched it down to let it rise again. Meanwhile, the heat of the fire was observable from a few feet away. I could hear it whirring to draw in a rapid stream of Oxygen and then exhale from the chimney a clear and pure steam that created a wavy, distorted image of the visible background. The coal bed was white hot, as evidenced by a crystal clear interior view of the arch ceiling.
I set the coals in a horseshoe pattern along the back and side walls. The floor of the oven was reading between 500-600 degrees and the back wall was off the charts (max thermometer temperature is about 1,000 degrees F). With a pizza placed just inside the mouth toward the front of the oven, the crust singed and the top bubbled up in about 30 seconds. I rotated it 90 degrees every 30 seconds and it was well done in under 2 minutes. The result was a delightful balance of crispy exterior and gooey interior that held its form with a handle on the crust. I was on the right track.
The nice part about the high heat, short cook time, and narrow mouth of the oven is that it imposes an inherent control mechanism to experiment with small pies and make quick adjustments to conditions in between experiments. In other words, it’s my very own outdoor pizza lab. I had four sessions with it so far and I’m eagerly awaiting the next experiment. This is the perfect starter brick oven to let me hone my skills. Thanks again to everyone who helped put it in a good home. I could say I’ve crossed an item off the bucket list, but I know this is really just the end of a graduation speech and the start of a new chapter. Wish me luck.