Wood-fired ovens carry with them a sense of community, reminding us of times when families shared a communal oven. Out of necessity they worked together to bake their weekly bread. The ancient ovens have given place to today’s more efficient and beautifully designed ovens. The wood-fired oven, however, still remains an important gathering place. Today people come together, not out of necessity, but for pleasure—sharing the wood-fired experience.
The host of a wood-fired party understands the same factors that concerned ancient bakers: scheduling and fire management. When to fire up your oven? What to cook at each temperature? Understanding both factors enables today’s hosts to throw a successful wood-fired party.
Our tips, based on years of hosting wood-fired parties, will help you build confidence in managing the fire, staging the food and allowing guests to share the work. Whether you do all the cooking or ask your guests to help, the experience of a wood-fired party generates interest, conversation and fun.
Start the fire early
If you have a suitable fire going before company arrives, you can focus on the guests and not on the fire. Establishing a good fire without propane can take fiddling, so begin ahead of time. If you haven’t fired your oven recently, it may have accumulated moisture. Set a small fire inside the oven to burn for an hour or two to drive out accumulated moisture. (See our blog on keeping your oven cured.) Moisture in your oven, in the wood and in the weather affects the fire. Have plenty of dry wood on hand. Keep propane and a propane wand ready in case you need to jump-start the fire. A relaxing wood-fired party starts with a well-established fire.
Let the oven heat
Maintain a low fire in the oven for an hour or more before guests arrive. A low fire builds a base of heat and creates mature coals. Mature coals give you control over cooking temperatures and make it easy to add wood without overloading the fire. Use the oven door to control the amount of oxygen reaching the fire. Blocking off some of the oxygen slows down the burn and minimizes the need to continually add wood. Don’t wait until the oven is 900 degrees to start cooking. Use the fire’s heat to roast veggies and meats, even to cook some of the sausage or veggies that will become pizza toppings.
Stock up on pans and hand towels
Buy an assortment of pans from a restaurant supply store. These sturdy metal pans don’t warp in high heat. They don’t melt on contact with coals and ash. Keep a stack of 1/4-size pans in 2” and 4” depths for cooking and for storage. Restaurant pans nest beautifully. With matching lids they can stack in the oven for stacked cooking. A smaller pan set inside a larger pan of hot water makes a great double boiler and/or warming pan. Pick up a package of restaurant hand towels. You’ll need them for your hands, your guests’ hands, for implements, for spills and drips and as quick potholders.
Serve interesting samples
Nothing shows off the oven’s versatility like a variety of small appetizers. While the oven is coming up to full pizza-baking temperature, cook small pans of veggies and meats in the roasting zones around the edges of the oven. Chunks of roasted potatoes and sautéed stuffed mushrooms make great appetizers, as do charred sausage links and seared fish. When the oven is hot enough for pizza, it’s hot enough for quick roasting broccoli and Brussels sprouts. Both of these cruciferous veggies take on amazing flavor when cooked at super high temperatures.
Avoid pizza mistakes
- Don’t leave all of the dough-rolling until the wood-fired party. Making and rolling out dough takes time. Along with other hosting duties, rolling out individual pizza dough slows down a wood-fired party. Have a number of par-baked pizza shells ready before the party starts. Guests enjoy decorating their pizza rounds from a selection of toppings. (I make my own dough and par-bake rounds the day before a pizza party or earlier in the day. But you can buy pre-made dough and pre-made rounds to save time.) Whether you make your own dough, buy dough, or choose pre-shaped rounds—they all taste fantastic when cooked in a wood-fired oven. Reserve some prepared dough for guests who want to practice tossing dough into the air and doing the whole dramatic pizza experience. With pre-baked shells, everyone assembles their toppings, slides their pizzas into the oven and enjoys the blazing speed of a 90-second pizza.
- Don’t over-do the toppings. Wood-fired pizza differs from low-temperature versions. A thick layer of toppings makes the dough soggy. At high temperatures the crust will begin to burn before the ingredients are warmed through. The best wood-fired pizzas are lightly topped with a little sauce and flavorful-ingredients. Experiment before your first pizza party. When in doubt, err on the side of less sauce and less cheese. Even simple flat bread brushed with olive oil, sprinkled with salt and pepper and served with fresh herbs is delicious. Peter Reinhart in his search for perfect pizza said, “Remember, do not overload your pizza, or the crust will dry out or burn before the toppings cook” (American Pie, p. 222) On the same page, Mr. Reinhart cites recipes for his favorite toppings—definitely something for a pizza enthusiast to check.
A wood-fired party creates a sense of community. Let your guests help if they offer. Give them something to do and everyone will be invested in the success of your wood-fired party.