The Essential Kitchen: Pizza Tools
You Don't Need a Wood Fired Oven to Make Great Pizza
New York is famous for its pizza parlors. Some make excellent and memorable pies. Most do not. If you want to guarantee a flavorful pizza made with quality ingredients, it's best to make your own. You don't need elaborate equipment as long as you have a hot oven and some imagination as to what's put on top.
Still, if you make pizza often, it may make sense for you to invest in some of these tools if only to make the process a bit easier and your crust a bit crisper.
The Basics: You Bought the Pizza Dough
Oven: An electric or gas oven that can be heated to a stable 450º or 500ºF is essential to bake a pizza.
Sheet Pan: This should be a city cook basic whether you make pizza or not. When making pizza you can use the pan itself to bake your pizzas. You can also turn it upside down and use it in place of a peel (see below), a tip we learned from Alice Waters in her book, The Art of Simple Food. Make sure your sheet pan is sturdy enough to cook in a very hot oven.
Rimless Cookie Sheet: As with a sheet pan, a rimless cookie sheet can be used to bake a pizza or in place of a peel.
The Basics-Plus: You're Making the Pizza Dough
Food Processor: Almost essential if you're going to make your own dough. A few minutes in a medium-sized processor equipped with a plastic dough blade makes it a snap to make the silky, elastic yeast dough that's best for pizza. A stand mixer with a dough hook is an alternative.
Instant Thermometer: If you are going to make your own pizza dough, you will need a thermometer to check the temperature of the water in which you'll proof the yeast. This is the same kind of thermometer used to check the doneness of meats and poultry.
Rolling Pin: While pizza shop-bought pizza dough is very elastic and can be stretched into shape with your fingers, home-made dough is sometimes less durable and can tear. Plus it can be frustrating to be trying to get dinner ready only to be spending time wrestling with the snap-back of a pizza dough. While purists may argue otherwise, a rolling pin is absolutely fine -- and even essential -- to use to get your dough into the size and thickness that's ready to bake.
Specialty Pizza Tools
Pizza Stone: A single round of masonry or earthenware material on which a pizza is baked. They commonly come in sizes of 13-inches or 16-inches and cost approximately $30 for the smaller size to $40 for the larger one. The stone is put into a cold oven, usually on the center or bottom rack, and brought to a hot temperature as the oven is heated, usually to 450 to 500ºF. The raw pizza, complete with its toppings, is placed directly on the pre-heated stone; because the stone's material is porous, it helps absorb moisture from the dough, making the crust crispier.
Many city cooks store their pizza stones in their ovens as it's a handy place to keep this somewhat clumsy kitchen item. It won't interfere with any other cooking, although if you're broiling or making some other oily or spattering food, the stone may get dirty. Pizza stones are to be washed only with hot water, not detergent (the stone is absorbent). If they get stained and this bothers you, the stains can be sanded off. A popular brand of pizza stones is "Old Stone Oven."
An alternative to a pizza stone is to line an oven rack with ceramic baking tiles that are usually sold in boxes of six 6-by-6-inch tiles. They cost about $35 per box. The advantage of using tiles is that a larger, more versatile surface can be created by completely fitting an oven rack. The use and cleaning of the tiles is the same as for a single pizza stone.
Some of the better cookware companies, including All-Clad, make a pizza stone rimmed with stainless steel. The stone works the same way, being pre-heated in a hot oven, but the rim and handles make the stone easier to transfer in and out of the oven. Plus it matches your other All-Clad, if this matters to you (it won't matter to your pizza).
Tip: If you use a pizza stone it is essential that you make sure it has been completely pre-heated -- 30 minutes is a good idea -- because if not, your pizza will have a raw crust and burnt toppings.
Steel Baking Pan: A round metal pan made of blue steel, these pans are very thin but because they're made of steel, they do not warp in a hot oven. Placing a raw pizza on a steel pan and baking it in a hot oven, the steel quickly gets very hot which helps the pizza develop a crisp bottom crust. Unlike a pizza stone, these pans are not pre-heated. They cost about $18 for a 10-inch pan and about $30 for a 15-inch pan. At 1/16-inch thick, storage is not a problem plus you can use these pans to cook other things, like fruit tarts.
Pizza Trays: Thin and light-weight aluminum discs used to serve and transfer individual pizzas. The come in a huge range of sizes, from 9-inches to about 20-inches in diameter. These are not to use in the oven but are extremely useful to have on hand for transferring a hot pizza from a pizza stone to a serving plate. Inexpensive, pizza trays cost about $4 for a small one to about $10 for the largest sizes.
Pizza Peel: This is a long handled paddle that is used to transfer pizzas in and out of a hot oven. Many are made of wood, but you can also find smaller metal peels made usually of lightweight aluminum, although since metal conducts heat, putting a metal peel into a hot oven could be tricky. Typically, corn meal is sprinkled on the surface of a peel, on top of which is placed the pizza which is then transferred to the hot oven (and if applicable, the pre-heated pizza stone). The corn meal lets the raw pizza easily slide from one surface to another.
Pizza Screens: These are rimmed metal mesh circular screens on which a raw pizza is placed and then cooked directly in the oven. They seem fragile but many insist that these are better than pizza stones because you can dress the pizza on the screen before putting it into the oven, thus eliminating the need for a peel. The mesh screen allows the bottom of the pizza to cook by radiation (as opposed to conductive heat which is how a pizza on a hot stone cooks). And it's not vulnerable to breakage as a stone is should you drop it. They are inexpensive -- about $6 for 14-to-16-inch screen.
Pizza Wheel: A round-wheeled knife used to slice pizzas. A pizza wheel is not single-function. It can also be used to slice thin fruit tarts, pans of brownies and cookie bars, fresh pastas, and other flat foods that are best cut with a continuous motion. Are these essential for making and serving pizza? Absolutely not. A sharp chef's knife will work just as well. But it is a task-specific knife that can be handy to have if you'll use it often. They generally cost about $20.
Where to Buy Pizza Tools
Most kitchen stores sell most of these tools. We found a very good selection with good prices -- and a knowledgeable staff with pizza-making experience -- at Broadway Panhandler.