Dear Lazyweb, steel or stone?

Pizza ovens. Steel deck versus stone deck. Does it matter?

We're trying to decide between this and this. Almost everyone uses stone, but the steel one, while being slightly more expensive, has better temperature controls, and the glass doors mean leaking less heat when checking on progress.

The fact that we don't know of anyone locally who uses a steel deck oven is not a sign in its favor, but I haven't heard coherent arguments against them. Besides that. Which is not nothing.

I'll bet you guys know every bit as much about ovens as you do about ffmpeg, right?

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45 Responses:

  1. Have you talked to anyone who has the steal/glass oven in their pizza shoppe? Go with tried and true.

  2. Ben says:

    I worked in a pizza place with a steel deck oven and had no issues with it. At some point I'll build a pizza oven in my back yard and was planning to go with a brick deck for tradition, but it is an interesting idea to weld together a steel firebox instead.

  3. njs says:

    In the home cooking realm, steel versus stone actually makes a pretty big difference, because steel dumps heat into the dough much more quickly than stone does. (This is apparently a good thing.) See e.g.

    Because I am an internet commenter, however, I am forbidden to help with your actual question. So good luck with that.

    • James says:

      I look at the photos in the linked e.g. article, and wonder why the author prefers giant burnt bubbles on top, and uneven burn patterns on the bottom. I guess it's purely in the realm of subjective aesthetics, so I am entitled to my opinion that stone is superior even if too much pizza has left the critiquing cook with the opposite opinion.

      • mjog says:

        Yeah, well bland uniformity is the hallmark of contemporary western society. Look how well it works for McDonalds!

        • James says:

          If only there were some way for pizza to avoid bland conformity without necessitating the taste of burnt toast. Perhaps if the customers were given some way to alter the composition of the pizzas' ingredients.

  4. remember how many times we made the mistake of Not Doing What Everyone Else Does?
    We did that a lot. it was nearly always a mistake.

  5. rcs says:

    I have not used a steel-floor oven but spent about five years with a (IIRC) Hobart two-deck gas-fired slate-floor oven back in college. We made "normal" pizzas - white or wheat crust, 9"/14"/16" sizes, standard toppings. Cooking times around 9-15 minutes at (IIRC) 550º F.

    The glass doors sound cool but I think you'd still end up opening and shutting them about as much on average. Besides adding and removing pies we had to open the doors to a) rotate pizzas near the walls (to avoid edge burns from the hot walls) and b) pop bubbles in the white crust pizzas (otherwise the sauce and toppings would slide off the top of the bubble.) Experienced cooks had a sense for when a pie needed checking or was ready so being able to see through the door might not be as much of a plus.

    At peak times we'd lose heat and cooking times would increase, even with the big heat-storage capacity of the Hobart's slate floor. The steel floor unit sounds like it'd return to correct heat more quickly than a slate job, which would be a plus (if true.) And that unit does convection too, which is interesting - might help to cook veggie pies more evenly, the high water content of those pies not being optimal for even cooking IMO.

  6. pizzacomment says:

    I don't know what kind of pizza gets served in SF but here in italy professional pizza is cooked at 350 ~ 450C, the stone one is better, at least on paper.

    • Peter says:

      Some casual readers might have missed the subtlety of 350 ~ 450 degrees CELSIUS. I, for one, had no idea pizza ovens were that hot until recently.

  7. Jeff Clough says:

    There are two arguments I have heard in favor of stone from culinary people (as in went to school and became professional chefs). Of course, that's not to say they aren't bullshit until proven otherwise.

    First, stone is a poor conductor of heat, and surfaces which aren't have a tendency to burn food. Using stone lets you more evenly heat the food and control "doneness."

    Second, stone absorbs moisture and creates a crispier crust (or cookie, or whatever you're baking). With a surface like metal, it's possible to get soggy bottoms.

    • Ethan says:

      The links say that the steel oven has perforated trays (to avoid soggy crusts, I'm assuming). jwz, whoever your purveyor is, they should be willing to demo both units for you. Stone has a longer history because steel is hard to make (on a relative timeline). I've mainly used stone because that's what's most commonly available but I've tested steel and with thinner crusts both work well-enough.

    • Asm says:

      I have no knowledge about pizza ovens, but let me correct something: No, a stone bottom will not absorb moisture in this scenario, because it's (hopefully...) above 100 deg C, which will very effectively drive out all the moisture that might otherwise be absorbed.

      • Ben says:

        You can absorb water vapor without absorbing liquid water. Water vapor still exists over the boiling point.

        That said, it seems unlikely that any significant mass of water in the crust is going to move into the stone.

  8. Patrick Berry says:

    Multiple places in my town have steel decks with non-glass doors. They are close to high schools typically and have to be able to serve high volumes very quickly. Most of the others put their pies on conveyor belts, like animals. We have a few with wood-fired ovens, but we'll pretend they don't exist for this exercise. So, in this case, I think that "everyone" is highly localized.

  9. Vague memory from a couple years ago of someone inventing a pizza oven that used high-power light and cooked in like two minutes. Did nothing come of that?

  10. Ye Olde Ceramique Cookery Surfface. Never mind what they use in prison facilities...

  11. Jacob says:

    Go find Dave Arnold on Twitter (vocal nerd, former director of culinary tech at FCI, actually operates a bar, etc). If he can't answer with authority, or doesn't know somebody who's actually done enough actual testing in commercial environments, he will at the very least tell you what issues you're potentially going to run into.

  12. grundoon says:

    Perforated metal guarantees (a) that your dishwasher will have a shit-ton of little holes to clean of baked-on/in drippage from potentially unwieldy sheets of potentially bendy build, and (b) that your pizzaiolo/a will not able to liberally dust a peel with semolina/flour/whatever without showering it upon all that's below, for which they will curse you every time it sticks.

    Also, I would consider 600F a minimum proper deck baking temperature, not a maximum.

  13. nathan says:

    The faster the bottom of the pie cooks the less golden brown your cheese and toppings will be. So when the cheese gets those glorious brown spots, the very bottom crust of the dough is thicker and closer to overdone. Finding the balance between these two is hard. Steel floors frequently exaggerate the difference in cooking speeds between the bottom of the crust and the top of the pie.

  14. Tom Lord says:

    Home cooking experience only but: If you are getting a good scorch on your pies, the gradual seasoning of the stone with oils and ash will convey a nice flavor. By the time the steel starts to have this behavior it will be past time to throw it out. Also, I agree about the superior heat transfer characteristics someone mentioned. And if the steel model has holes in it to hack around that problem -- now you have two problems as shit drops down those holes (plus they'll make the bottoms of your pies look stupid).

  15. If you want to burn wood, go with stone, otherwise, heavy steel works just fine

  16. I've seen a bunch of articles about using stone vs steen plates in regular home ovens, and the steel comes out ahead in all ways. Faster, better char patterns on the bottom, better oven spring.

    My biggest concern is going to be reliability and maintenance. Can anyone locally service a steel one? What breakdown issues do they have compared to stone?

    Are people using stone because they are more reliable, or because they bought their oven before steel was more widely available?

    I know Tony's in North Beach has several different types of ovens. Maybe they have a steel deck oven? It would be worth talking to them.

  17. Jay says:

    The place that makes the best pizza I've ever had anywhere (including Italy) uses stone. The glass seems like a gimmick, after the first week it'll be permanently backend.
    The fact that steel can be good for home cooking is pretty irrelevant IMO since home ovens can't get near as hot as professional pizza ovens.

  18. L says:

    The best pizza ovens I've seen are large wood fired ones, with electronic temperature sensors, and they have a round stone or brick platform with an electrical motor (to spin the platform, fairly fast, in order to heat all pizzas uniformly) and an hydraulic system to raise the platform (mostly to take advantage of increased air temperature).

    But if you mention oven doors and, worse, trays, we are talking about a different kind of pizza and probably a different budget.
    For the two ovens in your short list, windows are the killer feature. What are the maximum operating temperatures? Can they run between 320 and 350°C for a whole evening?

    • jwz says:

      Wow, why don't we just build a giant brick oven with a chimney. What a fantastic idea. That sounds so practical an economical and exactly like a drop-in replacement.

      See, I was kind of shocked that the comments here from the lazyweb actually seemed somewhat informed and non-insane. Thanks for bringing it back to the level I've come to expect.

  19. Perry says:

    The single most important feature of cooking good pizza is "insanely hot oven with good heat transfer". 550F is not enough for really good pizza -- you want to go to at least 650F and way above that if you can. (This is the primary reason it is so hard to make decent pizza at home -- home ovens simply do not get hot enough.) Given that you can achieve high enough temperatures, whatever gives you the least trouble to manage safely in a commercial space is what you should do.

    There's a lot of religion about wood and coal ovens, but wood firing and coal firing are a pain in the ass, and the only reason they give good results is that they typically are associated with insanely high heats. When they're built so that the oven isn't hot enough, wood and coal don't give any better results. You can get very high heats from natural gas given the right configuration, and then you don't need crazy infrastructure.

    What you can't compromise on is "insanely hot".

    BTW, for really good information on scientific tests of all of this, I recommend "Modernist Cuisine" by Myhrvold et al -- it goes into considerable depth and they did good controlled studies.

    • BDH says:

      Heh.... seems the Lazyweb has forgotten the backstory on why this blog is here in the first place?

      I expect the day that JWZ would given even $1.00 to Myhrvold - much less the $507 for the commercial 5 volume set - would be a cold day, indeed.

      • Perry says:

        I'm sure he can consult the book without paying for it. Even ignoring more modern methods, there's this invention called a "library"...

  20. mattyj says:

    I have a cast iron pizza 'stone' at home so what do I know. But I eat a lot of pizza. I've had pizza from both stone and steel ovens and as a consumer I don't recall any difference.

    Some of the above responses assume DNA Pizza slings high-yeast, artisan, bubbly pizzas, the likes of which you can get on every other block in San Francisco (not complaining.) This is not the case. DNA does a more NY style, non-bubbly, 'bready' pie where all the shit on it doesn't slide off in the oven and make a big mess. Yes, you normally want to cook pizza at a pretty high temperature, but the DNA style of pizza won't require anything more than what these two ovens can put out (600 or 650 degrees F.) The smaller, foo-foo pizzas are essentially 'fried' in a wood/stone oven, but DNA pizzas are more or less baked, for realz, yo.

    I haven't taken a really good look at the ovens at DNA but the bottom deck of the Peerless seems pretty low. Space seems tight behind the counter and I'm wondering if the bottom deck or two would see much use, if there's enough clearance opposite the oven for the handle of the peels to easily navigate. The steel deck oven is shorter and could be higher up.

    • Perry says:

      Speaking as a lifelong New Yorker: NY style is "bubbly", not "bready". If the texture is too much like "bread", the crust is too thick and the pie hasn't been cooked hot enough. Yes, I know what crap outside New York is called "New York" style, and that isn't it. Stuff doesn't fall off of NY pies into the oven, but why would it?

      And, no, you aren't "frying" a NY style pizza, you're baking it, at exceptionally high heat, for a short period. The best pizzas in NYC are made in ovens that go far above the minimum 650F. If the crust isn't crisp and there are no bubbles formed in it, you didn't use the right technique.

      • mattyj says:

        I can't tell if we're agreeing or disagreeing, but the rest of the US outside NYC uses terms like 'more (like) NYC style' to mean 'not Chicago style' and/or 'not Neapolitan', even though it's not 100% accurate, depending on which New Yorker you talk to.

        • Perry says:

          "Not Neapolitian" covers a variety of things. Neapolitan style pies tend to be much smaller than NY style pies, and tend to be soft in the middle, while NY style pizza is crisp edge to edge. The lower quality and easier to find NY style pizzas are cooked at lower temperatures and tend to be cheesier. The best stuff is less saturated with cheese (somewhat after the Neapolitan manner) but cooked at very high heat. Coal ovens are nice because they typically are very high heat, but there is no way JWZ is going to be able to do that so there's no point in discussing it. That said, I've had excellent NY style pizza cooked in gas ovens many times -- it is just a question of having an oven that can achieve the needed levels of heat.

          Anyway, whatever people want to call "New York", if the crust hasn't been cooked hot enough to form bubbles, it isn't actually a good example of what someone in New York would prefer to be eating. I suspect most people who live here wouldn't notice the presence or the absence of bubbles formed in the dough, but they would notice the texture being off.

          Regardless, all this is probably moot. JWZ needs to get whatever is commercially best for his needs, and that probably takes precedence over everything else.

  21. ben says:

    One more thing to consider, maintenance. When I cooked pizza, a stone deck would clean up with a wire brush in seconds. No experience with steel, but I'd verify a few tablespoons of sweetened sauce caked on the steel cleans up reasonably easily.

  22. Stuart McDow says:

    I'm sure that, with enough research, an correct invocation of ffmpeg can be determined that will always produce excellent pizza.

  23. Jay says:

    I checked with my pizza making and pizza loving friend, and he say the benefits of steel (gets hot faster) are diminishing returns in a commercial oven. He also said, without having viewed your two options, to go with Peerless (or Bakers Pride or Marsal and Sons)

  24. nooj says:

    So I asked a friend who runs a pizza shop. This was before you announced the new place. I assumed you were replacing an old oven. My friend said, "Why does he need to replace an oven?? It's a valve and some bricks! Tell him to buy a sailboat instead." Ha!

    PS, he uses stone because that's what was for sale at the time.