4 Signs That You're Using Your Wood Burning Oven Incorrectly
Whether you've just installed your new oven and still learning the ropes, or are a seasoned veteran running into a new, unforeseen challenge, this guide was made for you.
However, I'm not going to sugarcoat the unique combination of feelings of frustration and curiosity you may be experiencing right now. Let's face it, at this stage in your search, you may be throwing pepperonis at Tony down the street, and cursing whoever it is that thought putting a piece of plywood in your oven for "flavor" was a good idea.
Don't worry, we've put together the top questions we get asked on a near-daily basis when it comes to troubleshooting the art of making pizzas. Whether you have an indoor or outdoor wood-burning oven, we have you covered.
1. Why Does My Pizza Oven Smoke So Much?
No matter the style, whether it be a countertop, freestanding or portable wood-burning oven, some smoke is to be expected. It's the name of the game when you're cooking with fire. And the reason your pie is going to taste WAY better than the carryout chain down the street.
(You know who you are Mr. Carryout Chain...)
However, you should not see SO much smoke that it appears uncontrollable or interferes with your cooking. If the latter is you, this could mean a number of factors that we want to get fixed as soon as possible. Excess smoke can lead to fire safety issues. And that's something we all take very seriously here.
Below are the common challenges people face when they're experiencing too much smoke coming out of their pizza oven.
You Are Not Using the Right Type of Wood
Before we dive into this topic, I want to prepare you. You're going to notice that this is the most common problem affecting folks throughout this guide, but it's also the easiest to fix if you know what you're looking for.
With that being said, as you start your wood-fired pizza journey, you're going to notice there are many options when it comes to choosing wood for your oven; it's practically limitless. The following items are a big no-no and should be avoided when choosing and working with wood in your oven:
Wood that is green is too fresh and contains a lot of moisture. Excess moisture makes it hard to light and difficult to maintain a steady burn. This combination makes the wood smolder and creates a lot of smoke.
Sap and resin can be genetically volatile substances. When they are lit on fire, they combust and create a lot of smoke. Wood that is high in sap or resin content will smoke much more than those that have low or no amounts of it.
Softwood is wood that can easily break apart and isn't dense like hardwood. In pizza ovens, you want to only use hardwoods as they emit far less smoke than softwoods. Hardwood also leaves far less ash in the oven than softwood.
Never use wood that has been treated or known to have chemicals within it. This can not only cause excess smoke due to the chemicals being burned off when lit but can also be hazardous to your health. Always use seasoned or kiln-dried wood in your oven.
There are certain types of wood you just avoid. Even if they meet the criteria above. That's because some wood, like a variety of fruit trees, are just known to emit far more smoke than is necessary based on their genetic makeup and properties.
If the wood you're using is hardwood and it's kiln-dried or seasoned properly but you're still seeing a lot of smoke, then this could be your problem.
This may seem counterintuitive to lighting a fire in your pizza oven as the bark seems like the perfect fuel source, but the bark on some varieties of wood can be a big-time smoke producer. If you're experiencing a lot of smoke and using the right type of hardwood that is kiln-dried or seasoned appropriately, then I'd give removing the bark a shot and see if it helps.
We're all victims of this in the beginning as we learn to use our ovens and maintain heat. However, as you get more comfortable with your oven, you should begin to use less wood to initially heat up your oven and maintain it over hours of cooking.
This takes time to master but your lungs (and wallet) will thank you.
This falls in line with our prior point, however, I wanted to make a distinction. The wood kindling you use when initially building out your fire will produce more smoke than when you move on to your larger pieces. That's because smaller pieces burn faster. Make sure to switch to the larger pieces of wood as soon as you get your fire burning appropriately.
As for the right type of kindling to use, always use the same thought process above when choosing your kindling. It needs to be hardwood and either kiln-dried or seasoned appropriately.
If you're going to use cardboard or paper to initially get your fire started, that's okay, just try to use the least amount possible. This not only produces a lot of smoke but also a lot of unnecessary ash in the oven.
You Are Not Building the Fire Correctly
There are several different methods and techniques you can use when building a fire for your pizza oven. Some can produce more smoke than others, so it's important to know the right way to build your fire.
Who knew our beloved ovens could be so finicky?
One of the most well-known methods of building a fire, the teepee method, is actually one of the methods we ask people to avoid. This is due to the amount of kindling required within the teepee itself to get it going, which produces a lot of smoke and leaves a lot of dispersed ash within the oven itself.
Better alternatives to the teepee method would be to use the top-down or box style methods. In our experience, these two methods are much more efficient and clean fire starters so you don't have to deal with all the unnecessary smoke and ash.
Now, this section is only applicable to brand new pizza oven owners or ones that have recently failed to cover their oven and it got rained or snowed on. Before we move any further, if you don't have a cover for your pizza oven, stop what you're doing right now and go and buy one.
Seriously do it right now....I'll wait.
Covers are essential to protecting your pizza oven. If you don't have one, you're slowly hurting your oven to a point it will be unusable in the not too distant future.
(slowly steps off soapbox...regains composure)
During the initial curing process of your wood-fired oven, you will notice more smoke than usual. This is totally normal, don't be alarmed. It's just steam being released within your oven and mixing with your fire.
If you're unsure of what "curing" is, it's the process of slowly baking out the excess moisture (aka water) used to build your oven. This excess moisture is located in the refractory cement and brick and is important to release because it will greatly harden your oven or floor tiles to prepare it for a long life. All ovens go through this in some manner and it's an extremely important aspect of any wood-burning oven.
One thing to note, traditional brick ovens typically require a longer curing process than stainless steel models so the smoking could last for several days. But each one, whether done at the factory before it arrives at your home or you have to do it yourself, is a required step.
Once the curing process is complete, and you'll know based on the user manual that comes with your specific pizza oven, smoke should no longer be an issue.
2. Why Am I Getting Soot Building Up In My Pizza Oven?
Another sign of a wood-burning pizza oven not being used properly is too much build-up of soot either within or on the outside of the oven. Soot is a black powdery or flaky substance consisting largely of carbon. That excess carbon is produced by the burning of organic materials, aka wood in this instance.
Soot can be a pesky beast. Its formation is going to happen, it's physics at work, but there shouldn't be a lot of it produced at any given time.
The most common acts that produce excess soot and what you can do to prevent it is listed below. Following these best practices can be the difference between having a clean, efficient oven and one that resembles Pig-Pen from the Peanuts comics.
There are many different reasons as outlined in the prior section that you may be using the wrong wood. For soot buildup, in particular, the most common reason is you're using softwoods instead of hardwoods.
You should use only dense hardwoods like oak, cherry, and apple in your pizza oven. Never use softwoods like pine, cedar, or spruce. Softwoods are very flaky, don't burn efficiently, and cause excess soot and ash. Dense hardwoods are the exact opposite in their properties and why we recommend those over softwoods every day of the week.
Your oven will ultimately burn cleaner and more efficiently using hardwoods.
Bringing your oven up to the necessary temperature range for cooking your meal is priority number 1 when you fire up your oven. In doing this quickly, you'll spend less time building your fire and more time maintaining it.
Maintaining your fire at the desired temperature range is much more fuel-efficient than consistently building it so you'll use less wood over time. This not only produces far less soot and ash, but it also helps your pocketbook.
The chimney flue on your pizza oven is important for regulating proper airflow. Without it, smoke will come pouring out of the front of the oven causing safety concerns and a terrible cooking experience.
One common area we see, especially if your chimney flue has a damper, is folks restricting the airflow through the chimney pipe, especially when "choking down" the oven to kill the fire. In doing this, you're effectively restricting the airflow of the oven and causing excess soot and ash that should have exited the top of the oven to now being held within the oven.
This can easily be fixed by ensuring the chimney flue is clean and clear of any obstructions, as well as properly using the damper if your oven has one.
Using too much wood in your oven is often a result of the learning process. In the beginning, as you feel out your oven and how it reacts to adding wood, you're going to use more than you need to build and maintain the fire.
Over time, as you become more skilled with your oven, you're going to find yourself using less wood than you initially did because the majority of your time will be spent maintaining the fire versus starting it. Thus, you'll more so use larger pieces of wood that burn slower and give off less soot and ash.
Cleaning your oven consistently should be a part of your cooking routine. Ash and soot within the oven should be brushed out completely after each use. And the interior portion of the chimney pipe and cap should be cleaned based on usage to prevent soot build-up (use your best judgment here).
If you want to be thorough, you can wrap a damp, warm hand towel around your round peel and use it to clean the soot and ash on the oven floor your brush wasn't able to get. This will ensure you don't get an excess build-up of soot stuck to your oven floor. Do this when your oven is still warm for best results.
When it comes to the exterior of the oven, wiping it down with a warm, damp cloth to remove excess soot and ash when necessary will help to keep it looking like new. If you own a stainless steel oven, read the User Manual for cleaning instructions on how to best maintain the exterior of the oven and what solvents (if any) can be used on it.
If the front of your oven is covered in soot, then you're building the fire too close to the door of the oven. Doing this causes smoke to come out of the mouth of the oven, depositing soot while it exits.
To prevent this, build your fire in the middle of the oven floor so the smoke can easily vent out of the chimney and not the mouth. Once your oven is up to temperature and you're ready to maintain it, move your fire to the side or rear of the oven (depending on your oven's build) and get ready to start cooking.
3. Why is My Pizza Oven Not Coming Up to Temperature?
The third most common reason we see for people not using their oven properly is their inability to get the oven up to their desired cooking temperature. Unfortunately, there isn't a one-size-fits-all solution to this challenge because each oven is built differently.
If you built the oven yourself, had someone else build it for you, or bought it from an unknown supplier, then the answer to your problem could just be that it's not made with quality materials and/or the physics of its build isn't conducive to holding heat properly in order to get it up to that range.
If the oven you own was purchased through us, then you can ensure the build quality of that oven is top-tier. We don't work with manufacturers who make poor products. It's just not what we do. It allows us and our customers to rest easy at night.
If you know your oven is built with quality, then the reasons your oven isn't coming up to temperature can be due to a variety of challenges. All of which can easily be fixed with the right knowledge and tools.
You Are Not Using the Right Wood For Fuel
While we know that using the wrong type of wood can cause excess smoke, it can also prevent the temperature within the oven from getting to those higher temperature ranges. This is a very common issue that's easily fixed.
To ensure that your pizza oven is getting up to those higher temperature ranges you’ll want to opt for hardwood over softwood due to its high density and longevity for the fire. Soft and medium-density woods, due to their genetic makeup, burn so quickly that they don't have the time to get your oven hot. While dense, hardwoods can burn for 2-3X longer.
The quality of the wood you use is also important when getting your oven up to temperature. The wood should be dry and have a moisture content that is no higher than 15%. You can ensure this by purchasing kiln-dried wood or working with a professional who knows how to season wood properly.
The Fire Has Not Been Built Properly
Who knew that the way you set up your wood structure prior to burning it can have a significant effect on the temperature range of the oven? We're all learning something new today!
The reason this seemingly small detail is so important is due to airflow. Proper airflow is one of the most underrated aspects of an efficient pizza oven. It can mean the difference between sizzling pies fit for an Italian God or a pile of dough destined for the compost bin.
To get proper airflow, you want to ensure you're not packing the wood too closely together when building the wood structure. Doing this chokes the fire, preventing oxygen-rich air from seamlessly flowing through it. When you pack the wood too closely together, the fire will burn unevenly and can negatively affect the overall temperature of the oven.
If you're unsure of the best way to build your fire, we went over this in the first section of the article. We all know you didn't skip it ;-) So take a quick look to refresh.
The Instructions For Setting Up the Pizza Oven Have Not Been Followed Correctly
This is for all you folks who used your pizza oven's instruction manual to light your first fire. Man, wouldn't it be nice to go back in time right now?!
As we all know, every wood-burning pizza oven comes equipped with its own instructions. You may be anxious to begin using your new oven and tempted to skip some of these steps, but hold your horses and reel in your temptation.
There's a lot at steak here (get it?!).
Every piece of the puzzle is important to maximize your oven's potential so make sure to follow it step-by-step. Something so simple as the way a piece of your oven is positioned could be what's holding it back from peak performance.
I recommend going back to your user manual and ensuring each step of the process has been implemented correctly. If you don't have access to your user manual, then head over to the model on our website and it'll be on the page. If your oven is discontinued, then feel free to email us and we probably have it saved in our database. We'd be happy to send it to you.
Not Using the Proper Temperature Gauge
Many pizza ovens come equipped with a built-in thermometer. Like the air conditioning thermostat in your home, they're very useful in determining the overall temperature within your oven.
However, just like a thermostat can't tell you the temperature of your kitchen at any given point in time, the thermometer on your oven can't tell you the temperature of your oven's cooking surface.
Which is themost important area to know before you start cooking.
If the thermometer on your oven is at the desired cooking temperature but yet the temperature of your floor is much lower, then you're going to find yourself with cooked pizzas on top but doughy in between.
And this problem will persist until you can accurately read the temperature of the cooking surface area.
To do that, you need a quality infrared thermometer heat gun. They're super simple to use, just point in the area you want to test the temperature and pull the trigger. It'll instantly give you an accurate reading of the cooking floor so you can know exactly when to put your pizza in.
There is something remarkable about cooking in an authentic wood-burning oven. The crackling of the fire, the scent of the aroma. Some say the textures and flavors achieved are something like true love.
Others say I should get a life...
But that's beside the point.
If your food isn’t living up to its expectations then there is a good chance you're the problem, and it's the oven that isn't being used properly. This could be a result of a variety of factors I've outlined below.
As we touched on in the prior section, getting your pizza oven up to the desired temperature range is essential to ensuring your meal turns out great. Too hot or too cold and your chances of success are instantly shot down to 0%.
To prevent this, make sure you know the range your dish is supposed to be cooking in before getting started. Cooking in a pizza oven can be vastly different than cooking on a grill or your home oven so look for wood-fired cooking instructions if you can find them.
Another thing to make sure of is you're reading your temperature gauge correctly. You may be surprised to hear that a number of ovens made in Europe only come with a thermometer in celsius so double check before you get cooking. It could be why you're consistently burning your meals.
If you're relying on the outside temperature gauge of your oven and don't have an infrared thermometer heat gun to check the true temperature of the cooking surface area you're going to cook on, then that's most likely your problem.
We recommend relying solely on an infrared thermometer heat gun to get an accurate temperature reading of your oven floor before cooking. As you become more experienced and comfortable with your particular oven, over time this may not be necessary and you can rely on feel.
But for now, while you're learning the ropes, stick with the infrared heat gun. It's your best bet for a delicious meal. And I still use mine to do this day.
If the temperature of your oven changes sporadically throughout cooking, then you're destined to have an undercooked or overcooked meal.
Your ability to maintain the temperature within your oven over long periods of time takes practice. You won't get it down the first time or even your tenth time but the more you cook, the easier it will become.
To improve your ability to maintain temperature, make sure to add wood slowly and give it time to burn. Patience is key to finding the sweet spot.
Where you place your food within the oven when cooking will greatly determine how long it takes to cook.
As you move further and further away from the flame, the floor temperature tends to get cooler and cooler. Therefore, if you have a dish that needs to cook longer than others, you'll want to place it further away from the flame than the one you're trying to cook quickly (like pizza).
Getting a feel for your oven and the areas within it that tend to heat up quicker than others will help you a lot in your quest for cooking a better meal.
When you first build your fire within the oven, it'll be built in the center. However, that's not where you want to leave it.
When the temperature gauge on your oven gets to the desired temperature range of the meal you're looking to cook, you'll want to move the fire to a different location within the oven. The area you move it to will depend on the build of your oven. It'll either be on the left or right-hand side or in the back.
By moving your fire from the center, you're allowing the heat to distribute properly and create the three forms of heat needed for a pizza oven to cook effectively: radiant, convection, and conduction heat.
The type of pizza dough you use within your oven will greatly impact the quality and flavor of your pizza. If you're experiencing a lot of burnt pizzas but everything else in the guide checks out, then you may be using the wrong dough. More specifically, the wrong flour within the dough.
When cooking in a wood-burning pizza oven you must use "00" flour to make your dough. "00" flour has a number of unique attributes over normal flour in that it's sturdy with high elasticity for kneading and delicate enough to prevent an overly tough or rubbery texture. But its most important attribute is its ability to withstand the high temperatures used when cooking a Neopolitan style pizza in a wood-fired oven.
"00" flour is the gold standard for Italian pizzerias and the only flour you should use when making your pizza dough.
Putting flour on your pizza peel before placing your pizza on it is necessary if you want it to easily slide off the peel when putting it in your oven.
However, if you put too much flour on your pizza peel prior to putting your pizza on it, that excess flour will then stick to the bottom of your pizza. That layer of flour on your pizza will act as a barrier between the oven floor and your pizza dough, causing the flour to burn and give your pie a foul, burnt taste.
To prevent this, make sure to only sprinkle flour on your peel before placing your pizza on it. You don't need much to achieve the desired outcome.
It takes time to master cooking in a wood-burning pizza oven, so don't get discouraged if your pizzas and other various dishes aren't coming out perfect. Just like becoming fluent in any other art, it can take years to master the art of wood-fired cooking.
However, using the tips outlined in this guide should greatly help you improve your skillset and ability to troubleshoot issues quickly. By taking the time to learn these ideas and implement them in your everyday cooking, you can greatly eliminate the unwanted effects of subpar food, excess smoke, or soot in the oven.
If you're still looking for a wood-burning pizza oven or want to upgrade your existing one but don't know where to start, I'd recommend reading our in-depth Wood Fired Pizza Oven Buying Guide to know exactly what to consider before purchasing one. It'll save you a ton of time and potentially wasted money.
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