What makes a great pizza? Everyone has their personal preferences, but some things are standard — a crisp crust with a soft, chewy interior, perfectly melted cheese, signature tomato sauce. From there, the sky’s the limit with what can be done to everyone’s favorite dish. But there’s a debate raging among pizza aficionados. Which cooking method is best — wood-fired or coal ovens?
Although wood-fired ovens have gained a lot of attention in recent years, those who prefer coal pizza ovens stand fast in the assertion that their cooking method is best. Most would say it comes down to personal preference. Some would even dare say there’s really no difference, but that’s simply not true.
If we’re going to decide which pizza style is best – wood vs. coal – then we need to explore the nitty-gritty details and answer the tough questions:
- What makes each type of pizza unique?
- What flavor profile truly defines wood-fired pizza and coal?
- If you’re going to build a pizza oven at home, is there one that’s better?
Let’s dive into the wonderful world of pizza. Because in this debate, let’s face it, there’s really no loser.
The Flavor Difference Between Wood- and Coal-Fired Ovens
Some less-discriminating eaters can’t tell the difference between wood-fired pizza and a coal oven pie. But to the true foodie, it’s important to dig a little deeper. And if that means eating more pizza, it’s a hard job, but somebody’s got to do it.
Each style of pizza has its own distinct flavor profile. Let’s break it down a bit, shall we?
Wood Oven Pizzas
You can identify a wood oven pizza by the following traits:
- Traditional Neapolitan style
- Thin center
- Puffy edges
- Distinct leopard-spotted char
- Softer and more delicate
- Smoky taste in every bite
- Crispier toppings
- Generally uses fresh mozzarella
- Cheese is melted, not burnt, and imbued with a smoky flavor
- Pizzas cook fully in as little as 90 seconds
Coal Oven Pizzas
You can identify a coal oven pizza by the following traits:
- Commonly associated with New York-style pizza
- Smoky thin crust
- Crisper and more stable
- Chewy interior
- Slight smoky taste
- Uses specialty cheeses, like dry mozzarella
- Cheese is usually applied before the sauce
- Pizzas take approximately six minutes to cook fully
The Roots of the Wood-Oven Pizza
There’s something special about pizza cooked in a wood-oven. The flash of flames and warmth create a distinct ambiance and authenticity to the pizza dining experience.
If you’re a traditionalist, then wood-fired pizza is it. Pizza, as we know it today, was developed in Naples, where tomato was added to flatbread. There, the main method for cooking these pies was to throw them in an oven heated by wood.
Giving homage to its roots, this style of wood-fired pizza is sometimes referred to as Neapolitan-style pie. Wood-oven pizzas are making a splash at artisan Italian restaurants across the nation.
How Do Wood Ovens Work?
How do wood-fired ovens give pizza their distinctive, flame-cooked yumminess? It all starts with a special oven and a stack of, you guessed it, wood.
Wood ovens are usually dome-shaped. Some pizzerias even import their ovens direct from Naples, believing these create the most delicious and authentic pies. A fire is lit inside using hardwood cut into small pieces, which gives a slower and more consistent burn. The flame can be placed anywhere — in the center, the back or the sides.
The most important thing is to get the oven heated up to a high temperature. This usually takes about 45 minutes initially. Once it’s heated, typically anywhere between 650 and 900 degrees Fahrenheit, the hot ashes are pushed to the sides of the oven.
The pizza can be cooked at any stage after the oven is properly heated, even after the flame goes out. That’s because wood-fired ovens are designed to retain a hot temperature that allows the pizzas to be cooked thoroughly. After the initial heating, wood is occasionally added as needed. The wood gives off a gentle, moist heat. The smoky char added to every morsel is why so many pizza fans claim wood-fired is best.
Pizza Cooking Techniques for Wood Ovens
Most pizza chefs have to experiment with the wood oven to find their perfect cooking method. After all, too much heat and the pizza gets burnt, but too little and the cheese doesn’t reach its optimal meltiness. Chefs pay particular attention to the pizza as it’s cooking. It’s initially placed on the stone in the center of the oven. But as it finishes, it’s brought to the mouth to complete the cooking process. This allows for a more even bake without burning.
The entire cooking process only takes a matter of minutes. After the pizza is finished, a large, spatula-like tool called a peel is used to remove the aromatic and bubbling creation from the oven, hot and ready to eat.
Origins of the Coal Oven
You may be asking yourself — “coal for cooking pizza? I’ve never heard of that.” But you’ve surely heard the term brick oven pizza. Coal-cooked pizzas are also called “black diamond” pies.
When Italian immigrants brought their style of cooking to the U.S., wood ovens were hard to come by. Enter the brick oven. They were fairly inexpensive. And since they could use coal to heat them, they produced the necessary high temperatures that were needed for a delicious pizza pie.
Pizzas cooked using coal ovens are commonly associated with traditional New York-style pizza. Although some New Yorkers are beginning to use wood-fired means, most continue in the footsteps of the enterprising pizza culinarians who developed the coal oven method.
Fans of coal oven pizzas claim the pizza industry as we know it didn’t take off until these ovens began bringing our favorite treat to the public’s attention. They say a truly authentic, American pizza must be cooked in a brick oven heated by coals.
How Do Coal Ovens Work?
What does it take to create the charred crispiness associated with the best coal-cooked pizzas?
Coal ovens are also usually a dome shape. The most distinct difference between them and wood ovens is they cook at even higher temperatures. They are generally heated anywhere from 800 to 1,000 degrees Fahrenheit. Most coal-cooked pizzerias use anthracite coal because it has a higher carbon content, fewer impurities and a longer burn time.
To cook the pizzas, coal ovens employ a “fire-in-the-oven” method. The oven is brought to an intensely high temperature by building a good-sized flame on a large bed of coals. This allows the pizzas to be cooked in a matter of minutes. Both the floor and the dome are completely filled with heat.
Chefs know the oven is ready when the black soot is clear. At that point, they push the coals to the side of the oven. Pizzas are cooked directly on the floor next to the fire. It takes longer to bake a pizza in a coal oven than a wood one because it doesn’t have a high flame.
The longer it’s heated, the more items can be prepared in the oven. This allows for a large number of pizzas or other baked goods to be cooked at the same time. To maintain the heat of this type of oven, coal needs to be added every 15 to 20 minutes.
Some Shared Qualities Between Coal- and Wood-Fired Ovens
Pizzas produced in wood and coal ovens are distinct and very different from each other. After all, that’s why we’re writing about them here. But they do share a few similarities, including:
- Each has a homemade touch
- Both cook at an extremely hot temperature
- Depending on the type of pizza you order, pies come out finished and ready to eat in a matter of minutes
- This quick bake time ensures these styles of pizza are never soggy
- Both ovens produce a signature char that gives the pizza an added oomph of flavor
- Each type of pie requires a special know-how by the pizza maker
Even though these two ovens share some similar qualities, that’s where the likeness ends. The flavor of each style of pizza speaks for itself.
Which Is the Best Oven for Pizza?
So, at the end of the day, which pizza is best — wood-fired or coal? We’re not trying to cop out of answering this question, but it’s difficult to make a definitive choice. Each has its own taste advantages. Both cook quickly. Both offer a distinct pizza experience.
What sets these styles of pizza apart, however, is the artistry that goes into the pizza-making process. They’re not just thrown into a conventional oven. Pizza makers who employ these methods train for years to perfect their cooking technique. If you enjoy artisanal pizza, then chances are that it’s either a wood or coal-fired pizza.
To answer the question of which is better, you really have to take on the taste challenge yourself. Some of the best pizza parlors in the United States employ these methods. At the top of every pizza chart, you will find both coal-fired and wood-fired offerings.
Our recommendation is to design your own pizza tasting tour. Compare the qualities of both and see if there’s a method that suits your taste buds best. Some pizza parlors have both coal and wood-fired pizza, making it easy to compare and contrast.
Which Is the Best Type of Oven for Making Delicious Pizza at Home?
If you’re a pizza junkie, then there’s no greater dream than owning your own pizza oven. No need to hit the local pizzeria quite as frequently when you can cook it at home. You can impress your friends and family with inventive toppings and delicious crust only produced by an authentic pizza oven. But which is best for home use — wood or coal?
There are actually a lot of benefits to owning your own pizza oven. Experience has proven that both wood- and coal-fired ovens are far superior at cooking pizza than conventional ovens. If you decide to invest in one, you don’t have to limit yourself to pizza. Many different types of foods can be cooked in them. They also cook food more quickly than conventional ovens, meaning that ingredients like veggies are able to retain their vitamins and nutrients.
Plus, there’s nothing cooler than having an authentic pizza oven as part of your backyard décor. Imagine partying it up with family and friends, and creating unique pizzas based on everyone’s individual tastes.
If you’re ready to start living the dream with your own specialty pizza oven, then here are some things you may want to keep in mind before choosing between wood or coal:
- The initial investment of buying a pizza oven can be pricey
- Wood ovens usually are half the price of standard coal ovens
- The cost of fuel for coal ovens is higher but consistent
- Although wood generally costs less, the price can fluctuate depending on its availability
- Wood should be purchased from a purveyor who dries the product ahead of time
- A coal oven is two to three times larger than a wood oven, meaning you’ll need more room for it
- Both types of ovens are extremely heavy, so installing them can be difficult and should only be attempted with expert assistance
- Coal ovens hold more pizzas
- Both ovens heat to extremely high temperatures
- Since these ovens run on wood and coal, they require no electricity, which trims energy consumption
- Both ovens produce smoke, so check to see if your community has burning or smoke regulations
Because of the cost and size of coal ovens, wood-fired ovens seem to be the better option for home use. In fact, many businesses both sell and install wood-fired ovens. Coal ovens are generally intended only for commercial use by expert pizza makers.
Experience the Taste of Giordano’s: The Pizza Experts
No matter what style pizza you enjoy — wood-fired or coal — nothing beats the delicious pies you’ll experience when you visit Giordano’s. Even if you’re attempting to become your own pizza-making aficionado, try the 200-year tradition that makes us culinary experts in the pizza-making world.
Our pizza gurus at Giordano’s have perfected the art of making delicious, deep-dish pizza. We’ve turned the pizza process inside out, literally, by starting from the bottom up. We begin with our signature crust, but from there we add toppings, cheese, another layer of crust and finally our world-renowned sauce.
At Giordano’s, the debate between wood-fired and coal-fired comes to a close. Everyone enjoys our original stuffed crust take on the traditional deep-dish pie.
Order a delicious pizza from Giordano’s today.