Monday, April 14, 2014

Review: The Pizza Grate

Making pizza at home can be a fun, if occasionally frustrating exercise. I'm not an accomplished baker - and so while I feel confident in choosing the right types and amounts of toppings, I've struggled to produce a crust that is better than that of even the most mundane corner pizza shop. And, with rare exception, the crust is the key to pizza success.

Home pizza makers face one built-in disadvantage - the oven typically gets no hotter than 500 or 550 degrees. Commercial pizza ovens begin at 600 degrees (gas types) and go up to 900 degrees or higher, allowing some pies to cook in 90 seconds. This high heat allows for all kinds of magic to take place both in the crust and in how the toppings meld to the crust.

Another hurdle is the cooking surface. Commercial ovens have a baking surface that is already hot when the pie goes into the oven. Home pie makers typically make their pies in round or rectangular pans which are room temp before entering the oven, or they use a pizza stone.
Pizza Stone

The pizza stone is a great advance. You can put it in your oven, let it pre-heat as your baking surface, and then insert the pie. The stone is sufficiently porous that excess moisture can escape. However, the stone is often the same size as your pizza, so it requires a lot of dexterity to get your pizza onto the hot stone for cooking.  Some folks just put the pizza - in a pan - onto the stone. Others have had success with swapping quarry tiles for the stone, using up to four 12" square tiles to get a big 2 feet by 2 feet baking surface.
Not long ago, I discovered the "Baking Steel" - a quarter-inch thick slab of rectangular steel. It cost me $72, but once it is pre-heated for an hour, you get a hot cooking surface that comes pretty close to that of a commercial gas oven. It is heavy, difficult to clean, clumsy to store - but it produces wonderful pizza crusts. See my full review HERE. It is a clear upgrade over the pizza stone, and it allows easier transfer from your pizza peel to the baking surface.

Then, a few months ago, I saw a Kickstarter campaign for the "Pizza Grate." Like the Baking Steel, the designer sought to craft an optimal surface for baking pizza at home. He tested and found better results using aluminum over steel. He built prototypes with large ventilation holes, to allow excess moisture to escape. It is big - about the full size of an oven rack - and it has a backstop to prevent you from sliding your pie off the rear edge. It is lightweight and easy to handle, but it is clumsy to store (due to its size) and difficult to clean.  The key question is - how are the pies baked on the Pizza Grate?

My first attempt produced a very tasty pie, but I did burn the bottom (not quite to the point of inedible) even though the top was cooked about perfectly. I concluded that, because the aluminum conducts heat to the crust faster than does the steel, I needed to raise my oven rack higher to get a better balance of top cooking (my gas oven goes to 550 degrees).
My pie from Roberta's in Brooklyn

On my third attempt, I made several adjustments. I did move the rack higher, and I followed a crust recipe as closely as I could. I used the recipe from Roberta's in Brooklyn (a hipster restaurant which I have visited and reviewed HERE). You can find the recipe in the New York Times HERE. I made the dough on a Saturday, refrigerated it for 24 hours, then let it warm to room temp for about an hour before making the pies.

I used 50% Italian imported "00" flour and 50% conventional all-purpose flour, with a little salt and olive oil; I resisted the urge to stray from the recipe by adding some sugar as I otherwise might do.
Red wine was not an ingredient; but still vital to success

The recipe was enough for two 12" personal pies, and for the first time in my pie-making experience, I did not use a rolling pin to expand the diameter of the crust.  I actually "hand-tossed" the pie (not airborne), stretching it only with my thumbs and gravity. I did a clumsy job, but they both came out in rough 12" rounds, albeit with uneven thicknesses.

I followed my norm for the sauce - a simple can of diced tomatoes (from ALDI), drained, and then hand-crushed.  I added some fresh garlic and dried basil and a bit of olive oil. I never cook the sauce before it goes on the pie. The one standard can of tomatoes was enough for both 12" rounds.

Roberta's Neapolitan pie calls for fresh mozzarella cheese, but I opted for the cheese on hand in my fridge. I grated a combo of about 2/3 Dubliner (Irish cheese) and 1/3 Grana Padano. The cheddar-like Dubliner supplied the requisite creaminess, and the Grana Padano added a pungent tang. I've learned that the key to successful pies is to go lightly with all toppings.

Finally, I had some Chianti-infused cured salami (also from ALDI), which I cut as thinly as possible for a topping better than pepperoni. It was essentially a sweet soppressata. As a rookie dough handler, I used lots of flour on my hands, the prep surface, and the peel. The resulting pies had that telltale white dusting. I've always regarded that a sign of artisanal baking, but some family members wish I could make crust without the unmoistened external flour.
My Roberta's-recipe pie, cooked on the Baking Grate

Results? After about 7 minutes, I checked the underside of the pies. Cooking, but not at all burnt. I then turned off the baking setting and switched to broil (high) for two minutes more to watch the cheese bubble and the salami become crisp on the edges.

The pies came out with more hole structure and puffiness than anything I've made.  Texture-wise, it was ideally like a puffy Neapolitan that is somehow crisp and a little rigid underneath, exactly as I would hope.  Due to the uneven thickness, some parts were more doughy than ideal. But on balance, this crust was better than about half of the Neapolitan pies I've had, and there was no soupy wet center.

The sauce was close to perfect, but not quite the magic I recently experienced at Vetri and Bufad in Philly (review of Vetri HERE, and Bufad HERE). The cheeses were fine, but the Dubliner may have been a bit too bland. I've really enjoyed tallegio on pies lately, and need to get some. The salami added the perfect salty, meaty, smoky edge - but hot soppressata might have been even better.
Tallegio cheese

The Pizza Grate has taken on some major stains after just three uses. The creator suggests cleaning with steel wool or in the oven on the "clean" setting, but I may just regard this added color as seasoning.

Gorgeous undercarriage

This is the best pizza I've made at home. Certainly much of the credit goes to the Roberta's recipe and a little goes to my slowly improving pizzaolo craft. But without question, the Pizza Grate is a wonderful tool for the home pizza chef. 
"Seasoned" Pizza Grate - after I cleaned it

Which is better - the Baking Steel or the Pizza Grate? I think I need to bake and eat a lot more pies before I can say. For me, both are clearly superior to a pizza stone. If you are a home pizza maker, I recommend you get one or both.

Disclosure: Several months back, I did THIS interview with inventor John Daniels. Although the Kickstarter campaign did not reach its goal, he proceeded to build some prototypes and sent one to me for my analysis. In other words, I paid $72 for my Baking Steel, but got the Pizza Grate without charge. Still, I wouldn't recommend either if I did not have success with them.  


  1. Very interesting. We've been using a goldtouch aluminized steel "pizza crisper" from Williams Sonoma that we like. It's affordable, easy to clean, handle and store. Worth getting a couple for multiple bakes when serving more people.

  2. Excellent post and blog! Sharing your experiences in the best food of the world gives us pizza lovers great direction in creating our own masterpieces. I love thin cracker crust pizza and near me in Largo is the best hole in the wall pizza joint around, Charlie and Millie's. Thanks! Ken