A recent cooking experiments that people seemed particularly interested in was my pizza cooked in the barbecue.
A few years ago, a friend recommended I watch the English TV series In Search of Perfection where chef Heston Blumenthal tries to find and develop the “perfect” version of many traditional dishes. While he himself be almost crazy with the detail and effort he puts into his cookery, the show is actually quite entertaining, even if you do not plan to try out his recipes. In any case, one of the episodes is about the perfect pizza (season 1, episode 5). In a part of the episode, he tried to find a way reproduce the conditions in a wood-fired oven without… well, the wood-fired oven. As I recall he did not actually come up with a viable solution (something about super heating a skillet I think). The message I got from that though is: the hotter the better. Since ovens will typically only go to about 500F, or maybe 550F, I thought a barbecue would work very wellsince they can get well above 600F and even above 700F.
Since I want to get conditions similar to a wood-fired oven, first thought was that I needed a pizza stone. The stone I got was specifically for pizza, but many different books and websites I have read through say you can use just any sort of unglazed tiles. As I discovered, you want a stone big enough to cook a decent-sized pizza, but it must not cover all of the BBQ grill, you will see why in a moment.
With the objective of getting it as hot as possible and ideally not cracking the stone (that is sensitive to rapid changes in temperature), I set all the burners (4 of them) to minimum heat, and walked away for 30 minutes. When I came back, the temperature was around 500F, so I set then all to maximum and let it heat for 5-10 minutes. At this point, the temperature had reached about 700F, it was time to cook. So the pizza was prepared (more on that later) on a peel substitute (so shoot me, I do not own a real peel, I just used a non-stick cookie sheet with no edge). The pizza was then slid directly onto the stone, having the lid open for as little time as possible.
*Small note about the pizza stone: The stone is porous and so will absorb most of what you put on it, which can be released when heated. That being said, washing it with soap can be a bad idea since your food may end up tasting like soap. In any case, since the ‘dirt’ goes into pores, it is generally very difficult to get it off. Usually if you scrape off whatever dirt is on it, it is enough to keep whatever you cook next from getting dirty. The temperatures we will be working at tend to char things anyway if they stay for any length of time (which is a long time for the stone).
Now, when cooking a pizza in the oven at 400-450F, it usually takes about 15-20 minutes. When your oven is at 600-700F, it takes less time. There was some tweaking involved. I wanted to try different times, so I put a pizza to cook, and checked the progress with time. At 4 minutes, the crust looked good, but the toppings were not quite done yet. I left it a few minutes longer, which got the toppings nicely cooked, unfortunately it also ended up burning the bottom of the crust. Note that I like the toppings on the pizza to be a bit browned, some people might prefer them to be only warm, or slightly melted cheese, etc.
So the lesson I learned this time is that 6 minutes is the magical time for the toppings. Unfortunately, with this method, it is also enough to char the bottom of the crust, so something had to change. Next time, I need to get less heat to the bottom, but the same heat to the top.
Since having all the BBQ burners on high overcooked the bottom, the next logical step is to keep the burners off under the stone, but on for either side. This way, the indirect heat will still be strong, but the direct heat from the stone will be softer. As established before, it took just above 6 minutes to cook. Of course for it to work well, you need to keep the lid closed as much as possible to maintain the temperature.
Unfortunately, I did not take specific pictures of these attempts, but take my word for it, it turned out very well.
There was still something missing though. In a wood-fired stove, the smoke from the wood adds to the flavour. This is part of the reason people love that type of pizza so much. Now I cannot just put a bit of wood under my grill to give it some taste… or can I?
The Smoke Box
I went out and bought a smoke box. It is basically just a small metal box that you stick in your BBQ with wood chips to give it that smoky wood taste. I got the one from GrillPro. As accessories go, it basically just should not rust. I have used it at least a dozen times so far, and while it is pretty dirty, it is still fully intact.
To use it, you need wood chips (I bought mesquite wood chips from Canadian Tire at the same time as the smoke box). Those chips need to be soaked in water for at least 15 minutes before use. Since I use my BBQ fairly often, and I like to have a smoky taste, I just keep a container of about one cup of wood chips soaked in water at all times. The first time I used it, I just about half-filled the smoke box with soaked wood chips. I did not actually get much smoke out of that, so I learned that you should at most cover the bottom of the smoke box with the chips, this way they are all exposed to head and smoke nicely. Instructions on the box say to put the box under the grill, which is the best way to do it for pizza, but if you have some open real estate on your grill, you can just put it on top. Keep in mind that it will smoke more if it is underneath the grill and directly over a burner.
Poulish (48 hours before)
- 4 cup unbleached flour
- 4 cup water
- 1/4 tsp dry yeast
Dough (24 hours before)
- 3.5 cups flour
- 2 tsp salt
- 1 1/4 cup of poulish
- 1/4 tsp dry yeast
- 2 tbsp honey
- 1 cup water (add slowly, may require less)
- 1/2 cup olive oil (I used extra virgin, cold pressed)
For toppings, you can put whatever you want on it. Generally, the more fresh the ingredients, the better it will turn out.
That being said, I used store-bought pasta sauce as the tomato sauce (Classico four cheese). I bought some fresh mozzarella from the grocery store, which was great – if you do that though, keep in mind that this cheese is often unsalted, so you need to add salt with it. Otherwise, go nuts: mushrooms, pepperoni, olives, broccoli, onions… whatever you like.
The dough recipe is loosely based on the one from Crust and Crumb by Peter Reinhart. It is an excellent book with many fine recipes in addition to many descriptions on the techniques required for making bread, and why different things are done. I cannot recommend this book enough if you are interested in baking (mostly bread).
The poulish is a pre-fermented portion of dough that adds to the taste. It is a subtle, but noticeable difference. Just mix the water, flour, dry yeast, and mix loosely. Leave it at room temperature for a few hours, then put it in the refrigerator overnight.
For the rest of the dough:
- Mix in all the ingredients by hand (or with a mixer with a dough hook on low)vuntil all the ingredients are roughly incorporated
- Knead the dough until it passes the windowpane test (take a small piece of dough and stretch it until you can see light though it; it if breaks before that happens, it needs more kneading)
- Put the ball of dough into an oiled bowl, cover it, and let it rise a few hours or until it doubles in size
- Put it in the refrigerator overnight
Shaping the dough:
There has been much trial and error for me in the best way to make the dough into the pizza shape. The easiest way, by far, to stretch the dough, and get it to the desired shape and size is just to use a rolling pin. That being said, do not use a rolling pin. When you roll the dough with a pin, all the bubbles in the dough are popped, and you do not have any of that delicious bubbling in the crust.
Dough has to be worked on a floured surface. The best way I found to shape the dough, is:
- Take the ball of dough and roughly squish it into an roundish circle
- Push the dough out into a circle with the heel of your hand
- Keep doing this until the dough becomes fairly flat (1-2 cm)
- At this point, it becomes difficult to stretch it further with the palm of your hand, but you can stretch it. Gently grab the edge of the circle, and stretch it around the circumference, and then across the center.
- Keep doing this until you reach the desired size
- Put corn meal onto your peel, then transfer the dough to the peel before putting the toppings on
- Put the pizza stone in the center of the BBQ grill
- Put the smoke box underneath the grills under the centre of the stone.
- Turn on the BBQ and set all burners to low, let it warm up for about 30 minutes, or until it reaches 600 F keeping it closed as much as possible.
- Turn the outer burners to high, leaving the middle one(s) on low
- Once the temperature reaches 700 F, open the lid, slide your pizza onto the stone, then close the lid again
- After 4-6 minutes, check to see if the pizza is cooked to your liking, and if so remove it from the stone, close the lid again and repeat for the next pizza.”
This was my take on a great way to make BBQ pizza. If you had different experiences or tried the recipe, let me know how it turned out in the comments below.