Maximising Efficiency: Insulation and Temperature Management in Pizza Ovens

brick wood pizza oven

A wood-fired pizza oven is a patio cooking appliance like no other. It is an outdoor oven that, if worth its salt, should be capable of cooking absolutely anything, including gourmet pizza, served right in your own home’s Eden.

To achieve this state of culinary bliss, there are two essential must-haves.   The oven must be fitted with first-class insulation and manufactured from materials, allowing the owner to maximise the efficiency of every firing.

The importance of heat retention within a wood-fired pizza oven

Retaining heat within the oven and not losing it to the outside atmosphere is vital to efficient wood-fired cooking and entertaining.  Unless an oven can achieve this heat retention, any garden pizza party will become a damp squib, with guests served poorly or inconsistently cooked food and waiting an eternity for that privilege.

With an indoor oven, you expect this to be a given.  Unfortunately, many homeowners feel it will naturally be the same with an outdoor wood-fired oven.  You can relax if you purchase a ‘pukka’ oven, like those manufactured by the artisans at Valoriani in Italy.  But if it’s an oven trying to ape the appearance of a Mediterranean pizza oven but cutting corners with materials and insulation, you can be left disappointed.

How materials and construction methods impact pizza oven efficiency

“All that glitters is not gold”, as Shakespeare said.  It would be best if you did not judge a book by its cover and should not choose a pizza oven based on its ‘look’.  Its purpose is to cook food and make your experience of outdoor cooking a joy.  For this reason, you have to focus on its construction, its materials, and how much insulation is included.

An outdoor pizza oven needs to cope with the ambient temperature outdoors and almost thrive in spite of it. To do this, it needs to be manufactured from materials that harmonise with the fire that will be lit inside it and maximise the thermal input created by the flames. 

Pizza oven refractory materials

For this reason, Orchard Ovens’ Valoriani ovens – ready to go and at the heart of bespoke installations – are manufactured from first-class and unique ‘cotto’ clay.  This is a first-class refractory product that has no equal.  This was discovered by the Valoriani family generations ago when they were seeking the ultimate advantage for their family business.  It contains precisely the right amount of alumina to fire refractory brick. It gives Valoriani ovens a competitive advantage over any other wood-fired oven on the market.

Once a fire is lit in an oven created with not just fit-for-purpose materials but first-class materials designed to optimise the culinary experience, a brilliant situation can emerge within the oven.

Temperature zones: cooking in a wood-fired oven

Using your infrared thermometer, you should be able to identify different spots across the oven floor in which to cook foods optimally. Your fire should be banked to one side of the oven, and the hottest parts of the oven floor will be close to the fire on whichever side you have built.

The opposite side of the oven could have a floor temperature around 100ºF lower. This is ideal if you are cooking perhaps vegetables that need a higher temperature and something more delicate that will benefit from a cooler one. You can literally, by using your infrared thermometer, ‘choose your spot’ in which to place your pot or pan.

Wood-fired oven temperatures for different cooking methods

In traditional wood-fired oven style, you should, in most instances, no matter what dish you are cooking, build your oven temperature up to pizza temperature. This should be no less than 350ºC (standard pizza) to 450ºC (Neapolitan pizza). Having saturated your oven with this intense heat to maximise its cooking efficiency, you then just let the temperature drop to that which you require for the cooking method you are using.

That’s not to say you can’t pop a few things into the oven as you strive for pizza oven temperature. Pop foil-wrapped potatoes into the oven; as heat builds up, it will create delightful jacket potatoes.

To get the oven up to pizza temperature, the aim should be to create the famed ‘rolling flame’ scenario that Mediterranean wood-fired masters achieve in their ovens. Once established, the fire should be moved to one side. Flames will then rise and roll right around the oven’s interior dome. This is how thermal efficiency is achieved within an oven.

However, many ovens on the market can only heat up by having a fire at the back of the stove.  Doing that denies the owner the opportunity to cook different foods in different parts (temperature zones) within the stove. 

Pizza cooking: optimal temperature

For pizza cooking, if you cannot get your oven up to the 350ºC to 450ºC temperature level, you will never be able to cook restaurant-grade pizza at home. That temperature is fundamental to authentic pizza cooking and the texture and finish that you expect of a cracking pizza.

Many ovens cannot achieve this temperature, though, or will suffer thermal shock, cracking, or dome disintegration if they try to. This again goes back to the materials used in their construction. This could be one reason their manufacturers say the fire should be built at the back, as that is not conducive to optimised thermal efficiency but will keep the temperature down. It also leads to misinformation, with some pizza oven retailers claiming a lower temperature will suffice for pizza cooking.

Add a log or two every 20 minutes to maintain the pizza oven temperature.

Roasting: optimal temperature

For roasting, you need to let the temperature reach the pizza cooking level, brown the meat (other than poultry, which should be browned at the end of cooking) and then drop the temperature to around 350ºC.  This can be done by not stoking the fire and only using smaller logs.  Pots and pans containing meat for roasting can be placed directly on a Valoriani’s floor at this temperature. Remember that foil can be a faithful ally in your oven if things are cooking too fast.

Baking and bread baking: optimal temperature

For baking, you must drop the temperature to between 175ºC and 230ºC. This is the temperature to cook desserts, pasta dishes, baked vegetable dishes, and more. 

On the other hand, to bake bread, you don’t want fire or coals in your oven, just the radiated heat from the dome and the conducted heat produced by the airflow. Here, you need a temperature between 230ºC and 350ºC.

How to grill in a wood-fired oven

This is the only wood-fired cooking environment in which you don’t need to first achieve pizza-cooking temperatures and can go straight into grilling mode if that is all you want to do.

If you wish to grill in your oven, perhaps with the Valoriani Tuscan Grill accessory, you create a centre burn until the wood burns down into coals.  At that point, you rake (using your metal peel, one of your essential pizza oven tools) the red-coloured coals towards the front half of the oven and place your grill over the top. 

The size of your mound of coals will influence the temperature.  Since no cold air hits one side of your food, as happens with a barbecue, it’s a brilliant way to rustle up sausages, steaks, chops, or other food that you want to grill.

Why good pizza oven insulation is essential for wood-fired cooking

The decision-making and ability to regulate the wood-fired oven’s temperature only work if you are not leaking heat into the atmosphere.  To avoid that, your oven has to have first-class insulation.  Worryingly, many ovens do not. This not only negatively impacts thermal efficiency and temperature management but also creates an oven with a red-hot shell that is a safety hazard and capable of leaving an owner or a child with severe burns.

Our Orchard Ovens wood-fired, and gas-fired pizza ovens are cool to the touch externally and have even been known to be incapable of melting snow that has fallen on top of them!

Putting construction materials and insulation at the forefront of your thinking is vital, whether buying a pre-fabricated oven or a DIY pizza oven kit.  Our Valoriani kits come with the same excellently manufactured components from the same material used in pre-fabricated ovens. 

We also advise each pizza oven kit purchaser on the insulation they should add to their oven build, in addition to the material included in the kit, so they can maximise the efficiency of their oven, keep everyone safe, and achieve longevity for the self-built oven, too.

Use your eyes and general oven skills.

While you can keep using your temperature gauge or infrared temperature gun to assess the temperature of your oven, using your eyes and common sense is also essential. 

By deploying your pizza oven tools, you can pull pots and pans towards you and assess what’s happening with a dish. Equip yourself with a food thermometer for meat and a thermometer for bread, and you will be able to check internal food and bake temperatures, not just the colour of a dish.

If you have a well-designed, constructed and insulated wood-fired oven, anything in your indoor oven cooking repertoire should be cooked in your outdoor oven.  As a rule of thumb, you need to add around 35ºC to the temperature specified for an indoor oven recipe, so if you are baking something at 175ºC indoors, you should aim to get the woodfired oven temperature to 210ºC.

A bad workman always blames his tools, but sometimes they have a point.  If your home-cooked, wood-fired oven pizza turned out from your home pizza oven is more garbage than gourmet, perhaps the primary tool – the wood-fired pizza oven – isn’t the right one.  To buy an oven that will be, call Orchard Ovens on 07743 847647.