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The View from My Kitchen

Benvenuti! I hope you enjoy il panorama dalla mia cucina Italiana -- "the view from my Italian kitchen,"-- where I indulge my passion for Italian food and cooking. From here, I share some thoughts and ideas on food, as well as recipes and restaurant reviews, notes on travel, and a few garnishes from a lifetime in the entertainment industry.

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Grazie mille!

Thursday, June 19, 2014

Choosing and Maintaining a Good Pizza Stone

Time To Get Stoned

I'm always talking about the importance of having a good pizza stone if you want to make good pizza at home. But I don't think I've ever gotten into the specifics of what constitutes a good pizza stone, nor have I ever addressed how to take care of one once you've got it. Well, let's fix that.

First, let's talk about why you need one. The world's best pizza comes out of wood-burning brick or stone ovens. The reason is because nothing retains and distributes heat like a brick or stone oven, also called a masonry oven. Bakers and cooks figured that out back at the dawn of civilization, and even with all our technological upgrades, nothing has come along that does the job better. As a matter of fact, one of the things mandated by the Associazione Verace Pizza Napoletana for making a true Neapolitan pizza is a wood-burning masonry oven. It doesn't get any more official than that.

I don't have one. And, personally, I don't have a couple thousand bucks to invest in one. Furthermore, I don't posses the “DIY” handyman talent it takes to build one. So having a pizza stone in my conventional oven is the next best thing.

Sometimes also referred to as a “baking stone,” a pizza stone is essentially a thin, flat slab of stone or ceramic material designed to fit in your oven. They even make small ones that work in countertop or “toaster” ovens. Since most people think of pizza as being round, most manufacturers tend to make round pizza stones. But you can buy square or rectangular stones that cover more surface area inside your oven. Whatever the shape, the purpose of the stone is twofold: it absorbs and distributes heat evenly, eliminating hot spots and allowing for more uniform baking. And, due to its porous nature, it helps wick away moisture, resulting in a crisper crust.

When it comes to pizza stones, quality counts. The cheaper and flimsier the stone, the poorer the performance. And the likelier you are to throw the thing in the trash, provided it doesn't break into three or four pieces the first time you use it. If you're going to get one, get a good one.

Forno Bravo, one of the companies that makes backyard brick ovens, also markets a pizza stone that measures a whopping 3/4-inch thick. That's a slab of rock! They claim it heats faster and retains heat better. It comes with a ten-year warranty and they'll sell you as many as you want for fifty or sixty bucks each. http://www.fornobravo.com/pizza-stone

The good folks up in Vermont at King Arthur Flour have a stone that sells for about the same price. It comes in a rectangular shape and it's “only” 1/2-inch thick, but they claim the manufacturer of their product “holds the original patent for 'pizza stone'.” And it comes with a lifetime warranty. http://www.kingarthurflour.com/shop/items/pizza-baking-stone

Williams-Sonoma has a rectangular stone that is also 1/2-inch thick. Made of cordierite ceramic, it sells for about fifty bucks. Nothing on the website about a warranty, but you can check it out here: http://www.williams-sonoma.com/products/baking-and-pizza-stone

The stone that has lived in my oven for about fifteen years is a Pampered Chef product. It was a gift from my mother, who thought the stone I already had had gotten pretty ugly. (She was right.) My Pampered Chef stone is made of natural clay. It's round and big enough to accommodate a 14” pizza with a little room to spare. At just under 1/2-inch, it's not as thick as those listed above, but it's held up well and done the job for a long, long time. Unfortunately, they appear to have replaced it in the current catalog with something that has built-in handles and is advertised as being “virtually nonporous.” But you can still get one of the old ones like mine through Amazon. http://www.amazon.com/Pampered-Chef-Large-Pizza-Stoneware/dp/B004MJDOVC

Now, you can buy pizza stones at the big box stores for about ten or twenty bucks. Remember: “you get what you pay for.” The most common complaint about the low-price stones is that they break the first time you use them. When you use a pizza stone, if you're doing it right, you're cranking your oven up as high as it will go – 500 to 550 degrees. Cheap stones can't take the heat and they crack.

Of course, quality and price aside, cracking can also be the result of improper handling. A lot of people think that “stone” and “indestructible” are synonymous, and that's not the case with a pizza stone. Pizza “stones” are actually closer in composition to clay or ceramic tiles, and you know what happens if you drop one of those. If you don't know, ask my brother-in-law, who dropped a whole case of them once. It wasn't pretty. Well.....it was pretty in a mosaic sort of way, but I digress. Bottom line: don't drop your pizza stone or fling it around carelessly.....unless you want a mosaic tile backsplash in your kitchen.

Probably the worst thing you can do to your pizza stone is wash it. I don't think anybody is stupid enough to try putting one in the dishwasher........I hope. But you can't hand wash them, either. At least not with soapy water. Pizza stones are porous and they absorb moisture and oil and such. This property helps in “seasoning” the surface of the stone, much like cast iron cookware is seasoned by proper use. The seasoning actually helps impart a little flavor to food cooked on the stone's surface. And if you've doused your stone in Dawn, guess what your next pizza is going to taste like?

You can use plain water on the surface of your stone, but don't immerse it in the sink. Remember...... porous.......absorbs water. And if it gets waterlogged and you stick it in a hot oven, steam develops and.......crack! But it's okay to use a damp cloth to wipe off anything that accumulates on the surface of the stone. And, by the way, it's perfectly fine and normal for your stone to get grungy-looking after you've been using it for awhile. Darkening and staining are part of the seasoning process. Don't bust an elbow trying to scrub it all off.

But if you do have to scrub something off – some burned-on cheese or something – you can use a stiff brush or a plastic scraper for the job. You can even use medium-grit sandpaper if you go easy with it. Scrape the surface as clean as you can and then use a damp cloth to wipe it down.

And, by all means, always wait until your stone has cooled completely before you try to do anything to clean it. A super hot stone is a super fragile stone, much more likely to fracture than one that is cool. It's also more prone to thermal shock, which is why you should leave it in the oven to cool on its own rather than pulling it out and setting it on a countertop or something. If you've ever had a glass baking dish explode from thermal shock, you won't want to repeat the experience with a clay or ceramic stone.

In fact, it's perfectly okay to just leave your stone in the oven 24/7. Mine never comes out unless I have a specific reason to remove it. Although leaving a baking stone in the oven will make the oven take a little longer to heat up – the stone absorbs heat – it will also even out the heating in your oven, making everything you cook in there cook a little better.

But if you have a self-cleaning oven, always remove the stone before hitting the self-cleaning cycle. The cleaning cycle gets really hot – as high as 900 degrees. Even a high quality stone may crack under that kind of heat. I've seen comments from people who say they self-clean their stones all the time. Fine and dandy. Most manufacturers advise against it and I'd rather err on the side of caution than drop another fifty or sixty bucks on a new stone.

Word of caution regarding leaving your stone in the oven: don't put anything really heavy on it. If you're baking a casserole in that fifteen pound Le Creuset ceramic-coated Dutch oven of yours, it's not a good idea to set the pot on the stone. Way too heavy, especially after the stone heats up. That's one of those cases where I'd take the stone out if I needed the space.

Back to the subject of thermal shock, you shouldn't put a cold stone in a hot oven. If you've already preheated your oven and then remembered the stone, forget it. For one thing, the stone has to be hot in order for it to do any good, and if you've already preheated your oven, the stone will take another forty-five minutes to an hour to come to proper temperature. Either do without or turn the oven off and start over with the stone in place inside the cold oven. A cold stone in a hot oven is worthless and while I can't say for sure that the stone will crack if you put it in cold, why take the chance?

Now, there are some fancy-schmansy new stones on the market that are all glazed and coated and dishwasher safe and all that stuff. Meh. Give me my plain, old-fashioned, porous, unglazed clay or ceramic stone any day. That's what I've been using for about twenty years and what other bakers and cooks have been using for about twenty centuries and it's good enough for me.

One final thought on the topic of pizza stones: cheap, easily replaceable tiles from your local hardware store. A lot of cheap bast......er........thrifty folks........go down to Lowes or Home Depot and drop three or four dollars on a bunch of plain, unglazed quarry tiles, which they then use to line the bottom of their ovens in lieu of expensive pizza stones. And if an occasional tile breaks – which it will – hey, no biggie! Just replace it with another fifty-cent tile. I have no objections to this concept. Well.......one or two. First and foremost of which is the presence of lead in some of these cheap tiles. Another thing to consider is consistency; not all tiles are created equal. And finally, there's convenience. As I have noted, I leave my stone unturned. It never leaves my oven unless something requires me to move it. And when I need to move it, I just take it out of the oven. I don't have to mess with four or six or eight or however many individual pieces, which I then have to replace afterward. And since I often tote my stone with me when I go off cooking at other people's houses – people who are likely to be stone-less – it's easier to bag up one big slab of tile than it is to carry around ten little ones. But that's just me.

What are you waiting for? Isn't it time you got stoned? Invest in a good quality pizza/baking stone, treat it well, and it will help you turn out amazing pizza, bread, and other baked goods for many years to come.

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