Wood fired ovens have some characteristics that really influence the pizzas that they produce. Most importantly they are extremely hot – often 400 degrees Celsius / 750F or more. This very hot environment cooks the pizza extremely quickly. The quick cooking time means that a lot of moisture remains in the dough after it is cooked which produces a lovely moist, chewy crust with a crisp outside. In contrast a thinnish crust pizza cooked on a tray in a home oven with a standard method might take 20 minutes or more to cook through, by which time the crust will be as dry as a cracker.
A genuine wood fired brick oven is not something everyone has room for, but a home oven can be greatly improved for pizza cooking by using a a ceramic or terracotta pizza stone. Pizza stones can be found at most good kitchenware or department stores fairly cheaply, and they are probably the most essential tool for making great pizza at home. If you don’t have a pizza stone and can’t get one easily, a common alternative is to use unglazed quarry tiles. I’ve had success using sandstone and granite tiles too, any untreated stone tile should work. Failing this you can preheat a heavy baking dish in the oven and slide your pizza onto this instead.
To use a pizza stone, put the stone on a shelf in your oven, and then turn the oven to its highest setting for up to an hour before cooking pizza. It’s important to preheat the stone for a fair while, as it absorbs heat slowly. Experiment with different positions in your oven – I recently got a new oven but was disappointed with the results using a stone in the top shelf, which worked well in my last oven. Moving the stone down a shelf made a huge difference – every oven probably has a different hottest spot. If you are in a hurry and don’t have time to preheat a stone properly it is better not to use one at all, as pizza will take much longer to cook if the stone is absorbing all of the heat from the oven – try this method instead. Once the stone is really hot, slide your pizza directly onto the stone using a peel. The stone acts as a heat bank and radiates the heat that it has absorbed, cooking your pizza quickly.
Most thin crust pizzas cooked on a properly preheated stone should be ready in as little as 5-7 minutes.
TIP: In ovens that have a top element for grilling (broiling), switch over to the grill on medium heat after 5 or 6 minutes of cooking. This gives a beautiful burst of heat to the top of the pizza to crisp up your cheese. The bottom of the pizza will continue to cook from the heat of the stone. Just keep a close eye on it so the toppings don’t burn.