Traditionally, pizzas have been cooked in wood-fired pizza ovens since the 18th century, but there have also been many variations when it comes to the fuel used to make these delicious pies.
Neapolitan pizzas are perhaps the best examples of classic wood-fired pizzas. They are cooked fast and at high heat to achieve a combination of tenderness and crispiness.
But can you use charcoal in a wood-fired pizza oven? The short answer is yes, you can use charcoal to generate heat and cook pizza, but you will need to keep a few things in mind such as the flavor, heat, and smoke.
Read below to learn more about properly using charcoal in pizza ovens and a few important precautions that you need to be wary of when using an alternate fuel.
Wood Vs Charcoal Ovens
Generally speaking, wood ovens produce not just the right amount of heat but also a faint aroma and a distinct flavor to the pies.
Wood-fired ovens are perfect for quickly cooking pizzas, as they cook raw dough within minutes – which makes them ideal for commercial use.
These ovens can usually be found in many restaurants and there are now even brands that offer miniaturized wood or gas-fueled portable pizza ovens too.
Wood pizza ovens are typically large and can accommodate many pies in one go but they can vary in shape and size.
For example, a dome design may be able to generate and dissipate heat more evenly than a rectangular oven.
Every pizzeria has its own techniques which make their pies stand out. Some may even use different types of wood to enhance the flavor of the pizza.
These hardwoods (and more) are traditionally used to fuel ovens:
These types of wood are mostly free of impurities and burn slow, which means that manufacturers don’t have to pile them up or increase their expenditure by constantly burning a cord (128 cubic feet) of wood in every cooking session.
As mentioned, these types of wood can also impart a distinct flavor to the pizza as it cooks which makes them crucial in coming up with better and unique tasting pizzas.
Wood-fired ovens work by first placing the wood in piles inside the oven. A log may be taken from the pile and used as a starter.
This starter log is set aflame and placed between the pile of wood. A fan may be used to slowly blow air over the pile to get the fire going.
Alternatively, liquid fuel, hard coal, or charcoal may also be used to light the initial pile of wood.
This practice isn’t recommended, as it may impart an aroma in the oven and even affect the flavor of the wood – a little patience goes a long way when using a wood fire oven.
Once the pile has been lit, the wood may be set aside using a specialized utensil. Additional wood may also be added at this point until the oven reaches the right temperature.
Typically speaking, a wood fire oven can take about 45 minutes to heat the oven and reach temperatures of about 650-800°F.
The oven may also be fitted with a chimney or a controlled exhaust that can be used to blow away the excess carbon-based ash or lower the heat of the oven.
Once the oven is heated, additional wood can be added periodically to keep the temperature stable.
Charcoal Vs Coal
First off, coal is a mineral that forms naturally over millions of years and has to be mined, while charcoal is manufactured from wood.
Charcoal has different characteristics than coal and raw wood. It generates more heat than wood and can also be full of impurities or even supplemented with real coal.
It may not be a good idea to use regular run-of-the-mill coals to cook pizzas, as they will produce way more smoke and ash. This may impart too strong a flavor to the pizza as well.
This is why many manufacturers will use different sources, like charcoal (made from wood), to fuel their ovens. Restaurant quality charcoal is a much better option and is available to purchase for home use.
Here’s a helpful tutorial for cooking pizza on a charcoal oven from Pizzaiolo Harri on YouTube.
Can You Cook Pizza Using Regular Coal?
Regular coal is known to produce not just a lot of smoke but also toxic fumes that may cause harm over time. These cheaper coals also burn out quickly and produce a lot of residue or ash which may contaminate the pies as well.
However, if you’re really looking for coal recommendations, anthracite coal is a type of hard coal that burns slower, produces less smoke, and has very few impurities compared to regular coal.
Anthracite coal burns slower than regular coals which allows them to be used for prolonged cooking sessions. They may also be considered to be a safer alternative in terms of the fumes generated by the burning coals.
This type of coal is commercially used in many coal-fired ovens and can reach temperatures of around 800-1000°F in about an hour. Coal ovens usually have a dome shape so that the heat is distributed evenly across the oven.
The difference, though, is that these coals do not produce an open flame. Rather, they provide a higher stable temperature that may cook the pizza within minutes but may not char them like wood-fired ovens.
Also, while some people may not be able to tell the difference between wood-fired and coal-fired ovens, there are some that swear by each when it comes to the flavor, texture, and aroma of the pizza.
This is why it is important that you use the highest-quality coal available if you do plan to cook pizza using a coal-fired oven.
What’s The Difference?
Additionally, coal-fired ovens are also operated a bit differently. Here’s a quick chart to explain the difference between both these fuels.
|Faster than wood
|Burns slower than wood
|Easier to ignite
|Can take time to properly ignite
|Requires large quantities of wood
|Requires more briquettes
|Requires less than wood ovens
|Impact on Flavor
|Imparts flavor and aroma
|Strong flavor and aroma, sometimes described as chemical (flavor may vary according to wood type)
|May not provide the same level of flavor or aroma using hard coals
|Cheaper to procure and use
|Can be more affordable than wood
|May cost more
|May need prep before use (sawing or cutting wood to fit the oven)
|No preparation required
|No preparation required
|Wood may need to be seasoned before use
|No seasoning required (might be made from different wood types for different flavors)
|No need for any seasoning
How To Cook Using A Charcoal-Fired Oven
The charcoal briquettes are first ignited and then distributed evenly in a single layer across the base of the oven.
Once the charcoal briquettes are sufficiently lit and the oven has reached the right temperature, the charcoal briquettes are then cast aside in either direction and the excess ash is blown away to clear the cooking surface of the oven.
This technique allows for not just the oven to reach the desired temperature quickly but also prepares the base of the oven so that the bottom of the pie cooks evenly too.
Once everything is in order, the pies are inserted and cooked within minutes due to the high heat.
The pizza chef may also pick up the pie using special utensils and bring it closer to the charcoal briquettes so that it chars the same way as in a wood-fired oven.
A motorized fan can also be placed near the air inlet to increase the temperature or remove excess ash from the charcoal.
Regardless of what fuel you use, make sure that you have proper ventilation when using either coal or wood. Charcoal ovens should be regularly cleaned so that there is as little residue or ash as possible after each cooking session.
Woodfire ovens are the classical approach when it comes to making pizza. The type of wood used in these ovens plays a huge role in how the pizza looks, tastes, and smells.
While not everyone will be able to pick up on the subtle flavors, many aficionados will be able to tell the difference almost immediately.
Charcoal-fired ovens are used commercially by many pizzerias because they offer better heat distribution and impart different and complex flavors and aromas to your pizza.
Typically, a wood-fired oven would reach about 650-850°F while charcoal ovens can reach 700°F.
Here are a few questions that you may have in mind after going through the differences between wood and coal-fired ovens.
Can a mixture of hard coal and wood be used in a pizza oven?
Yes, you may use a mixture of both fuels but it would be redundant to use both at the same time. In case of emergencies when you have insufficient quantities of both, then yes, you may use both to fuel the oven.
Are coals more readily available than wood for pizza ovens?
In some regions, the availability of coal is more prevalent and easily accessible than wood, which may require some type of labor.
Even if you can secure a cord (a measurement of wood, defined as 128 cubic feet) you may still have to manually chop the wood to fit the oven, whereas coal has no such prerequisite.
What type of fuel would be better for a makeshift indoor oven?
Do not use wood or coal indoors without proper ventilation. These ovens can reach extremely high temperatures, which may make them unsuitable for indoor use.
Always check with an expert before attempting to use any sort of fuel indoors.
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