Slice of life
Backyard brick oven is key to perfectly cooked pizza
By Natalie Otis, Gold Country Homes
ROCKLIN, CA - In less than three minutes, the pizza comes out of the 800-plus degree oven - a perfection of hand-made crust and piles of bubbling melted cheese and imported prosciutto.
It is a typical evening in Ron and Valerie Benny's back yard in Rocklin, where the wine flows as Ron gives every bit of his attention to his guests while perfectly timing the doneness of his gourmet pizzas.
Ron is among a growing number of home cooks who have built or installed wood-burning brick ovens in their back yards or homes.
"There is a huge cult following of brick-oven builders all over the country and several here locally," he said recently.
An admitted fanatic, Ron says that his pursuit of the perfect pie began more than a decade ago.
"I began my quest for the perfect home-baked pizza in 1990. After several failed attempts that produced a burnt crust or gooey centers, I was certain that I would never be able to produce a great pie at home," he said. "Then, my wife and I stumbled onto a quaint little family-run pizza joint. The pizza was fantastic with great crust and creative toppings. I asked the owner what the trick was to producing such a masterpiece? He answered with 'if I tell you I'll have to kill you’."
After "downing another bottle of wine" and sharing with the owner his personal challenges in pizza making, the restaurant owner invited Ron and Valerie into his kitchen where they stood in awe.
"He told me to get the oven hot - like on the cleaning mode of your oven," Ron said. "And he said I needed a good pizza stone.”
So, with a little inspiration and a list of supplies that included a new pizza stone, Ron began to see success in his pizza-making journey. As the self-taught chef became more confident with his skills, he began a weekly pizza night, making the pies in a conventional oven all the while hearing the words of the pizza maker at the hole-in-the-wall joint in Northern California - "get the oven hot.”
Ron had become so infected with the pizza bug that he had brought his buddy Tom Luther along for the ride.
Luther had his own tale of pizza woes.
"I grew up in New York and I could never find a good place that had the thin crust like you get there," he said.
As the two began to bounce pizza-making stories off each other and comparing research, it became more and more evident that what they needed was their own brick oven. They found there are many options, starting with a $100 device that converts a barbecue into an oven and going up in price from there.
The ovens, which can reach 1,000 degrees, are the ultimate toy for the two pizza buffs, they say. Ron was able to work his oven into part of the landscaping plans for a new home he purchased in Rocklin three years ago, while Luther tore up existing construction at his Rocklin home to install his.
The trick is that the igloo-shaped ovens need to be housed in a cement or brick structure on solid ground and be sturdy enough to withstand the heat.
Luther decided to go with a pre-fabricated oven and built his brick structure around the unit, while Ron decided to go with a riskier approach and enlisted a fireplace maker to take on the custom project he had in mind.
"I wanted the ability to cook more than just pizza in the oven," he said. "I knew I wanted to make a turkey dinner for my family one day and with a pre-fab oven, the opening wouldn't be large enough,” Valerie also had her say on the esthetics of the unit.
"She didn't like the adobe look to some of the ovens, so we changed the design and we were able to do that because we used a custom builder," Ron said.
Both the Luther and the Benny families spent between $10,000 and $15,000 on their backyard structures.
"I would say $15,000 was at the low end," Luther said, not revealing the exact budget.
Both men say they are happy with how their ovens turned out and the two agreed that having the unit as part of their home and lifestyle is worth every minute they had to wait for it.
"The taste of the food that comes out of this oven is amazing, you can't duplicate it," Ron said.
The key is that the wood-burning ovens allow them to make a pie with a superior flavor in just two to three minutes bake time, they said.
"It is like an old world microwave," Ron said.
The high cooking temperatures lock in the flavor of foods and because the air is continually flowing in from outside and out again, it makes the food moist and tender.
Interest in the ovens has increased over the past several years as the outdoor kitchen has become a must have in the back yards of million-dollar homes.
"It really is about loving to entertain and enjoying the food," Ron said.
Despite their popularity, Ron has found that some people who have a brick oven don't know how to use it.
"It is really easy," he said. "Just get some wood and start a fire.”