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Wood-fired pizza sauce

Handmade pizza oven makes delicious pizza and more

There’s a lot you need to know if you want to build an outdoor pizza oven—the sort of wood-burning structure that heats to 1,100 degrees, cooks a pizza in 80 seconds and makes it taste like the pizza in Naples. 

It helps if you have a fine arts background and come from a family of masons, like Calvin Gross. Gross, director of the Hutchins Library at Berea College, grew up playing with rocks on his family’s property in Jackson County, then moved on to building dry stone walls on his property in Rockcastle County. So how hard could a pizza oven be?

Inspired by “one of the best pizzas I ever ate,” Gross says he decided to build an oven when he moved to Rockcastle County. Armed with a $20 CD from the Forno Bravo website, he built a Roman-style barrel oven with materials like refractory brick for the oven, sandstone for the veneer, Portland cement and vermiculite for the insulation, and lots of time to let the layers dry completely. 

Then there’s the learning curve of cooking. “I burned a lot of pizzas at first,” he says. The oven cooks more than pizza. As it cools down, it can be used to bake bread and roast tomatoes for the pizza sauce recipe that follows. 

You can duplicate Gross’s wood-fired pizza sauce on an outdoor grill, but he recommends using hardwood lump charcoal, not the more common briquettes.

Charcoal briquettes commonly purchased at the supermarket or big box store are a composite of ingredients, including wood scraps, sawdust, coal dust, borax and petroleum binders. When they are still smoking, that smoke can leave an acrid taste on your food. But it burns evenly and for a long time. Pure wood charcoal comes as chunks of random size that can get hotter than briquettes, but will also burn out quicker, so they will need to be augmented with fresh chunks, which you can put directly on the fire without pre-lighting them.  

Would you like to get that wood-fired pizza taste without building a wood-burning oven? Videos teaching you how to grill a pizza are all over the internet, and the results are pretty terrific. 

Whether you bake your pizza in a wood-fired oven, on the grill or in your oven at home, remember not to overload your pizza. A bare swipe of sauce and just a smattering of toppings and cheese is best, or your crust could be sodden and your toppings unevenly heated. 

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