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Finding The Perfect Pizza Oven

For operators with a passion for pizza, the right oven makes all the difference.

Loyd Turner, President of Orlando’s in Lubbock, Texas, has seen it all. In the 1970s, a workhorse deck oven produced many perfect pizzas, but also others that “got burned, did not cook evenly or got dusted with black cornmeal” if the oven-tenders weren’t on their game. Later, the restaurant moved to conveyor ovens; Turner loved their consistency and the fact that pizzas could bake without monitoring. Recently, the team replaced two old conveyors with high-tech versions offering precise control of air flow, cook time and temperature. “They cook so much better, with much less radiant heat into the kitchen; our pizzas are much crispier and look great; the controls are easy to operate, the cooks love them and no one gets burned anymore,” the restaurateur says.

If any chain needs consistency, speed and foolproof operation, it’s Pizza Hut. “Our pizza ovens are the most critical equipment we have,” says Johan Vorster, Global Category Leader for Capital Expenses and Equipment at the global QSR pizza chain. “Having trusted brands and a trusted oven platform are key for our growth globally.” The chain specifies stackable conveyors from two global manufacturers in a variety of sizes, using different energy sources and both vented and ventless models. All have front doors to insert local side dishes, from pasta to cookies. Both manufacturers offer a robust service network and aftermarket parts in all countries Pizza Hut serves.

For Brad Kent, Executive Chef at Blaze Pizza, the question of ovens is complicated. The fastcasual chain produces thin-crust signature and build-your-own pizzas, cooked to order at high heat in minutes in hearth ovens. Such ovens produce different results depending on the heat source, deck material and oven dimensions, but a variety of unit footprints in the system mean that two configurations are in use. “The smaller oven we specify is a little more responsive than the other; it heats faster and cools faster, so it requires a slightly more alert pizza cook,” Kent says. “It’s a speedboat versus a yacht. We adjust the cooking style so that they cook at the same pace.”

Deck, conveyor and hearth ovens represent the three main choices for serious pizza operators. Each type of oven has its place. Today’s ovens are more foolproof and energyefficient. And new ventless catalytic-converter technology for some deck and conveyor ovens means more flexibility in installations. Here’s a guide to each oven, plus a list of important points to consider when researching models.


MontagueBasic Deck Ovens
Deck ovens are the go-to for medium-volume operations that offer many types of pizza and pizza by the slice. They accept pizzas with parbaked dough, cutting cook time in half. Deck ovens typically bake pizzas at 400°F-650°F (depending on the pizza’s thickness and whether it’s being baked in a pan or directly on the stone). Heat comes from burners under a stone, with adjustable heat flow via side vents for controlling the top and bottom finish. Deck ovens, available in gas and electric versions, make for a superb crust and cook multiple pizzas simultaneously. They’re also great for cooking proteins, baking and finishing.

Deck ovens typically require a skilled cook to move pizzas around with a peel as they bake, but the latest ovens have more even heat distribution and require less fussing. To produce a lot of pizza in a small space, you can stack deck ovens.

A deck oven isn’t the best choice for an operation that gets heavy rush business; the oven can have a hard time maintaining temperature as employees pull the pizzas out and put them in, so production rates can go down over the length of the meal period.

Daily maintenance is simple: keep the stone deck clear of sauce and debris with a good scrub.

 

Conveyor

High-Volume Conveyor Ovens
Conveyor ovens are for high-volume operations, primarily LSRs, that crank out pizzas all day. These ovens can handle crusts that are frozen, parbaked or freshly made. Typically operating at 450°F-600°F, they cook faster than deck ovens and new models reduce bake times even further, boosting production with the same energy input. Unskilled workers can safely operate these ovens. Like deck ovens, you can stack electric or gas conveyor ovens. For kitchens with difficult footprints, makers offer a reversible conveyor that allows workers to load and unload food from the same side.

Most conveyors use impingement technology, moving food through a chamber heated via pressurized forced air delivered in jets or “fingers” (fans blow air through holes in steel plates). Other conveyors use radiant or infrared heat. Pizzas go through one by one, each cooking at the same temperature and speed. (Some manufacturers offer split-belt conveyors, allowing different foods to pass at different speeds.) You can duplicate hearth-oven Neapolitan pizza in two ways: employees can place pizzas directly on the screen-type conveyor belt, or they can cook it in a new type of specialty pan on a conventional chain belt. Most conveyor ovens also feature a front “half-pass” door allowing staff to reheat pizza slices or produce quick-cooking items like hot sandwiches, wings or nachos.

A key point to consider on most conveyor ovens is what is called columnating panels. They control the coverage of the jets of impinged air, blocking the jets 100%, 75%, 50% or 25%. So a common example would be that a pizza rides into the oven and the bottom jets are fully open, but the top jets are blocked 50%. Through the middle of the cook, the bottom remains on full open, but the top jets are blocked 100%. In the last part of the cook, the fingers open on top again 50%. This ensures the crust cooks but the top does not burn (which it would if the jets were all open 100% through the entire conveyor run.)

You should work with your manufacturer to figure out what percentages you want these panels to be open throughout the cook for the specific pizzas you will be cooking (panels are not adjustable, but they are interchangeable). How much does your dough weigh? What’s it made of and how thick is it? Do you use part-skim mozzarella or whole? Is your pizza frozen, parbaked or fresh? Does your pizza bake in pans or on screens or right on the conveyor—all of these factors impact conveyor settings, including time, temperature and impingement coverage.

Maintenance entails a daily wire-brush cleaning of the conveyor and “fingers.” Employees should take apart and thoroughly clean the oven about once a month (more often for operations that run raw meats and meat-topped pizzas through the oven). Follow the manufacturer’s recommendations. Some ovens have conveyor belts and “fingers” that can be easily removed for pressure-washing outside the kitchen; the rest of the oven should simply be wiped down with an appropriate cleaner.


Hearth
Speed & Show: Hearth Ovens
Front-of-house hearth ovens offer drama and a pizza finish that no other oven type can match. Exteriors can be steel, brick, stone and tile, or even fancifully replicate items, such as tomatoes. These ovens cook pizzas, breads, pasta, meats and vegetables in minutes at 600°F or above using wood, coal, gas, electricity with forced air, or a combination. Heat radiates from both the ceiling and the deck of the interior domed cooking chamber. The brick or ceramic-lined ovens have an arched opening; cooks move pizzas around and rotate them for even cooking. Hearth ovens produce Neapolitan pizzas in minutes, with a deep, caramelized thin crust and well-developed flavors. (Hearths are not appropriate for thick, pan-style pizzas with lots of toppings.)

Traditional hearth ovens require skilled cooks to turn pizzas with peels and remove them quickly when done. But rotating decks available from some manufacturers are a new option, cooking pizzas evenly on a time/temperature basis, requiring less skill with a peel. They work best when an operation is turning out quantities of perhaps two or three popular styles of pizza, as in a university setting, for example. If you’re producing a wide range of pizzas with a huge variety of toppings resulting in varied thicknesses, however, the standardized rotation cooking might be less useful. For example one rotation may not be enough time to cook a pizza, but two rotations are too many.

Hearth ovens are more expensive than deck or conveyor ovens and require a powerful grease-rated duct system and well-engineered makeup air. The ovens are heavy and usually impossible to move to a new location. Some models ship ready to install; they may require a forklift or crane to set in place. Other models require crews to build them on site. Building permits are always required. Makers of hearths are their own install experts.

Dome and hearth dimensions and materials are important in this type of oven, and the choices are varied, so do your research. Some decks are a single slab; others sport tile. Some deck materials conduct heat better than others; a smooth, non-porous surface cooks faster at a lower temperature. A serious deck crack, allowing food debris to fall into under-floor heating elements, can be difficult and expensive to repair.

Hearth ovens demand special care, including frequent cleaning of the oven floor with a peel or scraper, wire brush, broom and damp cloth; end-of-day thermal cleaning (cranking the oven up to high heat, then turning it off for the night); cleaning of burners as needed; and, for a wood or coal oven, regular removal of ashes. But when it comes to the wow factor, nothing says artisan or sells more pies than a flaming hearth.


Homework Questions
Once you know the type of pizza oven you’re seeking, narrow down your options. Points to consider:

Cost of oven, utilities and maintenance. Your choice will depend on your ultimate goal, but it’s also the key limiting factor, so start with your budget.

Pizzas/food to be produced. “An oven can do a lot more than just cook pizza,” says Chef Glenn Cybulski, a certified pizzaiolo and a consultant on pizza restaurants. “My first question would be what specifically are you going to be cooking, and then I would go on to the quality you’re looking for—super-fast with decent quality, or super high quality?”

Consultant and equipment dealer John Harrison of Pizza Solutions also begins with food questions: “What type of pizza— hand-tossed, deep-dish? Are you going to be a whole-pie delivery concept only or do you have dine-in? What type of cheese—whole-milk or part-skim? All of these products cook differently in different types of ovens.”

Production. How high a priority is production speed? How long each pizza takes to cook and how intense the peak periods are. Experts advise choosing an oven that will be only 75% full during typical operation so cooks have room to maneuver the pizzas in the oven. If spikes of demand are extreme, it may make sense to stack several deck or conveyor ovens and power them up and down as needed.

Fuel and ventilation. Electric, gas, propane, wood, coal or combination? The choice will depend on what’s available and whether you have (or can install) an exhaust hood that can handle the load. Solid fuels, wood and coal, require an entirely dedicated and specially coded ventilation, fire suppression and exhaust ducting system. Some electric ovens are available in ventless models and you can place them where there’s no hood. But always: check your local codes.

Staff skills. Are you using untrained labor or experienced pizzaiolos who can produce perfect Neapolitan pizzas? Do you want simple analog controls or some programming? Do you have the hands-on experience to supervise worker training and pizza production? How much help will you need from your oven supplier?

Space available. Think about maneuvering room for staff who will put pizzas on and take them off the conveyor. If you use a long-handled pizza peel to move and remove pizzas, you need a turning radius to set them on counters. Stacking ovens can mean greater production but also can create problems as cooks bob up and down to access high and low ovens. A too-high stack also could bump up against the exhaust hood. What about space and work flow in the pizza prep area? Holding for pizzas coming out of the oven?

Growth plan. Are you expecting your concept to gain popularity quickly? Do you want to purchase a bit of excess oven capacity now, or bank on adding more ovens later?

All food for thought.

For the Pizza Oven Gallery, click to the next page.

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