The popularity of homemade food is rising due to lockdown restrictions across the country and the desire for great tasting home cooked dishes. As this way of life continues, and the need for more self sufficiency heightens, home gardens become full of vegetables, fruits and herbs, and outdoor smokehouses or grills a rather common sight.
An increasing number of people also decide to put pizza ovens in their backyards. In this article I’ll talk about benefits of having your own wood fired pizza oven and how to build it yourself easily.
How does an outdoor pizza oven work?
Pizza ovens are a type of arch-vaulted dome made traditionally from clay or bricks and cement. Their actual form varies, depending on region or users’ preferences. The most common difference is in the chimney’s position. Ovens in southern regions tend to have it in the front, right above the mouth, whilst those in the north often have it in the back. Some don’t even have one, as the lack of it minimises heat loss and keeps higher temperature inside for longer. Ovens without a chimney have one downside though — smoke produced during the heating process escapes right through the mouth, even if the door is closed. So you shouldn’t use one indoors but it’s a viable option for an outdoor cooking spot.
The process of cooking in a pizza oven is quite easy. Firstly you’ll need to make a fire in the back end and let your oven heat up. The material and shape of the dome allows it to store and later radiate heat (as does the base). After the oven reaches its desired temperature, you’ll need to remove all the ashes and embers, so you can put your dough on a cleaned floor patch. The magic starts when you close the door — heat will radiate from the walls and floor, slowly cooking your meal. Thanks to the dome-shaped vault, all the heat concentrates right in the middle, cooking the food evenly from all sides (in general it’s a bit similar to sun rays). Unfortunately, cooking this way takes quite some time.
If you want your meal ready faster, you’ll have to use an alternate method. Simply don’t remove embers and burning wood — just push it all the way back. Then put your food on a cleared floor patch in the middle and leave the door open. This way you can cook your pizza in just a few minutes but you’ll have to remember to rotate it periodically, so it can be baked evenly.
Where to put a pizza oven?
To be honest, there’s a lot of freedom here. The main limitation is access to a chimney. In other words, pizza oven placement is mostly a matter of personal preferences. They can be build separately or integrated with e.g. already existing grills or even fireplaces. Nevertheless, placing one outside tends to be the most popular option — they can be set up on patios, terraces or pretty much anywhere in the garden. You’ll just have to remember to provide your oven with its own roof. It’s worth mentioning that you can also buy portable pizza oven, which can be set up almost anywhere.
When you’re setting up your pizza oven, you should keep in mind two simple, yet very important rules:
- it shouldn’t be exposed to winds (especially strong ones),
- it mustn’t be placed near storage of flammable materials.
How to build a pizza oven in your garden?
Putting up a DIY pizza oven might be a bit tricky, but it can bring a lot of satisfaction and joy to any building enthusiast. Here’s how to build a pizza oven made of clay and bricks:
Step 1 — The base
First, you’ll need to start with foundations. This can be fairly easily done by digging right-sized hole (depending on the size of the planned oven) and pouring a slab of cement into and over it. When the cement is nice and solid, you can start building the base’s walls. This can be done using cement slabs or small lintels as flagstones. The second method makes it easier to leave a storing space for wood under the oven — just leave two walls open to enable better airflow that’ll keep the wood dryer. At this point you should make an outline plan of the floor, as it will help you to keep track of the space needed for all the layers.
Step 2 — Insulating the bottom
When the base is ready, it’s time for laying some bricks. The bottom most layer walls (under the oven’s floor) can be made using normal red bricks and your old pal cement. When your outline walls are ready, you’ll have to make a proper insulation layer. This is one of the most important steps, as a proper insulation is key for the oven’s effectiveness. This can be done with professional products, but if you really want to stay true to the DIY way, you may do it with wine bottles. It’s quite easy — simply lay them evenly and fill the gaps with clay (you can add some sawdust to it). Just remember to leave some room for the bottles’ thermal expansion. The clay used here should be set up for soaking overnight and mixed to “double cream” consistency (plaster mixing drill attachment can do it nicely).
Step 3 — The oven floor
Having the base and insulation ready, you can proceed to build the proper floor for your brick pizza oven. However, before you start laying your first fire bricks, remember to put a layer of build soil mix under them. This way you can give them a firm base without relying on cement or clay. The first, best fitting bricks should be placed in the middle and you should work your way outward.
Step 4 — The dome
The next stop is, so to speak, the main course. Firstly, draw the outline of the dome on the floor bricks. Use a marker pen, so it can still be visible even if the bricks get wet. You should really stock up on clay before you start — a small oven (for one pizza at a time) will take at least 10-13 twelve-liter buckets. Make sure you have a whole lot of sand (for mixing and the dome’s form). While making the sand form, remember to measure the right height in the middle, so you’ll know how high you’ll have to go — a proper stick will do just fine. The form itself should be compacted and perfectly shaped into a dome. This requires some patience and might be tricky. After you’re done with the form, take some dampened newspapers and put them in a layer upon it. That way you’ll make emptying the finished dome easier.
Next comes the clay-sand mixing. While preparing the mixture for the first layer, make sure not to put any straw in it — it would leave air gaps which are a big no-go at this point. You can make mixing easier by dumping a couple of buckets of both sand and clay onto a big tarp. Just cover it with sand and add broken clay (roughly walnut-sized bits). After that, simply use your feet to mix them together — remember to do it really thoroughly. The tarp plays a key role here, as it lets you to turn the mixture over with almost no effort. When they’re nicely mixed, mix them even more and add some water — just enough to hold the mixture together, but not as much to make it splat when dropped from waist height. Remember to do a lot of the mixture for this part, as the first layer should be put together in one go — this will prevent any dry joints.
The dome’s first layer should be 10 cm thick. How should you build it? Simply take a handful of the mixture, make a solid ball out of it and lay it one by one, starting from the bottom. Don’t worry much about the surface smoothness — you can even it out with a plastering trowel when it’s ready.
Step 5 — Drying and emptying
When the first layer is ready, you’ll have to give it time to dry — at least to the point it won’t collapse. This period will differ, depending on the weather — when it’s nice and sunny it’ll take just a few days, but with really wet weather it may even take 3 weeks. You should remember to keep it under a tarpaulin if it’s raining. After it’s sufficiently dry, you may take another step and cut out the mouth hole (and one for the chimney if plan on adding one). How big should it be? Well, the door should take 63% of the total dome’s height. It’s common to add an arch made of fire bricks to the oven’s mouth. Now you can remove all the sand from the inside. It’s also highly recommended smoothing out the inner dome walls — you can do it quite easily with a bit of water and the back of a large spoon.
Step 6 — Finishing touches
All that’s left is adding two more layers of sand and clay mixture to properly insulate the dome (this time you can add straw). The first one should also have 10 cm of thickness, but the most outer one doesn’t have to be thicker than 2,5 cm. You can also add a final layer of clay to make the surface nice and smooth. After that add the optional door and a chimney. Then add a roof and your DIY pizza oven will be ready. When the dome is properly dry, you can build it over with brick, leave it as it is, or even paint it decoratively.
Can a brick pizza oven cook anything else?
Of course, it can! Despite being named after one dish, this kind of oven is very versatile and allows you to cook wide variety of food. Tarts, stews, fish, gratins, bread, skewers, barbecued meat, even toasts and meringues.
And that’s not even all — the accumulated heat can be used long after the main meal is ready. This can be used for anything from drying vegetables, mushrooms and fruits, to keeping your tea nice and warm.
How hot can pizza ovens get?
This can vary due to materials used, but they can reach really high temperatures — 500℃ and up. Modern, professionally made ovens can withstand even up to 1000℃. Impressive as it might be, in most cases you won’t have to get them that hot — the most you’ll need is 430℃ for a quick (90 seconds) thin, crispy pizza. Less crispy pizza pies and barbecued meat can be done at 300℃. You can also get large roasts at 230℃ and bread/stew dishes at 200℃. As for the meringues mentioned earlier — they can be done long after the main dish, when the temperature drops to 100℃.
Build one or buy one — which is more cost-efficient?
All things considered, there’s not much difference between building and buying. Wood-fired ovens, depending on their size, will cost you from about £700 up to £3000+. If there’s not much difference, why build an oven if you can buy one? Well, building it yourself can bring you a lot of satisfaction and scratch that DIY itch that many people have. But if construction isn’t your thing and you only want to make delicious pizza in your own backyard, try buying a pre-made oven kit — it’s easy to assemble and you needn’t be a manual prodigy to properly set it up.
A brick pizza oven is a great addition to any backyard and can satisfy any fan of homemade food. You can buy it or build it yourself — the cost of both is really similar, so it’s mostly a matter of personal preferences.
Try some of my other ‘how to’ garden posts: