How Polly Greeks uses a pizza oven for off-grid living (plus her time-tested oven tips)
NZ Life & Leisure columnist Polly Greeks is building an off-grid mudbrick home in the Far North. The family of four’s pizza oven is not just a luxury, it’s an essential part of life.
Words: Polly Greeks
When your kitchen is yet to be built and the novelty has worn off cooking every meal over an outdoor gas ring, one can feel surprisingly motivated to build a pizza oven. We were dreaming of crispy roast potatoes, densely rich cakes, homemade bread and slow-cooked casseroles, as well as the obligatory pizza.
We began by pouring a concrete slab onto a raised ply platform. The oven’s base was set into this, using firebricks sourced on Trade Me. Aided by an arched ply form, we created the oven’s tunnel shape with more firebricks, which were covered with layers of insulation (we used foil survival blankets sold in outdoor stores) and concrete (oxidised terracotta for aesthetic purposes).
A flue was built into the oven, positioned at the front to encourage heat circulation, and we had a steel door cut into our desired shape at our local welders. Since its creation, we’ve successfully cooked everything from Christmas roasts to lamb shanks to sourdough bread.
We build a fire an hour or two before we start cooking to ensure the oven’s holding the heat, and once the initial meal’s cooked, we usually look around for things to slow-cook in the embers. Whole pumpkins, kumara and herbed meat casseroles do amazing things when left in the oven overnight.
After a bit of experimentation, we’ve found that our cast-iron frying pans make a good pizza trays; a silicon oven mitt is required to lift them out as they get formidably hot, but the pans turn pizza dough gloriously crispy in a matter of minutes.
A pizza’s pleasure-giving power can be measured by the length of the “Mmm” released by diners after their first bite. We’ve found that smearing a simple Salsa Verde over the pizza base guarantees a pleasure emission of at least three seconds – quite a protracted happy groan.
Test the theory by finely chopping garlic and fresh thyme, oregano, rosemary and basil (or some combination of this). Mix with olive oil and spread lightly over a pizza base before adding tomato sauce and other toppings. The Salsa Verde permeates the pizza with deliciousness and adds crunch to the base.
• Carefully consider the best location for your pizza oven and its bench space. It always becomes a social hub, so it’s good to have gathering space around it. Ours is fairly close to the kitchen, too, which means we don’t have to ferry food long distances to and fro. The bench space beside our oven has also proved invaluable.
• Always use untreated timber for firewood. Manuka is the best for getting an oven blazingly hot. Once the oven is hot, push the embers aside to clear a cooking space.
• An old oven tray attached to a long wooden handle makes an excellent pizza peel (see Tools of the Trade, page 66, to learn how to make your own).
• If you’re putting pizza directly onto the oven floor, a light sprinkling of fine-grain polenta on the pizza base and peel will ensure it won’t stick to the peel.
• Take it from me, don’t try to bake a conventional cake in a pizza oven, unless you want to create a simultaneously doughy and burnt offering for your local bird population.