Why I Stopped Baking My Pizzas In Wood-Burning Ovens
After working with wood ovens since the early 90s, I asked myself: How much land is being cleared because of our foodservice demand for wood?
Photos courtesy of Rally Pizza
I got involved in the bread movement in the early 90s. That was what I like to call the "toddlerhood" era of artisan bread in America. I worked in kitchens and there were a lot of wood-burning ovens being built by Alan Scott right about that time. In the Bay Area (where I come from) everyone had a wood oven. At a certain point, wood-burning ovens became the more romantic way of making bread but the reality is that there is a lot of wood going into them.
It made me ask myself: How much land is being cleared because of our demand for wood? With climate change happening, there are already concerns over the future of Oregon's oak trees. As a lifelong baker, I figured it was time to burn something else, but what put it over the top for me was this old, massive oak tree that was in front of a restaurant I was helping develop in Salem, Oregon. It was right in front of the building and three times as high and as wide as the building. It was a beautiful tree that framed the whole building and I just couldn't see myself using oak for my oven because it seemed like such a contradiction.
In the 90s, I also started to really get into Neapolitan-style pizzas. At the same time, people in Portland were protesting wood ovens to try to protect oak trees in the Willamette Valley. Sure, you can use fruit woods to make pizza after thinning an orchard—pear, apple, or cherrywood—but it is difficult to get really good Neapolitan-style pizza with fruitwood. There are a lot of small branches and you don't get that much heat from them.
In Michigan, I opened Stone House Bread. Then I switched jobs and did the bread program for Whole Foods in the entire Midwest region and consulted at Avalon National Breads in Detroit. In Portland, I started working with Ken's Artisan Bakery and helped open their pizza restaurant. It was one of the first wood-fired pizza ovens in the city. Eventually, I realized that both gas and wood-fired as just being tools.
A lot of people think that you get more flavor because of the smoke in the pizza, but you really don't. It's burning so hot that you don't get any of the volatile smoke in the crust. It is going right up the dome and out the chimney. You do get a shorter fire time because it is so hot, therefore you get different flavors in the crust that is not as evenly black or brown. In a gas oven, you get more equally cooked crust, but the way we rotate our pizzas in our gas ovens, a lot of people think that we use a wood oven. The dough will still develop those charred bubbles, the mozzarella will get slightly brown, and the pepperoni will start to curl up. At the end of the day, the dough is the same for any oven you use.
We don't advertise why we choose gas over wood anywhere or claim to be more sustainable, but we do explain why we choose to not use wood if customers ask. I do miss the fire, but I don't mess stacking wood in the rain, snow, or when it was 100-degrees out. I also don't miss getting splinters.
I'm not opposed to burning wood at home or when going camping. I'm just opposed to excessively burning wood for foodservice. There is a possibility that we can reach a critical mass with wood so I just want to step away from it for a bit. I'm not saying that I wouldn't go back to wood eventually, I just wouldn't use it at the scale that I've used before.
After all, if you do everything right with gas and put it side by side to a wood-burning oven, you'll hardly be able to tell.
As told to Javier Cabral
Alan Maniscalco is the owner and seasoned pizza chef responsible for the proudly gas-oven-baked pizzas available at Rally Pizza in Vancouver, Washington. For more information, check out his restaurant's website. This interview has been edited for length and clarity.