Baking Stones & Baking Steels

Published November 1, 2016. From Cook's Illustrated.

Overview:

A good baking stone or steel takes your oven to the next level, absorbing and radiating intense heat to create a flavorful crisp crust on pizzas and breads. But the consumer looking to buy one faces a lot of questions regarding material, shape, and size.

Our previous testing—and over two decades of experience using baking stones in the test kitchen—helped us narrow the field for a new evaluation. Round stones may be the standard, but a rectangle is a much more forgiving shape for baking circular items (you don’t have to precisely drop a round pizza on a rectangular stone); rectangular stones and steels also better accommodate oblong pizzas and long breads. We passed on stones with protruding handles because they limit the usable surface area. And we eliminated models whose manufacturers said they couldn’t be used at 500 degrees (or higher), which our testing has proved essential for great pizza crust.

We ended up with five models, priced from $28.99 to $89.00, including three stones and two steels. We included our longtime… read more

A good baking stone or steel takes your oven to the next level, absorbing and radiating intense heat to create a flavorful crisp crust on pizzas and breads. But the consumer looking to buy one faces a lot of questions regarding material, shape, and size.

Our previous testing—and over two decades of experience using baking stones in the test kitchen—helped us narrow the field for a new evaluation. Round stones may be the standard, but a rectangle is a much more forgiving shape for baking circular items (you don’t have to precisely drop a round pizza on a rectangular stone); rectangular stones and steels also better accommodate oblong pizzas and long breads. We passed on stones with protruding handles because they limit the usable surface area. And we eliminated models whose manufacturers said they couldn’t be used at 500 degrees (or higher), which our testing has proved essential for great pizza crust.

We ended up with five models, priced from $28.99 to $89.00, including three stones and two steels. We included our longtime favorite stone by Old Stone Oven ($59.95) as well as a previously tested and recommended steel, the Original Baking Steel by Stoughton Steel ($89.00), which we know runs a little hotter than stones.

Into the test kitchen we went to bake 13-inch round thin-crust pizzas and 16-inch loaves of Rustic Italian Bread on each stone and steel. Following our recipe for Easier Roast Turkey and Gravy, we cooked turkeys in roasting pans that had been preheated atop our stones and steels, a hot combination that speeds up the cooking of the dark meat so that it’s done at the same time as the white meat. Since stones and steels are heavy (one steel we tested weighed 15 pounds), we asked testers of various statures to hoist them in and out of high and low ovens. And to simulate years of plopping stones into the oven or onto a shelf, we dropped them from 2 to 3 inches above the floor to see if any cracked or chipped.

The bottom line? We recommend all of the stones and steels in our lineup. Breads emerged uniformly crusty and deeply golden brown. With one exception each, pizzas browned very evenly, top and bottom, and the white and dark meat of turkeys cooked to the right temperatures simultaneously. The exceptions to perfect results were both from the steels: The thick, heavy Original Baking Steel radiated heat so intensely that the bottom pizza crust almost became too dark while we waited for the cheese on top to melt and the perimeter of the crust to brown (ultimately it caught up enough to pass the test). The wider, thinner Pizzacraft steel made great pizza and bread (since it’s thinner, it doesn’t hold and throw as much heat), but it completely covered the oven rack and very slightly overcooked the turkey’s dark meat before the white meat was done, most likely because it blocked hot air circulation to the breast meat higher up in the oven. Since our goal was to find an all-purpose tool, we deducted a few points from each steel.

As for durability, we’ve heard plenty of stories of pizza stones breaking, but we discovered that our requirement that the stones could be used at 500 degrees made all the difference. Many pizza baking stones are made of ordinary stoneware, which can be brittle. But our chosen stones were made of a much tougher synthetic material called cordierite, designed to withstand extreme heat and resist thermal shock. The carbon-steel slabs come lightly preseasoned, and periodic wipe-downs with oil are necessary to keep rust from forming, but we had no trouble with rusting during testing.

As for heft, the heavy steel that weighed in at 15 pounds was hard to pick up, and sliding it to get our fingers underneath scraped our counters. We much preferred models that topped out around 10 pounds. In dimension, the stones and steels fell into two categories: Three were roughly 16 by 14 inches, the other two about 20 by 14 inches. We had high hopes for the extra length on the 20-inch models but discovered that it wasn’t necessary and made them cumbersome for smaller testers to maneuver. One stone had an innovative design: Made up of five thick tiles that fit together to form a 16 by 14-inch rectangle, it proved a good choice for anyone who has trouble lifting large objects. But testers thought the 16 by 14-inch size hit the sweet spot between having enough space and being manageable to move.

Our old winner, the 16 by 14-inch Old Stone Oven Pizza Baking Stone ($59.95), took the top spot once again. It performed beautifully no matter what we were baking, and its size, weight, and raised feet made it maneuverable for every tester. What’s more, after a decade of use in the test kitchen, it has proven durable and reliable. Our Best Buy is the Pizzacraft All-Purpose Baking Stone ($28.99); while its larger size and lack of feet make it somewhat harder to handle, it performs well in all other respects.

Methodology:

We tested five models of baking stones (also called pizza stones) and baking steels, preparing pizza, bread, and roast turkey and evaluating their performance and ease of use. We tested their durability by dropping them from 2 to 3 inches above the floor and examined them for cracks or rusting at the end of our testing period. Information on the stones’ materials and maximum ovensafe temperatures, whether or not they are broiler- or grill-safe, and how to clean them was obtained from the manufacturers. All were purchased online and appear below in order of preference.

Performance: We baked our Thin-Crust Pizza and Rustic Italian Bread on each stone or steel, evaluating the crust and overall texture and flavor of the results. Stones that produced crisp, well-browned, and evenly baked pizza and bread rated highest. We also made our recipe for Easier Roast Turkey and Gravy (which calls for setting the roasting pan atop a preheated stone or steel) with each model, rating it on how evenly the light and dark meat cooked.

Ease of Use: We had testers of varying heights, strengths, and skill levels move the stones and steels in and out of built-in wall ovens and ovens beneath ranges. We evaluated how difficult they were to grab, lift, and maneuver. Weight, shape, and design features were taken into account.

Durability: We dropped the stones horizontally from 2 to 3 inches above the kitchen floor and checked for breaks or cracks; we also left them damp overnight to check for rust or other damage. We followed manufacturer instructions for care and evaluated the condition of the stones at the conclusion of testing. We gave higher marks to stones that were still in good shape at the end of testing, noting that some discoloration is acceptable through normal use.

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