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September/October 2018

Indoor Pizza Ovens

Is a specialty appliance the secret to making great pizza at home?

How We Tested

We love making pizza, but it can be challenging to get good results at home. Restaurants often have special ovens that reach upwards of 800 degrees, cooking the dough and toppings quickly and producing pizzas with crisp, golden-brown crusts and chewy interiors. To approximate that high heat at home, we crank the oven to 500 degrees and preheat a baking stone for a full hour so it becomes saturated with heat that it will transfer to the dough. Meanwhile, heat reflects off the top of the oven and cooks the toppings. It works beautifully, but we're always on the lookout for quicker, easier methods. We were intrigued by indoor pizza ovens, midsize countertop appliances that minimize the preheating time and can reach higher temperatures than conventional home ovens.

We purchased five models, priced from $34.52 to $169.99, including four electric ovens and one that works on a gas stovetop. We churned out dozens of pizzas, including a variety of homemade doughs and store-bought frozen pizzas, and evaluated the quality of the finished pies. For comparison, we held blind tastings of pizzas baked in the indoor pizza ovens, comparing them with each other and with identical pizzas prepared in a conventional oven according to recipe or package instructions. Throughout, we timed how long the pizza ovens took to preheat and cook, rated how easy it was to unload and remove pizzas, and assessed each product's overall design.

Design Differences

Three of the electric models resembled waffle irons, with hinged lids and lightly textured nonstick plates or flat ceramic baking surfaces. One was relatively compact, like a fat frisbee; two were closer in size to a basketball. The fourth machine was a clear outlier. It didn't have a lid or even any walls. Instead, it had an exposed nonstick plate that rotated on a spindle between two wedge-shaped heating elements.

The stovetop model consisted of a metal frame that held two ceramic baking stones about an inch apart, creating an insulating layer of air. According to the manufacturer, this helps the top stone, which holds the pizza, heat more evenly.

Evaluating the Pizzas

All the machines' cooking surfaces were roughly 12 inches in diameter, so we stretched our homemade doughs—even the ones we cooked in the oven—to 12 inches rather than the 13 we call for in our recipes. (It didn't make a noticeable difference in the thickness.) We used the manufacturers' instructions for guidelines on baking time and temperature, but we used our own judgment, too. If a pizza looked too soft or pale, we let it cook a little longer.

Most models produced acceptable frozen pizzas, but more delicate homemade pies varied wildly. The crusts on many were “doughy” and “pale” according to tasters, both on the undersides and at the edges; others baked unevenly, with shreds of unmelted mozzarella alongside scorched sections. A few machines produced the crisp, chewy, golden-brown crust we wanted, as well as little spots of char, which are characteristic of pizzas baked at high temperatures. But even the best pizzas made in the pizza ovens weren't perfect. Tasters noticed that the undersides of the crispy pizzas were fairly tough and dark and sometimes tasted burnt.

High Heat Makes Better Pizza

Crisp, well-browned pizza requires intense heat, and we suspected that some products in our lineup weren't getting hot enough. To find out, we recorded the temperature of the cooking surface and air inside each oven. For comparison, we measured the surface temperature of our winning baking stone after preheating it in a 500-degree oven for an hour (the method we use in a number of our pizza recipes); the baking stone reached 440 degrees. The rotating machine was obviously flawed. It can't be preheated without getting damaged, so we had to place raw pizza on its room-temperature cooking surface (just 74 degrees); by the end of cooking, it had reached only 264 degrees. Plus, this machine's small wedge-shaped heating elements covered less than a quarter of the pizza at a time, and without any walls to contain the little heat it emitted, it was like baking a pizza with a hair dryer. When we held a thermometer probe underneath the upper heating element, the temperature maxed out at 398 degrees. No wonder the pizzas had been soft and flabby.

The other models got hotter, with cooking surfaces that registered between 300 and 525 degrees after preheating and maximum air temperature between 357 and 593 degrees. The machines that got the hottest consistently produced better pizzas with the chewy-tender crust that we were after.

Most Machines Had Design Flaws

But even if the machines produced high heat, they weren't always easy to use. Our favorite baking stone is a 16 by 14-inch rectangle, which means we have a little wiggle room when dropping a raw 12- or 13-inch pizza onto it. That extra room also comes in handy when we rotate the pizzas halfway through cooking. Maneuvering 12-inch raw pizzas on the machines' 12-inch round baking surfaces required more finesse, and two models made this even harder. One had a ¾-inch raised lip on its nonstick plate that got in our way. The other had a 13 by 2¾-inch door that we had to remove to access the oven; we had to pinch at the dough with tongs to rotate it, and we couldn't see into the back of the oven.

Another important factor was the clearance between the cooking surface and the roof of the machine. One machine—the most expensive in the lineup—had a poorly positioned upper heating coil, just 1¾ inches above the cooking surface. When the pizzas puffed up, they came in contact with the exposed heating element and burned. Smoke became trapped in the machine, so even sections that weren't burnt tasted sooty and “acrid.” All the other machines had at least 2 inches of clearance, a small but important difference.

Are Any Models Worth Buying?

Ultimately, most of the pizza ovens missed the mark; our winner, the Forno Magnifico Electric Pizza Oven ($80.99), is only recommended with reservations. We liked its flat ceramic cooking surface, which got even hotter than our baking stone, reaching 525 degrees after just 10 minutes of preheating. However, this pizza oven wasn't significantly easier or more convenient to use than a regular kitchen oven. Most damning: The pizzas themselves weren't any better than the ones we usually make. In our side-by-side blind tastings, a majority of tasters preferred pizzas made in a regular oven to those made with these specialty appliances, including our winner. Instead of spending upwards of $80.00 on one of these bulky devices, we recommend sticking with your oven and investing in a good-quality baking stone. Not only does it make superlative pizza but it's also versatile. We use our favorite, the Old Stone Oven Pizza Baking Stone ($59.95), to make bread, reheat leftover pizza, and even roast turkey.

Methodology

We tested five indoor pizza ovens priced from $34.52 to $169.99, including four electric models and one that fits atop a gas burner. We used each to bake a variety of frozen and homemade pizzas, timing how long the ovens took to preheat and to cook the pizzas. Throughout, we evaluated the crispness and color of the crust, how evenly the cheese melted, how well toppings heated through, and the texture of the interior dough. We compared pizzas made in each machine with pizzas made in a traditional oven in two blind tastings. Information on the cooking surface material was obtained from product manufacturers. We measured the weight and dimensions of the machines in-house, as well as the temperature of the air and cooking surface at the end of the preheating cycle. After testing, we calculated the average time required to preheat the ovens and cook the pizzas. Prices were paid online, and products appear below in order of preference.

Rating Criteria

Pizza Quality: Ovens rated higher if they produced pizza with an evenly browned, crisp crust and melty, hot toppings. We docked points from models that routinely burned parts of the pizza or yielded dough that was soft and pale.

Ease of Use: We preferred models that were simple and intuitive to use. We liked clearly labeled dials that allowed us to quickly set the temperature and cooking time. We also liked models that made it easy for us to load, remove, and rotate the pizza.

Maneuverability: We weighed each oven and measured its footprint, both open and closed. We preferred ovens that took up minimal space and were easy to lift, carry, and move around the kitchen.

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The Results

Winner
Recommended

Design Trifecta 360 Knife Block

$33.31*

Design Trifecta 360 Knife Block

Admittedly expensive, this handsome block certainly seemed to live up to its billing as “the last knife block you ever have to buy.” The heaviest model in our testing, this block was ultrastable, and its durable bamboo exterior was a breeze to clean. Well-placed medium-strength magnets made it easy to attach all our knives, and a rotating base gave us quick access to them. One tiny quibble: The blade of our 12-inch slicing knife stuck out a little

Winner
Recommended

Lodge Classic Cast Iron Skillet, 12"

$33.31*

Lodge Classic Cast Iron Skillet, 12"

Our old winner arrived with the slickest preseasoned interior and only got better. Broad enough to cook two big steaks, it browned foods deeply, and its thorough seasoning ensured that our acidic pan sauce picked up no off-flavors. Though its handle is short, the pan has a helper handle that made lifting easy. It survived abuse testing without a scratch. An excellent pan, at an excellent price, that you’ll never have to replace.

Lodge Classic Cast Iron Skillet, 12"

$33.31*

Lodge Classic Cast Iron Skillet, 12"

Our old winner arrived with the slickest preseasoned interior and only got better. Broad enough to cook two big steaks, it browned foods deeply, and its thorough seasoning ensured that our acidic pan sauce picked up no off-flavors. Though its handle is short, the pan has a helper handle that made lifting easy. It survived abuse testing without a scratch. An excellent pan, at an excellent price, that you’ll never have to replace.

Winner
Recommended

Lodge Classic Cast Iron Skillet, 12"

$33.31*

Lodge Classic Cast Iron Skillet, 12"

Our old winner arrived with the slickest preseasoned interior and only got better. Broad enough to cook two big steaks, it browned foods deeply, and its thorough seasoning ensured that our acidic pan sauce picked up no off-flavors. Though its handle is short, the pan has a helper handle that made lifting easy. It survived abuse testing without a scratch. An excellent pan, at an excellent price, that you’ll never have to replace.

Lodge Classic Cast Iron Skillet, 12"

$33.31*

Lodge Classic Cast Iron Skillet, 12"

Our old winner arrived with the slickest preseasoned interior and only got better. Broad enough to cook two big steaks, it browned foods deeply, and its thorough seasoning ensured that our acidic pan sauce picked up no off-flavors. Though its handle is short, the pan has a helper handle that made lifting easy. It survived abuse testing without a scratch. An excellent pan, at an excellent price, that you’ll never have to replace.

Winner
Recommended

Lodge Classic Cast Iron Skillet, 12"

$33.31*

Lodge Classic Cast Iron Skillet, 12"

Our old winner arrived with the slickest preseasoned interior and only got better. Broad enough to cook two big steaks, it browned foods deeply, and its thorough seasoning ensured that our acidic pan sauce picked up no off-flavors. Though its handle is short, the pan has a helper handle that made lifting easy. It survived abuse testing without a scratch. An excellent pan, at an excellent price, that you’ll never have to replace.

Lodge Classic Cast Iron Skillet, 12"

$33.31*

Lodge Classic Cast Iron Skillet, 12"

Our old winner arrived with the slickest preseasoned interior and only got better. Broad enough to cook two big steaks, it browned foods deeply, and its thorough seasoning ensured that our acidic pan sauce picked up no off-flavors. Though its handle is short, the pan has a helper handle that made lifting easy. It survived abuse testing without a scratch. An excellent pan, at an excellent price, that you’ll never have to replace.

Winner
Recommended

Lodge Classic Cast Iron Skillet, 12"

$33.31*

Lodge Classic Cast Iron Skillet, 12"

Our old winner arrived with the slickest preseasoned interior and only got better. Broad enough to cook two big steaks, it browned foods deeply, and its thorough seasoning ensured that our acidic pan sauce picked up no off-flavors. Though its handle is short, the pan has a helper handle that made lifting easy. It survived abuse testing without a scratch. An excellent pan, at an excellent price, that you’ll never have to replace.

Lodge Classic Cast Iron Skillet, 12"

$33.31*

Lodge Classic Cast Iron Skillet, 12"

Our old winner arrived with the slickest preseasoned interior and only got better. Broad enough to cook two big steaks, it browned foods deeply, and its thorough seasoning ensured that our acidic pan sauce picked up no off-flavors. Though its handle is short, the pan has a helper handle that made lifting easy. It survived abuse testing without a scratch. An excellent pan, at an excellent price, that you’ll never have to replace.