I’ve lived in my house for almost four years, and almost every Monday night for the last four years, I’ve made pizza. I’ve used the same dough recipe all this time, making it in batches that last me about six Pizza Mondays. I’ve floured the same peel, preheated the same oven and the same pizza stone.
Until one Monday early this fall, when our old electric oven decided to kick the bucket in a most theatrical fashion. Literal sparks flew, the fire department came, and every surface on the main floor of the house lay covered in fire extinguisher dust for a week. And that was just the mini extinguisher!
Luckily, everyone was just fine—my son slept through the whole thing—and it certainly makes a good story. But the dramatic exit of our oven also included the departure of our trusty pizza stone, which sat inside the oven at the time of its demise. And so buying a new oven also meant (re)considering our means of cooking pizza.
I’d loved our stone for years. It cooked my thin, delicate pizzas to a crisp and even finish. Bubbles on the outer crust shattered when cut, and a well-done yet tender crust underneath stood up to multiple toppings. My pizzas became the stuff of family lore.
And yet, the Baking Steel called to me across the Internet. It’s got an impressive pedigree: created by a pizza-obsessed second-generation steel mill operator and recommended by lots of very professional food folks whose opinions I trust. The premise is that steel conducts heat more evenly and more quickly than a stone, and it’s also virtually indestructible—meaning it would survive another oven apocalypse, should we be so unlucky to see another.
I’m already a fan of steel in the kitchen: weekly clean-out-the-fridge stir-fries in an old carbon steel wok that belonged to my parents, and morning eggs, seared sausages, garlic toast, toasted nuts, and almost everything else in a burnished-to-black Matfer Bourgeat carbon steel skillet. And whereas I’m a stickler for a flawlessly clean stainless or nonstick pan during washing-up, it feels oddly satisfying to watch a carbon steel piece of equipment take on a dark patina over time. Like I’m getting away with something.
So with fingers crossed, I wrote to Andris Lagsdin, the owner and inventor of the Baking Steel. (Actually, I didn’t type with my fingers crossed. And I used the contact form on the website, not quite knowing who would see my message and when.) I explained that I’d like to compare the results of two identical pizzas—one cooked on my (now new) pizza stone, the other cooked on a Baking Steel. He was kind enough to send me one to try out.
First, some general thoughts: If you’re into or thinking about getting into making pizza at home on a regular basis, I want you to know that acquiring a pizza stone or baking steel will bring your game to a new level, regardless of which instrument you choose. Both conduct and hold heat outrageously well, and both will do a job superior to that of, say, a sheet pan. So I suppose this is less of a showdown than a respectful meeting of pizza luminaries. But don’t worry: I’m still picking a winner.
On both cooking surfaces, I used my classic 00/semolina pizza dough, rolled out to about a 14-inch diameter, brushed with olive oil, and topped with sliced fresh mozzarella (pressed between paper towels to reduce moisture), lightly marinated grape tomatoes, and Aleppo pepper. I used flour on my pizza peel for good slide. Both stone and steel were preheated in a 500F oven for 45 minutes.
Factor 1: Cooking time
The basic idea behind cooking pizza on a conductive surface like a stone or steel is that the surface will cook your pizza (or bread, or whatever) faster and more evenly than it might on a less-ideal surface, resulting in a finish that’s as crisp and flavorful as you can get at home. (Unless you have a wood-fired brick oven, in which case I’ll be right over.)
When preheated, my stone would take about 7-8 minutes to crank out a pizza at medium doneness. A few deep brown spots, but a few milky spots left on the cheese. Per, I dunno, conventional wisdom (?), I place my stone on the bottom rack of my oven.
With the same preheat, the steel took 6-7 minutes to finish the same pizza. Since the manufacturer’s instructions say to place the steel as close to the broiler as it can safely get (about 6 inches), I had the added advantage of giving it a quick final blast for a kiss of char.
Result: negligible difference, but Baking Steel wins this one.
Factor 2: Cost
Along with a pizza peel, you’ll be investing some measure of funds in a stone or steel.
Stones will run anywhere between $30 and $60. Mine is this Old Stone Oven round.
The baking steel sells for $89 on their website. I have the 16×14” rectangle.
Result: A potential $60 difference is pretty significant. However, the steel’s versatility as a cold tool when frozen (hello instant granita) adds some value in my book. So, a pizza stone wins this one if we’re only talking about pizza. But if you like a multitasker, it could be a toss-up.
Factor 3: Which pizza reigned supreme?
That’s really the question here.
On my pizza stone, the cheese melted evenly and the crust was crisp around the outer perimeter. A few big bubbles dotted the outside crust, and as usual, they shattered pleasantly when cut. For this trial, and in the past, the middle of the pizza did flop over a little when holding a slice. It’s not a crisis, and it doesn’t happen every time, but when it does it can get messy and sometimes those first bites from the center can taste just a little underdone.
On the baking steel, the entire underside of the pizza was thoroughly and evenly cooked, from the edges all the way into the middle. No flopping here, but no toughness either – first bites simply felt sturdy. Those same delightful shattery bubbles showed up, too, but this time, I got a lot of smaller bubbles around the outer crust too. This means the surface was hot enough to extract a little extra moisture from the dough in the form of steam, and trap it in those crunchy little bubbles. The cheese was also evenly melted, and thanks to the steel’s proximity to the broiler (which I did fire up in the final minute or so of cooking), it was also beautifully browned in spots. Caramelized cheese constitutes major bonus points in my book, so on top of the more even bake and faster cooking time, things were looking pretty good for the baking steel.
Result: The Baking Steel wins this one, thanks to those subtle but significant extra touches—the browned cheese, extra bubbles in the crust, and perhaps most importantly, the evenness of the bake across the entire bottom (without burning).
The winner: Baking Steel
At a solid 2/3—or 3/3 depending on your feelings about frozen steel—the baking steel proved itself as the more ideal surface for cooking pizza at home. Though cost could be a barrier in some cases, the steel’s versatility and capacity for even and thorough cooking won me over.
Now, this isn’t to say I’ll be retiring my pizza stone forever. I’m actually looking forward to continuing to use both and comparing the different results, especially if that basically just means eating pizza in the name of science.
Head photo by Chowhound, using images from Amazon.