Baking Steel, Modernist Cuisine Special Edition review:
This Steel Slab Makes Awesome Pizzas, But Is It Practical?
Produces astonishingly good pizzas in a home oven.
It’s pricey, heavy, and problematic to store.
If you regularly make pizzas, care about the quality of the crust, and can figure out where to store this baking steel, it's a great thing to have around the kitchen.
True pizza fans are tireless. They’ll trek to Naples for thin crust, Chicago for deep dish, and Coney Island for coal-fired. When it comes to slinging pies at home, they’re just as driven, sniffing out authentic recipes, sourcing authentic yeasts and flours, hand-pulling mozzarella, even getting the density and the PH level of the dough just right. And for getting a home oven to perform as much as possible like the wood-fired dome ovens of Neapolitan pizzaiolos—well, that’s where ingenuity comes in.
Pizza geek Andris Lagsdin was reading Modernist Cuisine, and noted Nathan Myhrvold’s observation that the best surface for baking pizzas at home would be a thick steel plate. Well, Lagsdin works at Stoughton Steel, a Massachusetts steel company, so—long story short—he devised a 1/4-inch slab of recycled industrial steel, called it the Baking Steel, and crowd-funded the product launch in September 2012. The company now has three models: the original (1/4-inch-thick slab that weighs 15 pounds); The Big! (a 1/2-inch slab weighing 30 pounds); and, essentially splitting the difference, the Modernist Cuisine Special Edition we reviewed here (a 3/8-inch, 22-pound slab, released last spring).
Since it launched, pizza fans have tested the Baking Steel with hygrometers and high-heat digital thermometers, the kind of finely calibrated tools more common in labs than condo kitchens. (For a particularly good test of the Baking Steel versus a conventional pizza stone, check out J. Kenji López-Alt’s Pizza Lab side-by-side on Serious Eats’ Slice blog.) Our question during testing wasn’t whether the Baking Steel would produce a superior crust (we had faith that it would), but whether it’s a practical purchase for the casual home pizza maker.
This is a beast to haul around, recommended for the strong of back only. It’s 16 inches wide and 14 inches deep, a 3/8-inch thickness of recycled steel that weighs 22 pounds. It’s embossed with the Modernist Cuisine logo, has dog-eared corners that look kind of cool, and is said to be indestructible (having hauled it around the CHOW Test Kitchen several times, we believe it). It’s preseasoned; you might eventually have to season it again, depending on how much you use your steel and how you care for it, but the Baking Steel has instructions for that on its website. You have to clean it after using—Baking Steel recommends using cleaning blocks (you can buy them on its website). Baking Steel says you can also use it as a stovetop griddle for (since there’s no edge to catch liquids) relatively nonrunny foods like pancake batter.
We tested our Baking Steel with three things: pizza, of course; breads, in the form of La Brea Bakery take-and-bake baguettes; and, because we wanted to test it the way we use our pizza stone, a frozen pizza. In each case, we followed the Baking Steel’s instructions, cranking the oven to 500 degrees Fahrenheit and heating the slab on the lower shelf for 45 minutes before sliding our test subjects on top.
Bread: After 8 minutes, the Baking Steel turned our take-and-bake baguette into an amazingly crisp-crusted, beautifully caramel-brown specimen, with pizzalike leopard spotting on the bottom (below, top). The loaf we baked in a second oven, on a plain rack as instructed, turned out pale and a little soft (below, bottom). Way to go Baking Steel.
Frozen pizza: Just like it did for our take-and-bake bread, the Baking Steel turned a frozen margherita pizza into an overachiever. Unlike that of the conventionally prepared version, the Baking Steel crust was perfectly rigid after 7 minutes, with a handsome black ring on the bottom like you find in true Neapolitan thin crust. This is probably the best frozen pizza we have ever produced. But then, with pizza-geek engineering on our side, we weren’t exactly surprised.
Pizza: We made a couple of pizzas, with tomato sauce, mozzarella, and cured meat, and our results were consistent: After 9 minutes in the oven, our pies had beautifully charred undercarriages, with handsome leopard spotting. The crusts’ structure had lovely arched chambers, and a crisp-chewy texture we admire in pies from our favorite Neapolitan pizza joints in San Francisco and Oakland. This was undoubtedly the best homemade pizza we’ve produced, with a crust structure better than the pies we’ve baked on a couple of different brands of pizza stones over the years. Our inner pizza geek was more than satisfied.
General stuff: Should you drop a hundred bucks and risk blowing your back out hauling the Baking Steel around your kitchen? We think the answer depends on the degree of your own personal pizza obsession. One of our nagging questions: Where would we store this 22-pound beast so we’d have easy access to it, with little risk of it rolling out of the cupboard and smashing one of our flip-flopped feet? Could we store it in our oven, without any adverse effects on the seasoning? We put the question to Baking Steel, and Andris Lagsdin was good enough to answer that, yeah, the oven is a fine place for long-term storage, especially for what he called “heat sync,” the positive effect a hot slab of steel will have on, say, that casserole of mac 'n’ cheese or those frozen dino chicken fingers for the kids. “The seasoning should stay in pretty good shape,” he continued. “It may be a good idea to remove it once in a while to check on the seasoning, but it should not weaken too much in that environment.” With the storage question settled, the only thing to consider is how often you actually make pizza. If the answer is at least once a month (and having the Baking Steel around to produce beautiful pies could make us inclined to have a weekly pizza night), this is probably a worthy investment—especially since you can get the basic model for $79. Baking Steel, you might just make us into true pizza geeks.
Photos by Chris Rochelle