Want Awesome Pizza? Turn Up The Heat

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I recently did an informal poll among my cooking buddies, asking them how hot they heat their ovens when making pizza at home. They blinked at me and universally responded, "As hot as it will go." That's when I realized I've been falling a little short in the pizza department.

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I've been baking my pizzas at 450° Fahrenheit for years. It's the temperature recommended in many pizza recipes, particularly the ones I followed when first learning to bake, and I've just stuck with it. Of course, I've heard that brick pizza ovens will reach a mind-boggling 800° or more and cook pizzas in minutes, but I always assumed that 450° was as high as home cooks could hope for.

As one of my friends said, "If your oven wasn't made to go hotter...it wouldn't." Still, like the mystical 11 on Spinal Tap's amp, I was skeptical. And scared. Of what, I'm not sure. Setting the house on fire? Damaging the oven in my rental apartment? My friends dismissed all my worries with a wave of the hand.

There was nothing left to do but give it a try.

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I made my standard pizza dough and settled on a few different toppings. I pulled out my trusty Silpat as well as some pieces of parchment. And finally, I turned up the oven as high as it would go.

The dial on my oven says the maximum temperature is 550°. But I also know that my oven tends to run hot, so I wouldn't be surprised if it got up to 600°. (My trusty oven thermometer only reads up to 500°, and the dial had pushed far beyond that into unknown territory by the time the oven was officially heated.)

No smoke alarms went off. The pizza didn't burn to a crisp. In fact, the only scary moment was pulling out the pizza being baked on parchment and seeing that the parchment had completely blackened. It showered my kitchen floor with brittle black flakes as I transferred the pizza to a cooling rack. The Silpat emerged from the experience completely unscathed.

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And the pizza? I can honestly say that this was some of the best homemade pizza I've ever made. The crust was crisp on the outside and chewy in the middle. It was charred in spots, giving the whole slice that slightly smoky flavor that I love from brick ovens. The toppings cooked beautifully and took on some char of their own. This pizza was awesome.

I'm a convert, albeit still a slightly fearful one. I'm not as worried about fire or smoke (though I think I'll stick to baking on Silpats when possible. Edited 12/14/11 to add - Silpats are oven-safe only to 480°, so it looks like parchment it is!). But I am concerned about the possibility of shorting out the oven, however remote that may be.

Not concerned enough to go back to cooking at 450°, however. Good homemade pizza is worth it. If you've been nervous about turning the heat all the way up, as I have been, give it a try once and see what you think.

How hot do you turn up your oven when you make pizza? Anyone ever actually shorted theirs out or likewise other high-heat disasters? Or are all our fears totally unfounded?

(Image credits: Emma Christensen)

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