[Photographs: J. Kenji Lopez-Alt]
Quick recap: the Baking Steel is a quarter-inch-thick, 15-pound steel plate that you place in your oven in lieu of a pizza stone. The idea is that all else being equal—same recipe, same oven temperature—because of its superior thermal qualities (higher volumetric heat capacity, as well as higher conductivity than stone), you can cook pizzas faster than you’d be able to with a regular stone. I’ve made well over two dozen pies on the steel, comparing them side-by-side with pies baked on stone. The pies baked on steel were superior in every way.
Better hole structure due to faster oven spring. Cooking times about half as long, leading to a softer, springier, moister crumb. A crisper, more nicely charred underbelly. And of course, superior durability.
Since then, some folks have asked a couple of important questions:
- There’s a new half-inch Baking Steel on the market. How does it compare?
- How does the Baking Steel compare to the existing Lodge Cast Iron Pizza Pan?
I fired off another dozen pies this weekend to figure it out. All of the pies were made using my New York-style Pizza Dough recipe, cold fermented for 2 days, and baked in the exact same manner: I preheated the baking surface on the very top shelf of the oven (a few inches under the broiler) with the oven set to 550°F for 45 minutes. I then registered their temperature, switched the oven over to broil, and waited for the broiler to kick in. With the broiler running, I pulled the rack with the baking surface out, slid my pizza onto it, then pushed it back under the broiler.
I started the timer counting up, and removed the pies once they reached what I determined to be the optimal level of browning—that is, just at the point when the darkest bubbles were on the verge of turning completely black. In other words, the darkest spots on every pie were all equivalent.
I then marked down the cooking times, and tasted the pizzas. All tests were repeated four times. For the first of the tastings, there were 8 other tasters judging the crusts completely blind. The remainder I was judging on my own (there’s only so much pizza my friends will eat).
Here’s what I found.
Quarter-Inch Baking Steel
Cost: $72 from Stoughton Steel.
Approximate Weight: About 15 pounds.
Average Cook Time: Just under 4 minutes.
The quarter-inch steel produced the same admirable pies that it’s been producing in my kitchen for the last few weeks. Nicely charred with a good contrast between the darkest and lightest spots on the crust, and a rapid rise and bake. The average cook time was just under 4 minutes, but a couple of pies managed to get into the 3 minute 30 second range.
Why is speed of cooking important? Fast cooking accomplishes two goals.
First, it makes for better oven spring—the initial “poofing” a pizza does as soon as it enters a hot oven. This is what determines the pie’s final hole structure. Good energy transfer = better oven spring = poofier, airier crust = better pie. Poor oven spring leads to dense pies and more even browning.
Secondly, it ensure that the exterior of the pie crisps before the interior becomes too dry or tough. The ideal pizza should have a thin, thin layer of crispness around the exterior of the crust, with a pillowy, chewy, airy interior.
The quarter-inch steel accomplishes these goals admirably, baking pies even faster than the average New York pizzeria.
Taking a look at the underbelly, you see some nice spotting as well.
Half-Inch Baking Steel
Cost: $110 from Stoughton Steel.
Approximate Weight: About 30 pounds.
Average Cook Time: 3 minutes 10 seconds.
The pies the half-inch steel produced were no doubt superior—better spotting, a nicer char, bigger, poofier bubbles, and a cook time that even broke the 3-minute threshold in some instances. At least, in my assessment it was superior. Tasters were more mixed. The half-inch-steel pies edged out the quarter-inch, but not by a large margin.
The underbelly is also superior, with some really nice charring action going on, and a great contrast between the light and the dark, making for a more complex flavor profile.
The downside? The half-inch Baking Steel is heavy. Seriously so. I was afraid it was going to bend my oven rack and that the whole thing might come crashing down. I had trouble lifting it and sliding it into place, and ended up burning my thumb when I tried to move the steel while it was still hot.
Lodge Cast Iron Pizza Pan
Cost: $44 on Amazon.
Approximate Weight: About 10 pounds.
Average Cook Time: 4 minutes 20 seconds.
The pies produced on the Lodge Cast Iron Pizza Pan were inferior by my standards. By the time any amount of dark charring occurred on the edges, the entire edge crust was a uniform dark brown, with none of the leopard spotting you get in the steel-baked pies.
This is mostly a factor of oven spring. With less oven spring, you get fewer, smaller bubbles inside the crust. With fewer bubbles, inside, the surface of the crust is less stretched out, making it thicker. Thicker dough takes longer to cook, and cooks more evenly. Rather than plenty of small, thin-walled bubbles that char quickly, you get a more uniform dark brown expanse.
It’s not a terrible crust, by any means, but not ideal.
The underbelly shows more of a problem: pretty much no charring at all. The thinner gauge of the Lodge pan simply does not have the thermal mass required to pound that underbelly with energy the way necessary to produce a truly superior pizza crust.
Form factor was one major issue I found with all three products. While the Lodge was the easiest to maneuver with its built-in handles, it has a raised lip that makes it difficult to slide pizzas on and off with a peel. The rim-less Baking Steels, on the other hand, are great for maneuvering pies and offer more surface area for larger pies, but are very difficult to maneuver. Once you’ve stuck that steel in the oven and started it preheating, you’re pretty much married to that spot unless you want to risk burning yourself.
I can live with that.
For me, it’s pretty clear that either Baking Steel is superior to the Lodge Cast Iron pizza pan, though any of them will do you better than a traditional stone. Sure, they’re a little pricier than the cheapest stone, but bear in mind that you’ll never break them. I’ve spent more money replacing broken stones in my life than the cost of all of these guys combined.
As for the half-inch versus the quarter-inch? Again, it depends on your goals. If the best pizza—no compromises, damn-the-inconvenience—is your mission, then the half-inch steel is the way to go. Personally, I’m willing to take a small cut in quality (and I mean very small) in order to keep the increased mobility and easier storage of the quarter-inch version.
More on the Baking Steel
About the author: J. Kenji Lopez-Alt is the Chief Creative Officer of Serious Eats where he likes to explore the science of home cooking in his weekly column The Food Lab. You can follow him at @thefoodlab on Twitter, or at The Food Lab on Facebook.
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