As I suspect is true of more than a few of my readers, I not only love to eat pizza, I love to bake it at home. And an ongoing quest among home pizza bakers is to find the ultimate cooking surface, on which to bake your pizza, so as to come as close as possible to what you would get from a professional oven.
For some time now, I've been using unglazed quarry tiles. I liked them a lot, and in fact I've recommended them here before. But -- I'll spare you the details -- I recently had to use them to elevate my new water heater off my basement floor. So it was time for a new solution.
If I could have, I simply would've replaced those tiles; they worked very well. But the place where I'd bought them no longer sold them, and I could find no easy source for new ones. It appeared that I could order a box of 50 from a big-box store for about $50, which would essentially give me a lifetime supply, but I thought, there has to be a better way.
One of the latest materials to come into vogue for a home-oven baking surface is steel. It conducts and retains heat well, it doesn't absorb moisture, it won't crack, and is supposed to produce tremendous results.
It's easy enough to find these online. But the cost can run to well over $100, before shipping. You can find cheaper ones, but they're typically thin. I've seen one online that's only $30, but if I read the description correctly, it's one-tenth of an inch thick. You may as well use an aluminum cookie sheet.
At some point, and it may have prompted by something I read during my research, it occurred to me that it should be possible to get a steel plate custom-made, for a lot less than what those "baking" plates are going for.
After a little more research, I discovered SMC Metal. It's a locally owned and operated company at the corner of Mt. Read Boulevard and Buffalo Road. You can read about what they do here, but in short, they're metal fabricators.
I called and asked if they could cut me a half-inch-thick, 15 by 15 inch piece of steel. Yes, they could. How much? Thirty-five, plus tax.
I went over, watched them cut it, and 20 minutes later walked out with my steel. It came to $37.80.
During the cutting process, which involves a band-type blade, a water-based solution is washed over the steel, to keep it from overheating. So when I got it home, I washed it down thoroughly with soap and water, then put it in a hot oven for an hour. I figure, steel is not going to absorb chemicals, the way that clay or stone might, so after a good thorough washing I felt pretty confident that it was clean and free of harmful chemicals.
Then it was time to test it out. I went with a pissaladiere, which is kind of a southern French take on pizza. My version was not entirely authentic (for one thing, I didn't use anchovies), but the point is, the crust was fantastic. I heated the oven to the max (550), for an hour, with the steel on the middle rack, and in under eight minutes (it might've been less, I don't recall) the underside was crisp and charred. The crust had risen nicely, and this was a quick, throw-together dough, that I had made in just a few hours.
I haven't baked on it since then, but I have noticed how well the steel retains heat. The other night my wife baked something in the oven, with the steel in there (though she didn't bake it directly on the steel) and two hours later the steel was still too hot to touch. That tells me that this is perfect for baking multiple pizzas. In the past, I've had issues with successive pizza bottoms coming out more and more pale, as the tiles and oven cooled, but I don't see that happening with this. This thing stays HOT. Part of that, I assume, is from the half-inch thickness.
One thing I was a little concerned with was whether SMC would consider such a small job almost more trouble than it's worth. I assume most of their work is more on an industrial scale. But they assured me that no, they didn't mind it at all. They do plenty of small jobs. And when I explained what I wanted this for, one of the employees turned out to be a home baker, who was planning to make a pizza-stuffed bread for his Super Bowl party. He wasn't at all surprised by why I wanted this. So I think they'd be happy to have the business, if you want to order something similar.
My only other advice would be to measure your oven so you get the dimensions right. I tried to allow at least an inch around all sides of this plate, to allow the air in the oven to circulate well. And be aware that it is heavy. I imagine a smaller thickness would work fine, but again, I think a thicker plate will retain heat better, so I wanted to go big. And the way I look at it, I'll never need to replace this baby. I'm set.
SMC Metal, 95 Mt. Read Blvd. (at Buffalo Rd.)
Mon. - Fri. 7:30 - 4:30