Long before Benjamin Franklin flew his kite and discovered electricity, man relied on fire to cook his food. In historical terms, the use of both electric and gas ovens is fairly new. On the other hand, black ovens, also known as wood-burning pizza ovens, have been around for thousands of years.
While man may not have been preparing pizza in his black oven back in biblical times, he certainly knew how to use the enclosed brick or stone chamber to bake bread and cook other food. Today, there are very few pizza restaurants that rely on a wood pizza oven to prepare their pies. Most modern pizzerias use either electric or gas powered pizza ovens.
Black ovens produce a unique flavor that you do not get with more modern ovens. Wood is placed inside a solid brick, stone or masonry chamber shaped somewhat like a half-moon. The wood is set on fire and hits up the igloo shaped chamber to temperatures ranging from 500 to 800 degrees Fahrenheit. The very high temperatures allow the pizza to cook in only a few minutes.
The thicker the brick or other type of masonry is, the better the wood pizza oven is at retaining heat after the fire has been extinguished. Well-designed black ovens can hold their temperature at steady levels for several hours.
One of the reasons that more pizza parlors no longer use a wood pizza oven to prepare their pizzas is that it takes quite a bit of knowledge and skill to properly heat the oven so the pizza can cook evenly. Call it a lost tradition or call it a matter of convenience, but each year, the percentage of genuine Italian restaurants and pizza parlors that use black ovens declines.
When you use a traditional wood pizza oven, you need to monitor the fire so the oven reaches the proper temperature. If you add too much wood, the temperature will get too hot and the pizza can burn. An experienced pizza chef will watch for the black soot to start to turn white as an indication that the walls and ceiling of the oven are reaching the proper temperature. A small white spot first appears at the center of the roof and then it starts to spread. By adding wood to the outside edges, you can get the heat equal throughout the oven and not have any cold spots.
At the perfect temperature, a wood pizza oven will cook a delicious crispy pizza with a distinct smoky flavor that cannot be duplicated by modern ovens. If you have never had a pizza prepared in a black oven and you get the chance, it will be well worth your while to give it a try.