I’ve eaten 10 pizzas in three days, and I regret nothing.
If you’re like me, and you probably are, you really like pizza. A lot. Ninety-three percent of Americans eat pizza at least once a month. Many of us are eating pizza almost once a week, making pizza a $46 billion dollar industry in the U.S. alone.
So maybe it’s unsurprising that the kitchenware industry is adapting–and that the appliance maker Breville has spent four years developing a countertop oven that’s built to do just one thing: cook pizza.
I tested the $800 machine in my own kitchen, and let me be clear: It is in no way a normal thing to buy or own. But it’s an almost perfectly articulated product that is superb at what it does. Which is, again, perhaps the most important thing: cook pizza.
What kind of pizza? Pan pizza. NY thin-crust pizza. Cracker-crust bistro pizza. But most of all? The wood-fired, Neapolitan-style pizza that’s been on trend lately, elevating places like Brooklyn’s Lucali to modern-day-myth status.
“We saw this as one of the most glaringly obvious areas to develop. A pizza you get at a wood-fired pizza restaurant is so much better than what we were able to make at home ourselves,” says Scott Brady, head of product at Breville. “This is exactly what we try to do as a company, to look for foods you can enjoy in a restaurant environment that you can’t replicate cheaply at home.”
The key to Neapolitan-style pizza isn’t so much its dough or ingredients as the method of its cooking. It requires a 750 degree stone oven, heated on one side by burning logs of wood. The pizzaiolo–the dude or dudette who bakes the pizza–must spin the pizza 45 degrees every 30 or so seconds, to ensure that the lopsided heat doesn’t char one side and neglect the other. These ovens are unlike any others, not just for their sheer temperature output, but that the heating is mostly from the side and underneath.
But the result is a pizza that cooks in as little as 90 seconds, and poofs up tall on the edges–often with a burned “moustache” that adds crunch and smoke. It’s chewy and airy on the outer rim, but the middle is purposefully al dente, with fresh ingredients that are kissed by heat rather than roasted to death.
Breville’s Australian development team talked to pizza chefs and studied the ovens, wondering how they could duplicate it–both the performance, and some of that satisfying experience of making a Neapolitan pizza, too. A team of 10 worked on the problem and developed what you see here.
The first design challenge was temperature. How could they get 750 degrees out of an appliance that pulled only 1800W? It takes energy to make that much heat. The size of the cavity was key, too–the less space the oven needed to heat, the better, so Breville created the narrowest slot feasible. The company warns users that the oven takes about 15 minutes to cool down; a toaster oven, it is not.
The design team also had to think about the direction of that heat–getting that lopsided radiant effect that was key to getting the right crust flavors and textures. What they developed was a three-element heating system. One element is under the pizza stone, which chars the crust like a griddle. And two elements are up top, shaped like a concentric circle.
When you want to cook in Neopolitan mode, only the outer ring fires up. Meanwhile, an integrated heat shield–which is perhaps the product’s greatest technical breakthrough–reflects ambient heat away from the center of the pizza, toward that crust. It recreates that idea of spinning the crust toward the hottest part of the oven, but without any spinning required.
The technical aspects were just one part of the challenge, though. It also had to feel like a product that would satisfy that home cook’s Neopolitan fantasy.
“We went through a whole series of questions–does the pizza oven have a door, or does it not,” says Catherine Ruspino, who leads ovens at Breville. “Wood-fired pizza ovens in pizzerias don’t have doors! But we ended up putting a door on mainly because it was a winner from an aesthetic standpoint, and safety standpoint, and ultimately we found we got a better result with the door.”
The mechanics of that door became key to the experience, too. Since the oven puts out a lot of heat–heat that you feel emanating mostly from that front door, since the sides and back stay relatively cool–the designers wanted to make sure a novice pizza maker could slide the raw crust in without fear or, honestly, much talent.
In a simple little moment of smart product design, when you open the door, the pizza stone comes out of the oven, just a bit, toward you. And when you close it, the cooking platform moves in and up, toward the top heating element. It’s just a few inches, but it’s welcome.
Before sliding in my first pizza–the gluten-free, egg-free dough (because I’m insufferable) was provided by the esteemed Chicago pizzeria Spacca Napoli (so there was no blaming me if the pizzas sucked)–I was a little terrified. But with a shimmy of the pizza paddle, it’s in. I tap the timer, which has already set itself to two minutes when I selected “wood fire” pizza preset, and wait.
Watching the crust bubble up through the machine’s glass is incredibly satisfying, like cooking in a time-lapse. I repeat this process almost a dozen times over three days, trying margarita pizzas, fungi and garlic, and pretty much any combination I can frantically think up.
I never burn myself. The pizzas are always great–legit, restaurant-quality creations. A few are even extraordinary. Most of what I make isn’t very pretty, but I come to appreciate the ugliness of my creations as only a parent can. The bottom has that perfect amount of crisp and char. The centers are delectably wet. And most wonderfully of all, my clothes are left with the musk of oven.
Yes, specs of grease will readily catch fire in this machine, and they’ll slowly burn on the cooking surface like a candle with a long wick. It’s a strange sensation to behold in your own kitchen! And at 750 degrees, you’ll want to open some windows. The more fat on your pizza, the more you can expect smoke. Only once does my pizza rise too high (the dough is incredibly fermented at this point), and the top hits the heating elements. It’s messy but the pizza is no worse for the wear. But I’m more impressed with the pizzas I make than I thought possible. So I try other presets, too.
A pan pizza (the oven comes with a pan just for this) roasts for a full 18 minutes at a much lower temperature, and it has that crispened sponge texture of a Pizza Hut pie. A thin and crispy pizza is crispy on the default setting, but I suspect a better chef would need to roll the dough better to nail the “thin.” I don’t try the frozen or NY-style pizza settings, because both those pizza styles suck equally. (Chicago 4 life!)
With the presets proven, the only lingering curiosity I had was of what Breville designers, for lack of a better term, have dubbed “Hack Mode.”
“As we were doing our own cooking, talking to more pizza experts, we knew there’d be a segment of people, even who love cooking at home, who are very technical, that want to go beyond the presets and use the temperature capability to set their own for the cooking deck and top,” says Ruspino. “So there was a lot of discussion, how much control do we give people?”
That discussion actually grew into a polarizing debate on the design team. Half believed the unit should be super simple, with perfect presets. Half believed it should be fully controllable, since hardcore pizza cooks recognize that a few percentage points of humidity can make a dough perform differently.
“We got to something like prototype 11, a very resolved product, working incredibly well,” says Brady. “The lead designer and engineer who was on the product for a couple of years flew around the U.S. and visited some of the really renowned pizza chefs in different states.” And ultimately, after traveling around U.S. pizzerias with a prototype in-hand, the team decided that, given so many regional pizza styles, they had to offer people the option to tinker.
Enter “Hack Mode.” You activate it by pressing down on the timer knob, then twisting the preset knob. Yes, you need the manual to even know that you can do this. A light goes red, as if it’s warning you. Then you slap on a magnet atop the machine, which relabels the knobs as temperature controls for the deck and top.
Now let me be clear about something: I’m still unconvinced that Hack Mode needs to exist. Why not just put ONE MORE KNOB on the machine, and call it a day? (The short answer might be heat control, and how hard the team had to work to shield the door’s electronics from the extreme temperatures already, but I digress.) But it’s also sort of charming. It turns your polished steel pizza oven into a speakeasy maker project.
In Hack Mode, you have more control over your pizza. You also can roast brussels sprouts or cauliflower. I’m told these things come out very well. I’m sure they do. But I’m also warned not to stick a steak in there, because it’ll just catch fire.
Ultimately, that steak warning is a reminder of what Breville did here. It didn’t try to create a do-anything device, like your oven, stovetop, or Instant Pot. It created a device that’s a small Neapolitan oven, that costs one-eighth the price of a Turbochef, and will cook just about anything you can imagine so long as the bottom is a 12-inch circle of dough.
“We think the core promise is about pizza,” says Brady. “If people want to go on a journey, we welcome them to.”