The Ooni outdoor pizza oven has quickly become a staple of foodie culture—and the hottest gadget you didn’t know you were missing
Pre-COVID, it was only your nerdiest, most obsessive food friends who were homebrewing kombucha or pickling the farmers market’s knobbly seconds, tinkering at time-consuming hobbies that were just as easily purchased. But lockdown inverted the value-effort ratio and out of necessity, stress relief or creativity, the rest of us were soon growing our own scallions and tending to our sourdough starters. For the subset who used their time at home to perfect their pizza game, leveling up has probably meant one thing: the outdoor Ooni pizza oven.
Pizza. It’s pretty good whether it’s a $2.00 slice or some sauce and cheese you toasted on an English muffin. But pizza at its very best—in the Neapolitan style, with hand-stretched dough that’s baked in a blast of extremely high heat so that the cheese oozes, the pepperoni curls into cups with crispy edges and the crust is chewy, pillowy and char-speckled—can only be achieved in an actual pizza oven. The fact is, a regular kitchen oven simply cannot get hot enough (by hundreds of degrees) and an outdoor grill, while hotter and able to impart some char on the crust, only has direct heat from the bottom.
The Ooni is a portable outdoor oven that heats up to 950 degrees and cooks a pizza in one minute. Designed by Kristian Tapaninaho and Darina Garland and launched on Kickstarter in 2012, the first Ooni was fueled by wood pellets and could accommodate a 12-inch pizza. The husband-and-wife team have since grown their Edinburgh-based company to approximately 120 employees and offer six models in two sizes that run on wood, charcoal or gas (ranging in price from $349 to $799). Williams Sonoma was the first home retailer to offer the Ooni stateside in 2017, where it quickly became a popular gifting and gift registry item. The San Francisco company experienced a spike in sales once the pandemic hit, a spokesperson said, and has recently launched a co-branded collaboration line with Ooni of sauces, crust mixes and oils.
It was during the first year of COVID that Rajiv Chandrasekaran started leaning in to homemade pizza a little more seriously. He acquired a pizza stone and started experimenting with dough recipes, using a digital scale to weigh his ingredients, futzing with the ratio of hydration levels to the 00 flour and doing an overnight cold ferment. When 2021 dawned, he had a great pizza dough, but it was clear the pizza stone had served out its usefulness. Chandrasekaran would continue his journey with the Ooni Koda 16, which uses the same type of propane tank as a gas grill, though he was not alone in his upgrade: “I was stunned to discover a 3-month wait.”
The buzz around the Ooni has coalesced in a strong online presence. There are countless Instagram accounts that post daily #ooni pizza content and even (actually, especially) Boomers posting TikTok videos of every pizza they make in their Ooni. J. Kenji Lopez-Alt of Serious Eats tweeted his back-to-back bakes of Ooni and competitor Roccbox. YouTube contains unboxing reviews and operational deep dives, such as this side-by-side comparison of the Ooni wood-, wood pellet- and gas models. People also like to post what they make in their Ooni that is not pizza and it’s not just bread. We’re talking steaks, pork tenderloin, Korean barbecue and vegetable sides like the shishito peppers that Lopez-Alt blisters in a cast iron pan.
Which is to say you are not without resources when your Ooni arrives, nor is the learning curve as steep as you might imagine to be suddenly cooking at 950 degrees. “An early mistake I made is I started cooking pizzas with the flame fully up, that will wind up singeing your sides before the base is fully cooked,” Chandrasekaran said. “You want the [bottom] stone super hot, but then you turn down the flame a little bit so you’ve got the heat, but it’s not going to char as quickly.” The real key to success (aside from some extra Trader Joe’s pizza dough on hand the first few times, “just in case,”) are a few accessories found online or at a kitchen supply store: an infrared thermometer to check heat levels, some wooden pizzeria-style peels and a thin metal peel to rotate the pie 180 degrees about midway through baking and then slide it out of the oven.
Once mastered, “the pizza dough is like a canvas and you can just create on it,” said Chandrasekaran, whose sons spied a brilliant aubergine pyramid on a recent trip to Seattle’s Pike Place Market, which birthed an eggplant parmesan pizza. A family favorite came about when Chandrasekaran decided to deconstruct his wife’s favorite soup: a base coated with olive oil and onions that have caramelized for three hours, shredded aged gruyere and then a generous sprinkling of homemade breadcrumbs tossed in olive oil that crisp and fuse with the cheese in the oven and garnished with fresh thyme at the table. Et voila! French onion pizza—because food is the true love language.
Chandrasekaran’s Koda 16 had finally arrived in early spring, when Seattle’s damp chill had begun to recede and his boys were starting to see their friends in outdoor settings. No one was more excited than Chandrasekaran to take the cover off his new gadget (technically meant for smokers, but inexpensive and fit perfectly) and turn a gathering of neighborhood kids into a backyard pizza party. Imagine an assembly line of grade schoolers as their personalized little pie slides into the Ooni to bubble up and brown in 60 seconds, like watching a time-lapse video but it’s real.
The wait was worth it and as the weather warmed, so did his pizzaiolo skills. “It was right as we were starting to be able to have friends over, outside, in a COVID-safe way,” Chandrasekaran said. “It became what we did every week for dinner parties, the spring through the summer.” He developed a multi-course pizza tasting menu format for these nights, a grown-up pizza party, if you will. “I’ll do like, six pizzas in a row,” he said. “I’ll do maybe three pizzas and then a salad and then three more pizzas.”
For a group of six or eight, he’ll make one large pizza per course, enough for everyone to have a slice (it’s a marathon, not a sprint). He starts simple, a margarita with slowly-simmered San Marzano tomatoes and some fresh mozzarella. The next couple of pizzas are still light, vegetable-forward with a little more complexity, such as squash blossoms, ricotta and fresh tarragon or paper-thin zucchini coated in chili oil and mozzarella. After a palate-cleansing salad, the pizzas in the back half get a little heftier, like a salsiccia with sweet peppers and fennel sausage and then end with his version of the famous Bee Sting pizza at Roberta’s in Brooklyn’s Bushwick neighborhood, a pie he makes with San Marzano sauce, some grana padano and fresh mozzarella, soppressata and drizzled with a spicy honey that’s been spiked with calabrian chilis.
“It came at the right time,” Chandrasekaran said of the pizza oven. “I didn’t realize I would get as into it as I did.”
As for Thanksgiving? There’s no consensus yet on whether there’s a right way to cook one’s turkey in the oven, but certainly someone out there is experimenting with the leftovers.
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