August 28, 2014 at 1:00 am

KettlePizza, tweaks make grill a dream oven

An attachment for a Weber grill called the KettlePizza makes for a very good approximation of a wood-fired pizza on a reasonable budget. (Wally Skalij / MCT)

Lives there a cook whose heart beats so cold that he has not entertained dreams of building a wood-fired pizza oven in his backyard? Not in my house.

Just imagine summer evenings with friends gathered around the fire, shoveling in custom pizza after custom pizza, each emerging within a few minutes, blistered and browned on the top and with that perfect leopard-speckled char underneath ó crispy, chewy and tender at the same time.

But when I broached the subject with my wife, who has already imposed a strict one-in/one-out moratorium on kitchen gadgets, she just laughed. How many toys would I need to get rid of to equal one pizza oven?

And when she found out that said pizza oven would cost as much as a small car, she positively howled. Cruel.

However, Iíve found an alternative. Granted, it doesnít have the architectural grandeur of the glorious oven I cooked in at a friendís house on the Palos Verdes Peninsula the other week. And Iíll admit the pizzas are not yet quite as foolproof.

But theyíre pretty close.

Itís a gadget called the KettlePizza, and it fits over the top of the ubiquitous Weber grill. And after a little tweaking and a lot of learning curve, I have to say that itís kind of terrific.

You can order the KettlePizza from kettlepizza.com in various formats. The most basic includes a pizza stone and sleeve that fits over the grill, with a hemispherical cutout that lets you slide the pizzas in and out. This costs $150. Other formats are basically embellishments and range up to $400.

The operation is simple in outline but a bit more complicated in execution. You build a fire in the grill and arrange the coals in a C-shape. Add a couple of good-sized chunks of hardwood, and when those catch fire, place the sleeve on top with the pizza stone on the grill. Cover and wait until the fire gets really hot.

And it will. Using just this bare-bones setup, I got temperatures on the stone of more than 600 degrees (uh, I did have to buy an infrared thermometer ó one of those guns that shoot a laser beam at a surface to measure the temperature; seriously, it was for science ó and my wife was out of town).

Thatís way hotter than any home oven, but the pizzas still werenít as good as Iíd hoped. So I took to the Internet, where there is an active cult of KettlePizza enthusiasts (there are more than 4,000 videos on YouTube). The high priest of this group is my old e-friend J. Kenji Lopez-Alt, and his series of posts on the Serious Eats blog (seriouseats.com) should be required reading.

Following Lopez-Altís advice, I tweaked my KettlePizza by putting a second grill on top of the sleeve and using that to support a cover. I used the Baking Steel Iíd ordered a couple of years ago for my kitchen oven, flanked by the 25-year-old quarry tiles Iíd used for baking pizzas before that. (Lopez-Alt, along with the designer of the Baking Steel and the designer of the KettlePizza have now teamed up for a deluxe package that will do all of this for you in a much more elegant build. ... Itís $400, with part of the proceeds going to charity.)

With this arrangement reduces the volume of air that needs to be heated by the fire and also provides an upper radiant heat source to better cook the top of the pizza. In fact, the biggest problem I had after this tweak was that the oven was too hot ó the pizzas cooked much more quickly than I was expecting (do not even think about getting a beer while the pizza is baking).It took a few tries to get the process refined. But I am now able to maintain an oven temperature of 650 to 750 degrees for almost an hour before refueling and turn out pizzas that bake consistently in less than 5 minutes.

At least until I win the lottery, my pizza dreams are satisfied.

Tips for making a wood-fired pizza

Here are some of the tips that I learned while perfecting my KettlePizza technique.

Use charcoal briquettes rather than lump charcoal, and use a lot of them. Briquettes donít burn as hot as the lump, but they burn longer.

Youíll need two to three chimneysí worth of charcoal to get the heat you want for the length of time youíll need it.

Arrange the briquettes in a C shape, and make sure that you stack them higher in the back (this improves the flow of hot air over the top of the pizza).

You have to be much more proactive about managing the fire than you do in normal grilling; once youíve got the temperature you want, shut down the top vents almost entirely and close the bottom vents halfway to maintain the burn.

Keep the pizza stone relatively close to the front of the grill. The farther back it is, the more uneven the heat.

Expect to rotate the pizza two or three times to get even browning.

Keep the toppings simple and relatively spare. Especially at first, loading down the pizza with ingredients will make it harder to get from peel to stone.

Work quickly when building the pizza. Even well-floured dough will start to stick to the peel if it is left alone, and thatís especially true once youíve started to add toppings.