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Should I buy a mid-size steel or mid-size refractory pizza oven?

You’re looking for a mid-size oven that can easily make one 12″ pizza using a wood fire and two smaller pizzas at the same time, plus that can make multiple pizzas in a row, and is big enough to do a lot of other things—like roast a chicken with a small side dish, grill a fish, broil a steak in a Tuscan grill, make a paella, and have some fun baking with retained heat. You know you can’t do all of those things with a small portable pizza oven, or a countertop pizza oven. They’re just too small and limited.

That means your in the market for a mid-size pizza oven—either steel of refractory. What does mid-size mean in terms of size? In general, mid-size ovens range from a 24″ round or 24″ square, to a 24-32″ rectangle or 28″ round, on to a full 32″ square or round. And there are a lot of choices.

The first step in your decision process is determine whether you want a steel or refractory oven. Let’s see if we can help you navigate the process. In general, we think it’s fair to say that the steel oven is still growing rapidly for a good set of reasons. Steel ovens from Pizza Party, Fontana, Alfa and the others are easier to set up and easier to bring up to pizza making temperature than their refractory counterparts, plus they are available in wood, gas and wood/gas combo versions, giving you both flexibility for different types of cooking, and the convenience of gas. Plus, because they are lighter than refractory ovens, shipping costs less, both from the manufacturer to the US, (often in Italy, Portugal or China), and from the warehouse to you. In a way, mid-size steels ovens are becoming the new standard for high-end outdoor cooking because of the flexibility, encroaching on the high-end stainless steel grill market.

Mid-size refractory ovens are available from Forno Bravo (made in the US), Mugnaini (made in Italy), and there are three companies all selling the same Chinese designed and made oven (Forno Piombo, Ciao Bella Pizza Ovens and Fiero Casa). The Forno Bravo and the Chinese ovens cost around $3,000-$3,500 for 24-28″ ovens. Which is comparable to a high-end, similarly sized wood-fired ovens from Fontana Forni, though more expensive than ovens from Pizza Party (Italy) and the Chinese imports. The Mugnaini ovens are stupid expensive. Note that gas/wood hybrid ovens cost about $1,500-$2,000 more.

Mid-size steel ovens are easier to ship and set up, don’t require curing, and they heat up faster than refractory ovens of the same size. They’re basically a lot less hassle.

But still are a few drawbacks. Steel ovens simply don’t retain heat the way refractory ovens do, limiting the number of ways you can use them. Making lots of pizza in a wood-fired steel oven can be a chore, as you will find yourself constantly feeding the fire, in an effort to keep it hot while you make party-sized numbers of pizza. Any type of cooking that combines a hot oven with hot coals, such as roasting meats and making high temperature vegetable dishes, is much better with a refractory oven. And of course once the fire goes out, the metal ovens quickly cool down, eliminating the possibility of baking lots of bread, and using retained heat for lower temperature dishes, such as beans. There is a certain amount of charm and fun working with a refractory oven that you just won’t find in a steel oven.

One way of address the problem the steel oven rapidly cooling off is to purchase a gas/wood hybrid mid-size steel oven, and to use the gas burner to avoid the problem of having to constantly feed wood into your oven. Which is something that gets to the heart of the question. Are you looking for a convenient way of making pizzas, while occasionally trying something else, or are you looking for the entire wood-fired cooking experience. A remember, the midsize steel oven is significantly more expensive when it’s hybrid gas/wood fired.

To summarize. If you’re looking to primarily make pizza and you aren’t going to push your oven to its limits and try to cook everything, go for a steel oven. If you’re looking to do more in your steel oven, and the extra $1,500 falls within your budget, get the burner, and stop worrying about feeding the fire. And finally, if you are looking for a real refractory pizza oven experience, but on a mid-size scale, get a mid-size assembled oven—or pay someone to build a kit for you. You won’t be disappointed. You can cook everything in a 24-28″ assembled precast oven, and you will love the experience of using retained heat for an amazing range of cooking techniques.