I love making pizza. And I've been reading this book "The Neapolitan Pizza", which is supposed to be, as they describe it in the subtitle, "a scientific guide about the artisanal process". I was fascinated by the amount of technical information available in there.

Though, I was in shock when I read the following, the authors were talking about wood fired ovens: "The concept of wood giving a particular aroma is false: there's no transfer of aromas from the wood to the pizza".

I remember getting some bread from a place called (now ironically) "Firehouse", great bakery. And I remember feeling this fantastic taste of a smoked delicacy in their loafs. Have I been fooled by my brain? I'd really expect that at least tiny particles of burnt wood and other chemicals from the smoke to somehow land on the baked good and give that a taste, why that doesn't happen? Or is the smoked flavour something different from the wood flavour?


The book is correct, for two reasons:

  1. Wood-fired pizza ovens are not smokey, instead having very good draft in order to allow maximum hot fire burning.
  2. A pizza is in a Neapolitan pizza oven for 60-100 seconds, which is not enough time for something to absorb smoke flavors, even if the oven were smokey.

The reason to use a wood-burning oven for your pizza is the intense heat of 450C or more, which is required for many Italian pizza types. That heat is harder to achieve in electric or gas ovens. If you get any flavor of wood at all, it would be only from any ash stuck to the oven floor.

However, where you noticed the smoke flavor was from bread, which cooks for up to an hour, in a much lower heat. Given that amount of time, a bit of smoke getting into the crust is a lot more possible.

  • 4
    +1 The other major reason is that the wood is burned down to nearly coals before the pizza goes in - most of the wood aroma comes out as the wood breaks down and releases oils, etc, which burn and evaporate. Heating up a pizza oven takes an hour or more, and once that whole fire-building and shuffling ritual is over what's left is a big pile of wood that is largely reduced to charcoal with very little wood aroma left. If fresh wood was added just before the pizza went in then it would pick up some of the wood/smoke aromas, but all of that is spent in a properly prepared pizza oven.
    – J...
    Aug 24 at 15:42
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    @J... depends on the model of oven. The Ooni Karu, for example, is heated by a continuous feed of new wood, rather than coals, mostly because it's not brick and as such has little heat retention. Even in that case, though, the pizza doesn't get "smoked".
    – FuzzyChef
    Aug 24 at 16:35
  • I'm talking about a real pizza oven, of course. I'm very sceptical that the Ooni would not impart wood aroma if it's fired by fresh wood.
    – J...
    Aug 24 at 16:53
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    "The wood flavors are there, but only I can taste them" isn't much of an argument.
    – FuzzyChef
    Aug 24 at 17:15
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    I'm not a pizza chef and I don't have a pizza oven but I grill a lot with indirect heat and vented away from the food. There's a lot, a whole lot, of aroma of charcoal in food I cook that way. Anyone with a working nose can taste it. The idea that fresh air coming in isn't mixing with the combustion products just doesn't pass the smell test. (See what I did there?) I can't even stand near the thing without getting the odor on me.
    – JimmyJames
    Aug 24 at 18:00

The smokey flavor comes from fat dripping onto the wood.

They Youtuber MatPat runs a channel named Food Theory, and in one of his videos, he discusses an experiment he performed that involved grilling burgers and hotdogs on both a charcoal and propane grill for taste-testers to take blind samples of, and while the taste-testers were able to correctly identify the type of grill used for both hot dogs and meat burger patties, they were reduced to change for guessing whether or not a vegetarian burger patty was grilled on the propane or charcoal grill. He elaborates that based on his research, it seems that the reason for this may have been because the smoky flavor that charcoal grills create is actually caused by the meat dripping onto the wood, and the particles of the burnt drippings becoming aersolized and returning to the meat.

As a result, you'd expect that other non-meat dishes like bread would also lack the smoky flavor; while a pizza might contain meat and cheese, it's unlikely that much of the fat from them would be able to drip onto the fire and burn away like it would for a bare piece of meat cooked directly on the grill. You might be able to get a degree of smoky flavor if you apply melted butter or vegetable oil to the bottom of the pizza's base, however.

  • 5
    But then smoking would not add flavour at all and be completely senseless. When I smoke burger they taste completely different and even look differently. And then no fat is dripping on anything burning. I also grill with a tray that catches fat so it doesnt drip on charcoal. I love matpat but I think this theory is flawed
    – bibleblade
    Aug 24 at 11:23
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    This post confuses smoking and grilling. For sure, grilled items get flavor from drippings falling on to hot coals. The Modernist Cuisine folks (among others) established that. However, I would not necessarily consider the flavor "smokiness". Further, @FuzzyChef has the correct explanation for Neapolitan pizza.
    – moscafj
    Aug 24 at 12:02
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    The problem with this explanation is that in a pizza oven, the pizzas are placed on the floor of the oven next to the burning wood, not on a grill above the burning wood. As a result, even a fatty pizza would not result in drips of fat onto the wood/coals. Aug 24 at 13:05
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    @MatthieuM. There are pizza recipes that involve placing the pizza onto the grill above the pizza. For instance, Adam Ragusea's recipe for cooking a pizza directly on an oven grate: youtube.com/watch?v=npbj6Z-JL8U
    – nick012000
    Aug 24 at 13:31
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    @nick012000: Sure... but that's not at all what the question is talking about, is it? The OP mentions wood fired ovens in the "artisanal process" of Neapolitan Pizza, unless otherwise specified I'd expect this to be the traditional pizza oven... Aug 24 at 13:41

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