Fresh, out of the oven pizzas, without the oven. Just a charcoal grill with a lid, and all the fixings for a pizza. Possible? Edible? Practical?
The theme: Chicago. The event: a rowing club get-together. So, Chicago without pizza is like San Francisco without sourdough. Right? But how to make pizzas at a venue with no oven, nor even any cooking facilities whatsoever?
There's a lot of buzz on the web about pizzas on the grill. No doubt, they're expecting this to happen in summer, not when the temperature is hovering around freezing. Yet, nothing ventured nothing gained.
All the pizza stuff was standard: a sourdough-infused pizza dough with cornmeal, olive oil and honey added to the basic flour, salt and instant yeast. The sauce, basic tomato-basil vegetarian. Some roasted fennel, onions, mushrooms and roasted red pepper for toppings.
Doing pizzas outdoors in freezing weather is definitely sailing into uncharted territory. I had various equipment options for baking: a 12" steel comal, a 16" steel paella pan, or the bare grill. I opted out of using a pizza stone, since the last one cracked into five pieces when placed too close to incandescent coals.
Finding a workable technique
First try: the comal.
A comal is a round, thin steel pan typically used for tortillas (they also come in a ceramic version, but I don't have one). The idea was that the comal would heat quickly, crisping the bottom crust while the top baked in the hot air of the grill. I did indeed get a very crisp bottom crust. Black, but crisp. Too hot. Not enough heat on top, so insufficient bubble on the cheese.
Second try: paella pan.
The idea was to to diffuse the heat a bit with the paella pan, place the pizza on the comal on top of the paella pan. This created an air gap between the comal and the paella pan, hopefully something that would stop the burning. It did, up to a point. However, the paella pan blocked too much hot air, so the toppings didn't bubble as intended. By the time the toppings bubbled, the crust was scorched beneath. Worse, it took about 10 minutes to get the pie ready.
Third try: flipping.
Perhaps the dough could be heated first, crisped enough to flip, then finished on the previous setup. The shaped pizza slid without toppings on the grill to pre-bake the pie a bit, then add toppings and finish on the combined pans. This didn't work much better than the previous effort, and was still slow.
Fourth try: reconfigure, cook on grill.
This was my reluctant last resort. Reconfigure the grill to provide hot-as-possible indirect heat. I placed all the coals at one side of the grill, in front of a lower side vent, then blocked the opposite vent with aluminum foil. I skewed the lid for better air circulation (and more heat). The pizza went directly on the wire grill as far from the coals as possible. Success! The pie browned slowly enough that it could be turned to avoid scorching on the side facing the charcoal. Improved air air circulation melted the cheese and baked the toppings, and the crust came out crunchy and browned, with only a bit of scorch due to a delay in turning the pie. Total time was still a bit long at about eight minutes, but the dough was thoroughly cooked with bubbly cheese, hot sauce and cooked mushrooms.
Bling factor: great.
These pizzas are tossed for maximum showmanship and photo ops. The fire, smoke, pizza tossing, lined up toppings and sauce, board for cutting all combine for a fun outdoor show. Being next to a blazing grill even makes doing this outdoors bearable as long as there's no wind.
Weather: not so great.
The disadvantage is that the dough cools, extending cooking time. This dough has a great oven spring, so the pies weren't heavy, doughy manhole covers, but when cold dough meets high heat, things have to be managed carefully to avoid scorching.
Things to improve
The whole setup would work better if there were more radiant heat coming from the top of the grill. However, the thin metal just doesn't stay hot enough once there's a pie beneath blocking heat from the coals. I had hoped that convection currents would be enough, but it really lacks radiant, top-down heat like a real, stone pizza oven. The trouble here is that grills with heavy, heat-radiating lids are heavy and not very portable. A round grill is light enough to carry in one hand, so maybe this is where I need to invent something new that's perfect for the task.
This thing is slow. A bigger grill would yield bigger pies, and the air circulation would let them cook in the same time. Multiple grills would work too, but that's just more junk to carry around. Still, perhaps there is a way to get more intense, wood-burning pizza oven type temperatures. More charcoal would just scorch the crust... but maybe some kind of vertical wire cage and a half-size grill... maybe a metal heat reflector over the pie, attached to the lid?
Dough temperature needs to be higher, say 80° for the dough to be worked. This can probably be fixed with an ice chest outfitted with bottles of warm water. Dough at forty degrees is stiff and needs to be kneaded and tossed carefully to avoid tearing the center.