With Christmas around the corner, we're gearing up for another season of socialising with family and friends. That means cocktail parties aplenty, and lots of opportunities to show off our hosting skills.
But if you're looking to enhance your festive repertoire this year, a pizza oven could become an important part of your menu! Think Boxing Day, New Year's Eve or any dinner parties you're hosting in the lead up to the festivities — because pizza is always a crowd-pleaser.
If you've even fleetingly considered investing in one of these versatile machines, you'll have heard of market-leaders, Ooni. With a seven-strong range of gas and wood-fired ovens, a wealth of accessories, plus a grocery and comprehensive recipe book, the brand has a formidable range of items for all your homemade Neapolitan pizza needs.
But at £700 for the flagship Karu 16 model — a hefty 28kg multi-fuel beast capable of hitting 500C in just 15 minutes — all this power doesn't come cheap. Is it worth the investment over an equivalently-priced barbecue? We gave it a try.
Primarily, the draw is that you can swerve dodgy takeaways forevermore and create delicious, authentic Neapolitan pizzas in one minute from your own garden. Plus, you can fire it up whenever you like, quickly and with very little clean-up — unlike your greasy barbecue.
You can use it with a dutch oven, griddle or cast iron pan, so you're not limited to pizzas; Ooni claims its outdoor oven can happily handle a variety of dishes.
Just the Karu 16 pizza oven, which comes with a glass door, a chimney, the stone, fuel hatch and, most handily, a thermometer to let you know when you're up to temperature. I've used a smaller Ooni before without one and found this addition game-changing. Putting it together took my willing helpers less than 30 minutes.
No accessories are included, which means you'll need to invest in some extras — at the very least, a pizza peel, cover and some fuel. There are bundles available with small savings, but there's no reason why you couldn't get them elsewhere, if you'd prefer.
I live with a couple of real barbecue aficionados, so tend to hand over the reins when it comes to cooking al fresco. As such, I was nervous that my culinary skills wouldn't be up to par. However, using the Karu 16 to cook a pizza is definitely less complex than tackling a brisket in your outdoor grill.
Firing up the machine is also as simple: just fill the wood fuel canister (from Ooni or wherever you normally get your firelighters) at the back (or you can buy a gas adapter if you'd prefer), light it, wait for it to get up to temperature — a speedy 10 minutes — and then you're ready to go.
To make the pizzas, gently knead out the ball of dough into a circle with your fingertips. Add a small scoop of pizza sauce, your chosen toppings (better to go lighter than heavy here) and it's time to transfer to your peel.
The first time we used the Ooni, we wrangled some sourdough bases from our favourite local pizzeria. The results were incredible and came out tasting exactly like a takeaway — blistered crust, the perfect temperature and bubbling mozzarella on top. I was gearing up to never pay for pizza again but, unfortunately, we may have said too much as the restaurant subsequently refused to sell us any more doughs. Ah well.
On its second outing, we used a regular supermarket pre-made dough which unsurprisingly wasn't as good — it was much harder to knead and the results were a little undercooked. Ooni does sell doughs but it's definitely time to tackle my own next.
Naturally, there's still a learning curve but each pizza cooks so quickly — we tested the claims and you can genuinely cook them through in one minute — you quickly get to grips with what works and what doesn't. Given that we've tended to make at least four each time, you can problem-solve multiple issues in one session, so you feel more and more confident each time.
For example, is the base burned on one side? Turn the next one a little more quickly. Having trouble transferring the pizza from paddle to oven? Make sure to flour it thoroughly prior so it doesn't get stuck. Slice still a little doughy? Knead the next one thinner before baking. Really, it's all part of the fun.
And, what of the pizzas themselves? Well, I've been really happy with the results. So far, we've made eight in two outings, each with different toppings (parma ham, garlic shiitake mushroom and mascarpone was a standout) and both times with different doughs. So, as well as ensuring a tasty dinner, it's also a fun creative exercise.
Well, everything, really. The results from the Ooni are quick, crispy, tasty and presumably healthier than a standard takeaway — and experimenting with cooking times, dough types and toppings is a lot of fun. Plus, really, even the less successful attempts have still been pretty good — it is pizza, after all.
However, the main draw for me is the social aspect. I wouldn't fire the Ooni up for an evening in on my own, but the two pizza nights I've hosted have seen guests thoroughly enjoy the opportunity to make homemade wood-fired pizzas from scratch. Much more so than a traditional dinner party, where the host is beholden to a pot that needs constant stirring, making pizzas is a really sociable process where everyone can get stuck in.
Really, I didn't have any issues with the Karu 16 itself. Any problems I ran into were as a result of my own errors, rather than the machine. It's also quite heavy, but you'd expect that from a £700 object with a large stone inside — I'd rather that than to pay a premium for something flimsy.
For example, the underdone non-sourdough pizzas were clearly the result of my needing to knead out the bases more thinly before baking. We also found that cooking these pizzas at the recommended 500 degrees left them a tad burned on one section of the base, despite regular turnings (we didn't get this problem when using sourdough). Dropping the heat by just five degrees solved this issue.
It's clear that there will likely be some trial and error when first using your Ooni; like with anything, practise makes perfect.
I'd add that, if you're cooking multiple pizzas, keep your regular oven on low to warm them while you're tackling the next. They only take a minute, but you'll have to wait for the Ooni to get back up to temperature before you can put in the next — and crack on with prep. Once we simply plated up as we went, but the pizzas had cooled considerably by the time we ate.
Lastly, unless you have a luxe outdoor setup with somewhere safe to house your pizza oven, I'd recommend investing in a pizza table. Currently, ours is just plonked on the garden table, which isn't ideal.
This hasn't been a problem during the colder months (other than looking naff) as we've eaten inside. When it's warm enough to dine al fresco, however, the Ooni will have to find an as yet non-existent alternate spot.
I'd thoroughly recommend the Ooni Karu 16. I've had an absolute blast using it to make some impressively tasty pizzas and can't wait to try some other recipes, too.
This flagship model is expensive, but there are cheaper, smaller models that are just as versatile. If you're willing to concede on size, you can access all this firepower (literally) for just £299 for its entry-level wood-fired 12-inch model.
The brand provides plenty of guidance and recipe suggestions, plus every accessory you could need. If you're looking to buy a quality outdoor oven that'll see you through for seasons to come, it's difficult not to recommend Ooni.