How to Use a Pizza Screen: Experience-based Guide
A pizza screen is one of the most frequently used tools amongst professional pizza makers worldwide. These metal plates with holes take hot air circulation to the next level allowing moisture to escape better. Pizza screens are available in a large variety of sizes to let you fit them into your particular oven model. I’ve been using screens for several years already, and now I can tell you how to use a pizza screen properly.
Both options have their advantages and disadvantages, but most of the pizza chefs whom I know, prefer to use screens in their restaurants. Screens let them bake fast enough during the busy hours and provide their guests with universal pizza quality that combines perfect moisturizer and crispiness of the crust. Besides, screens ensure cleaner cooking with lower stickiness. If you are ready to learn and experiment, read my guide to the end and enjoy your evenly baked pizza later this day!
What is a Pizza Screen?
Pizza screens are usually round flat surfaces made of heat-retardant aluminum mesh. Such a construction provides perfect circulation of hot air, letting it flow from underneath the dough to the surface. As a result, the pie is baked more evenly than when you use metal plates or bare stone.
The most common type of screens is made of thin aluminum mesh with rhombus holes, but you can find plates with smaller round holes. They are not bad but keep the crust soft. I have one to bake the pizza with stuffed crust. I’d recommend you to choose classic screens as they provide a dryer crust and centers. If you want soggier centers, give preference to full plates and stone.
What Does a Pizza Screen Do?
The construction of pizza screens provides perfect circulation of hot air, letting it flow from underneath the dough to the surface. As a result, the pie is baked more evenly than when you use other cooking methods.
If you cook pizza using a screen, you should be ready that the crust of the pie will usually be much crispier, and the total baking time will be significantly shorter compared to other popular methods. This happens because aluminum screens have fewer metal surfaces that contact with the dough.
For example, metal plates hold a lot of heat within, making the entire process a bit slower. They also concentrate the heat underneath, which increases the probability of burns on the bottom and crust. On the contrary, aluminum screens let your pizza contact hot air in a more direct way.
How to Use a Pizza Screen and Season it Right
Let’s go step by step with this one. In this paragraph, I will tell you how I utilize screens and how I seasoned them to simplify the job. But let’s start from seasoning to understand its importance.
Seasoning of pizza screens means making them used. It was quite surprising for me, but old blackened screens are much more convenient and prevent sticking almost completely. So here’s a tip. If you have a pizza restaurant nearby, come and ask the chef to sell you a few used screens.
If you don’t have such an opportunity, it’s not a huge problem, but it’ll be a bit more difficult to get used to new shiny meshes. To season them right, you should wash them only with water and avoid scrubbing metal with hard brushes. I cleaned my first screens with a metal brush and a detergent. As a result, my pizza started to stick to tiny serrations, which made the entire process a cooking nightmare.
After that, I met Dave, a professional pizzaiolo with over 7 years of experience. He told me to avoid washing screens with any detergents and brushes. Instead, he taught me to burn them inside the oven to get rid of dough pieces and filling if they are stuck too hard. This method looks like a waste of wood, propane, or electricity, but it’s the perfect way to season your screens right.
Some of my friends also boil their screens in water to soften chunks of dough in the holes. Next, they remove softened pieces with a plastic scrub and dry the meshes with a kitchen towel.
Now, let’s learn how to use a pizza screen like a pro.
Step 1. First of all, you have to choose the right size. For my small electric home oven, I use 12-inch screens. The bigger propane oven in the backyard can handle up to 4 14-inch or 2 16-inch screens at the same time. Choose the size that fits inside your oven and is big enough to please your guests.
Step 2. Before baking, you have to knead enough dough and make neat dough balls of the needed weight. You can do it anytime you want, but don’t leave them in warm places if you aren’t going to bake within 30 minutes. I always put balls into a plastic container to keep it safe and fresh until the next-day party. Don’t forget to powder the bottom of the container with a small amount of flour and close it to prevent the dough from drying.
Step 3. You should also be careful with the hydration of flour. If your dough is too wet, add more flour than required by the receipt. Pizza dough must be squishy enough for shaping, but it also mustn’t stick to surfaces and leak through the holes of the screen. When the needed result is achieved, cut it into pieces of the needed weight and put them into a container, or start baking right away.
Step 4. The weight of your pizza balls must be accurate so that you can make circles of the right thickness. There are no strict rules for that, and you can choose the thickness that tastes best for you. I prefer to cook thin pizza, so I take 180 grams (6,3oz) for 10 and 12-inch pies, 220-250 grams (7,7-8,8oz) for 14-inch, 280 grams (9,8oz) for a 14-inch pizza with a big crust, 300-320 grams (10,6-11,3oz) for a thin 16-inch New-York style pizza with a crisp crust. You can take a bit more if you enjoy thicker pies, but be ready for slightly longer baking.
Step 5. When your guests are about to come, start heating up the oven. It must be preheated to 500 degrees Fahrenheit or at least 430 degrees if your oven isn’t powerful enough. Some pros heat it up to 550 degrees, but it becomes too difficult for me to handle baking at such a high temperature. Start preheating in about an hour before baking.
Step 6. When you start cooking, you have to prepare thin circles of dough and gently lay them on your screens. If you see warped edges, don’t be afraid to fix them, but don’t be too fast not to rip the fresh dough. You can use the peel to lay the dough on the surface or do it manually.
Step 7. You can also cover screens with a thin layer of olive oil. I like to do so as it adds some sogginess to the bottom and makes sticking impossible. You can skip this step if you don’t have olive oil or don’t want to add extra fats to the pie.
Step 8. The second method is more professional but requires some practice. You have to throw the dough on your palm without stretching it too much and flip it over with a quick gentle move. If too much flour remains on the surface, you can blow it away or brush it off with your palm.
Step 9. Congratulations! You’ve done the hardest part! Now you can add the filling and put the pizza inside the hot stove. Try to do it as fast as possible, not to let dough sweat and stick to metal. While the pie is inside, you have to look after it to avoid burns. I usually open the oven and rotate pizzas with a peel to make them bake more evenly. But don’t do that too often to keep the temperature high enough. If you cook in an open-sided propane or wood-fueled oven, you don’t have to mind about it.
Step 10. I noticed that most ovens are notably hotter in the far end, then near the door, especially if they have glass windows or don’t have doors at all. As a result, pizzas may get browner on one side, which doesn’t look very tasty. If you notice such an effect, hurry up to rotate your pizza with a peel or a long pizzaiolo fork.
Step 11. Average baking time on a screen depends on a temperature that you choose and on the quality of hot air convection within the oven. For example, my small electric indoor pizza oven needs from 13 to 15 to bake the dough and stuffing evenly. The propane stove does it 3-5 minutes faster, depending on the dough thickness and the number of ingredients.
Step 12. When the pizza is baked evenly, pull it out with a peel and relocate it to a warm wooden or stone plate to serve. Don’t leave the hot screen inside the oven. Pull it out too and leave on a stone or other fireproof surface. You can reuse it only when it’s cool enough for handling with bare hands. Unfortunately, there’s no way to make them cool faster. Water cooling is inappropriate because it may destroy the shape of the screen and make it impossible to reuse. Even if the shape remains the same, you can’t reuse wet screens as they stick to the dough.
Pizza Screen vs Stone: Which is Yours?
One of the biggest arguments for pizza screens is the crust. If you love the perfectly crisp crust as much as I do, you’d better learn how to use screens as the stone baking surface is usually indispensable for that. Nevertheless, the stone is an excellent heat source for baking the bottom evenly, while the hot air above cooks the filling.
The second point that I love about metal screens is that I can handle them easier than anything else. If I cook in the big restaurant oven, I usually use a long pizza peel to put raw pizza on the screen inside. When I use a smaller oven at home, I can easily put them inside with my hands. If you’re careful and quick enough, you won’t get burned. This method isn’t professional, but you can use it if you feel comfortable. But don’t even try to pull the pizza out without a peel when it’s done.
The smooth surface of the screen lets the pie slide off the peel easily without flour. If you want to bake on a stone without a screen, you have to flour the peel and train to learn the proper technique. Otherwise, you risk tearing up the dough while trying to put your pizza on the shovel and then making it slide down without warping. Using screens, you can forget about all those risks forever. If you’re an experienced pizzaiolo, you won’t have problems working with a floured peel. If you’re an amateur, screens are the best option.
Due to lightweight design, pizza screens are easy to use independently from their size. It means that you can easily bake pies beyond the size of the standard 14-inch peel. Unlike stone and cast-iron plates, screens are easy to carry wherever you want. You can take a bunch of them without noticing the weight.
Finally, the excellent thermal conductivity lets you save some money. Let me explain how it works. If you bake your pizza faster, you need less electricity, charcoal, wood, or propane. Each of these fuel types costs pretty expensive, so saving up a tiny bit during each party will reward you with some extra fuel and more tasty pizzas.
The huge disadvantage of screens is that it’s hard to bake focaccia on them. Unlike stones, screens don’t prevent the focaccia center from burning, so you have to be very attentive to make it even without overdrying thin dough. In my opinion, the stone isn’t the best solution either. That’s why I use oiled cast-iron plates with low sides for my focaccia. It’s the only way I can make it soft enough and avoid burns and bubbles.
As for the baking stone, it has some advantages too. First of all, it’s a traditional baking method for pizza invented by Italian masters. Next, it can be used as a hot plate for serving your pizza without cooling it, which is a very useful feature when you have an outdoor party or a picnic. Pizza screens can’t retain the heat for so long.
Baking stones are a lot easier to clean than screens, and they always look new after cleaning. Even if you burn the entire pizza on a stone plate, burnt crust and grease won’t stick to it too hard. You can clean it with a spatula without worrying about scratches. However, it’s not recommended to pour water on hot plates. If you do, the stone may сrack, and you won’t be able to fix it. You also must keep them from falling as ceramics are rather fragile and quite expensive to replace. At this point, screens are much more durable and affordable.
Now you know everything about pizza screens and how to use them properly and cook pizza with the best crispy crust possible. You should use aluminum screens if you like pizza with a dry, crispy crust and dry center. They’re also much more convenient for beginners, who don’t have enough experience to operate with a peel.
Pizza screens are perfect for baking multiple pizzas fast, which makes them a perfect solution for any party or picnic. You can also use them with any oven type, including indoor electric ovens and bigger outdoor ovens fueled with wood or propane. Screens are incredibly easy to clean, and proper maintenance lets you reuse them for millions of times.
The simplicity of screens is not a reason to ditch other baking methods, though. I recommend you to try all the popular ways of pizza baking to choose the one that tastes the best to you and your family members.