We love making pizza, but it can be challenging to get good results at home. Restaurants often have special ovens that reach upwards of 800 degrees, cooking the dough and toppings quickly and producing pizzas with crisp, golden-brown crusts and chewy interiors. To approximate that high heat at home, we crank the oven to 500 degrees and preheat a baking stone for a full hour so it becomes saturated with heat that it will transfer to the dough. Meanwhile, heat reflects off the top of the oven and cooks the toppings. It works beautifully, but we’re always on the lookout for quicker, easier methods. We were intrigued by indoor pizza ovens, midsize countertop appliances that minimize the preheating time and can reach higher temperatures than conventional home ovens.
We purchased five models, priced from $34.52 to $169.99, including four electric ovens and one that works on a gas stovetop. We churned out dozens of pizzas, including a variety of homemade doughs and store-bought frozen pizzas, and evaluated the quality of the finished pies. For comparison, we held blind tastings of pizzas baked in the indoor pizza ovens, comparing them with each other and with identical pizzas prepared in a conventional oven according to recipe or package instructions. Throughout, we timed how long the pizza ovens took to preheat and cook, rated how easy it was to unload and remove pizzas, and assessed each product’s overall design.
Three of the electric models resembled waffle irons, with hinged lids and lightly textured nonstick plates or flat ceramic baking surfaces. One was relatively compact, like a fat frisbee; two were closer in size to a basketball. The fourth machine was a clear outlier. It didn’t have a lid or even any walls. Instead, it had an exposed nonstick plate that rotated on a spindle between two wedge-shaped heating elements.
The stovetop model consisted of a metal frame that held two ceramic baking stones about an inch apart, creating an insulating layer of air. According to the manufacturer, this helps the top stone, which holds the pizza, heat more evenly.
All the machines’ cooking surfaces were roughly 12 inches in diameter, so we stretched our homemade doughs—even the ones we cooked in the oven—to 12 inches rather than the 13 we call for in our recipes. (It didn’t make a noticeable difference in the thickness.) We used the manufacturers’ instructions for guidelines on baking time and temperature, but we used our own judgment, too. If a pizza looked too soft or pale, we let it cook a little longer.
Most models produced acceptable frozen pizzas, but more delicate homemade pies varied wildly. The crusts on many were “doughy” and “pale” according to tasters, both on the undersides and at the edges; others baked unevenly, with shreds of unmelted mozzarella alongside scorched sections. A few machines produced the crisp, chewy, golden-brown crust we wanted, as well as little spots of char, which are characteristic of pizzas baked at high temperatures. But even the best pizzas made in the pizza ovens weren’t perfect. Tasters noticed that the undersides of the crispy pizzas were fairly tough and dark and sometimes tasted burnt.
Crisp, well-browned pizza requires intense heat, and we suspected that some products in our lineup weren’t getting hot enough. To find out, we recorded the temperature of the cooking surface and the air inside each oven. For comparison, we measured the surface temperature of our winning baking stone after preheating it in a 500-degree oven for 1 hour (the method we use in a number of our pizza recipes); the baking stone reached 440 degrees.
The rotating machine was obviously flawed. It can’t be preheated without getting damaged, so we had to place raw pizza on its room-temperature cooking surface (just 74 degrees); by the end of cooking, the surface had reached only 264 degrees. Plus, this machine’s small wedge-shaped heating elements covered less than a quarter of the pizza at a time, and without any walls to contain the little heat it emitted, it was like baking a pizza with a hair dryer. When we held a thermometer probe underneath the upper heating element, the temperature maxed out at 398 degrees. No wonder the pizzas had been soft and flabby.
The other models got hotter, with cooking surfaces that registered between 300 and 525 degrees after preheating and maximum air temperatures between 357 and 593 degrees. The machines that got the hottest consistently produced better pizzas with the chewy-tender crust that we were after.
But even if the machines produced high heat, they weren’t always easy to use. Our favorite baking stone is a 16 by 14-inch rectangle, which means we have a little wiggle room when dropping a raw 12- or 13-inch pizza onto it. That extra room also comes in handy when we rotate the pizzas halfway through cooking. Maneuvering 12-inch raw pizzas on the machines’ 12-inch round baking surfaces required more finesse, and two models made this even harder. One had a ¾-inch raised lip on its nonstick plate that got in our way. The other had a 13 by 2¾-inch door that we had to remove to access the oven; we had to pinch at the dough with tongs to rotate it, and we couldn’t see into the back of the oven.
Another important factor was the clearance between the cooking surface and the roof of the machine. One machine—the most expensive in the lineup—had a poorly positioned upper heating coil, just 1¾ inches above the cooking surface. When the pizzas puffed up, they came in contact with the exposed heating element and burned. Smoke became trapped in the machine, so even sections that weren’t burnt tasted sooty and “acrid.” All the other machines had at least 2 inches of clearance, a small but important difference.
Ultimately, most of the pizza ovens missed the mark; our winner, the Forno Magnifico Electric Pizza Oven ($80.99), is only recommended with reservations. We liked its flat ceramic cooking surface, which got even hotter than our baking stone, reaching 525 degrees after just 10 minutes of preheating. However, this pizza oven wasn’t significantly easier or more convenient to use than a regular kitchen oven. Most damning: The pizzas themselves weren’t any better than the ones we usually make. In our side-by-side blind tastings, a majority of tasters preferred pizzas made in a regular oven to those made with these specialty appliances, including our winner. Instead of spending upwards of $80.00 on one of these bulky devices, we recommend sticking with your oven and investing in a good-quality baking stone. Not only does it make superlative pizza but it’s also versatile. We use our favorite, the Old Stone Oven Pizza Baking Stone ($59.95), to make bread, reheat leftover pizza, and even roast turkey.