How to Hack Your Grill Into a Superior Pizza Oven
How to Hack Your Grill Into a Superior Pizza Oven

How to Hack Your Grill Into a Superior Pizza Oven

Update: Andris Lagsdin, fan of Modernist Cuisine and steel expert has just launched a Kickstarter for Baking Steel, a low-cost slab of pre-cut steel for baking pizzas and breads in just the way I describe below! I’ve tested one of his prototype units and it performs like a champ – even with a single Baking Steel (no double-decker) I was able to produce fantastic, wood-fired-oven-like results on my grill!  I highly recommend this Kickstarter for anyone looking to make pizza or breads at home.

The guys from came to Seattle, so I shared with them one of the projects that’s been on my mind lately: making perfect pizzas at home.  In a previous post, I discussed my approach to making great pizza dough.  But, dough is only one half of the equation.  Without a good oven, the best dough in the world still won’t produce quality pizza.

Now, let me first say that there are people who devote their entire lives to pizza ovens – to building them, to studying them, and to understanding how they work.  I am not one of those people, and, although I still have a blank space in my yard that I one day hope to fill with an actual pizza oven, my goal here was to produce the best pizzas possible using my CharBroil infrared grill as a starting point.  But if you want to send me a pizza oven, I’ll test the shit out of it.

There are two keys to hacking a grill into an effective pizza oven: getting it really goddamned hot, and holding the heat.  Getting a grill hot is not so much of a challenge – add enough charcoal and let it burn for long enough, and you’ll have quite an inferno.  Add more airflow or additional oxygen, and your fire will burn hotter and faster.  But, retaining that high heat when you open the lid or add cold food… well, that requires mass.

Physics Interlude!

Mass, like a pizza stone, or the thick floor of a pizza oven, or in this case, 25-lb steel plates, act like a heat battery, storing up heat energy.  I was first turned on to the idea of using steel instead of ceramic brick by Modernist Cuisine, who recommend the technique not only for grills but for household ovens as well.  So, why are steel plates better than a pizza stone?  A few reasons:

  1. Steel is much denser than ceramic materials.  A typical pizza stone has a a density of 0.0625 lbs. per cubic inch.  The steel plates I’m using have a density of 0.329 lbs. per cubic inch – about 5 times as dense.  That means that for the same volume of material, I can store much more energy in steel than brick.
  2. Steel has a much lower specific heat than brick.  This means that it takes less energy to heat a steel block than a brick of equal mass.  So, the steel will heat up faster in the oven.
  3. Steel has a much higher thermal conductivity than brick.  Thermal conductivity measures how quickly heat moves through a material, or between materials via conduction. This means that the heat can move from the steel plate to the pizza crust faster than it could if I were using a ceramic material.

All of these factors are summed up in one convenient measure, known as thermal diffusivity.  And, it turns out that the thermal diffusivity of 304 steel (the grade I’m using) is about ten times greater than the thermal diffusivity of brick.  [I don’t have precise numbers for the ceramic composition of pizza stones specifically, but it will be similar in magnitude.  Some types of steel, like high-carbon steel, have more than 20 times the thermal diffusivity of brick.] 

Do ceramic pizza stones produce good-looking, great tasting pizzas?  Yes, absolutely.  But according to physics, they necessarily do so more slowly than steel.  One of my pizza criteria is a crunchy crust that will support its own weight when held from one end.  I’ve found great success in achieving this texture with a steel cooking surface.  The other advantage to steel, of course, is that it will last nearly forever.  I don’t have to worry about dropping and shattering it, I can use it as a griddle and scrape it clean, and if I need to build an impromptu blast shield, I’m all set.

To hack your grill into a worthy pizza oven, here’s what you’ll need:

To assemble your pizza oven:

  1. Place one of the stainless plates in a corner of your grill. 
  2. Place two of the stainless steel pipe segments on the two far corners of the plate.  Place the other two pipe segments on opposite edges of the plate, about 1/3 of the way back.  These pipe segments will hold up the top plate.  By pushing them back from the front corners, you allow yourself a little more room to negotiate the pizza with the peel.
  3. Place the top plate on top of the pipe segments.  It should sit firmly – you sure don’t want it crashing down on you during cooking.
  4. Install your BBQ grill fan or bellows on the opposite side of the grill, above the open grilling area not covered by the steel.
  5. If your grill has a charcoal tray or basin on the open side, fill it with charcoal.  If not, place the charcoal in a roasting pan or metal dish on that side of the grill.  Ignite the charcoal, turn on all of the burners and close the lid.  Allow the grill 45-60 minutes to preheat thoroughly. 
  6. A few minutes before cooking, start your grill fan or bellows.  This will boost the internal temperature of the grill and even out hot and cold spots.  A cooking temperature between 800°F and 900°F is ideal.
  7. Just before cooking, turn the burners below your steel plate down to 75% power.  This will help prevent the bottom crust from burning before the top crust is fully cooked.  However, I’ve found that the first pizza of the day is usually somewhat sacrificial 🙂
  8. Slide your pizza onto the bottom steel plate and cook, turning once, for 2-3 minutes or until the cheese is melted and the top crust is golden brown.  Keep the grill lid closed as much as possible during cooking to maintain the high temperature.
  9. Enjoy extraordinary pizza made at home!

I hope you enjoy the pleasure of homemade pizza as much as I have.  I’ve probably made 50 or so pizzas this summer, and there is nothing quite as satisfying than pulling a perfect pizza out of the grill and serving it to friends.  If you don’t (or can’t) have a grill, this technique works pretty well in a home oven, too.  Place one steel plate on the bottom floor of your oven to act as a heat battery.  Set the other on the top rack. Preheat your oven for an hour on its highest temperature setting.  You’ll need to add a minute or two to the baking time, but the results will be worth it!


  1. tim

    I think you’re confusing the properties of these materials. You state that steel both stores more heat and conducts it faster than ceramic. Those two things seem to be contradictory. I agree with you on the second part but disagree with you on the first one. Ceramic works well in this scenario exactly because it holds its heat better than steel. Density is not the only measure of heat storage. Ceramic is a better insulated than steel so when you drop your pizza on the ceramic dish, the temp of the ceramic does not drop as quickly as it does with steel, that then needs to be reheated by the air around it, which has low heat heat transfer properties.

    I think Modernist cuisine is using steel for indoor ovens because it quickly captures the heat coming off the broiler. It would take forever to do this with ceramic as the broiler cycles on and off. The downside of course is the steel quickly cools once the broiler stops but they must have found that this is a worthwhile trade-off.

    I’ve spent some time this summer making pizzas on a $39 stone placed atop a $30 ceramic mount in an old kamado-style grill that costs me an additional $50. This whole setup cost less than half of your “hacked” grill plus $300 in accessories. I’ve found that the pizzas come out best when the grill is hovering around 700-800 with the stone at 500 or so. This produces an incredibly crispy crust and cooks a 12-13″ pizza in about 5-7 minutes.

    1. Spork

      The thermal conductivity of steel is roughly 15 times that of cordierite and while the specific heat of steel is only half that of cordierite, steel is 3 times as dense, meaning that the heat capacity for a given volume of steel is about 1.5 times that of the same volume of cordierite.

      A pizza steel does indeed conduct heat faster and stores more heat than a cordierite pizza stone of the same volume.

  2. Excellent article Scott. I love thermal diffusivity! Another aspect that i absolutely love about steel is that it can withstand extreme temperature changes. I have been using carbon steel since i first read it in Modernist Cuisine and my pizza continues to get better.
    I may have to attempt this hacking of my grill, although my family may call in the fire department.

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  5. Your video brings back a fond memory – an acquaintance found some similar steel (part of a B-52 bomber seat, if memory serves) and used it for a cooking surface on his wood fired grill. The steel got hotter then blazes. Then he’d grill steaks on it. It’s been years since I had one of their steaks, and there are lots of variables in a steak… but fading memory suggests they were very good.

    As to adding gluten to the dough, why not just start with a high gluten flour? All-Trumps unbleached and unbromated, King Arthur’s high gluten, and Honeyville Farms high gluten flours are all around 14 – 15% protein and make a great dough.


  6. Thanks for taking the time to discuss this, I feel strongly about it and love learning more on this topic. If possible, as you gain expertise, would you mind updating your blog with more information? It is extremely helpful for me.

  7. Is there any compelling reason to use stainless? I can get 1/4″ x 14″ x 20″ “pickled and oiled” steel for about $25 per piece. I realize I would need to cook off the oil and that there is the chance of rust but the price advantage is considerable.

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