The Baking Steel Story
The two things in life I know best are steel and pizza.
My dad’s a steel man. My brother’s a steel man. And I suppose somewhere deep inside I’m a steel man, too. My family owns the Stoughton Steel Company in the South Shore of Boston, where we’ve made industrial steel products for over 40 years.
But when I was young, I didn’t want much to do with the family business. I left to see the world, became a tennis instructor, and held every service job imaginable. Along the way I learned that I loved working in the kitchens of restaurants. There’s something about the energy, the hustle and of course, the food.
In my twenties I landed a cooking job with the celebrated chef Todd English, slinging pizza at his restaurant Figs in Boston. Todd was at the head of the artisan pizza trend: he sourced local ingredients and championed the now-trendy airy, thin crust pizza long before anyone said the phrase “farm to table.” My time at Figs offered an education that I couldn’t have bought.
I already liked pizza, but after working for Todd, I lived for it. There’s the quiet, meditative process of prepping: the feel of dough in your hands, the comforting repetition of chopping and stirring. There’s the sweet aroma of rising dough and the acidic zing of fresh tomato sauce. And the most fulfilling part of making pizza is the sense of connection and creativity that comes with the process. It is most fun as a family, friend, or party activity.
But although homemade pizza is fun to make, the pie never quite measures up to the airy, perfectly crispy crust you get straight out of a restaurant’s screaming-hot brick oven. For years I (and every serious home cook I knew) had used a baking stone in our ovens, thinking that they were the best way to approximate the charred, blistered crusts we love. Even with my training, though, I never thought I could make restaurant-quality pizza at home.
A few years after I transitioned from Todd’s kitchen to working on his management team, the hectic pace and unforgiving hours burned me out. My dad asked if I’d come back to the family business, and I said yes. I gave it my all—but part of me dreamed about starting a new business, one related to food.
One day I read an article about Nathan Myhrvold’s Modernist Cuisine. That hallowed encyclopedia of food science makes a key observation about the physics of baking. It essentially says, “Did you know the best conductor for making a perfect pizza crust is not a stone, but steel?” If I were anyone else, I might have nodded, thought about it for a second, and moved on with my life. But not everyone is a steel man with a passion for pizza. This felt like fate.
I sprinted into the plant to hunt for the thinnest piece of metal I could find to test the idea out. I found a rusty scrap that had been once been a Caterpillar part. It wasn’t pretty, but it looked like just the right size for my experiment.