We were recently lucky enough to be visited by Andris Lagsdin, creator of the Sur La Table Baking Steel — a pizza- and bread-baking essential that’s developed a cult following. He hung out to chat about how the steel came to be, talk shop with a handful of our employees and, of course, make pizza. A LOT of pizzas.
So, first thing’s first, why pizza? Why choose this dish to be your life’s work?
When I worked with Chef Todd English at both Olives and Figs, and even after I left there, I’ve just always been drawn to pizza. I just think it’s such a community food. It’s a very social food to make, as well. And it’s super good!
And there are so many different types of pizza obviously. Red sauce, white sauce, no sauce, dessert pizza, beer-dough pizza, champagne dough — there are just so many variables.
Where did you get the idea for the Baking Steel?
I got the idea after having been in the food industry for a while, making pizzas on a daily basis. Then I took time off to work for a family-owned manufacturing business, working with steel, and I happened to read about the launch of Modernist Cuisine: The Art and Science of Cooking. The author of this, Nathan [Myhrvold], talks about how to make the perfect Neapolitan pizza at home, and that his approach would be to cook it on a piece of steel. And that day, when I read that, it just changed my life. When I used steel to cook a pizza for the first time, I was just blown away by the results of it.
What were some of the challenges you encountered while developing the steel? What did you have to adjust for?
Well the good news was, you know, I was working with equipment builders! I had all the equipment I needed to make it already. We had everything we needed already to produce this flat, simple piece of steel. The challenges were figuring out the size and sealing it somehow. Steel can actually rust, and water is its kryptonite. It can get wet, but it needs to be dried thoroughly afterwards. It needs to develop a patina. So I was nervous about these things. And I also wondered if the market was going to accept a product that’s literally 15 pounds — ten pounds heavier than probably anything else out there in cookware. That was the biggest challenge. But I knew it needed to be this weight. I knew that the weight is what made it work so well. So in the end, I kind of just went with my gut.
Kickstarter gave us a kick-start, and I’m still blown away by that response. But after that, it was really just getting the brand out. Letting people get familiar with this product, trying it and seeing how incredible it is. I know other people could technically make this piece, but no one’s going to have as big a passion about pizza and steel as I do!
How has the response been since you launched the steel?
I get emails every single day about how blown away people are when they use the steel. It’s mind-blowing. Our community speaks as our best salesperson. You know, we have a great community on Twitter and Instagram. People are so proud of the product they can produce with the steel. I mean, literally, the pizza that you can make at home now, in your own oven, is better than what you get at most restaurants.
We’ve even gotten requests from some restaurants to have the insides of their ovens reinforced with this steel. That’s amazing! It lets restaurants that have never been able to make pizza before now make and serve pizza.
What are your favorite things to put on your pizza?
My favorite pizza is probably a classic margherita pizza: a no-cooked tomato sauce with fresh mozzarella. But then, a mix of arugula, balsalmic, fontina and caramelized onions is incredible. It’s so light, with a nice contrast of sweetness and savory and the bitterness of arugula. It’s kind of a cool combo of flavors. Another of my favorites lately is a bacon-and-egg pizza. I love putting sous-vide eggs on pizza. I use the Sansaire to cook the eggs — it’s incredible.
You’re into sous-vide cooking with the Sansaire? What do you like to make?
Sous-vide cooking is such an amazing technique. It produces perfect results every time if you use the right formula. The problem with a sous-vide piece of meat is that once it’s done cooking, it’s still kind of pink and, you know, the texture looks pretty bad. So you need to sear it, and of course there are different ways of searing it, but we tell people to get their steel up to 500 degrees and sear the steak on either side for a minute and then you have a perfectly cooked steak on the inside, with a perfect sear on the outside.
Where are some of your favorite places to get pizza — when you’re not making it at home, of course?
My number one on my bucket list is Pizzeria Bianco in Arizona. Chris Bianco is like the godfather of all pizza makers. I also like Jim Lahey’s in New York City a lot — that’s excellent. Another bucket-list place is Roberta’s in New York.
What about a dough recipe? Did you have one you’d already been using, or did you need to adapt something to better suit the steel?
No, I had to adjust it. I started working with Kenji López [of Serious Eats] and his New York-style recipe in the beginning until we got it right. And now we include that recipe with all of the steels that we sell. And then I started exploring a no-knead version, because it started to become a real pain to wash out the food processor day after day after day! So now that’s my go to. It’s so simple and working with your hands makes you feel like you’re really part of it. And it’s fun to experiment with different flours, different water ratios, other substitutions.
So what’s next?
We’re having so much fun with social media now! Creating really good content for everybody has been really important lately. And of course, it’s important to me that we continue to give really good customer service as we grow. And we also have a test kitchen now, so we’re doing classes in there a few times a month, which has been great.
But the big thing, what I’m really excited about, is the launch of our second product, which is a steel griddle. It’ll be a longer version of the Baking Steel, with a trough all around to catch juices. I think it’s just going to be explosive for us. We’re looking to have that available in February or so.
Thanks, Andris! If you’re looking to up your pizza game at home, check out our favorite pizza recipes. And now the all-important question: what do you — yes, you! — put on your pizza?