Two entrepreneurs design products worth their mettleBy James Rohlf • Photography by Kjeld Mahoney
Baking Steel: The Ultimate Kitchen Tool
Naples, Italy, is widely regarded as being home to the oldest and best pizza shops on the planet. On a recent visit to the city, I decided to find out for myself. Besides being made with the freshest of ingredients, what distinguishes this world-renowned style of pizza is the crust. An official document from the True Neapolitan Pizza Association outlines exactly how the pizza should be made, including having an oven surface temperature of 905 degrees Fahrenheit, to result in a cooking time not to exceed 90 seconds. Cohasset resident Andris Lagsdin is the creator of the Baking Steel, an ingenious product designed to achieve a Neapolitan-style rapid cooking time in a home oven.
The secret to cooking with steel lies in the metal’s high thermal conductivity and volumetric heat capacity, which, in plain terms, means that a massive piece of hot steel holds a huge amount of heat energy and is able to transfer it quickly to an object placed on its surface. With a product like the Baking Steel, seeing is believing.
The company offers popular two-hour pizza workshops at its state-of-the-art test kitchen, located in a remodeled barn behind Lagsdin’s home. I was excited to be invited to cook pizza with Lagsdin, and I brought with me “bufala” mozzarella straight from Italy, fresh basil from Israel and deep-red sauce made from home-grown tomatoes. I was hungry and determined to make the best homemade Margherita pizza ever.
Lagsdin, who once worked in the restaurant business under celebrity chef and restaurateur Todd English, exudes a passion for pizza. He says his “aha” moment occurred after reading the book “Modernist Cuisine” by Nathan Myhrvold, which exposes the science behind the art of cooking. Of course, it didn’t hurt that Lagsdin’s family happened to be in the steel business (the family operates Stoughton Steel, which specializes in the manufacturing of stabilizing pads for backhoes). After conducting some tests in his own kitchen using a piece of ¼-inch, high-quality steel, Lagsdin decided to put his idea into action. If he had any doubts about his product, they fizzled after Baking Steel’s highly successful product launch on Kickstarter—the company reached its startup- funding goal in just 24 hours.
The buzz surrounding Baking Steel began to grow as food bloggers and members of the media began to take notice. After being highly recommended by J. Kenji Lopez-Alt of Serious Eats, who also recognized that the steel could also double as the world’s finest griddle, support for Baking Steel took off.
All pizza begins with the dough, and Andris has perfected the foundation, mixed from scratch with bread flour, yeast, sea salt and filtered water. The ingredients are carefully weighed (measuring cups are not accurate enough) to ensure precise proportions. The dough is allowed to rise for 18-24 hours and then divided and refrigerated for two more days before it is ready for use. The advance planning required is well worth the effort, and the dough can be frozen.
Starting with a room-temperature round ball of dough (because, as Lagsdin says, “the pizza is going to be round”), he molded the crust into shape by skillfully draping it around his knuckles and letting gravity do most of the work of stretching it into a 14-inch circle. The pizza was topped with my sauce, pinches of the mozzarella, fresh basil, and lightly drizzled with extra-virgin olive oil—beautifully simple.
The pizza was cooked to perfection in four minutes. The first two minutes the dough cooked on the steel under a broiler (optional), while Andris carefully monitored the progress until he liked the color. The broiler was then shut off and the pizza continued to cook for an additional two minutes. The result was a classic chewy crust, with the dough bubbling in two layers making leopard spots on the bottom and a pillowy soft center.
Baking Steel’s culinary director, Chef Craig Hastings, was on hand to demonstrate his skills with the griddle. A large porterhouse steak was prepared sous vide for 45 minutes and then placed on the steel, which spanned two burners. After a couple of minutes on each side, the steak was charred to perfection. Crispy on the outside and delightfully rare yet fully cooked on the inside. It was, I can honestly say, the best steak I have ever tasted.
The standard pizza steel has a 16 x 14-inch rectangular shape, is ¼-inch thick and weighs 15 pounds. A ½-inch thick version called “The Big!” weighs in at a hefty 30 pounds. Round steels are available in 14-, 15- and 16-inch diameters. There’s a 25-pound reversible griddle with a flat bottom that doubles as a pizza steel.
Neapolitan style pizza has forever been the standard of excellence. Put physics on your side and get as close as you can to pizza perfection in your home oven with fresh ingredients and Baking Steel.
Chubby Coal Stoves: Carrying on the Legacy of Anthracite
Phoebe Snow was a fictional character created in the early 1900s to promote the Lackawanna Railroad, which connected New York City to points west. Ever dressed to the teeth in signature white, the young socialite rode the new anthracite-burning trains without worry of getting the least bit dusty from soot. Anthracite had risen out of the Industrial Revolution to become the clean-burning fuel of choice. At the beginning of the 20th century, a New England home heated with anthracite was a sure sign of prosperity. This form of coal was once considered largely unburnable due to its slate-like hardness, but came into its glory with the evolution of efficient-burning coal stoves. Local brand-name stoves such as Glenwood and Crawford became part of the elite, sophisticated and ornate “modern” hard-coal designs. Ultimately, however, cheap energy in the form of oil changed everything. Within a few decades coal was passé. But oil did not remain cheap forever, and in 1973 there was an oil embargo. Enter the South Shore’s Larry Trainer.
Trainer formed his stove business in 1979 in response to the seemingly continuous rise of the price of home heating oil. His flagship product was the Chubby Coal Stove and his working premise was to give the average homeowner a “made in America” option for low-cost heating. Anthracite was an obvious fuel choice. Unlike bituminous (a dirty and more common soft-coal cousin, which is used to fuel power plants), anthracite is high-carbon and low-sulfur, resulting in a clean burn as evidenced by its smokeless blue flames. Most of the world’s supply of anthracite comes from nearby northeastern Pennsylvania and is readily available in 40-pound bags at local hardware stores and garden centers. Anthracite has an indefinite shelf life and is impervious to weather, unlike other solid fuels. The idea caught on and after being featured on “World News Tonight,” Chubby stove sales took off. Tens of thousands of them were manufactured and the business flourished.
The return of cheap oil in the 1980s drove production of the Chubby stove to a halt. Trainer, however, sustained his business by making good on his promise to support his product, providing replacement parts for the occasional abused stove and restoring abandoned stoves to their original splendor. Along the way, Trainer refined a few things like the shaker grate for ash removal and a new “fire view” loading door. Two years ago he made the decision to once again pursue his passion with the manufacture of new Chubby stoves. He set out to perfect the manufacturing process and continue the legacy by giving future generations a clean, low-cost alternative to heating their homes with foreign oil.
A Chubby Coal Stove is compact enough to be installed in a standard fireplace, and it will burn 12 or more hours without attention, easily heating an average-size home. According to Trainer, its performance surpasses that of a wood or pellet stove in every imaginable way and those who have tried anthracite very rarely, if ever, return to burning wood. Add to that the stove’s historic character and, as Trainer says, “Enjoy what it was like for your great-grandparents to experience the comfort of a warm coal stove.”
It’s been 100 years since Phoebe Snow last rode the anthracite train, but thanks to Trainer and his Chubby Coal Stove, the legacy of the hard, black rock lives on in New England.