PITTSBURGH — If there was a small silver lining to this pandemic year, perhaps it's this: We got back in our kitchens.
With restaurants temporarily shuttered, most of us did (and are still doing) a lot more cooking. More than a few have used their time cooped at home to experiment with unfamiliar ingredients and/or try different cooking methods. (Remember those flour and yeast shortages caused by the sourdough bread frenzy?)
As a masked-up spring stretched into a socially distanced summer and fall, we also got back to our grills.
More than 14 million grills and smokers were sold between April 2020 and February 2021, according to The NPD Group. That was a 39 percent increase over the same period a year before, and boy, did we pony up: We spent nearly $5 billion on grills, smokers, camping stoves and accessories in 2020.
Tim Hillebrand, co-owner of Don's Appliances, is among local retailers that saw a rise in outdoor kitchens last year.
"The barbecue business in general was crazy," he said, with many manufacturers struggling to keep up with demand.
Specialty items like smokers and pizza ovens were particularly popular, and Hillebrand said they also sold a lot of outdoor refrigeration units and burners.
"People wanted true outdoor kitchens, where in the past they just bought a grill," he said.
He expects a repeat performance in 2021 and not just among carnivores. Eating Well magazine saw a 51 percent year-over-year increase in views for articles and recipes for grilling vegetables.
"Americans are coming back home, which is a good thing because it allows us to slow down," said Kimberly Stuteville, national sales director for grill manufacturer Napoleon, which saw a double-digit sales increase over last year.
A grill, she added, "brings you to your core, your center, whether it's with neighbors or your nuclear family."
Grills with infrared cooking technology are really big, she noted, and smoke continues to trend in all forms, including pellet grills. Accessories like pancha skillets, rotisserie baskets and charcoal trays — which allow you to cook with charcoal or wood chips on a gas grill — are also increasingly popular.
Doug Satterfield, owner of Rollier's Hardware in Mt. Lebanon, agreed 2021 is shaping up to be a hot year for grill sales, especially now through July 4. The most popular price range is $500-$800.
"People are still spending money to stay at home instead of vacationing," he said. "They want to spend more time in their backyards."
So far, Rollier's has been able to keep ahead of the pace.
"But some companies are running short, and inventory is not quick," he noted. So if you're in the market, you might want to buy sooner rather than later.
Rollier's had its best year ever for pizza ovens, and Satterfield thinks 2021 will offer more of the same. "People want something on their back deck that's more unique."
New this year is the Burch Barrel, a portable charcoal grill that also can be used as a firepit or smoker. It retails for around $1,000.
Mike Murphy, a former investment banker who owns Carson Street Deli on the South Side, was ahead of the curve on outdoor pizza. He got his bright yellow Forno Bello pizza oven several years ago and has become an expert at making thin Neapolitan pies on his Edgewood patio.
He was originally going to build a pizza oven from scratch, but there were zoning issues, and "I was too impatient to wait," he said. Backyard Brick Oven came to the rescue with a stainless-steel model that can reach 1,000 degrees and cook a pizza in 60 seconds. It cost around $2,600.
"It's stunningly well-insulated," Murphy said. "The arch is perfect."
Yet the name of the game when it comes to pizza, he said, isn't the oven. It's the dough. Some recipes can take up to four days to create.
"I think it's fun," Murphy said, "but I have an idea that some people who bought these beautiful ovens didn't realize there is work involved."
He always starts with quality Caputo 00 flour, which is higher in protein than all-purpose flour. That gives the dough stronger gluten strands, which makes it stretchier and more elastic and results in a crisper pizza.
"Do you see the bubbles? That means the yeast is happy," he said on a recent Monday, as he demonstrated how to stretch a batch of dough that has fermented for three days.
His bible is "The Elements of Pizza" by Ken Forkish (Ten Speed Press, $30). He also draws inspiration from the thin and crispy free-form pies served at Figs by Todd English in Boston.
Along with Neapolitan-style margherita pizzas, Murphy creates what he calls his "Fenway Red Sox" pie. It starts like all stellar pies with a homemade red sauce crafted with canned San Marzano tomatoes. Toppings include ground sweet Italian sausage, caramelized onions, roasted red pepper and a tangy lemon aioli.
"And I'm an after basil person," he quips, referring to the fresh herb garnish.
Murphy said he's always experimenting with different fermentation techniques, and every day he's learning.
"There's a lot of steps, and you have to keep track of your time," he said. But the rewards are plenty.
"You can't do a Costco crust at 800 degrees, or you'll end up with a cracker."
RAW TOMATO SAUCE FOR PIZZA
28-ounce can San Marzano tomatoes
1 garlic clove, minced
1 1/2 tablespoons extra-virgin olive oil
1/2 teaspoon sea salt
1/4 teaspoon dried oregano
1/4 teaspoon red pepper flakes
Throw all ingredients into a blender and pulse for about 20 seconds, until the sauce looks blended. Be careful not to emusify or puree; you'll squeeze too much water out of the tomato.
Store in a jar for up to 7 days in the fridge until you are ready to make your pizza.
Makes enough sauce for 2 pizzas.
— Mike Murphy, Edgeworth
NEAPOLITAN PIZZA DOUGH
This dough takes about a day and a half from start to finish, but is so worth it. Mike Murphy cooks his Neapolitan-style pizzas at around 810 degrees in his outdoor pizza oven, but you can bake the pies in an oven at 500-550 degrees. Be sure the pizza peel or pan is well-floured, or it will stick.
For a traditional Margherita pizza, top the dough with sauce, fresh mozzarella, a little grated Parmesan and fresh basil. Murphy tops his "Fenway Red Rox" pies with ground sweet Italian sausage, caramelized onion, roasted red peppers and lemon aioli.
1 1/2 cups warm (95 degrees) water
2 3/4 teaspoons fine sea salt
1/2 teaspoon instant dried yeast
Scant 4 cups flour, preferably 00, plus more for dusting
Olive oil, for coating pan
Place warm water in a large bowl. Stir in salt and yeast until dissolved.
Add flour, and then get your hands in there to incorporate the ingredients until no dry flour remains on the bottom of bowl. Let the dough sit on the counter for about 20 minutes, uncovered.
Lightly flour a work surface, then turn the dough out onto it. Knead the dough for 2-3 minutes, making sure all the dry stuff is integrated. Reach under the dough and squish it to make sure the yeast is well distributed. The dough should be smooth.,
Coat a large bowl lightly with olive oil. Put dough in bowl and cover lightly with plastic wrap. Let the dough sit in the bowl on the counter at room temperature for 4 hours.
After 4 hours, shape the dough into a round on a well-floured work surface, and divide it into 2 dough balls.
Start pulling the dough into thirds, and pull each part up and over the dough ball. When it feels stiff, flip the ball over onto its seams and place on an unfloured part of the work surface. Pull the dough firmly towards you, sealing the bottom of the dough ball.
Place balls on a floured tray, and dust the top with a little flour. Cover with plastic wrap and allow to sit for another 4 hours at room temperature.
Stick the tray in a fridge and allow it to proof for anywhere from 24 to 48 hours. When you're ready to make pizza, remove the dough from the fridge and allow it to come to room temperature for about 90 minutes before you shape it.
To make pizza, place each dough ball on a heavily floured surface and use your fingers to stretch it, then your hands to shape it into rounds or squares. Top with sauce and other ingredients, and bake.
— Mike Murphy, Edgeworth
1/2 cup mayonnaise
1 lemon, zested and juiced
1 tablespoon finely chopped chives
1 clove garlic, minced
1/4 teaspoon dry mustard
Salt and ground black pepper.
Add mayo, lemon juice, lemon zest, chives, garlic and mustard to a medium bowl, whisking to combine.
Season to taste with salt and pepper. Store aioli in fridge for up to 2 weeks.
— Mike Murphy, Edgeworth