Ode to the Peel
Ask any cook what their favorite kitchen tool is and you will get a myriad of responses. A particular carbon knife, sauté pan, mixer, spoon, beloved tongs, even the exhaust fan. The list is endless. One of the key tools in the Café Miranda arsenal is the peel. Like any great tool, its quality and design are paramount.
The peel (commonly referred to as the paddle) is a device that, to most folks, is simply for moving pizza and bread in and out of an oven. While it is suited for this function perfectly, it is so much more. At my restaurant, Café Miranda in Rockland, Maine, our wood-fired oven has been the heart of our restaurant since we opened in 1993.
We even take our show on the road with our mobile wood-fired oven. The peel is the tool that becomes an extension of the cook as we choreograph the dishes that are moving in and out of the oven in a constant dance. Over the course of two decades I have learned what elements of a peel function best with our ovens.
I customize each peel in my workshop. As pizzas are but a teeny part of what we cook in the oven, the peel also has to deal with paella pans, individual casseroles, foccacia bread and the occasional round log rolling over the food.
I looked at and tried numerous manufactured peels. I felt like Goldilocks: this peel is too big, this one too heavy and so on. Since I am self-taught at everything and have a gear head unencumbered by “the box” I decided to go at it myself. The peel I wanted needed to be light, maneuverable, and small enough to get between things, but strong enough to lift the product. A sports car of peels, if you will.
I eventually found a small, commercially-available 7 by 7 inch* aluminum peel with a 10-inch hollow aluminum handle that I could adapt for my own needs. Ah, the hot-rodding of the peel! First, I grind the front and side edges on a belt sander to a knife-edge. This prevents “punting” the dish that you are trying to retrieve into the fire. Next, I affix a wooden dowel handle into the hollow part of the peel to make it 4 feet long. Our oven is 48 inches deep, so there we are. Also, in this modification I adjust the balance by weighting the hollow handle, and sometimes affixing a simple weight to the opposite end. By varying these weights I make different muscles work day-to-day to prevent repetitive motion problems. Cool eh? Ah, the catch. These custom peels do have a somewhat short life. I estimate I have made upwards of 50 of these. The aluminum suffers stress breaks and gets retired. However the wood dowels last years and are reused with some thanks and a nod to their service.
So there it is, the peel wins as my favorite tool, as it has developed into a crucial, custom item at Cafe Miranda that makes us what we are. Mangia!
* Metric conversions: 7 inches = 18 cm, 10 inches = 25 cm, 4 feet = 48 inches = 122 cm
First published April 2016