Here we are with another installment about: Trackside Food: Eating well, on a budget.
You’ve probably heard me say in the previous food posts: I love a good trackside BBQ, but I rarely eat meat at home so a 3 day long marathon of grilled red meat does not leave me feeling my best. In my pursuit of good trackside food, I came upon another option: PIZZA! Not exactly our most motorsports heavy post, but you gotta eat, and eating out for an entire track weekend certainly isn’t budget friendly. I’m also someone who doesn’t often leave the track once I get there so another on-site option is always appreciated.
Today we’re going to dive into some of the trial and error of making our new #1 favorite track food: Pizza.
First-off: There are a NUMBER of very portable pizza oven options (like ovens from Ooni and the various knockoffs/copycats) but this is a budget blog, and while I would love a $400 pizza oven for camping I’ll continue on my stubborn journey of finding options with minimal investment. (But don’t be surprised if I eventually end up with one of the cheaper knockoff ovens to simplify my track setup a bit.)
So that leaves us with: Cooking Pizza WITHOUT an oven, without expensive specialty tools. Enter: Weed Torch, a camp stove, and a Cast Iron Pan.
A “Weed Torch” may not be what you initially think: Mine is from my favorite tool store: Harbor Freight – at the whopping price of $25. Named for its intended purpose of burning weeds, it can serve plenty of other purposes.
This whole operation has been a two-year learning experience. I enjoy cooking, and the experimentation through every part of this process has been both fun and delicious.
My family has been baking our own pizzas at home for years, but the lack of oven at the track made making my favorite treat tricky. At first, I began experimenting with baking in a cast iron pan on one hot burner, while the lid heats over the other burner. We would toss a dough in the pan, let it cook for a bit, then flip the dough, add sauce+cheese+toppings and cover with the hot lid to make an “oven”. This produced decent pizza. The dough was (mostly) cooked, but the cheese barely melted and it was pretty slow going. I wasn’t getting the 550 degrees of my oven at home, and was nowhere near the 950 degrees of modern commercial pizza ovens. While there were no complaints from happy, full friends… I knew we still had room to improve.
Next we tried the same cook, flip, build method but straight on a HOT charcoal grill. Again the pizzas were okayish, and now they had a nice smokiness… but the charcoal was finicky and it didn’t maintain the heat for long enough.
Without a super hot pizza oven, we needed a reliable heat source to cook the top of the pizza. I read somewhere that people in oven-less apartments occasionally use a small butane torch to cook a pizza… but I figured more torch is more better.
Our new favorite method: Toss the dough into a hot cast iron pan, heating on a camp stove. From here, wait just a minute or two until the dough starts to bubble as it cooks. Then build the pie in the hot pan with sauce+cheese+toppings as the bottom cooks. Once built, fire up the torch and “paint” top of the pizza for 30 seconds or so with until the top was cooked and cheese was cooked but not too burnt.
The Results? These pies are gooooood. They look great, taste great, and are fun to make.
We’ve tried the torch method at three events this year and it went great. At our last event we cooked over 25 pizzas to feed a small army. It was easy and fun. We’ve got a bit of room left to improve on controlling the torch and cooking vs burning, but the experimentation is half the fun!
Some cornmeal in the pan helps prevent sticking, and even helps minimize burning. I keep a jar nearby and dump+replenish between pies. Also bring plenty of flour for stretching/handling the dough.
A casserole sized reusable plastic container (With lid) is a good place to let dough get its final rise. The lid protects the dough balls from the elements and keeps the surface of the dough from drying out too much. I put 4 dough balls in a container, dust with flour and let sit for 3 or so hours before stretching and baking.
A 5 gallon bucket to keep near your food station as a place to dump dirty jars/utensils/plates/etc. This makes clean-up significantly easier: Dirty items go right in, then when you’re done, just carry the whole bucket to your nearest sink.
I tried a small searing attachment that clips on the top of a map or propane torch. It didn’t create enough heat to get the job done. After one use, the metal mesh began to burn and disintegrate… not ideal. SKIP the torch-top searing tip.
Remember to be careful!
By torching, you’re really just bringing more heat to a designed cooking space… but it’s a lot of extra heat, and there is VERY hot flame awful close to propane tanks. The flame is very controllable and stays within the desired space, but we’re using an adapter to get the stove’s tank down on the ground, not right next to the stove where it usually sits. Make sure to keep a fire extinguisher within reach.
Want to give it a try? First up: Ingredients-
Making your own dough and sauce is time consuming, and really only saves you a few bucks. I do it mostly because I enjoy putting it all together. However, fresh home-made ingredients (Especially Sauce) will ALWAYS taste better. Maybe that’s my New Jersey upbringing coming through, but I’ll stand by it.
Sauce: Friends make fun of me because I refuse to use Sauce in a Jar (or, gasp… a Can). Truth be told, I’d rather just not eat something with sauce if it’s coming from a $1 can. I experimented with a bunch of pizza sauce recipes and my current favorite is loosely based off a Serious Eats recipe. I’ll bring a 1-quart mason jar of sauce, which usually makes about 8 pies.
Bonus if you mix it up on a few pies by making and bringing some fresh basil pesto as sauce.
High quality Jars of sauce are very expensive (Sometimes near $8 each)… but a quart to make 10 pies costs me about $2 in ingredients. Any extra that I don’t bring fresh to the track goes to the freezer to use later.
Dough: I don’t know if it was just me growing up, or everyone felt this way: But creating anything with Yeast was considered Voodoo best left for the professional chefs & bakers. However, in 2020 (just like everyone else) I took a shot at baking bread and realized not just how good home-made breads could be, but how forgiving the process really is. I’m still experimenting with different dough recipes, currently a fan of this one (Also from serious eats). I halved the recipe, and each “batch” makes two pizzas.
I’ll typically toss together enough dough for 10 pizzas early the week of the track and let it slowly rise all week in the fridge.
If you absolutely don’t want to make your own, balls of fresh and/or frozen dough are readily available at many supermarkets, and some pizza shops will even sell dough balls. Trader Joe’s Pizza dough is what got me started with making my own pizza and I still occasionally use it in a pinch.
PLEASE don’t buy those precooked stale disc of already made doughs… Make or buy a fresh ball and work from there.
Cost of ingredients to make the dough vary quite a bit based on which flour i’m experimenting with at that moment. With one of the more expensive Pizza flours I’ve been using lately, the Pizzas come out to abut 75 cents each in ingredients. If you can find ready-made dough in the supermarket for under $2, you won’t be saving much money making it at home.
Cheese is where I have drawn the line on DIY: No, I don’t make my own. I usually get a mix of shredded pizza mix cheese and a ball of fresh mozzarella.
Toppings are completely open ended. Add nothing, or pile high with your favorites. When we were relying on radiant heat to cook the pizza, everything needed to be pre-cooked and it was all a bit mushy… But with the torch, the toppings get heated quickly.
Our last big “pizza party” we were making a little bit of everything, pizza with artichokes, diced steak, even Enchallada Sauce and Tajin seasoning. Someone showed up with leftover buffalo chicken wings so we tossed them on another pie. There aren’t really any “wrong” answers for what to put on a pie.
This is where such a meal really shines: I did the math across 10 pies and my ingredients totaled out just under $20 for 10 medium sized pizzas. That’s $2 per pie. Whatever you want to use for toppings will add to that. These Pizzas create a significant amount of food for a very low cost. I think we have solidified our Friday night track tradition.
Want to keep reading on track food? Don’t miss Guest Post: Bring your own food to the track -Avoid the shock of overpriced mediocre food.