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About 3 years ago, my husband took a continuing education class on how to build a clay wood-fired oven. He was immediately hooked – and so was I! Within about a month, he had designed and started building an oven in our backyard.
About 18 months later, we found the homestead of our dreams and I had to promise him that we would hire someone to help build an oven at the new house. It was the first project we completed and has been one of the most rewarding accomplishments of our homestead in the 15 months we have been here.
One of our favorite things to do with the oven is a long baking and cooking session that makes the most of the various cooking environments of which the oven is capable. It takes a bit of practice, but once you master the art of raising and lowering the temperature in your wood-fired oven you can plan a sequence of delicious recipes that will not only feed you that night, but leave you with the building blocks for a week-long menu of easy-to-prepare meals.
A bonus is that spending time at our outdoor oven with a glass of wine on a lovely late summer evening is one of the best ways I know of to remind us why we work so hard on our homestead in the first place.
Here's a glimpse into what you can do with an outdoor oven – a sample menu from a recent marathon session at the oven (during the height of tomato and zucchini season). We highly suggest planning your menu and prep all of the ingredients ahead of time so that you are ready to go when the oven is lit.
Inspiration for many of these recipes came from an amazing wood-fired oven cookbook by Andrea Mugnaini. Also, an infrared thermometer is a must-have for ensuring you've reached the correct temperature for each phase of the cooking session.
Sample Wood-Fired Oven Cooking Session
3:00 pm – light the fire in the outdoor oven using newspaper, followed by a good pile of kindling and a few large logs on the side of the kindling to hold it all together. Continue building the fire to raise the temperature of the oven to a high pizza oven environment (about 700-800 degrees). It should take about 30-60 minutes to reach this temperature depending on the size of your oven (the interior diameter of ours is 34 inches and take about 45 minutes). Once the oven has reached the right temperature, push the kindling and coals to the edges of the oven to form a nice arch of a flame and to heat up the sides and back of the oven.
3:40 pm – Roasted Tomato Sauce: cook two sheet pans of quartered tomatoes, onions, and garlic for about 10 minutes each (stirring half-way through) until slightly brown and crispy on top. Cool, pour into a blender, and add chopped basil. Voila! You have fire-roasted tomato sauce. Keep sauce on hand for recipes to come.
4:00 pm – Pizzas (2) – one for snacking today, one for dinner this week. Roll pizza dough and place on a pizza peel, top with some of that roasted tomato sauce that you just made, followed by cheese and toppings of your choice. Cook the pizzas for about 2-3 minutes depending on the temperature of your oven, rotating half-way through. We have found that a hearth temperature of about 750 degrees works best for us. Enjoy one of the pizzas and save the other for leftovers (if you can resist).
4:15 pm – move the coals back into the middle of the oven to re-heat the brick surface. Add one or two pieces of kindling if you are getting low on coals. You are now trying to bring the oven to a medium baking temperature (about 425 degrees). After checking to ensure the temperature of the oven has sufficiently decreased, move the coals to the outside of the oven again.
4:30 pm – Baguettes or bread rounds. Depending on the size of your bread, these should take about 15 min (baguette) to 25 minutes (medium – large bread round). Pay close attention and move the dough away from the coals and closer to the opening if it seems to be browning too quickly.
5:00 pm – move the coals back to the middle of the oven and add a few logs to build the fire up again. You’re aiming for a medium-high roasting temperature (about 425 degrees) but you’ll need it to last so make sure you have enough kindling in there.
5:1 5pm – Bruschetta. After the bread has cooled for a few minutes make your second snack. Slice one of the baguettes into disks, brush with olive oil and place into the oven for about 2 minutes. Scrape with a peeled garlic clove, then top with diced tomatoes, minced onions, basil and some sea salt and enjoy. Save the other baguette or bread for later in the week.
5:30 pm – Wood-Fired Salmon – preheat a baking sheet or oven-safe skillet for a few minutes, then drizzle on some oil and carefully place a filet of Alaskan salmon onto the hot skillet or sheet pan. Make sure your fire has small flames along the back and sides to give you a nice char on the top of the fillet. Slide into the 425 degree oven. Carefully flip after about 5 minutes, and finish skin-side up for 2 more minutes. Set aside for a meal later this week, but be sure to enjoy a few bites straight out of the oven seasoned with a light drizzle of olive oil – heavenly!
5:40 pm – move the coals to the middle of the oven again and replenish a little bit as needed to maintain the 425 degree roasting temperature.
5:45 pm - Lasagna – Assemble your lasagna using the roasted tomato sauce that you prepared in the oven earlier (or you can probably do this ahead of time while your bread is baking). At this time of year, we love a no-noodle zucchini lasagna recipe like this one with fresh mozzarella, ricotta, and basil from the garden. And it gets an extra thumbs up from your GF and vegetarian guests. Cover with parchment paper, and then a layer of foil.
6:00 pm – Move the coals to the edges again and place the lasagna in the center of the oven. For this you should have a well-banked fire (a couple of decent sized logs) with a small flame at the outset. Roast for about 45 minutes then, then add a few pieces of kindling to the coals to build up the flames, remove the foil and roast for about 5 more to crisp the top. Remove from the oven and place on a cooling rack.
6:40 pm – Remove the lasagna from the oven, bring the coals back to the middle of the oven. Add more logs to bring the oven back up to a higher temp (about 500-550 degrees).
7:00 pm – take a half-hour break to enjoy your lasagna! Save half for later in the week.
7:30 pm – Ratatouille – follow Mugnaini’s outstanding recipe for ratatouille, cooking the veggies in stages and then combining everything for a final roast. First, roast the olive oil, garlic, and thyme; remove that from the pan and add the eggplant (roast for 8-10 minutes), then add the zucchini/squash (roast for another 6-8 minutes); then put the garlic and thyme back in, add peppers, tomatoes, basil and salt and pepper and roast the whole thing for another 20 minutes.
8:15 pm – remove the ratatouille and allow the coals to cool for at least an hour or two. The oven should drop down to about 350 degrees (to be sure it is cool enough for the next step).
10:00 pm – before heading to bed, put a batch of Mugnaini’s Tuscan Cannellini Beans in the oven to gently cook overnight.
In addition to the wonderful appetizers and meal that we enjoyed while we were cooking, we now have pizza, lasagna, ratatouille, bread, salmon, and cannellini beans all cooked with that deep wood-fired flavor to enjoy for the rest of the week!
If you don’t have a wood-fired oven yet, I definitely recommend checking out a class or buying a book to decide if one is right for your homestead. In the meantime, I’m sure you can use these same principles with your indoor oven; a little less rustic, but just as practical.
Carrie Williams Howe is the Executive Director of an educational nonprofit by day, and parent and aspiring homesteader by night and on weekends. She lives in Williston, Vermont, with her husband, two young children, and a rambunctious border collie. Carrie has a PhD in educational leadership and is passionate about being an authentic, participatory leader in various settings. She is a contributing editor at Parent Co Magazine. Connect with Carrie on The Happy Hive Facebook page. Read all of Carrie’s MOTHER EARTH NEWS posts here.
Dual credit for this article goes to Carrie's husband, Eric Howe, whose passion for cooking and gardening has been contagious since the day they met.