Wood-Fired Ovens: Is a Barrel Oven for You?

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Cover Courtesy Hand Print Press
"Build Your Own Barrel Oven" is a guide to selecting an efficient wood-fired oven with instructions on how to build a Barrel Oven.

In Build Your Own Barrel Oven (Hand Print Press, 2012), Max and Eva Edleson offer a comprehensive guide for planning and building a practical, efficient and affordable wood-fired oven. The Barrel Oven offers surprising convenience: It’s hot and ready to bake in within 15-20 minutes, and maintaining it at a constant temperature is easy. In this excerpt from, “What Is A Barrel Oven” and “Is the Barrel Oven for You?,” you will learn the advantages and disadvantages of the barrel oven.

You can purchase this book from the MOTHER EARTH NEWS store: Build Your Own Barrel Oven.

What is a Barrel Oven?

A Barrel Oven is a versatile wood-fired oven that is relatively easy to build and easy to use. It can be the seed for a small-scale baking enterprise or the heart of a community’s wood-fired cuisine. All kinds of food can be baked in the Barrel Oven including bread, roasts, pizza, cookies cakes, pies, casseroles and stews.

The Barrel Oven offers surprising convenience because it is hot and ready to bake in within 15-20 minutes of lighting a fire. Another great feature is that it is easy to maintain at a desired temperature for long periods of time. This type of oven is often called a “mixed oven” because it has the capability to cook with direct as well as stored heat.

The Barrel Oven can be built almost entirely out of recycled, re-sourced and local materials It can also be made with brand new, manufactured and bought parts. At its center is a metal barrel, of which there are many in the waste-stream. One or more racks to bake on are constructed inside and a door is fashioned at one end. Wood-fired cooking enthusiasts appreciate the capacity that two deep shelves offer, allowing the ability to bake eight to ten 2 lb (1 kg) loaves of bread, four 12” (30 cm) pizzas or four cookie sheets at a time.

When cooking in the Barrel Oven, a fire is built in the firebox located beneath the barrel. The fire hits the bottom and wraps tightly around the barrel as it travels through the carefully constructed space between the metal barrel and the surrounding bricks. This extended contact between the fire and the metal concentrates the heat for cooking inside the barrel and is what allows the Barrel Oven to heat up so fast.

Building a Barrel Oven is a manageable project for experienced builders as well as people new to construction. It is very satisfying to begin with nothing and then create something which becomes a gathering place for good meals and good times. It is also ideal for those exploring natural building as it offers experiences building a foundation, making and laying your own bricks, and constructing a simple roof structure — all on a comfortable scale.

The Barrel Oven, as presented here, is a very simple pattern which can be modified and varied to improve the cooking experience. There is great potential also to adapt this pattern into hybrid wood-fired heating and cooking designs. The art of constructing a Barrel Oven includes many possible materials such as brick, stone, adobe, compressed earth blocks, and cob. We present variations in use of materials as well as design, and offer this book as a jumping-off point into further experimentation that will surely lead to improvements.

Oven Options

Wood-fired bake ovens have experienced a real resurgence in popularity in many parts of the world. For some, this comes from an interest in taste and tradition, and for others from exploring resilience in communities and an emphasis on using and preserving local resources. Cooking with wood imbues food with a special quality. In direct-fired ovens, part of this comes from the unique smoky taste and the occasional mixing of ash with the food. Even in wood-fired cooking methods where the fire and the cooking surface are separate, such as in Barrel Ovens, the time and care necessary to harvest and prepare the wood as well as the connected process of tending a fire through the cooking process is present in the tastes the food develops.

Choosing to build and use a Barrel Oven is one option among many for creating a productive baking tool. People interested in a Barrel Oven may or may not already have a gas or electric oven, so the wood-fired oven can either be complementary or provide new baking possibilities. Oftentimes the choice being made is between the Barrel Oven and the more traditionally known dome or vaulted wood-fired ovens.

The most well-known wood-fired ovens are direct-fired and have enough mass in their walls to store the heat from the fire, and then later radiate it back to the food, even after the fire and any coals have been removed. The shapes of these ovens are often either domed or vaulted. They can be sculpted with earth or constructed with earthen or fired brick. They can be large or small, and can vary greatly, accommodating budgets of almost nothing up to the cost of buying or building an entire house.

It can sometimes be a difficult decision to determine what kind of oven is most suitable for you, so we will do our best to share our own personal experience as well as experience gleaned from talking to others in the process of making this same decision. Thinking about wood-fired ovens along a spectrum of many options, the Barrel Oven falls somewhere in the middle.

If you are looking for a wood-fired oven that you use occasionally to bake in, especially when you have guests or want to make a special meal for your family, then a smaller brick or earthen oven is a good choice. These ovens are celebratory and add the spark and fun of fire to our lives. When cooking in these ovens, you make the fire directly inside the oven. Smaller ovens usually require a 2-3 hour fire to heat the mass up sufficiently for baking. You then remove the coals and clean the oven before baking in it. Dishes requiring different temperatures can then be cooked over a period of time as the stored heat decreases.

The Barrel Oven is great for people who are interested in baking more often and for those who are likely to want to use wood as a primary fuel source. The Barrel Oven is a highly functional and efficient wood-fired oven. Its much shorter pre-heating period (15-20 minutes) to arrive at baking temperature works well for people with busy schedules and those who may not be able to plan exactly when they will need to start baking. The large capacity offered by the two shelves, and the ease with which one can maintain a baking temperature over a long period, makes volume baking possible–although it certainly also shines when you want to cook a small meal spontaneously! Since ash and carbon are not introduced to the cooking chamber, it is always clean and you can use baking sheets and pans interchangeably with another kind of oven. The element of fire does tend to be more contained in the Barrel Oven and the wood-fired “smoky” taste is not present in the food cooked in it. In general, we consider the Barrel Oven a practical “work-horse” wood-fired oven that is efficient in its use of wood and easy to use.

Interestingly, as you go up in size, larger earthen and brick ovens can return to being the most efficient option. These ovens use wood most efficiently when they are used regularly and maintained at a constant temperature, especially when they are well insulated. This is the case for traditional village ovens and is also the case for dedicated commercial bakeries. In this situation, a good portion of the wood’s energy is not used to get up to temperature (and lost in cooling down) but rather used to maintain temperature over long periods of time.

Given the minimal investment and high productivity that the Barrel Oven provides, we are confident that this style of oven will become more popular as awareness about it grows.

Reprinted with permission from Build Your Own Barrel Oven: A Guide for Making a Versatile, Efficient, and Easy to Use Wood-Fired Oven by Max and Eva Edleson and published by Hand Print Press, 2012. Buy this book from our store: Build Your Own Barrel Oven.