Baking in an earth oven is a wonderful culinary experience. Also called cob, an Old English term for lump, earth ovens are built with layers of clay, straw and mud that dry into a smooth brick-like substance. This style of architecture has been used throughout the world, from the adobe homes of the American southwest to 500 year old cob homes in Devon, England. When properly cared for and kept out of bad weather, cob structures retain heat very well and can last for centuries. Unlike the convection oven in your kitchen that simply heats the air around your food, cob ovens use three forms of heat transfer: radiant heat from the walls, conduction heat from the floor, and hot air convected throughout the oven space. This creates a blisteringly hot steam that caramelizes the sugars on the outside of the loaf and forms a thick, chewy crust. After cooking your bread in a cob oven, the results from your kitchen oven will seem bland and dry.
Building Your Oven
There are numerous resources about how to cheaply construct a cob oven, often using predominately local supplies. When my husband and I moved onto our historic Appalachian homestead, we were very happy to discover that the previous inhabitants had built a gorgeous earth oven just off from the kitchen. These original builders relied on the book Build Your Own Earth Oven by Kiko Denzer and Hannah Field. This fabulous resource will answer every question you have from sourcing materials to deciding on a size, as well as give you a rich back history of this ancient cooking method. A Mother Earth News resource from Kiko Denzer is also available here here.
Using Your Oven
Whether you build your own oven or inherit it like we did, cob ovens are dead easy to use with some prior planning. Give yourself two to five hours for the entire process, depending on how much food you want to make and the required oven temperature. Begin the baking process by following the steps below.
First, soak the oven baking door in a bucket of water. A good soak for a couple hours ensures total saturation and will prevent it from catching fire. The water will also produce steam for the baking process to keep your bread moist.
Build a fire in the oven using small, dry pieces of wood. Kindling-like pieces are best because they have a lot of surface area. The goal is to burn small loads of wood fast and hot. Feel free to use scrap lumber, but make sure that it hasn't been treated with toxic chemicals you wouldn't want in your food. Plan on burning several loads of wood to get the oven to the desired baking temperature.
Learn to estimate the oven temperature by touching the outside. It should be hot but not unbearable for a few seconds of contact. One to three hours is typically long enough for the oven to fully heat up. When the black soot on the outside begins to burn off the oven has exceeded 600 deg F, which is typically hot enough for one bread bake. Hotter ovens will cook better pizzas, so let the oven go for another hour or so for exceptionally delicious crusts.
Next, “soak” your oven with heat. Immediately after firing, the oven floor will be at different temperatures which could cause uneven baking. Too even out the temperature close the oven opening with a metal cookie sheet or something similar and let the oven set for 15 to 30 minutes, though the time isn't too important. Don't use the baking door for this step.
Now, get a feel for the interior temperature. If you can hold your hand inside for eight seconds, it's ready for bread. If it's too hot for that you can cook a pizza or wait for the oven to lose some heat.
Load your loaves into the oven with a peel (a thin bladed paddle) or a narrow wooden board. Use cornmeal on the peel to help the bread slip off easily. It will go directly on the floor of the oven. Immediately block the oven opening with the baking door to trap in steam.
While baking, check your bread every few minutes to ensure it doesn't burn. Your method and baking time will change depending on how hot you have the oven- bread can be cooked “fast and hot” or “slow and cool”. Earth oven prowess comes from practice and intuition, so keep trying different things until you get a feel for it!
When the crust of your bread is brown and textured, pull it out of the oven with the peel. The oven will retain heat for several hours so you can plan out your baking to maximize heat by cooking multiple dishes over several hours, starting with pizza, then bread, followed by a casserole and finally cookies or brownies.
Tasting homemade bread or pizzas straight from a cob oven is a supremely satisfying experience. Put some time and effort in crafting an oven and perfecting your baking technique and you will be enjoying fresh baked bread from your backyard for years to come.
Lydia Noyes is serving as an Americorps volunteer with her husband in West Virginia at the Big Laurel Learning Center. There, they live with two nuns and help to run a sustainable homestead mountain ridge retreat and ecology center that resides on a 500-acre land trust. You can follow her homesteading adventures on her personal blog Living Echo Read all of her MOTHER EARTH NEWS posts here.
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