Learn about cooking meats with wood-fired ovens.
Many people build earth ovens for the crisp bread crust and chewy crumb texture that only high-temperature, retained-heat ovens can provide. But wood-fired ovens go far beyond bread, Cooking meats with wood-fired ovens takes some practice, but soon you will be capable of roasting, broiling, steaming or braising.
After one oven-building workshop, some new owners wrote this note: “Roasted sweet potatoes, zucchini and onions in a cumin-orange-juice glaze with roast garlic pork loin (for the meat eater). Baked apples, then roasted eggplant, squash and leeks, made rosemary polenta, herb-roasted salmon and peach pie. This morning: cinnamon rolls.”
Bearing in mind the time, effort and firewood you put into your oven, you’ll want to get the most out of it. Awareness, attention and experience will be your best teachers.
With practice, you’ll get a reliable feel for the right temperatures. For example, I know the oven is ready for sourdough bread baking (400 degrees to 450 degrees Fahrenheit) when I can hold a closed fist in the oven for a full eight seconds, or when a handful of flour tossed on the oven’s floor takes 10 to 20 seconds to turn dark brown. Thermometers are OK too, but a very hot oven will destroy a typical oven thermometer that only goes up to 500 degrees.
Here are specific examples from our own mud-oven feasts, to give you a brief idea and, we hope, inspiration for what a well-fired oven can cook up. They are in roughly the order you’d bake them, though in an average-size oven (plus or minus 27 inches in diameter), you’re unlikely to get all this food from one bake. You might need to add a bit more fire, unless your oven is extra-thick and well-insulated:
• Three-minute pizza with oven-roasted vegetables (winter roots or a summer cacophony of tomatoes, peppers, eggplant and
zucchini) at 600 to 700 degrees. This is the highest heat of the oven, and will only last long enough for one or two pizzas,
unless you keep a small flame in the oven to insure heat for the top of the pizza.
• Sourdough bread (see Creating Homemade Sourdough Bread From a Starter Mix), croissants, raisin yeast-bread, sticky rolls.
• Roasted chicken stuffed with whole garlic, dried apples and Asian pears, roasted in ginger wine sauce.
• Cake, cookies, braised vegetables, simmered bouillabaisse, baked parsnips and potatoes with rosemary and garlic.
• Baked beans or soups, rice pudding (which can be left to cook overnight), steamed whole-grain sprouted rye bread, steamed Christmas pudding or fruitcake, oatmeal for tomorrow’s breakfast. If your oven is big enough, you could try cooking a flan on top of a covered tray of steaming bread to provide a Bain-marie (water-bath) effect.
• And finally, when the oven is too cool to cook, but still warm, you can incubate yogurt, dry herbs or fruit, or dry your next load of firewood, which will help to make your next oven-firing faster and more efficient.
If the oven floor seems too hot compared to the rest of the oven, place an overturned baking tray on the floor to trap a layer of insulating air and keep pan bottoms from burning. Remember, burnt offerings are part of the process. As you experiment, you’ll get used to the vagaries of your own oven and timing. Start with less demanding, wet dishes like soups, stews and braised vegetables, which all cook wonderfully in mud ovens. Keep a lid on the pot to keep moisture in.
Once you have a sense of how well your oven holds heat with what degree of firing, it’s easy to move on to roasts, pies and cakes.
Things that take a long time in your regular oven may cook faster in an Earth oven. At a restaurant where I built an oven, the chef tested it with a whole eggplant. When he went to turn it after a few minutes, he was surprised to find it completely cooked. (“Faster than a frickin’ microwave!” he said.) Bread that takes 35 minutes at 450 degrees also will cook at 350 degrees, or even 250 degrees, but will take more time to get done. (Bread is considered cooked when the internal temperature reaches 195 degrees to 200 degrees.)
Kiko Denzer is a sculptor and oven builder living in Oregon. His book, Build Your Own Earth Oven, provides details on building and using wood-fired Earth ovens, including selecting soils, firing techniques, insulation, chimneys, sculpture and fancy finish plasters, as well as oven photos and references. Build Your Own Earth Oven is available at our online store.
Read more about how to cook using a wood-fired oven: Baking and Roasting Meats in Wood-Fired Ovens.
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