Outdoor Oven Cooking

Go beyond bread and pizza. Learn strategies for firing your backyard oven and baking casseroles, vegetables, meats, and more.

| June/July 2017

This is Part II of a two-part series on building and using a wood-fired oven. Part I appeared in our April/May 2017 issue.

I hope it doesn’t sound too simple to say it: Cooking in wood-fired ovens is fun. No matter how difficult the day, I find cooking in the oven relaxes me and calms me to my core. Meals around the oven with friends are always unusually relaxed and happy evenings.

My 10-year-old daughter has been making pizzas since she was five and is now the family pizza and flatbread baker. I make the dough. She does the rest. She has recently expanded to a fuller repertoire, including sausage, chicken, ember-roasted vegetables, and baked apples. She also lights the oven. I mention my daughter because I want to emphasize that the oven can be a child-engaging activity. Is it dangerous? The oven is very hot. And when you cook in iron pots and pans, everyone has to be careful not to touch the pans when they’re out of the oven. But for carefully supervised children, and for friends, making dinner in a wood-fired oven is an exciting, participatory activity.

As with many crafts, the ideas behind oven cooking are simple, but confidence and control must come with practice. The only way to develop oven skills is to use your oven frequently during the months that weather permits a pleasant outdoor experience. I recommend weaving the oven into your life through a ritual. I suggest a dinner once a week on either Friday or Saturday evening — my preference is always Saturday. Make pizza and cook the other dishes while the fire is burning in the oven. This gives you a full firing so your oven dome will have enough heat stored in it to let you bake all day the next day and possibly even the day after. For your Saturday or Sunday baking day, bake bread but also beans, chili, lasagna, or shepherd’s pie — you can make enough meals for the entire week. To make the bread part easy, either double or triple the pizza dough and store it overnight in the refrigerator, or use stored dough you’ve made. I follow the methods outlined in Artisan Bread in Five Minutes a Day.

What I want to share with you are ideas for using the oven that go beyond pizza and bread — along with a general idea of how to use your oven. If you already have an oven, then I hope you’ll pick up a few new ideas. And, if you don’t have one, then I hope to encourage you to build one.

Yes — you can always make pizza, and it will be better than the pizza from your kitchen oven. And, yes, of course you can bake bread. But one takeaway I hope you get from this article is that you can cook anything in the oven that you can cook in your kitchen, and more, and with the same ease. The oven’s huge dynamic range also means flavors and textures are generated in the oven that you can’t easily impart in the kitchen.

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