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.
How the Backyard Oven Works
Our kitchen ovens are all “instant-on.” We set the temperature, turn a knob or press a button, and modern magic happens. With an outdoor oven, we trade the magic of knob-and-button for the magic of intense heat, glorious light emanating from the oven walls, and a huge space to work in.
However, it’s my sense that the first impediment to using a dome oven is the lighting of it. The oven-lighting technique described below will enable you to light the oven with one match and a piece of newspaper so that in five minutes an oven 3 feet in diameter will be 450 degrees Fahrenheit, and in 10 minutes will reach 650 degrees. In other words, you can light a fire and start cooking in the same time frame you’re used to in the kitchen. The key to the instant-on, and the key more generally to successful oven firings, is this: Dry the wood for the next firing in the oven after you’ve finished baking, even if the wood is seasoned and dry.
In the European bread-oven tradition, the oven is fired until the walls are white-hot. You’ll see the walls change from black to white. After the embers die down, sweep them out of the oven into a metal pail and mop the oven floor. At this point, the oven will be more than 750 degrees. You can close the oven door and wait for the temperature to fall to one that’s good for baking bread, if that’s the purpose of the firing, or you can cook dinner. At first, you might work with the door open while you bake a pizza, or push in a sauté in a pan. But you should usually keep the door closed to retain heat. From here on out, you’ll be cooking with heat retained in the oven walls, which means you’ll cook on a falling oven. As the oven cools, slot dishes into the oven as appropriate. After casseroles, breads, roasts, pies, and cakes, you can dry herbs on the warm oven floor. Think of it as cooking on your oven’s slow exhale.
The pizza restaurant offers a different system as a model. You can cook with fire still in the oven but pushed to one side. This is how I use my oven frequently. Fire the oven to white-hot, push the embers against one side, add wood to stabilize the rearranged pile, sweep the oven floor where the fire was, mop, and start cooking on what I think of as a dragon’s fire. This is cooking adventure at its most intense! The convection portion of the oven heat is far greater than anything you can achieve in your kitchen oven, and the white-hot domed walls focus down onto the foods a ferocious storm of infrared light. Between the super-hot air and the infrared radiation reacting directly with the foods’ surfaces, you’ll get the most lovely browning imaginable , but also — if you aren’t careful — almost instant burn. It’s at these high temperatures that cooking magic happens. After cooking dinner, close the oven door, and you’ll be able to bake the next day.
A third system, one I use often, is to start cooking when the oven walls are still black and maintain the temperature close to that of a kitchen oven. There are no rules. Experiment. Have fun!
Outdoor Oven Cooking Techniques
I built my own oven close to my kitchen, an ideal location, but I also built an outdoor kitchen for convenience. I have a work table near the oven, an outdoor dining table, and an outdoor sink.
Basic equipment includes fire-resistant gloves rated to 900 degrees, an infrared thermometer, an oven rake or plastic-free hoe, a rag mop tied to the end of a pole, a bucket of water for the mop, and a metal bucket with a lid and handle for hot embers.
Firing the oven. Just inside the oven mouth, build a fire with a dozen 1- to 2-inch-diameter branches, pieces of split wood, or cordwood stacked in an open square, like a kindergarten popsicle stick project (see SlideShow). This is important. Always start the fire near the oven mouth, where there’s plenty of oxygen. One match and a piece of newspaper will light it if the wood was dried in the oven. After five minutes, the stack will be ablaze.
Managing the fire so you can start cooking immediately. Push the blazing kindling to one side, and add another two or three similar-sized dry pieces of wood. The oven air should now be around 400 degrees, enough to enable you to start cooking. After another five minutes, the air temperature will rise to around 600 degrees. If you’re just planning on cooking a regular dinner, not pizza, then this might already be enough wood to complete the cooking.
Managing the fire for pizza, flatbreads, and a meal cooked at the most intense heat. Slowly add wood to the blazing kindling, and then add more wood as the fire’s intensity increases. At this point, the oven walls will be black. Use a hoe or fire rake to push the wood toward the middle and back of the oven when the fire is becoming ferocious. Add wood as it’s consumed. The oven walls will begin to turn white. If using oven-dried hardwood, you can get to this stage within one hour in a clay oven, but it’ll take longer in a brick oven. When the stars are aligned, the oven will get so hot that the air in the top third of the oven will catch fire, and a mesmerizing cloud of flame will hover under the domed roof. When the walls are white and the oven ferociously hot, push the fire to one side and sweep and mop the floor, and then you’ll be ready for making pizza, baking flatbreads, and cooking in cast-iron frying pans, in Dutch ovens, on a grill, and in the embers.
Pizza tips. My foolproof recipe is: 3 1/2 cups flour, 1 cup plus 2 tbsp water, 1 tsp salt, and 1 packet yeast (active dry, rehydrated first in warm water, or instant). Roll out the dough, transfer to a floured peel, and then add the toppings. You can increase the oven’s temperature for the next day by leaving burning embers in the oven when you shut the oven down at night. The next morning, the oven vault measured with the infrared thermometer can be as hot as 525 degrees.
Managing the fire to build residual heat for bread, roasts, casseroles, cakes, cookies, and dried herbs. Do the same as for pizza, except that when the fire is intense and the walls are white, add a little more wood (experience will be your guide), and then let the fire die down. When the embers are manageable, sweep them out of the oven into a metal bucket. Exactly when you start cooking on the oven’s slow exhale is up to you. If you want to bake bread, then you’ll have to wait some hours for the oven to cool to bread-baking temperature. When the oven is too hot for bread, you can use it to bake in saucepans, cook meat on a grill, and bake in Dutch ovens.
Embers. Sweet red peppers, eggplants, onions, beets, turnips — any dense vegetable can be baked directly on embers. Toss the vegetables on the embers. Turn as needed. You’ll know they’re done when they’re soft on the inside. Remove from the oven with a pair of tongs. When cool, remove each vegetable’s burned exterior. Ember roasting produces flavors that can’t be replicated in the kitchen.
Frying pans. Slide your pans (must be entirely metal) into the oven at any stage. When the oven floor is at its hottest, you can think of it as a giant hot plate. You’ll get strong bottom heat for cooking. The infrared light emitted from the oven walls will brown food quickly. You may sometimes need to cover a pan with foil, or even remove the pan from the oven to let the food cook for a while away from the heat. Frying pans also make good general cooking and baking containers for use when you’re cooking at cooler temperatures.
Dutch ovens and casserole pans. When the oven is very hot, it can be hard to retrieve pans from the oven, even if you’re wearing fire-resistant gloves. Unless the oven is cool enough for you to comfortably reach into it, I advise sliding heavy pots into the oven on a cookie sheet, as that makes it easier to slide them out of the oven. One technique I use when the oven is very hot and I’m cooking something that benefits from browning, such as stewed chicken, is to cook the dish covered until it’s done, and then uncover it for a few minutes to brown. Many ovens have heat decay cycles that hold the oven in the slow cooking range of 225 degrees to 325 degrees for as long as 24 hours.
Baking bread. Bread should be baked on the floor of the oven. What makes wood-oven-fired bread special is its crust. Traditionally, the oven was filled with bread and the door was sealed, sometimes even with clay. Pounds of water evaporate during the bake, producing a steamy atmosphere. This moisture maximizes crust thickness. If you aren’t filling the oven with bread, then put a baking tray into the oven with a quart of water, and seal the doorway. Make a seal by inserting the door along with a couple of sheets of damp newspaper.
Meat, poultry, roasts, and fish. Always bring meat to room temperature before baking. The infrared light emitted from the hot dome will brown meat much more quickly than heat can penetrate to its interior. Thin cuts of red meat, such as carne asada, are more successful at high temperatures, followed by steaks, roasts, poultry, and fish. Have foil handy to cover the food if you see it browning too quickly. Or, you can remove the dishes from the oven to cool a bit and then return them. Grilling is a possibility if you can buy or fabricate a grill with 2-inch legs that you can slide into the oven.
Dehydrating. When the oven floor cools to 225 degrees, start thinking about drying. Jerky can be dried on racks. Fruits (try apples and pears), wild mushrooms, garden herbs, and vegetables can be dried directly on the swept and mopped floor.
William Rubel enjoys cooking dinner in his outdoor oven with his daughter and friends a few nights each week. Find his instructions on how to build your own outdoor oven from our April/May 2017 issue.