Wood Fired ovens for baking bread
Sooner or later, most home bakers either experience someone else's home made wood fired bread, or just get the bug to experiment. Or, they might simply visit an actual woodfired bakery, and are either inspired or awed - or both.
Driving a woodfired oven is something akin to flying, only you are kind of 'surfing' heat. Baking with a wood oven, which has substantial thermal mass, is often referred to as baking on a 'falling' oven. That's because the oven is fired till the insulation or core is very hot - often above 500 degrees celsius - and the oven is then used to bake throughout the temperature's long 'fall'. Typically, the baker would begin with pizza and flat breads like focaccia; then baguettes and rolls - things with a small mass, which cook quickly and fill the oven with steam. Then up to viennas, batards, and the tinned loaves. Finally, fruit breads, cakes and biscuits, which need lower temperatures. The remaining heat was then used to prepare vegetables and other general tasks.
In effect, the baker's art when using one of these is all about what to bake, when.
In my case, I'd been wondering for a while how the humble backyard BBQ would go as a bread oven. Of course, everyone was blown away with the results of my first few batches of bread made in the BBQ, so I decided to scale up my research a little.
Moisturising your wood fired oven
I have a funny feeling that there will be quite a few people out there who have tried unsucessfully to bake bread in a woodfired pizza oven. That's because many of these do not have a door. To bake pizza, you don't need a 'rise', so you don't need moisture in the hot air.
When baking bread you have to have steam. So if you want to get a decent loaf out of a pizza oven, you'll first of all need to create steam inside the oven. You'll need to get a whole lot of wide flat baking trays, or pans, or bowls, with about an inch or two of water in them - the more trays with hot water you have, the better - and place them on the stone floor when you are first firing the oven. Keep them topped up the whole time.
Home wood fired ovens - a bit of market research.
Home wood fired ovens seem to come in two main types. The first is the aforementioned 'adobe' style oven, usually with a dome shape and no door, and this type is very popular. You can buy them in kit form, or have them made up for you. Great for pizza, not great for bread, but as I mentioned earlier, with a bit of juggling you can make do with these.
The second type is an enclosed oven, which is suitable for both pizza and bread. These come in a wide range of shapes and sizes, and have various added extras, like the ability to fill the chamber with smoke and evacuate it. They often have stone tiled floors, but I've seen them with removable ones which can be replaced with stainless steel.
Of my initial research, many ovens are cheaply built, and have stress points which are not properly reinforced. Over time, cheap ovens display why they are cheap. Many adobe and brick ovens leak air like sieves, and are really not useful to the home baker. Many have too little insulation - and while you don't need a lot for the backyard roast, some are less than a centimeter thick. This will be very unstable and use lots of wood. A well insulated (an inch or more thick) oven will use less wood.
On the other hand, there are some quality products there. I've just spent the morning with Craig from Aromatic Embers.
His hobby, and now his business, is making quality woodfired ovens. Having picked his brains thoroughly about these things, I have to say it appears as though this guy has applied some real common sense to the idea.
You can buy a woodfired oven from a hardware store these days - but a quick glance at the quality and thickness of the insulation, as well as the fittings, you can see that these ovens have been built to a price rather than a standard. Craig's Aromatic Embers ovens, on the other hand, are built to last, and work efficiently and well.
I have worked with Craig on a few ovens now, including a couple of versions of Bertha, our co designed bakery oven. I've also used one of his larger domestic ovens in my bakery for a few months - and the quality and speed I've been able to achieve with them is quite amazing.
What follows, then, is some general information about woodfired ovens and how to use them.
Woodfired baking and home woodfired ovens - some important points
While I admit to not having tried too many different wood fired ovens yet, my research tells me the following important things:
- Thermal mass and thickness of insulation is only important if you n eed t o run the oven continuously for long periods. Most families just want to do their pizzas, maybe a roast, and possibly bread after that. This might only be a few hours. You need more thermal mass if you want the oven to run for longer periods efficiently, though.
- Loss of moisture is more critical in a wood fired oven than it is in other ovens.
- Loss of moisture occurs through porous surfaces and air leaks. If you're purchasing, ask about this. Some adobe ovens are treated for porousness. Heat insulated steel is very good for woodfired ovens - because insulated steel is non porous and therefore retains moisture best.
- Door seals must be airtight. If you have an old oven, you can get special r ope which can be siliconed into place. This rope is heatproof, and it compresses to form a se al. You can usually find it at specialist wood fired heater stores, which are becoming fewer these days as everybody moves to central heating, but they can still be found in most regional centres.
- A thermometer which sits on the floor of the oven is very handy to guage hotspots etc.
- Keep the oven tiles CLEAN and dust them down before and after every load.
- Invest in the right oven gear - good gauntlet mitts, a long handled broom, quality peels, ash shovels etc. They make life so much easier.
- Practice loading fully proofed bread using a peel - and remember that baking a single loaf or two will not produce enough steam for a rise, so you will need to use the technique above, plus spraying the walls, to get solid amounts of steam.
- The more you fill the floor of the oven, the more the temperature will drop, but more steam will be produced which bakes better bread. For best results, the oven should be FULL.
- Learn to bake with a 'falling' oven. Know when to put your bread in. Don't go too early - a hot oven won't make your bread rise more, it'll just crust it quicker, achieving exactly the opposite!
So that's it for now. I'll be including a whole lot more detail soon! I'll also be writing more on how to cater for a party using only a woodfired oven. I've also been getting into sole baking a lot lately, and there is quite a lot to learn. Stay tuned, while I gather it all together and write the articles!
Happy Sourdough Baking!