Curious about how the original breads were made? Wanting to make something that is authentic, with an incredible 'kick', which also can have the type of crust you only find from a bakery?
Thinking about embarking on the wood fired bread oven journey (in the back yard)?
Before diving in with the brick oven and all that fuss, why not get started with a backyard BBQ oven? It's actually a truly viable (and valuable, if you've purchased one lately) piece of baking equipment, which can produce amazing bread.
If you want to get the really incredible crust that 'hearth' or 'sole' baking can achieve, this is a relatively cheap (and instant) shortcut.
You might already have a BBQ with a lid and a pizza stone, and been keen to see how this contraption would work as a bread oven. Well, save some time (and possibly money) before diving in, and read this! In a nutshell? If it's done right, a BBQ oven for breadmaking works BRILLIANTLY!
BBQ OVENS FOR BAKING HOME MADE BREAD
and the whole 'woodfired brick oven in the backyard' thing..
It's possible to get seriously addicted to this method of baking. Your family may overdose on all the bread you make in the barbeque, as mine did when I first discovered how to do it. However, no one has complained so far - indeed, as the spelt vienna bread I just made has its 'crust end' fought over by two hungry teenagers, I can say that employing the BBQ as a baker's oven may well rekindle a family passion for bread.
To bake bread in a BBQ, you may need some additional equipment. I've put down the basics below. You'll need these things in additiion to your actual 3,4 or 5 burner BBQ. You may already have some of the required gear.
The next level of addiction, the one where you invest in an actual woodfired oven, or build one yourself, is a bigger step, and can produce even better bread. But they are often underused in a backyard, particularly if you haven't got your oven skills up to scratch.
Thus, the BBQ oven can be a good way to figure out ovens, oven temperatures for different types of baked product, and oven work using a paddle, a peel, or spatula. A BBQ oven will also prepare you for using what's referred to as a 'falling oven' in bakery speak. They are quite a different thing to bake in than using a domestic oven, which allows you to control the exact temperature. A BBQ oven generally has very little temperature control, so you need to learn how to 'ride' it. In the better models, I've noticed there is more insulation in the lid. This will certainly help in keeping a steady temperature, and if you are choosing a new model to multipurpose as an oven, I would seriously consider an insulated lid. Some models can be accessorised later too.
I ended up spending less than $100 to convert my BBQ to a 'stone floored' oven. The BBQ I already have is a $500 'mass market' 3 burner variety, with lid, thermometer and lightweight cast iron plates and grids. I've improved mine with heavyweight cast iron, some heat pods and better burners. Then I bought a 15 inch pizza stone, and a couple of extra cast iron grids. Otherwise, it's off the shelf. I consider it a very cost effective adjunct to the regular kitchen. They are also usually fairly transportable, so can come with you when you move.
With the benefit of hindsight, I would say most of this stuff was probably unnecessary - since writing this article, I've used numerous other BBQs without any modifications; the most important part is the stone.
SETTING UP YOUR BBQ OVEN
a covered gas BBQ (it may be possible to use other kinds, but I haven't tried any as yet)
a thermometer - either in the BBQ lid, or one which can sit on the pizza stone
a pizza stone, or large square oven tile (larger than twelve inches across so you can make a 'batard'). I've also used upside down square terracotta planter pot bases, which are thick and very good to set dough on.
a grid above the gas burner area, or grid and BBQ beads to deflect heat of the gas flames below
3 or 4 gas burners in the BBQ (can be done on 2 but requires a bit of fiddling and isn't symmetrical - thus, baking bread needs to be rotated during the bake)
round 12" flat pizza peel with handle for moving cobs of formed dough
coarse semolina or polenta and a sifter
a broad, strong BBQ spatula or wooden pizza paddle for handling the dough
about half a dozen empty tin cans with the lids removed
Your BBQ oven is very similar to your domestic oven, in terms of setting up to bake bread. The pizza stone needs to be placed centrally in the oven, with the operating gas burners underneath positioned on either side of the pizza stone. I have a heat diffuser between the burners and the cast iron grid plate, which allows me to build up a solid store of heat in the center of the BBQ, directly under the Pizza stone.
Pre heating the BBQ oven and the stone:
The 3 and 4 burner BBQs enable you to use the outside burners continuously while baking. When pre heating, all burners are on full. This will heat the oven space and the stone. After about ten minutes, turn off the gas burner(s) positioned directly under the stone - the center burner(s) - otherwise the stone will become too hot and take too long to stabilise.
Place your empty tin cans on either side of your pizza stone and fill them with water. These will create moisture for the early part of the bake. Steam is essential for your dough to 'kick', and also to give your bread crust colour. I leave them in the oven the whole time, and make sure that they have heated up before placing dough in. You can also use recycled tin cans for this purpose!
Leave the outside gas burners running high until the temperature inside the oven stabilises at about 200 to 240 degrees centigrade. Let the oven 'set' for another ten minutes or so. You'll be surprised how quickly the BBQ gets to very high temperatures, particularly if you have a 4 or more burner BBQ. If it gets above 300 degrees, turn it down slowly till it settles at around the 200 to 240 mark. Super high temperatures are good for Pizza, not for bread!
LOADING THE PIZZA PEEL
I'm assuming you've got a kilo of sourdough or semi leaven bread from a bread recipe right here. It's had a few proofings, is formed into either a cylinder or a cob shape, dusted, decorated and slashed as required. Only, no bread tin this time - we're cooking on the Sole (Americans like to call this the 'hearth').
Prepare the pizza peel by dusting it thoroughly with semolina or polenta. The formed and proofed cylinder (batard) or cob (miche) can be lowered on top and covered with a large plastic container so as to prevent the dough skinning whilst proofing.
Once the dough has been loaded onto the pizza peel, allow it to rest for 15 minutes. Then, slash as desired and return the cover.
You can allow this dough to proof much longer than you can with regular ovens. In fact, the dough can actually 'overproof', compared to regular indoor kitchen oven standards. That's because the sole of the oven, in this case the pizza stone, has lots of stored heat which enters the bread dough from the base. This causes a large and sustained upward rise, and if the dough is not fully proofed, it will tend to lift up and 'kick' one way or the other.
LOADING THE OVEN
The dough, as in the previous step, loaded onto pizza peel and fully proofed (so ripe that to poke it with your finger appears to make the dough look like it will collapse).
Take the fully proofed dough on the pizza peel, lift the lid of the preheated BBQ oven, position the loaded pizza peel over the hot pizza stone. You can let it rest right where you want it to end up.
Holding the handle of the pizza peel with one hand, and with the broad BBQ spatula or pizza paddle in the other hand positioned against the near side base of the proofed dough, jerk the pizza tray's handle backwards to slide it from under the dough. The BBQ spatula in your other hand should prevent the dough from following the tray, thus causing the cob or vienna to land directly atop the hot pizza stone, if you are successful. Practice, and learn to juggle ripe dough!
Once the dough is transferred to the stone, close the lid of the BBQ and wind both outside burners to low. The center burners should be have been off completely for ten or fifteen minutes at least by now.
The temperature of the oven will gradually drop. Try to hold it above 180 degrees centigrade, but below 250 degrees. It's fairly tricky, even in a good quality BBQ oven, to get a really steady temperature. Part of the problem is the lack of fine control on gas burner dials - BBQ's are designed to utilise the fickle flame. You may find yourself adjusting things a bit. While opening the oven lid does lose heat, this type of oven also recovers very quickly.
Keep the bread in the oven for up to an an hour. Until you know the oven well, I recommend checking every fifteen minutes. You need a fair bit of colour in this type of oven before the bread is cooked.
When you check the bread, gently lift it off the stone a little with the spatula, to check the base. You will find that there will be 'hot spots' in the oven, and these can often be seen by observing the base of the bread. The hot spots will burn on the outside of the base first.
After a few bakes, you will begin to observe where the hot spots are, and rotate breads through the bake on the stone to accomodate.
It's hard to burn crusts, but if anything will do it, your BBQ oven will. I find that about an hour, at about 180 degrees average will cook a one kilo chunk of dough right through, and larger dough will take proportionately longer.
Thermometers are notoriously variable, so you'll need to take notes and learn your BBQ oven as you go. Success first try is rare!
Like regular ovens, you can wind BBQ ovens down to bake bread more slowly for a thicker crust, or run them high for thinner, moister crust and crumb. Simply remember to adjust bake times accordingly.
That's it for now. If you would like to learn how to make sourdough bread and sole bake in a hands on, workshop context, check out our upcoming School of Sourdough workshops.