The Fresh Loaf

News & Information for Amateur Bakers and Artisan Bread Enthusiasts


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davidjm's picture


Secrets to successful Clay Oven Usage

I'm still relatively new to this, but I haven't seen the information below in other places.  I welcome your comments and suggestions from your experiences as well.  They will benefit the whole community!

First, go ahead and buy the book by Kiko Denzer "Build your own earth ovens" ( $15)

Insulated Hearth Subfloor:

In Kiko's book, he recommends using plain sand as a subfloor for the hearth.  That is the cheapest way to do it, but for $50 more, you can have an insulated subfloor that will hold heat much better than sand.  Build a form the size of the top of you base at least 2" thick.  Buy a bag of Portland cement and 2 big bags of vermiculite from a plant nursery.  Mix the two at a 5:1 ratio (vermiculite:Portland) dry.  Then add water and mix until you get an oatmeal consistency.  Pour into the form.  Smooth out the top.  Make sure it's level!  Let dry for at least a week.  Then you will set your fire brick directly on top without mortar.  The clay walls will hold it in.  Ideally, you would have 4-5" thick subfloor.  I found that I loose heat out the floor faster than the walls with 2" thick subfloor.

Oven Dome:

Kiko, in one of his blogs, actually says the ideal height of the dome, no matter the size of the floor, is 16".  He plans to add it to the next edition of his book. In the present edition, he gives a percentage formula. 

Firing the oven:

After a couple miserable failures, and combing the web for advice, I finally figured out how to successfully fire a clay oven.  Here's what I learned.

You really need good seasoned oak to make it get hot enough. 

Buy an Infra-red thermometer ( $80).  It is worth it.  You'll need to chart out the heating behavior of your oven at least one time.  Then you can use it to give you a frame of reference during a heating. 

And, plan to spend at least 3 -5 hrs heating it up, depending on the size of your oven.  My oven floor is 28" wide by 31" deep, and 20" high ceiling inside.  It is a relatively large oven.  I found that I have to fire the oven for 4+ hrs to get the temp high enough. 

Think in terms of heat saturation of the clay walls and floor.  Noah Elbers at Orchard Hill Breadworks ( says he fired his clay oven 6 hrs before he attained proper heat saturation. 

The outside walls are a good guide as to heat saturation.  In my oven, I need the outside walls to gain 100 degrees in temp before I am near having proper saturation; even more if I want to bake a larger quantity.  (This is where an IR thermometer comes in handy!)

I think firing time depends on how much you are baking too.  If you are only doing a couple pizzas and no breads, then you don't need as much heating time.  But if you're going to maximize your baking potential, you'll want a long hot heating.

I took hundreds of data points of my oven during a firing, and I put my findings into a graph.

(The upper lines are inside temps.  The lower lines are outside temps.)

Couple observations from the graph:

  1. You see a big jump in internal temp at 75 minutes when I put in a few pieces of nice seasoned oak.  After which time, the internal temp continues to grow.

  2. Inside temp reached 1000+ degrees F at its peak.

  3. The rate of heating of the outside increased after the good oak was added and steadily gained in temp until the fire went down to coals.  (I rake the coals across the floor and let sit for 30 min to heat the floor uniformly.)

  4. After that time, the outside temp remained relatively constant.

  5. You can see clearly how after the fire is taken down to coal at 255 minutes (or 4:15 into firing), we immediately start losing inside temp at a steep rate.  Coals stayed down for 30 minutes and then raked out. 

  6. Once the oven inside temp reaches around 450, we see a leveling off of the rate of cooling.  I think that if I had fired the oven another hour, the inside temp would have leveled off at a higher temperature.  That would have given me addition time in the pizza and bread baking range.  As it was, I got about 90 minutes worth of baking time on that firing.  My max capacity in that firing was: 14 pizzas, seven 30" baguettes, and 6 whole grain loaves.

I hope this is helpful.

Let's hear some of your secrets!



Debra Wink's picture
Debra Wink

Thanksgiving is fast approaching, so I thought I'd get in a quick blog entry before things get really busy... and to prove that I really do make breads once in a while. I found this recipe while searching The American Country Inn and Bed & Breakfast Cookbook (vol. 2), for a vegetable dish to take to my sister's on Thursday. I'm Still undecided on the vegetable, by the way, but these sounded perfect for the Thanksgiving table, so I had to try them out. (I get side-tracked easily.)

My thought was, If they turn out well, I'll freeze and take them, and if not, we really don't need the extra starch anyway. Well, I'm taking them, and I kinda hope they don't all get eaten, because I'm already thinking they'll make a mighty fine bread pudding. I think the dough would be good for other things too---like warm caramel pecan sticky buns.... Okay, enough of that! Time is running out, and I have to decide on a vegetable.

Pumpkin Crescents
makes 3 dozen rolls

2 1/4 tsp. (1 package) active dry yeast
1 cup warm water
1 cup canned pumpkin
1/3 cup sugar
1/2 cup cold butter [the recipe calls for shortening]
1 egg
1 1/2 tsp. salt
5 to 6 cups all-purpose flour
more butter, softened

This is how I put the dough together:
Dissolve the yeast in the warm water, then mix with the pumpkin, sugar, egg and salt. Add half the flour, and then as much more as needed, a little at a time, kneading until a firm, elastic dough forms. Add the butter in small pieces and continue kneading until it disappears and incorporates into the dough. Add a little more flour if the dough becomes too soft and sticky (you're going to have to roll this out later).

Round the dough and place into a greased bowl. Let rise until double. (The recipe says about 1 hour in a warm place, but that's not likely with only one package of yeast---mine took 2-3 hours.)

Deflate the dough and divide into 3 equal portions. Round each piece and let rest 20-30 minutes. Roll out into 12" circles, and spread with the softened butter. (It will take around 2 tablespoons per circle.) Cut each into twelve wedges---a pizza cutter works best for this. Cut a small notch in the center of the curved edges. Stretch each triangle from the curved edge to the narrow point, and then widen the curved edge to open the notch by pulling out from the other two corners. Roll up, beginning from the notched edge. Place the rolls on lightly greased sheet pans, with the points tucked underneath, and curve into a crescent shape. Let rise until doubled. Bake at 400F for 14-20 minutes, until golden brown.

Adapted from the recipe by Liberty Hill Farm, Rochester, VT

Shiao-Ping's picture

If blood will flow when flesh and steel are one

Drying in the color of the evening sun

Tomorrow's rain will wash the stains away

But something in our minds will always stay


Perhaps this final act was meant

To clinch a lifetimes' argument

That nothing comes from violence

And nothing ever could

For all those born beneath an angry star

Lest we forget how fragile we are


On and on the rain will fall

Like tears from a star, like tears from a star

On and on the rain will say

How fragile we are, how fragile we are

                                                                                                               By Sting, 1987 (to listen, click here or here




I rarely listen to the lyrics of a song, too hard for a person whose mother tongue is not the language of the song.  The music is far more important to me than the lyrics.  I can pick up the faintest instrument playing in the background and the inter-plays of instruments often exhilarate me.  Sometimes when I am drunk in a piece of music, it feels like I am in the best medication ever afterwords. 

And so it was in one of those blissful moments when, all of a sudden, the words "That nothing comes from violence, And nothing ever could" entered into my consciousness as clear as crystals.  The music moved me and I wanted to turn this energy into something.  No bread that I could make could match the delicate sensibilities that I felt in this song.  But I have to get it out of my system.

This bread was my 6th attempt at this since my last post at TFL.






When I was deciding what style of bread that I wanted for Sting's Fragile, I remembered a picture that I saw nearly 6 months ago that caught my attention in Hamelman's Bread - picture 21: Assorted Rye Bread from Chapter 6 (behind page 224).  Hansjoakim, one of the perfectionists of the TFL bakers, did a beautiful job in this bread.  He proofed the shaped dough in a brotform with the seam-side down and baked it with the seam-side up to allow the seams to open up in the oven.   Something like that but not exactly like that was what I was looking for.  I wanted the seams to open up like a flower with deep fissures in even more dramatic ways.


 1st attempt: Pain au Levain with black sesame meal and buckwheat flour (overall hydration 68%)




I initially wanted some black color in my bread so I used ground black sesame seeds and buckwheat flour which was the most "blackish" looking flour in my pantry.  This was a failed attempt because other than proofing with seam side down and baking with seam side up, I did nothing different to what I normally do.  The seams did not open at all. 

The bread tasted nice.  While the texture looked open, the bread felt heavy because of the black sesame meal.  The effect of ground sesame seeds on bread is a bit like that of almond meal on a cake or quick breads.


 2nd attempt: Pain au Levain with buckwheat flour and teff flour (overall hydration 63%)




At this second attempt, I thought all that I needed to change was the dough hydration - it had not clicked on me that it is not the dough hydration but the way I shaped the final dough that matters in the final look.  By accident, I got a few shallow fissures on the bread to the left in the picture above.


3rd attempt: Pain au Levain with buckwheat flour (overall hydration 68%)




By this time, I knew that shaping was important for what I wanted to achieve.  As rice flour can help prevent sticking, I used a mixture of rice and buckwheat flours on the work bench (when I was shaping) as well as on the brotform.  This batch was divided into 3 pieces like the previous two batches.  The first piece of the proofed dough showed small lines of seams before loading but the seams closed up in the oven.  I knew that the other two pieces of dough would be the same; I was so mad that I slashed the other two doughs to bake. 


4th attempt: Pain au Levain.  The result was still the same.  I was too mad to take a photo of this bread.  I tried baking without steaming, but the seams still did not open up.  I did take a photo (below) of all the breads from the week's baking and I think of the "happy pigs" in San Francisco - the happy recipients of SFBI students' baking.  Christmas is coming and I haven't done any festive baking.  I have always loved the Italian panforte.  I might try making a bread panforte.



5th attempt: Pain au Levain. 



I was finally getting somewhere.  (1) I shaped loosely with a lot of rice & buckwheat flour mixture on the bench; and (2) I proofed for only 30 minutes in the brotform so the shaped dough with its loose seams did not stay in that position for too long. 


6th attempt:  a yeasted bread (600 g bread flour, 380 g water, 24 g olive oil, 20 g honey and 3 g instant yeast)



It was very late at night when something dawned on me - for the seams to tear open in the oven, I really shouldn't do a normal shaping.  Following is what I have found for this shape of baking:

(a) Shaping: merely gather the edges to the centre without using your hands to tighten the boule against the work bench.  In other words, the seams should not be sealed in any way.  As well, the seams should be clearly definable after proofing and at time of loading.

(b) Proofing: as short as possible, 30 - 45 minutes, no more than 1 hour.  It's best that the proofing basket be covered only loosely with a kitchen towel, not covered tightly in plastic bag.  The dough should be able to air. 

(b) Retarding:  If the dough is to be retarded, retarding in bulk is better than at proofing stage.  If the shaped dough goes through a long retardation, its seams may be closed up.

(c) Baking:  the oven should be very hot to start with (ie, 250C / 480F).  I do not know, however, whether or not steaming makes a difference. 

I did take a crumb shot but forgot to download it before my daughter took my camera with her to her schoolie's holiday yesterday.  I made her three batards for her schoolie's week to enjoy with her friends.  I drove her to Gold Coast yesterday and she said I was an awesome mum.  Well, what we do for our daughters!  On the way home, I stopped by my most favourite bread shop in Gold Coast, Flour Bakery.    I bought the two breads pictured in Jesse Downes' hands: Spelt Sourdough and Seeded Spelt Sourdough.  I had the best coffee in Queensland there and ate my way through the bakery's other goodies.  I was in heaven. 



dmsnyder's picture

We're going away for Thanksgiving for the first time in over 30 years. The good news is that we will be with both of our sons and their families for the first time in several years. And we'll be together for nearly a week, which will be wonderful.

If we were at home, I'd bake differently, but I need to take breads that travel well and keep well. I am not planning on baking there. So, here's the plan:

Polish Cottage Rye (from Daniel Leader's "Local Breads")

San Joaquin Soudough (2 lb bâtards)

San Joaquin Sourdough crumb (I cut the one that's "staying home")

And, just in case we get tired of turkey and really crave a corn beef sandwich ...

Jewish Sour Rye (from Greenstein's "Secrets of a Jewish Baker")


breadnik's picture







111 loaves in all. About 16 hours of work prepping and measuring the ingredients, mixing the dough, [overnight rising in my little hippie greenhouse on the deck]




dividing, shaping, proofing and baking.

JoeVa's picture

Pizza is bread, bread crust.


I think a good pizza should have:

  • good dough: naturally leavened or proofed with indirect method like poolish or biga (that is: small amount of fresh yeast and a lot, a lot of time). I said "pizza is bread" because the actor in pizza is dough first, then the topping.

  • no more than 2 topping ingredients: mozzarella, pomodoro (tomato). I never eat and I do not agree with super topped pizza with "strange and exotic" topping. The biggest hazard I can do is mozzarella, pomodoro ciliegino and rucola (?garden rocket?) ... sorry I forgot olive oil and origano or basilico.

  • fast baking: the best pizza is baked in a wood fired oven at about 460°C in 00:01:30 / 00:02:00. In no more than 2 minutes the thin dough should cry, springing and browning.

There are a lot of pizza experts all over the world but the best pizza I ate was in Napoli. Is there a secret? I don't know! So my pizza is simple and good, not as good as true Pizza Napoletana, but I can't do better ...

Overall formula

Bread Flour 100%
Malted Flour 1.5%
Water* 65%
Salt 2.5%

*water should be adjusted with the absorption rate of **your** flour.

Preferment: 15%-20% of the total flour (bread flour) is prefermented at 100% hydration. Remember to subtract the flour and water from the final dough ingredients. I usually do a 1:2:2 feeding in the morning (08:00) so that my starter is ready after lunch (14:00) and I can mix the dough for pizza dinner.

Dough consistency: soft dough


  • Mix all ingredients except salt (desired dough temperature 26/27°C)
  • Autolyse 00:30, then add salt on top
  • Mix at medium gluten development
  • [Puntata]Rest for about 01:00.
  • [Staglio] Divide and shape small ball (220-250g)
  • [Appretto] Proof 04:00 at 25°C
  • Bake on stone at the high temperature as fast as you can.
When pizza is removed from the oven I add a bit of olive oil and a pinch of salt on top.
I use a small electric pizza oven with baking stone and 400°C temperature (G3 Ferrari) - this is my baking trick. With this oven I can bake in about 5 minutes! Not fast as a wood fired oven ...                                                





Bottom (blistered crust and brown spots):



xaipete's picture

Several months ago my husband and I went to ZaZu's, a local, wine-country restaurant, to try one of their wood-fired oven pizzas. This road-house style restaurant which features local, sustainable food is our favorite place to eat out. Unfortunately it's pretty pricey so we only go their for special occasions. We ordered a chanterelle mushroom, Laura Chenel goat cheese, truffle oil pizza garnished with pea shoots that was paired with three half-glasses of local pinots. The whole meal was delicious. Since Friday nights are usually pizza nights here and the chanterelles are currently so abundant and lovely looking, I thought I'd try to re-create that pizza. Unfortunately, my attempt was pretty successful. We're now totally hooked on those pricey chanterelles.

For the crust I used two 6-1/2 oz. balls of Classic French Bread from Peter Reinhart's latest book. Any pizza dough that you like would work just fine.

I think another great base for this pizza would be the quick rustic ciabatta pizza:

After shaping each pizza, I brushed it with some White Truffle Oil that I purchased from Costco (I think it was about $20 for a bottle). Just in case anyone wants to argue that this product isn't real truffle oil :-) let me just say that whatever it is, it is absolutely delicious!

I sautéed 8 ounces of sliced chanterelles in a little bit of the truffle oil and used half on each pizza.

I topped each with 2 ounces of Laura Chenel Chabis goat cheese.

I baked each pizza on a well-preheated stone (550º) for about 9 minutes. I drizzled each finished pizza with a little more truffle oil and a sprinkling of kosher salt.

Pea shoots would have been a great garnish, but alas I didn't plan far enough in advance to produce them. I served the pizza with a simple salad of watercress and tomatoes from our garden dressed with an herb-shallot vinaigrette.


JeremyCherfas's picture

I set out to make what has become my standard 25% wholewheat rustic Italian loaf (blogged here) and discovered, well into weighing and mixing the dough, that I had run out of white flour. I had only 150 gm and the recipe called for 300 gm. But I did have plenty of wholewheat. And it was too late to stop and go get more. So I just made up the missing mass with wholewheat flour. Nothing ventured ...

The final formula was thus about 350 gm of biga at 75%, 150 gm white flour, 25 gm whole rye flour and 350 gm wholewheat flour, at a final hydration of 62.5%. So it was effectively about 40% wholewheat.

I generally knead this bread for about 6 minutes, and started doing so, and it came together just fine despite the extra wholewheat. But about 4 minutes into the kneading, the dough suddenly became quite sticky again. I don't remember that ever happening before, so I wondered, is that something that happens with high percentages of wholewheat?

Anyway, I allowed the dough to rise at room temperature for three hours then put it into the fridge overnight. Next morning I shaped a boule and put that back into the fridge for 8 hours. I brought it out while the oven was heating and baked at 220 degrees C for 10 minutes with a pan of water, then removed the water and baked for another 30 minutes at 200.

It came out far better than I expected.

I tried for the fan shaped cuts I've seen elsewhere, and they worked out well except that I think the loaf was probably underproofed, given the explosion.

The crumb was light and open and soft, and the crust not too thick, and good and chewy.

You can see that the crumb is denser near the top crust (bottom as the loaf proved) which along with the explosive opening of the crust makes me think it either needed to warm up more before going in the oven or else was just underproofed.

Anyway, overall I was very pleased and may now consider making loaves with a higher percentage of wholewheat in future.


Mini Oven's picture
Mini Oven

Inspired by Charles Luce gluten free millet starter (following instructions in The Bread Builders, by Daniel Wing and Alan Scott)   I startered a sourdough starter using amaranth...

I am repeating part of the thread below so that when I use the starter with gluten flours, it will not be confusing in Charles's gluten free thread.  The discussion can be carried on here about using amaranth sourdough starter in gluten breads.  I also want to try his recipe for millet bread but use amaranth starter.  He has much more experience than I with gluten free breads and this has interesting and fascinating overlaps I'm only beginning to discover.

Nov 16 // make a starter.  It smells much like corn.  For obvious reasons, I didn't rinse the grain first but put it directly into a blender to turn it to flour.  Then I mixed 60g with 60g water and it sat 57 hours (instead of 48) 16°c to 17°c 

Nov 18 //   I added 60g more amaranth flour and 60g water, blended well  16°c.

I'm hoping it will make the amaranth tastier, milder maybe.  This could be the "trick" I've been waiting for.

Nov 19 //   I got life!  I forgot it again, it is 24 hours since I fed it and it is bubbly and rounded and even a little bit risen!  Amazing!  Can't smell any "sour" still smells like wet amaranth (yuck) or wet corn but I know it is active.  I stirred it and forced it to collapse.  In stirring I can feel the bubbles or pockets of gas in the starter.  Now to dump half and feed again but in the warmer room to help develop the yeasts.  I will also start washing the amaranth and adding the water then blending before adding to the starter.   The photos are before and after stirring:


Nov 20 //    First thing was to smell my starter.   Na ya...   ... went for cooked rolled oats this chilly foggy morning.  When I discard today I plan to try a glutinous 10 grain flour and we will see if it lifts it.  I've not yet aquired xanthum gum and millet flour.  I would be interested in mixing the amaranth starter in a palatable mixture of GF flours.  Maybe the Montana Mix that Charles mentions and suggests on his blog.   Amaranth can be quite strong in flavor and smells of Autumn.   Wet leaves and mushrooms, truffle  come to mind along with dry red wine and soaked beans ...thyme.  Charles Luce seemed to also be in a similar lock of the senses and on the above mentioned thread writes: 

...walked through my neighborhood, which is quite Hispanic, smelling the smells and thinking of your question. Potato starch flour comes to mind, as does banana flour, yuca (tapioca)flour and corn masa (used for making corn tortillas in Mexico). Maybe coconut flour too. Then I read that porcini (Steinpilz) work w/ amaranth...

I had read that amaranth was often combined with banana and chocolate, also seems to be used more in cakes and sweet recipes...  I use a fine metal coffee filter for washing the grain.   Coconut milk.... interesting.

Okay, it's evening now and I'm looking into my starter and the smell is....getting sour and the amaranth is taking on a milder smell.  This looks promising!  This is good!  Ooo can't wait for the bread!  I mixed it 1-2-3  120g starter - 240g water - 345g 10 grain flour  autolyse  and work in 1 tsp salt.  Three hours in the kitchen then into a cool room for the night.  To bake tomorrow.  Better plain for the first loaf,  then come more taste experiments.

Now I'm working on the remaining 120g of starter.  I am rinsing 60g amaranth and will dry it before milling and adding.  It dries nicely in a smooth dish towel, the grain doesn't seem to stick at all.   This time I feed it 60g amaranth shortly blenderized (no water but the tiny seeds seem to slip avoiding the blades) mix well and after 3 hours tuck away into the fridge.  I'm liking the smell of the starter, I really do.

Mini Oven



CaptainBatard's picture

I was given Maggie Glezer's book Artisan Baking many years ago from a friend  who received it from the publisher to review. She is chief with too many books on her shelf already....she knew i was interested in bread, so she passed it along to me. I was a closet  baker for many years...but never touched the white stuff. I liked the idea of bread but that is a far as it went. I read the book from front to back and then started over again and then it sat on my shelf for a many months more. I don't know what the turning point was ...but i took the book off the shelf and made my first starter and haven’t looked back since! Every week I go through the same dilemma....what shall I bake this time? This process starts early in the week and then a decision must be made to wake up the starter. The bread of week was going to go to one of my all time favorite loaf...Thom Leonard's Country French Bread with a twist... from Glazer's book. So i took out my liquid levain and mixed up a 1:3:5 stiff starter. I haven't worked with a stiff levain in many months...and i forgot how much like it. There is no question if it is active....none what so ever. It gives me a lot of confidence to see a lemon sized piece of dough transform and fill a bowl. Now the twist was I had purchased a bunch of cheap over ripened apricots at the produce market that I had dried in the oven and were ready to be put to use along with some roasted hazelnuts. With the exception of using 175 grams of white whole wheat flour and not sifting out the bran from the 100% extraction whole wheat flour the rest of the recipe stayed the same. After letting it cool, which was very hard to do, I was left wanting something more from the loaf. I am not sure what exactly that is.... I guess I will have to tinker some more!


This is being submitted to Yeast Spotting



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