The Fresh Loaf

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Moderating Heat in a Woodfired Oven

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sortachef's picture
sortachef

Moderating Heat in a Woodfired Oven

Small fires over time make all the difference


 


Most woodfired oven owners only use their oven once a week or so to bake pizza or bread at fairly high temperatures. There's another level of cooking available, at lower and constant temperatures, which requires pulsing the oven with small fires. This is useful knowing about both to protect the oven from unnecessary cracking from cold firing and also to expand your cooking repertoire.


There was a time in the not-too-distant past when many home ovens were fueled with either wood or coal. These ovens were used every day, and never lost their warmth. My father remembers his mother stoking the fire at the crack of dawn to bake the daily bread. Even today, I hear through this website of people in Greek villages and Eastern European towns using wood or coal as their main source of cooking fuel.


In order to replicate this method of everyday cooking, you have to commit some time. In order to roast a chicken today, I had to find three different times yesterday - in amongst a busy schedule - to light and maintain fires. If you can find the time, however, the benefits are astounding. When I was ready to roast the chicken (see Woodfired Roast Chicken), my oven maintained a stable temperature in the 350º range for 2½ hours with no active flame throughout the cooking time. With this ability, all kinds of baked goods (including dinner rolls and pastries), casseroles, roasted meats and fish become possible.


 


Pulsing your oven: The trick is to 'pulse' your oven with small fires over time, in order to slowly heat all of the masonry components - the walls, the floor and the bed of sand beneath the floor. The operative word here is 'slowly'. After a cold spell in which your oven has lain dormant, this will prevent the components from cracking. For more normal cooking or baking operations, this will raise the temperature of your oven into the range of a conventional oven, with very little charring or direct smoke.


Here's what to do:



  • Use a piece of newspaper, a handful of kindling, 2 or 3 pieces of hardwood the thickness of your thumb and 2 thicker pieces of hardwood that weigh about 1 ½ pounds each (2 ½ inches thick) to build successive fires in the center of your oven. Maintain the fire for an hour, relighting and adding a bit more kindling if necessary.

  • After the hour of active fire, put the door in place as tightly as possible. You may have to put a wood wedge under the handle, as I do. Let the oven rest for 3 hours. This rest time can be variable in length.

  • Light another fire using the same amount of wood as above, and maintain for an hour. Let rest again.

  • With each subsequent fire, there will be more unburnt wood from the previous fire. Leave this in the oven and continue to add to it, building your fires on top.

  • Light a third fire in the early evening, maintain for an hour and let rest. During this rest period, you can move the coals to one side in order to cook beans or a casserole, if desired.

  • Close up the oven and let rest overnight.

  • On day 2, start a fire with the same amount of wood, maintain for an hour and let rest. By this time the parts of your oven are hot enough to maintain a temperature of about 350º. From here, you can safely and quickly take your oven much hotter (for pizza, say), or you can build another small fire to maintain low to moderate heat for roasting or baking.


 


Here are the temperatures I measured in my oven. As atmospheric conditions and your oven will likely be different, you will probably have different results, particularly during the first few fires.


Starting temperature: 52º, which was approximately the overnight low air temperature in Seattle (measured with an accurate thermometer).


After the first fire: 150º (measured with oven thermometer, as are all others)


After the second fire: 225º


After the third fire: 350º (I baked a pot of pinto beans for 2 ½ hours when fire was almost finished)


Starting temperature, 2nd day: 160º


After the fourth fire: 375º (I baked dinner rolls after this fire)


After the fifth fire: 425º (I let the oven cool to 350º and roasted a chicken. After 2 ½ hours, the oven temperature was 325º and the chicken was perfectly cooked.)


 


Final note: I just checked (10 a.m. on the third day) and, with no active fire since yesterday's noontime fire, the temperature of the oven is 160º. Hmm. I could just keep this whole thing going. Flame on!

Comments

wally's picture
wally

I'm about to begin baking on an Alan Scott wood oven that (I believe) hasn't been used in awhile. This is all good information to have!  Thanks for sharing.


Larry

longhorn's picture
longhorn

Hi Sortachef!


I understand that slow heating allows you to reach a temperature for slow baking, and it definitely depends on your oven design but for a pizza oven it is IMO much easier to build one raging fire for about an hour and a half and then seal the oven for an hour to let it heat equalize. In my oven that gives me about 400 and will still be over 300 hours later and around 250 the next afternnon. You probably use less wood but I doubt by much but it takes a lot of attention. A similar approach should work in an AS oven by simply not firing it as long so you don't begin at 550 degrees an hour later.


Normal firing on an Allen Scott oven Larry is around 3 1/2 hours (from a cold start) followed by about an hour soak Remove ashes and sweep and then begin baking at around 550. Be sure to mop the floor with a damp towel before loading (helps humidify the oven).  Look forward to your reports.


Jay

sortachef's picture
sortachef

Thanks Jay and Larry,


Part of this comes from fuel-sipping, part from seeing a HUGE crack in an oven recently, and part from wanting to try different everyday recipes in the oven, such as the roasted chicken I mention.


I too have been using my oven for years on the make-one-big-fire technique. As long as I have the pizza ready for one phase of heating, the bread ready for the next, the bean pot ready for the third phase and maybe a casserole ready the next day, it all works beautifully. As soon as I want to, say, bake a lasagna in a cold oven, it all becomes more complicated.


As a follow-up to this blog which appeared a week ago on my website, I've kept the oven at a constant low temperature and, with very small fires that take  little effort to get running, I've baked a succession of 'normal' things - sausages, dinner rolls, and pinto beans to name a few - as well as bread and pizza. I'm playing with a pot pie right now. It's so easy to raise and lower the temperature when the oven's already warm! 


Maybe I should have titled this piece: How to use your woodfired oven every day!


Cheers,


Don


P.S. - Can I bring you on board with the word woodfired? I'm not trying to spell it wrong, but I hear that the hyphen stalls search engines. Flame On!

wally's picture
wally

sounds good to me!  I'm taking a 2-day course at KAF with Dan Wing in June, so I'll ask him for official approval ;)


Larry

longhorn's picture
longhorn

A course with Wing should be lots of fun! Please give us feedback!


Jay

longhorn's picture
longhorn

Hi Don!


A big crack is no fun! Any idea what caused it? Water? 


My comments were simply based on time and effort necessary to keep the oven in the 350 range.


One of the things I love is baking coq au vin or a roast or beans or... on the second day. I always do pizza until late so there is never any baking of bread after the pizzas. Next morning it is usually around 370 so I tend to put things in around 10 to noon and have them ready for dinner. 


One of the things I love about WFOs is the ability to do a roast in the summer without heating the house up (or more correctly paying for the A/C to remove the heat). After reading your comments I may have to try to keep it warm for a week. Will only require firing every other day and I can probably cook in it any day then.


Thanks for the inspiration!


Jay

SylviaH's picture
SylviaH

Thank you for sharing.  Love reading everyone's wfo experiences!


Sylvia