Baking Bread in a Woodfired Oven: the Basics
I baked some lovely loaves in my oven the other day, and as I slid that smoky, crusty bread out and onto cooling racks, I couldn't help thinking of those old European bakers, who've been baking with fire for hundreds of years. The limited size of my oven, however, has led me to adopt some measures that may or may not be part of that tradition. They work for me, and they might work for you too.
To make it simple, I’ll break it down.
Overview: To bake 4 loaves in a 40” diameter woodfired oven, you'll need about 7 pounds of dough. The free-standing loaves will bake in a semi-circle around a hot but barely flaming mound of coals pushed to the back. Key to success in this kind of baking is to have the floor evenly heated before the loaves go in. I have a loose-fitting metal door for my oven, which acts as a damper and which I close when the loaves are baking.
The Dough: Unless you have a complicated steam-injection system as some French bakers have for their brick ovens, you won’t be able to get enough steam into your oven to make much of a difference in the bloom. Either the masonry will absorb the humidity almost at once, or you will be splashing on water, which can crack the hot base. Instead, in order to get a big round loaf, a good crust and a soft, well-textured crumb, you need to create a dough that is wetter than we Americans think is normal.
I’ve been working with wet doughs in the 65-70% range for longer than I’ve had a WFO, ever since I saw a Roman baker literally throw the dough out of a bucket and onto a long wooden peel at Forno in the Campo dei Fiori. While I don’t recommend a dough quite that wet (it had to be 80-85%), I do recommend bumping up the hydration a bit for woodfired baking.
Joe Ortiz in his book The Village Baker has some excellent tips (page 55) on how to do this. Making a sponge, letting the dough sit overnight, and using less yeast are all good advice. I would add to this letting the dough hydrate for an hour before kneading and having a good dough scraper handy for bench work. For one recipe that follows this technique, see Lago di Como Bread .
Slow Rising: Once you’ve made a wet dough, you need to let it rise for an ample time. I’m being deliberately vague, because temperature and time become fluid at this stage. With less yeast or a starter, at 50° the first doubling can take 5 hours or more. I let this part happen in its good time, and then slowly warm the dough for the next phase, because once the dough is active, it’s very important to have the oven heated to the right temperature at the right time.
Gradually raise the dough temperature to 70° in the second rise, giving the dough a fold after an hour or so. Now is the time to get your oven hot. In another hour, once the dough is showing springiness and a few big bubbles, you can make the loaves.
The Loaves: Bannetons are lovely to work with but are expensive. Instead, I use plastic bread baskets lined with cloth napkins or dish cloths, with a coating of coarse flour rubbed into the fabric. These work beautifully as proofing baskets for my finished loaves.
Once the dough has nearly doubled in size again, turn it out onto a floured surface. Deflate about half of the gas out of it and cut it into 4 pieces. The perfect weight for me based on oven size is 27 ounces per loaf, which allows some leftover dough for another day. Form your loaves and put them into the cloth-lined baskets to rise. At 70° this will take 45 minutes.
When ready to bake, turn the loaves out onto floured peels. Shape lightly, tucking edges under without deflating the dough and slash a design with a lame if desired.
The Fire: There are so many variables inherent in making a fire in a woodfired oven that I’m loath to give specific directions. Atmospheric conditions, the length of time since your oven was last fired, the type of wood you’re using and how it was cured all play a role. If your oven is outdoors, as most are, you’ll want to baby it when the weather is cold. See Moderating Heat in a Woodfired Oven  for more on this.
Generally speaking, though, your fire should be at least 2 hours old with a good base of coals by the time you put in the bread. In the last hour, push the fire around from side to side to make sure the base of the oven gets heated evenly, adding small branches and an occasional wrist-thick log as necessary to keep a good fire going. During this time, using a set of bellows to fan the flames is optimal.
The Oven: As the fire pulses and flames, you should be paying attention to the oven walls, floor and door. I check the heat of the door handle, the amount of flame, the amount of whitening ash on the ceiling and walls and the floor temperature about every 10 minutes after the fire is going full force.
In the first hour, if the fire is raging and throwing flame on the oven ceiling, I slow it down by closing the door all but 2” to stop it ‘overfiring’. Otherwise, I leave the door off as the fire matures, and put it in place cocked about 4” open toward the end of the first hour. By then, the door handle should be warm to the touch but not hot, there should be a small amount of whitening on the ceiling, and near the doorway the floor of the oven should be warm to the touch.
In the second hour, move the fire side to side so that the floor heats evenly. Toward the end, the door handle should be quite hot, the ceiling of the oven should be half white and the floor of the oven near the doorway should be too hot to touch for more than a second. Now you’re ready to bake.
Push the mature coals to the back center of the oven, near the wall, and brush the ashes off of the floor. There should be 6 to 8 fist-sized chunks of glowing hardwood coal and a good bed of embers, but little or no flame when the loaves go in.
The Baking Procedure: Make sure each finished loaf can ‘slip’ on its peel. Slip each loaf into the oven to have a long side parallel to and 10” from the coals. Close the door. Use this rough timeline for baking:
- After 20 minutes, turn loaves so the other side faces the fire.
- After 20 minutes, turn loaves so one end faces the fire.
- After 10 minutes, turn loaves so the other end faces the fire.
- After 15 minutes, remove loaves to a rack to cool.
Trouble-shooting: Besides the obvious problem of getting the oven and the dough ready at the same time, I’ve encountered two main difficulties in baking perfect loaves in my woodfired oven: a stubborn fire and a cold floor. Often they coincide.
When the atmosphere is damp and heavy, the fire is stubborn as a result. I counter this by keeping some ultra-dry wood on hand inside my house, adding it to give my fire the extra boost it needs. Even then, under certain conditions, it can be a real challenge to maintain a good fire.
The other is when the oven hasn’t been used in a while and the floor is slow to heat. In dry conditions, you can usually overcome this with a bit of extra time. However, if this happens when you’re dealing with a slow fire as well, the floor may not get hot enough to put a firm base on your bread. Be very careful when turning your loaves in this condition. To counter, warm some quarry tiles or a pizza stone to 450° in your indoor oven to finish off the loaves for 10 minutes after WFO baking. It may not be the ‘purist’ thing to do, but it works!
The Village Baker by Joe Ortiz, Copyright 1993 by Ten Speed Press, Berkeley
The Italian Baker by Carol Field, Copyright 1985 by Harper Collins
Also see www.woodfiredkitchen.com  for more tips, techniques and recipes. Flame On!