The Fresh Loaf

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My first WFO bake: Lessons in time, temperature and humility

dmsnyder's picture

My first WFO bake: Lessons in time, temperature and humility

Warning!: This report contains graphic images of misshapen loaves and loaves subjected to extreme thermal trauma. Young children and those easily upset by pictures of charred crust are advised to immediately go on to the next blog.

My long-awaited first bake in a wood-fired oven occurred yesterday. The day before had been hopping from dough to dough. I had mixed one large liquid levain to use in both San Joaquin Sourdough baguettes and the miche from the San Francisco Baking Instute's "Artisan II" workshop. That was made with a mix of AP and CM T85 flours. A 100% Whole Wheat liquid starter was mixed to make Hamelman's "Whole Wheat Levain."

For most of the day, I was a slave to my kitchen timer.

By late afternoon, I had the SJSD dough in the fridge and was shaping the other two doughs, the WW levain as two 940g bâtards and the miche dough divided into two 1010g boules. I figured that, except for the baguettes, all the bread should be in the same size loaves, so the bake times might be the same.

An hour before going to the WFO venue, I divided and pre-shaped the SJSD into rounds, and, just before loading the car, I shaped the pieces into 4 demi-baguettes. So, we loaded the car with 4 baguettes en couch on a proofing board, 4 loves in bannetons and a box with assorted bread baking paraphernalia - oven gauntlets, a lame, my super peel, cooling racks and more. We drove the 20 minutes to J.S.'s house and unloaded the car.

I was introduced to the WFO. I thought it was pretty neat.

J. had fired her oven the night before. When I arrived, the wood was burned to coals and ashes and raked to one side. The oven flour was at about 650dF. The "roof" was about 100dF hotter. We discussed raking out the ashes. I didn't want J. to go to too much trouble, so we left them in the oven. That was a big mistake. I wanted the oven somewhere between 480 and 580dF, and the oven floor could be brought to that range by leaving the oven open for a while. But, as soon as the door was put up, the oven floor temperature went right back up.

We discussed options for humidifying the oven. Since I wasn't going to come close to filling it with bread, there was no question that we needed to do something. We decided to fill a cast iron skillet with water and place it deep in the oven before loading the breads. That worked reasonably well.

I decided to bake the baguettes first. I transferred them from the couche to my SuperPeel. I then discovered that the oven door was narrower than the SuperPeel was wide. The loaves were therefore transferred to a semolina-dusted aluminum pizza peel and loaded to the oven deck with only moderate distortion of their shape. I would call the result "a movement disorder." (That's a medical joke. Sorry.)

All the advice I had read told me to not even peek at the loves for the first 20 minutes, so the steam in the oven isn't let out. Well, I figured the baguettes would probably bake in much less time than that, so I "peeked" in 15 minutes. And quickly removed the baguettes from the oven.

The second transfer clearly damaged my baguettes' structural integrity and provided a very nice illustration of how oven spring will always find the weak spots in your gluten sheath and expand at those spots. Anyway, the two baguettes on the outsides of this pathetic line-up were judged worth trying. 

The crust was very crunchy and the flavor was delicious. That was a relief!

Before loading the other loaves, I left the oven door open until the floor was down to 640dF. I then refilled the cast iron skillet, loaded the 4 loaves and closed the oven door. After 15 minutes, I opened the door, expecting to rotate the loaves, but they appeared quite well-baked. I took them out, knocked their bottoms and checked their internal temperatures with an instant read digital thermometer. In fact, 3 of the 4 loves were done, with internal temperatures over 205dF. The 4th was almost done. I gave it another 5 minutes in the oven, and that was plenty. 

As had been mentioned, oven spring in a wood-fired oven is exuberant. That was nice. Having the experience with the baguettes, I was more cautious with the larger loaves. all were somewhat charred in places, but none was ruined.

On slicing (still warm), I saw that the loaves were not cooked evenly. No part was totally under-cooked or gummy, but some could have used a few minutes' more baking at one end, at least. 

Appearances aside, the eating quality of all the breads was very good, and the WW Levain was amazingly good. The crusts were very crunchy. The crumbs were tender and slightly chewy. The flavors of the WW levain and of the baguettes were as good as I have every had. I think the "miche" would have been improved by more whole grain flour.

While the breads were baking, J.S. opened bottles of Chablis and Sangiovese and did the final cooking of a cioppino with talapia, shrimp, clams and mussels. The chef from her deli had made the sauce for her, and it was by far the best fish stew I have ever tasted. J. had decided to make it with the thought of having a delicious sauce for dipping bread into. An excellent decision! I apologize. By the time we sat down to eat, I was too tired and too hungry to even think about taking more photos.

We all had a delightful afternoon. I was disappointed in how the breads looked, although I really cannot complain about their eating quality. I did learn a lot, and I think I won't make the same mistakes again. (I'll make new ones!) The most important mistakes were not sweeping out the coals and not waiting until the oven was cool enough. If I am to try baguettes again in a WFO, I need to get an appropriate peel. The oven steaming method I used was adequate and a lot easier than using a mop or a garden sprayer.

I want to thank all those generous TFL members who responded to my request for advice on WFO baking. I collected all the suggestions into a single document and left a printed copy with my hostess. 

She invited me to use her oven whenever I wanted to, and I am eager to apply what I learned yesterday.

Happy baking!



alfanso's picture

(this means you!) have that learning curve.  Kinda brings your spirits down.  But sooner or later there would have been a first time.  Nothing like experience being the best teacher.

You can really see how the dome of the oven reflects down so much heat.

Reminds me of the polenta I made at my brother in law's.  At home, I generally hit a home run with tat recipe, on the road in another kitchen, using the wrong grit corn meal, it was a pitiful sight.


chouette22's picture

Wow - what a new experience for this experienced baker! Such high temperatures and such short baking times - how could anyone have known what to do exactly without having ever tried it. The crusts are very dark but look very, very crunchy (as you said they were) - they look incredibly delicious. The crunchier the crust, the better the bread for me. Thanks for sharing!

Sjadad's picture

David - I've had WFO bakes with similar results.  I am convinced the reason is because I didn't wait for the oven temperature to come down enough. 

I am confident that you will master this method ere too long!


pmccool's picture

A bit more practice and you'll be on your way, David.  For a first outing, I'd say you acquitted yourself well while picking up some valuable lessons. 


WendySusan's picture

Can't wait to see your next outing and happy you didn't end up with wood fired bricks!

Anconas's picture

Sounds like you had a wonderful time, learned a great deal on a new adventure and shared it with generous people :)  That's a beautiful day.

The oven spring at those high temps, serous dough gone wild!  Fascinating.

Congrats and good luck with the new adventure, have fun!


v's sis's picture
v's sis

to round 2!  A great start!  There are lessons here for all of us- some things can only be learned by making lots of mistakes and gaining lots of experience. 


dmsnyder's picture

On reflection, I find I get more pleasure from gaining new insights and useful information or skills than from achieving a "perfect" outcome. I surely had plenty of learning yesterday!

The fact that I have been enjoying thick slices of one of these ugly loaves at every meal since does not detract a bit from my pleasure! There is a crumb texture that I have only had in WFO-baked sourdough breads that this bread has, and I love it.

Happy baking!


BobBoule's picture

Your adventure motivates me to try a WFO without fear or trepidation. Your photos are inspiring, I hope you go back for more adventures.

Mebake's picture

Take one, good lessons worth learning. Thanks for sharing , David. Lovely baguette crumb by the way.


Mini Oven's picture
Mini Oven

for a big box grater to lighten the load loaves.  (all kinds of puns intended)  :)

Wow, a good Inoculation against black altus.  

My little tip, toss a handful of corn meal (not flour and do stand back) onto the oven floor to see how fast it burns.  It will also help you find hot spots to avoid.  I can't tell you how long to wait until it starts to smoke but if it burns up in less than 10 minutes, perhaps waiting is in order.  Pizza time!  :)   

Line up some other foods too!  

baked potatoes, yams, a chicken and/or roast, squash, peppers, soaked corn on cob in in husks  <-that's a messy one (gloves)  Get a week's worth of baking done.  I am envious!  


gary.turner's picture

 … that the bread rasp was ubiquitous in kitchens back in the day of wood fired stoves and home baked bread.



dmsnyder's picture

Good observation. I guess I better shop for one!


dmsnyder's picture

See dbm's reply. I think he nailed one problem: My over-eagerness to get on with the bake.


dabrownman's picture

too high but perfect for a load of pizzas.  Then bread at 500 F and then a whole pig, half a lamb and a dozen roast chickens with root veggies afterwards followed by pies and cookies and when the oven gets down to less than 300 F the pumpernickel goes in for a few hours.  That makes for one long and very expensive day - but a yummy one!

Don't love this bold bake but you were probably only about a couple three hours early.  it's like buck fever on the opening day of the season.  Just like baguettes - I have no doubt that next time will be different!

Happy baking David

dmsnyder's picture

Part of the problem was it's not my oven. I was a guest and trying to be accommodating to my hostess. Having now shared Sunday's experience, we can plan our next collaboration more rationally.

The buck fever simile has some merit. At least I didn't incinerate any of the other guests, only a few loaves. 


CAphyl's picture

David:  Thanks for sharing your lessons.  I have always wanted to try baking in a brick oven like usual, I am learning from your experiences....have been making your baguettes a lot lately, both here and in the UK.  I am getting the hang of it, but don't have crumb like you got on these slightly dark baguettes.  Good luck on your next try and keep us in the loop!  Best,  Phyllis

trailrunner's picture

As usual there is lots to admire about your posts...not the least of which is the bread. You are very witty as well :) I too would have scraped off the burn and had a feast of the rest of the loaves. Let no crumb go unburned ....c

dmsnyder's picture

I think I know exactly what to do differently the next time I bake in a WFO. Of course, it's likely I'll make some new mistakes, but I'll learn from them too!

One point I haven't made, although it is really important, is that having a pretty consistent temperature throughout the oven makes the baker's life much, much simpler. To achieve that, the coals must be raked out. The oven door must be kept closed as much as possible and for at least 10-20 minutes before loading the loaves. Even so, one must be prepared to move loaves around in the oven to get even baking. The ceiling is hottest. (Heat rises, doesn't it?) Close to the walls is hotter than in the middle of the oven. The middle of the oven floor is the coolest spot, except right near the oven's mouth.

I'm eager for the next WFO bake! 


BobSponge's picture

Nice Job!  Hope you keep trying, because I know we will all learn with you!!

For temperature its always been unclear to me if I should focus on air or floor temps, my sense is “air temp.” Logic here is that most of the “bread” will be in the oven, not touching the floor/wall.  I’m not so sure this is sound thinking.  I suspect there is a sweet spot, with a lower air temp than I bake with in my kitchen oven.

Mugnaini ovens (not my oven maker) has instructional PDF for baking.  On page 3 they suggest floor temp should be 75-100 degrees hotter than your recipe.  I tried this once and the bread I pulled out would make your loafs look under baked!

As to steaming I tried a pan full of steel washer and the garden sprayer together.   I would preheat the pan and washers for 30 minutes or so in the oven, then pour the water in just before loading.  This generated a lot of steam, I would then follow up with the garden sprayer.  There are some issues with using a pan of washers.   First, you need to pull the pan out of the oven to add the water, 500 degree washers turn water into steam pretty darn quick and most of that steam got away before pushing the pan back into the oven.  Also, I think spilling water on hot fire bricks has caused small cavities in the entry way of my oven.   

I now spray with a mister attached to a garden hose.  I do not open the oven for 18 minutes.  Only logic to this number is I was told steam is only effective for the first 15 minutes.  Its very difficult not to peek, I pace back and forth in front of the oven waiting for the timer. 

Finally a warning, baking bread in a WFO is addictive to bakers


dmsnyder's picture


David Esq.'s picture
David Esq.

I just purchased a WF pizza oven.  I would be very reluctant to spray water on the hot bricks to create steam so I am glad that the cast iron pan with water in it worked for you.  My oven is the less expensive sort, metal not brick, and hasn't arrived  yet.  Once I get the pizzas coming out nice, I will certainly be interested in baking bread.

dmsnyder's picture

I trust you will share what you learn.


David Esq.'s picture
David Esq.

I'd like nothing more than to learn something worth sharing, or barring that, to bake something in the new oven that is worth sharing!

David Esq.'s picture
David Esq.


The Oven arrived.  I reviewed it on my word press blog.

Haven't yet made bread in it and am not sure that I ever will.  However, it is a tremendous amount of fun for baking pizza!