Episode 3: Very Basic Bread

The adventures of the little oven continue…

Having completely dried the plaster and given the oven a few test firings, I then decided to be brave and attempt to cook in it.  I decided to go for the simplest of simple dough for a first outing as I didn’t want to risk annihilating anything special should anything go wrong.  So far this blog has covered setting up a small clay oven with a ready fired ceramic inner onto a portable stand however the following principles should be the same for a wood fired clay oven of any size and sort.  Because of the small size of this oven, I opted for the ‘fire out’ method of cooking, using radiated heat from the dome and floor rather than the direct heat of a fire.

Be Prepared

For cooking in your oven you will need a basic kit of:

  • Something to scrape the embers out of the oven with. I use a small brass scraper from a fireplace tool set but anything you find works well should be fine. Just make sure that it is long enough to reach the back of your oven without you burning yourself. The scraper can also double nicely as a poker, should you need to poke the fire as the oven heats.
  • Something to put the dough into the oven on and take the bread out. I use a large wooden spatula as my oven is small but should your oven be large enough there is a wide selection of bread and pizza peels on the market. The fish slice from a barbecue set also works well. Again, just make sure that it is long enough to reach the back of the oven without you getting your hands burned. Also if you are using a smaller oven, make sure that your peel fits through the door!
  • A small brush to sweep up stray ash with.  Some wood fired oven users also advocate using a brush or mop to sweep the cinders out of the oven before baking but personally I prefer the old Italian method of giving the flat of the peel (or spatula) a couple of gentle taps on the oven floor. This sends most stray ash to the sides or out of the chimney.
  •  Something fireproof to scrape the hot embers into when the fire is taken out of the oven. I use an old ceramic skillet (also made by Trinity Court!) however a metal ash shovel from a fireplace set or any other fireproof container that won’t result in burned hands is fine.
  • A place to safely put the hot embers. An empty barbecue or fire box should do fine for this. Remember that it is likely during sustained cooking that you will at some point have to put your fire back in to bring the oven back up to temperature  and the best way of doing this is to put a shovel of hot coals back. Don’t completely extinguish them unless you are certain that you won’t need them again.
  • Something to put over the chimney.  Heat rises and so the chimney is the place where you will lose heat quickest. You can also use the chimney to regulate the heat in your oven so make sure that whatever you use to block the chimney is fireproof and won’t burn your hands when you touch it. I used a wooden bannister knob soaked it water. It scorches but is basically ok.
  • Something to use as an oven glove.  I used an old linen cloth which I mainly used for putting the door on and taking it off.
  • A good supply of pre-chopped sticks.  There is little more annoying than having to go and chop more sticks when you are busy with other things.
The basic kit of spatula, scraper, ceramic skillet, brush and wooden knob!

The basic kit of spatula, scraper, ceramic skillet, brush and wooden knob!

Next, you need something to cook.

For the very first baking session I decided to use a basically ‘sacrificial’ dough; nothing that I would be too upset if it spoiled but perfectly edible if all turned out well. I used a basic crusty dinner roll dough from Paul Hollywood’s “How to Bake” book consisting of:

500g strong bread flour

20g unsalted butter

10g fast action yeast

10g salt

320ml of tepid water

  • Incorporate all your ingredients and knead the dough until it is elastic.
  • Leave to prove in a warm place for a hour or more.
  • Then, when the dough has at least doubled in size,
  • knead again to knock the air out.  Form it into balls (remember that they will at least double in size so make sure they will fit through your oven door!) and leave to prove on a tray for another hour or more.
  • After you have left the dough to prove for a second time, light your oven. Each oven is different and unique so as you use yours you will get to know how long your particular oven takes to heat up. Mine I have discovered takes about an hour to get to temperature with a decently hot fire inside it.

As in the previous chapter, tend your fire gently and try and keep it well supplied with sticks to provide a good bed of embers.  You may notice the oven dome going black with soot, don’t worry about this as it is completely normal.  When the oven dome reaches approximately 400 degrees Centigrade, the soot will start to burn off. You will know when this is happening as the flames will turn a dark orange and a small amount of bitter smelling black smoke will come from the chimney.  Again, do not panic as this is exactly what you want to happen at this stage.  When the inside of the dome is burned clean (this can be ascertained by carefully peeking through the door) the oven is up to temperature.

  • Make sure that your dough is ready.
  • Allow the fire to burn mainly to embers.
This oven is ready to have the embers taken out.

This oven is ready to have the embers taken out.

  • Take the fire out of the oven by using the scraper to scrape the embers into your container, then tip them into the safe, fireproof place (in my case a firebox). Get the oven floor as clean as possible with the scraper.

What comes next may seem a little counter-intuitive as before you put your bread in, you need to let the oven cool. In letting it cool down a little, it evens out any hotspots caused by the fire and gives you a nice, even baking environment. If you put your bread into an oven that is too hot, you will end up with bread that it burned on the outside and raw dough in the middle.

This is what happens if your oven is too hot!

This is what happens if your oven is too hot!

I opted for the somewhat hazardous and old fashioned method of gauging temperature by holding my hand in the centre of the oven and seeing how long I would keep it there.  In the end I discovered that 4 ‘mississipis’ was the right temperature for bread.  Again though, see what works for you as what is one ‘mississippi’ for one person, may be three to someone else!

  • Pat the oven floor with the flat of your spatula a couple of times to waft away any stray ash.
  • Cut crosses in the top of your bread rolls, put flour on your peel or spatula and scrape up the roll, being careful not to deform it.
  • Place the roll in the oven by sliding the dough off the peel or spatula with a brisk ‘forward and back’ jerk.  I found that my oven can accommodate 4 bread rolls very nicely.
  • When the rolls are in the oven, put the door on and plug the chimney to retain the heat.
All plugged up with its door and chimney knob!

All plugged up with its door and chimney knob!

  • Check the rolls after 5 minutes to make sure they are not burning. The easiest way of doing this is peeping down the chimney.  The rolls should take 8-10 minutes depending on their size (bigger takes longer) and are done when they sound hollow when tapped on the bottom.
  • When done, remove the rolls from the oven by scooping them onto a floured spatula or peel.
  • Leave the bread to cool.

I find that my oven keeps hot enough for two lots of rolls to cook without putting the fire back in, however you may find yours can cook more or less depending on its size and how it retains the heat.  If you find that the oven loses heat before the second batch is done, don’t worry.  Take the bread out and put the fire back in to bring the oven back up to temperature.  When it is back up, repeat the first steps and replace the bread back in the oven.  Also remember that putting things in your oven cools it down and so the second batch of bread will take longer to cook than the first.

When you have finished cooking, this is a good time to use some  freshly mixed plaster to patch any cracks that have appeared during this firing.  You may even find that you have lost lumps of plaster from around the chimney and the door. Don’t panic, just put fresh plaster down when the oven is cool enough to touch safely.

Enjoy your lovely fresh bread!

Lovely fresh bread from your own wood fired oven.

Lovely fresh bread from your own wood fired oven.

Next time… Pies!

(yet to be attempted so watch this space!)