Firing Up Your Wood Fired Oven

How to use a Wood Fired Oven

Getting The Most From Your Wood Fired Oven

wood fired oven - fired up

Unless you’re a serious wood fired oven addict, most of the time you’re just going to ‘quick light’ your wood fired oven and make pizzas. In fact, these days, quite a few wood fired ovens don’t have any insulation and are really only meant for pizzas or fast grills. But, even if it doesn’t have a lot of insulation, you and your wood fired oven are capable of a hell of a lot more than just pizzas (no matter how terrific they are!) and occasionally, it’s nice to explore that potential.

If you’re going to have a baking day or a baking day party though, you’ll need to take it seriously. It’s not something to do lightly…

Buns unbaked ready for the oven Fresh bread baked in a wood fired oven French bread sticks ready for the ready for the wood fired oven Apple cake fresh from the wood fired oven Baked buns fresh from the wood fired oven

First off, you need to be really organized. You need to have a list of what you’re going to bake and in what order, and you need to get all your ingredients and as much of your prep as possible, done in advance. You’ll also need to take your fire seriously. You’ll need to chop up a considerable amount of wood and be willing to give your fire your whole attention for quite long periods of time.

For pizzas, any old fire will do, you’re just trying to generate lots of heat and do it as quickly as possible. Using your oven for baking is a whole different ballgame...

If you want the oven to stay hot for an extended period of time, you need to get that heat right into the stones. This process of 'soaking' the stones takes from 2 to 4 hours of fire maintenance.

You need to start by removing all the leftover timber, coals and ash from your oven (see our Ash Pan and Brush Set) and checking out your chimney – good fires depend on air flow – and then you need to build your fire with all the seriousness of a nine year old going for a Boy Scout badge!

Start off with a small kindling fire in the centre of the oven. Let it establish and slowly build on your wood size. This is when it’s a real advantage to either have your oven close to the kitchen or to have an outdoor kitchen that you can prep in, because getting your fire up to big wood and lots of glowing coals can take an hour or so and while you need to keep an eye on your fire and add more and bigger logs as you need them, you don’t have to give it constant attention and you can be getting on with other things...

Once you’ve got lots of lovely coals and logs well ablaze, start moving your fire around. You need to get the whole oven evenly hot and if you leave the fire in one place only, while the thermostat might say you’ve reached the right temperature, you’ll actually end up with an intense 'hot spot' where the fire was and not enough heat elsewhere.

The Ideal Oven Tools to use for this are the Ember Rake and/or Coal Scoop. If you don't have these tools, then the Pan Hook, the Pizza Shovel and even the Trowel are all useful tools to move the fire around with, rearranging your logs each time you move and adding more logs as needs be. You’re going to need a lot of wood (2-3 big wheelbarrow loads full) by the time you’re done.

I usually go from the initial fire (front and centre) to middle back left, middle back right, front left, front right, a big session along the back and then a last move into the centre again. All of this takes 2 to 3 hours and you need to time it so you finish up with pretty much just coals by the last move...

If I’m just doing some pizzas and some bread, I usually pop the pizzas in as soon as the coals are out. If I’ve got a full days adventure planned, I put them in when the fire’s at the back. I move them around a bit and use the Trowel to keep a close eye on their bottoms – pizzas are great 'hot spot' and oven temperature testers. When they’re done, I pull the last of the coals into the centre while we’re eating them and by the time we’re done eating, the oven should be evenly heated and ready.

If you have a thermostat, the temperature should be close to 400° Celsius just before you remove the coals. If you don’t have a thermostat, scatter a little flour on what you think is the coldest part of the floor. If it burns instantly, you’re over temperature, if it takes a couple of seconds to toast, you’re in the zone...

You need to put the coals some place safe. I use the coal scoop and/or ember rake to move them forward as far as I can, then use the ash pan and wire brush or (if you don't have a full arsenal of tools), the Pizza Shovel and/or Trowel to put them in a big metal drum that we have close by.

Some people with a good, wide ash container built in to the front of the oven or able to clip on there, can scrape the coals into their ash pit with either the Ember Rake or the Wire Brush. If you have a wood BBQ close by, you can also put your coals into it and even (if you REALLY want to get the most out of your fire!) continue to use them to cook on, until they cool down.

Doing this is not as anal as you might think. If you’re prepping and cooking a feast, there are often things that need (or can be) cooked on the stove top – sauces, glazes, fried onions, gravy, etc – which can be cooked over the coals instead. Keeping the coals also means that you can re-set the oven temperature easily, which can be quite handy if you’re planning a bit of a grill-fest before you bake bread or if you want to roast and then bake cakes and the oven has cooled down too much before the second step. If you’ve still got the coals you can pop them back in the oven, maybe add some small pieces and be back to the right temperature in no time.

If you haven’t built your wood fired oven yet, how and where you’re going to dispose of your coals is definitely something to keep at the front of your mind. I’ve seen quite a few set ups where this operation is perilous and pretty much unfixable, because of the lack of planning.

Once the coals are out and safely disposed of, work quickly and clean the oven floor. There’s probably a fair bit of ash lying around and a sweep with a good, stiff, Natural Bristle Brush is the best way to remove it. This brush will burn/melt/singe over time and there’s not much you can do about it, except try to be quick. That's one of the reasons why we invented our brushes – you can replace the heads as they wear out. Once you’ve got most of the ash out and safely disposed of, you can either use the bristle brush to sweep or the shovel to give the middle of the floor a few GENTLE pats – both of which will chase the remaining ash into the corners – or you can run over the floor with a DAMP – not wet - cotton mop. What a coincidence, we make one of these Damp Mop tools too!

If you haven’t checked for hot spots yet, scatter some flour around and look at what happens. If it burns instantly all over the floor, you’re way above 400° C and you need to wait 15 minutes and try again. If it burns instantly in some areas, you’ve got some hot spots and you can either try and even things up with more fire and waiting or you can sweep the ash up with your Natural Bristle Brush or pat it into the corners with your Pizza Shovel and then wet the Damp Mop thoroughly, wring it out so it’s slightly wet (but not dripping) and run it over the hot spots a few times to cool them down.

Once you’ve wet the Damp Mop thoroughly, don’t scatter the flour again and think you’re going to use the mop to clean it up – you’ll just end up making glue on the floor. Just do the test once and use your judgment to work it out from there.

Okay, now we get to the fun bit. While the ovens at around 350°, make your pizzas, Turkish bread and flat breads or grill meats and vegetables that work well with a bit of char on them (like onions, eggplants and whole mushrooms) or blacken the skin on capsicums, tomatoes and peppers or cook meatballs and rissoles and ribs and chicken wings.

Once you feel that initial edge come off the heat and/or the thermostat has dropped to around 325°, it’s time for the breads, scones and muffins.

Marco's wood fired oven and oven door on back of Pete's ute

Everything from here on in requires you to have some sort of 'oven door' in place. This can be as simple as a piece of ply wedged in place with a stone or an elaborate, purpose-built timber or metal device.  If you have a chimney, the door has to fit into the oven before the flue, separating the flue from the oven. Pete can make you a door if you want, though getting the size right without seeing the oven is quite tricky, but send us an email if you’re interested.

To make really good bread, a well sealed oven door is a must – it keeps the moisture in and the temperature even and you get a really nice rising and a great crust. The best sort of oven door for baking is one that fits reasonably well but also has a ledge around it on which you can put a really wet rag or lay a piece of well soaked rope. This sort of oven door creates a good seal and the moisture does great things to the bread. Even if you don’t have a ledge for some wet material on your door, try wrapping some around anyway and then wedging the oven door shut with the material in it; you’ll really notice the difference in the bread...

Wood fired oven door - front view Wood fired oven door - back view Wood fired oven door - side view

However you seal your wood fired oven door, remember you need to work quickly. Once the fire is gone and you’re just working on radiant heat, the less time the oven is open, the more heat is retained, meaning your oven will cook at an even temperature for far longer. This also applies to checking. With a wood fired oven, you have to resist the temptation to be forever opening the door, because each time you do, you drop the temperature.

Next in the production line (at around 300°), cook your roast meats and vegetables or casseroles and stews (including lasagna). If you’ve done a serious bread bake (and bread always cooks better if you cook lots at once) and you’re planning to now cook a serious roast, you may have to put the coals back in and stoke them for ½ an hour or so to get a bit of ‘instant heat’ back to sear your roast with.

If you want to cook big joints of meat, whole animals or really slow cooked stews, the best sort of seal (and the most fun!) is clay or mud. Just find a suitable source (if all else fails, ask a potter where they get their clay) and put your ply or door in place and seal around the edges. Have plenty of clay or mud spare and as your food cooks, just add more when cracks develop or you see steam or smoke escaping.

If you’re not cooking a roast, cakes and pastry come next. As a general rule, from 200° for filled pies and tarts, down to about 180° for cakes, is the best band for cooking pastry and cakes in.

If you want to cook roasts and then cakes, you would more than likely need to re-fire the oven and also move the fire around a bit – cakes and pastry aren’t too tolerant of hot spots. This is a heck of a lot of trouble, particularly if its mid afternoon and you’ve had a couple of glasses of wine and feel like you’ve single-handedly eaten half a pig or a side of beef…

If you must eat dessert after your roast, have a pie or a crumble. Do your pastry and filling prep in advance and when the roast comes out, pop the pastry in to blind bake. After lunch, either fill your cooled pastry shells with pastry cream and fruit (like strawberries) and whack on some glaze, or fill your hot shells with stewed fruit (like apples & rhubarb), put your lid on, glaze and pop it in to cook.

If you don’t do a roast or you don’t want to do a dessert after it, still don’t waste that heat. Even though everyone thinks of them as being perfect for cooking pizzas (hot and fast), where wood fired ovens really come into their own is with things that require a gentle, slow heat.

I’m not kidding around here. Even if you’re really tired and full, when the temperature gets down to under 150° (the oven’s still warm, but has lost any ‘I’m going to seer all your arm hair off’ feel), you can bake the most beautiful quiche, frittata, cheesecake, baked custard, crème caramel, bread and butter pudding, creamed rice, pavlova and meringue that you will EVER eat. Also, at around 100° you can dry fruits, nuts and herbs and make the most delicious smokey muesli/granola.

Pete and a load of wood for the oven

Obviously, all these things have to be planned and/or prepped earlier in the day, but if the oven temperature is right, once you pop them in, you can just forget them. Take them out either when you call it quits for the day, or if it’s late, take them out in the morning.

After a full days baking, you won’t want to cook much the next day anyway and if it was an epic party, or if you’ve still got people over, you’ve now got a second lot of food that will blow their socks off...

Sometimes, I’ve even been smart enough to do a breakfast quiche (bacon and corn) the night before and one memorable weekend-long party (at Mt Garnet Races) I managed (even though I was in a drunken stupor) to whack a pot of Boston Baked Beans in the oven last thing at night, just before I passed out beside the fire! The next morning I woke up to the delicious smell of bacon and toast and when I could finally crack open an eye, it was to see people stepping over me to get to the fire to toast the sourdough we’d made the day before and dip it in the beans!

And that’s the way it always is. No, not drunk and disorderly, but even if you skip the liquor, a baking day will ALWAYS be epic and memorable and hard to do, but awesome to remember…

Using Your Ash on the Garden

Did you know the ash from your wood fired oven is really useful in the garden, particularly in the vege patch?

Wood ash contains lots of lime and potash, so plants that like a high PH level will really benefit from a sprinkle. You can be pretty liberal with it on celery, onions, broccoli, peas, broad beans, asparagus and globe artichokes, in particular.

Acid loving plants however, like most of your ornamentals – azaleas, camellias and rhododendrons - and a few of your vegetables - like potatoes and sweet potatoes - won't enjoy it, so make sure you stay well away from them.

When our ash bin is full (and cold!) we tip it into one of those big white buckets with a lid and keep it beside the compost bays, because it's really good for 'sweetening up' the heap. Don't go to town with it, but if your compost smells sour or has lots of pests like cockroaches and flies around it, a good sprinkle of ash will help bring it back into balance.

Similarly, if you've got lots of pine needles or oak leaves in your garden waste or you want to use pine needles in your mulch heap, some ash will really help to break them down.

Butter beans Pine needles Tomato plants

On the potash side, potash strengthens leaves and stems and promotes early flowering and healthier fruit in most plants. A little sprinkle around your tomato and onion seedlings will really yield results.

Potash is also the 'missing ingredient' that turns blood and bone to complete fertilizer. We mix about a cup full of wood ash into every bag of blood and bone that we use.

Slugs and snails won't crawl across wood ash, so a light 'no go zone' of ash around beds containing vulnerable plants - like lettuces and spinach - can be really helpful. Just remember to reapply it after heavy rain or soil disturbance.

Finally, as well as their dust bath, the chooks seem to like a bit of a scratch in the ash. The lime content really helps keep the bird mites down and also stops them from getting scaly feet.