Cooking with fire

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  • You've heard the phrase "now we're cooking with gas"? Time for a change.

    After a long wait and some rather ridiculous, but fun, logistics (see this thread), I finally have a wood fired oven. I love to cook, and I've wanted to try this for years, so I may try to document progress here. If you're into this sort of thing too, please join in!!

    To christen it, we had a bunch of friends round and had the kids make pizza. I set the oven going around 10am with a gentle fire and ramped it up every hour until around 2pm when the inside temp was pushing 600+ degrees, the floor was at 370 degrees, and the pizzas cooked in about a minute. Sadly I don't have any photos as I was too busy trying to keep up with the kids manufacturing pace, but we got through 25+ individual sized pizzas, and some large banana and Nutella calzone for dessert.
    It was amazing. So much fun to use, fascinating to watch the base bubble up and the toppings just sear in front of your eyes. The flavour and texture are just as they should be. And you'll never have another supermarket bought oven pizza again.

    This past Sunday, we went for a different approach: roast chicken and roast potatoes. This calls for a more controlled and sustained heat, and with little practice at this sort of thing, it's a pain. The chicken cooked well, but it needed a fair amount of supervision, and I spent a lot of time tending the fire to try to keep the temperature stable. However, the flavour was superb, with a definite hint of smokiness to the meat. The texture was also memorable, slightly dry, like a cured meat on the outside, succulent on the inside. The spuds, par-cooked before going into the oven were wonderfully crisp and browned.

    The key difference to using my/a regular oven, is time and heat management. With pizza you want the hottest temperature you can handle, and you're cooking for a minute or so only. This means you can keep piling on the wood as you go, with little concern for the cooling curve; there appears to be no such thing as too hot.
    With the chicken, not so easy. I'm new at this, but I think the key is time, and to have plenty of it. Build up the temperature in the oven so that there are no cold spots, and then work out how much wood (and when) to throw in to keep it there. I'm used to cranking up the oven and in a few minutes I have a sustained and regular temperature. With a wood oven, you can't be in a hurry. I guess it probably takes a few hours to build up enough heat and embers in the oven to sustain the needed temp for long enough to cook whatever it is.
    So, all tips and advice welcome, and clearly, more practice needed! The pizza bit is under control, the long term objective is to be able to cook all the other stuff that will benefit from the flavour and type of heat - roast suckling pig anyone?

    Pix of the chicken below. It started in a dish, but I ended up placing it on a rack above the dish with the spuds to try to get the heat all around it. That seemed to work pretty well.

    • Pizza in a minute, just a minute though, it took an hour to chop up branches and half a day to get up to temperature....I could just imagine coming in with my lot starving and saying OK lads go and chop up some logs and I will light the fire. Dad but it's raining outside and I don't want no chocolate pizzas.... I want a pepperoni one.... we haven't got any pepperoni, we've got sausage is that ok? No I want pepperoni... the other one, I'll have a sausage one dad, great I've got those venison ones.... I'm not eating them dad they're cruel sausages...

    Dad is it nearly ready yet, no your brothers haven't cut up any logs but we're starving.... right then just have a bowl of cereal, I can't be bothered anymore... but dad you promised.

    Just a little fun Richp but that's how it would go in my house. One of my best ever holidays was staying at a friends villa in Scilly and he had an oven as you describe in the garden and it was wonderful to use and enjoy. I don't think it would work in a busy modern house now though. I wish you well.

  • @Karlo - too right!!

    There is no way a wood fired oven "fits" with current lifestyles. I have it purely for fun, and because I want to learn to use one. I have a large, electric oven that I use most of the time, and a catering grade gas one for backup when needed.

    The wood oven is for days like a week ago on Saturday when we had 18 people round to spend the day: nothing on the agenda beyond passing the time with friends and enjoying a day in the garden. I had the wood chopped already (since this is a sharps site, I use a Fiskars x series splitter for the purpose), the dough came from a mate of mine who runs a pizzeria, everyone brought their favourite ingredients, and I had a hell of a lot of fun getting the oven up to temp in time for when people got there.

    The flip side is trying to do a roast chicken on a Sunday evening when you hadn't really thought about it until the last minute... It's doable, but it takes some effort. Frankly it's a hell of a lot easier in the regular oven in the kitchen.

    So you're bang on really, not something for a school night, but trust me, store-bought pizzas cooked at 220 degrees in a fan oven are a thing of the past.
    Oh, and don't knock Nutella and banana until you've tried it!!!

  • Now there's a challenge!
    I think cooking a turkey in there could be rather tough - not to mention the door isn't actually that tall. Christmas dinner round ours tends to be 15+ people, which makes for a large turkey.

    However, I have in the past made the porchetta version of turkey, where the marinaded meat of the turkey is put back into the skin, held together with stuffing and then cooked in the oven. It's great for Christmas because it makes the turkey actually taste of something (I'm not a fan of turkey), and since it's bonded out, slicing is easy. Depending on how brave you're feeling you can use more than one turkey (my record is two and a bit into the skin of one) to fit the number of people...
    Thinking about it as I type, I think that would work if I can master the heat (3 -4 hours at 150ish), and it would be rather awesome with the smoke. Fantastic idea, thanks!!

  • Taking into consideration @'Karlo''s comments - which are very true - I'd like to offer up today's experience to show that the amount of effort involved is not all that bad.

    We had four people round for lunch today (so six adults in total), having decided on Thursday evening that the weather might hold. We decided to go for pizza.
    Friday night, I made the dough, took approach 45 mins, left it in the fridge overnight to ferment.
    Saturday morning went to buy some other ingredients (cheese, meat, fixings for dessert). Then chopped up some wood for later, got the dough out of the fridge and left to prove, got some tomato sauce out of the freezer (I make big batches of the stuff and always have some on hand), made sure there was beer in the fridge, prepared some fennel sausage meat, got prep done for dessert, and went shooting.
    Got back in time to light the oven at 1345, with a planned start time of 1500hrs. Started the fire with softwood kindling, fed it with some hardwood kindling and ever larger pieces of hardwood, aiming to get it to 300+ for when people showed up. Had a quick check of the insulation, and the temp on the outside of the oven was showing around 30 degrees, so I guess it works well enough. It got hotter later, but nothing too serious.
    At 1445 started shaping the bases (four pizzas in total), got toppings done around 1520 after people got here, had a drink, etc., and cranked up the fire around 1510. Got everything to temp (floor temp around 400C, general temp 500 and rising - topped out around 660 or so). First pizza (basic tomato, mozzarella and basil) went in at 1530, and came out, done, at 1531. The other three (bit meatier) went in shortly after that, and we're out after about 80 to 90 seconds cooking time each.
    When the last one was done, spread the embers around the base of the oven to cool things down, and sat back down to enjoy the time with friends. By no means a quickly fixed meal, but a couple of hours prep time (over a couple of days) to feed some friends (and have a great time doing it) is, to me, well worth it.
    Pizzas are still a bit freeform, but the taste and texture are all they should be. Photos below.