Wood Fire Oven

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I'm reading The Bread Builders: Hearth Loaves and Masonry Ovens in an attempt to come to grips with whether or not I'm going to be able to swing having a wood fire oven in my back yard. The downside of my back yard is that it is tiny and that most of it is several feet below the back door. I have a wood deck that is conveniently floor-height, but I have some concerns about placing a wood fire oven next to the deck.

Three of the big decisions that you have to make when picking out what sort of oven you're going to have are:

  1. How much are you going to cook at one time?
  2. Is this oven primarily for pizza or for bread?
  3. How often are you going to cook in it?

There's no oven that will easily support all of the range of options posed by the questions above without causing you to either waste a lot of money on wood, waste a lot of time heating the oven, destroy your oven after a few years, and/or give you an inferior product when you're done with it.

The more mass you give an oven, the longer it will take to heat, but the longer that the heat will last. For an oven you're going to use every day, you want a lot of mass, because it will hold much of the heat overnight. This means you have to use less fuel heating it up the next morning.

On the other hand, the same massive oven, used only a few times a week, would be a terrible pain, because it would take a tremendous amount of wood each time to heat it up, and you'll wait around forever for it to happen. Depending on the materials you've chosen, you may cause extra damage to the oven by causing the repeated expansion and contraction of something that was prepared to spend its life mostly expanded.

I can't imagine a better guide through these options than The Bread Builders. It's a fascinating read, and I'm looking forward to learning a lot more about the design and construction of this oven. Who knows, one day I may even build one. Wouldn't that be exciting?

Bakewise initial impressions

I am reading through BakeWise now, partially because it's what I do, and partly because I am in the process of developing something special. A couple of special things, really. I'm reading through the Kindle edition I mentioned earlier, which is super cool. [amtap book:isbn=1416560785] My initial impressions are: 1) Awesome. 2) Okay, Shirley is definitely teaching me some seriously useful things about baking, and how to analyze and adapt recipes. I am into the first chapter so far, and the knowledge is just pouring in. It's not like On Food and Cooking, where it's a non-stop deluge of new facts. In BakeWise, Shirley repeats key facts and conclusions so that you can remember them, tying them together as new lessons are learned. It's a very useful teaching tool. [amtap book:isbn=0684800012] 3) The Kindle edition, while incredibly handy, is not going to be the only edition of the book I own. It's clear that the limited formatting of the Kindle causes asides to get mixed into the text, so that it seems as if she is repeating whole paragraphs of information, when it's probably just a sidebar. But having a searchable and portable version of the book is great. 4) Still awesome.

Wise Cooking

Whenever I go to bake, I have two go-to books that I like to check first. One of them is Alton Brown's I'm Just Here for More Food, and the other is Shirley O'Corriher's Cookwise. I imagine I'll be adding The Breadmaker's Apprentice at some point, but I don't have it just yet. What makes me so interested in the first two books? [amtap book:isbn=0688102298] [amtap book:isbn=1584793414] [amtap book:isbn=1580082688] Alton Brown's book is great because it divides up the cooking by preparation type, which I think all bakers should start doing. If you're using yeast, it's the Straight Dough method, and if you're making bubbles by incorporating sugar into solid butter, then it's the Creaming Method. You get a much more firm understanding of the different baking processes than you would just by reading the recipes. As an example, I was transcribing the family Coffee Cake recipe over Thanksgiving, and I noticed it used the Creaming Method. This saved me no end of writing, and I was able to grab the important information. Also, there was a mistake in the recipe as it was written, and I was able to fix it when I first went to make it (the chemical leavener was added to the wrong bit in the recipe). It's easy to use, and it has some great applications (what some people would call "recipes"). Shirley's Cookwise is a completely different beast. Her chapter divisions are based more on the material being studied, such as sugars, fats, or bread. What assured me that I made the right decision in buying her book, and the thing I point to whenever I want someone to know about it, is the thorough way she treated flour. Flour seems simple on the surface - All Purpose Flour, Bread Flour, Pastry Flour, etc. You pick one based on the recipe you're using, depending on how much protein your recipe needs. Pastry flour has relatively little protein, so it's a soft flour, and bread flour has much more protein, so it's a hard flour. However, Shirley points out that AP flours from different regions have different levels protein, so Southern brands are softer than Northern brands, and bleaching has an effect on the hardness, and so on. Then she shows you how you can determine, for any given flour, what the percentage of protein in it is. Not that you may ever need it, but if you do, it's there. The interesting thing about the recipes in Cookwise is that they are geared for success. They are not made to be simple, and they are not made to be quick. They are made to work. Every time. Any little trick that would increase the probability of your bread coming out perfectly is added in, and she makes notes of why the techniques or ingredients were added in to any given recipe, so you can understand what you would be doing if you left it out or modified it. In all, I highly recommend both books, and I would likely be lost without them at this stage in my baking. They're not books that you would use because you just need a quick idea of what you want to bake for breakfast this morning, but they are books to get you to the stage that you can master the concepts involved in baking.

Recipe book gaps

It was time to do something about all the apples that we had, so yesterday we decided to make a pie. A lemon custard pie. No, it was an apple pie, of course. I had a pie crust left over from when I was trying out the Whole Foods frozen pie crusts. They are, incidentally, not as good as the Pillsbury roll-out pie crusts, which, as we know, are good enough that it makes it hard for me to work up the effort to learn to make pie crust properly. Tried it once or twice, haven't quite gotten the knack. The biscuit method is not my best. However, I only had one shell, and I didn't feel like either making a crust or buying one, as that would have gone against the whole "let's use up this pie crust in a quick pie baking scenario" idea. Fortunately, my friend Stephanie, the last couple times I've made the apple pie, has suggested using a crumble topping instead of a pie crust. I figured this would be a good time to take her advice. So I turn to the index in Bittman's How to Cook Everything and look up Crumble. Nothin'. I check the pie index, and can see no crumble toppings. I check the tart index, and can find nothing there. I desperately try to remember what I was trying to think of that wasn't a tart, because I knew that wasn't right, and eventually failed completely to come up with the word 'Cobbler'. Today I remember, but the oven was pre-heated, and I really didn't feel like wasting a bunch of time trying to figure out what I was trying to think of. [amtap book:isbn=0471789186] So I leaf through Cookwise, but that would require far too much thinking to figure out what I wanted, and was not for the quick "give me the recipe now, in small unmarked bills," situation that I was in. I grabbed Professional Baking and turned to the pie section. I was in luck! There was a picture of an apple pie with a crumble topping. Hooray! Only there was no recipe for a crumble topping. All of the toppings they had that seemed similar were for going under the pie, and I, again, didn't feel like experimenting. [amtap book:isbn=0688102298] [amtap book:isbn=0471464279] So my wife, eager for pie, suggests going for one of our spiral-bound books of Southern cookery. I do so, and there is exactly what I need, except I had to ditch the oatmeal as I had none. The general idea is to combine a bunch of solid fat (I used shortening (trans-fat free, mind you)), flour, and brown sugar with a bit of baking soda until it crumbles, and you're set. Done and done. The pie is tasty, it has a crumble topping, and I know of some gaps in many of my cookbooks. A good learning experience, with pie to boot. I suppose next I'll need to check through and see if I can find the crumble topping by looking up 'Cobbler'. But first: pie.