Monday, October 29, 2012

Brick Oven Planning

Before I cut the fire bricks and mix the mortar, I plan the oven project.  This obvious step goes beyond calculations.  For me, it involves asking questions, ones that are more easily answered in advance of construction.

  • What is the anticipated use of the oven.  
  1. Will it be a party oven used mostly for pizza?
  2. Will it become part of a daily or weekly baking?
  3. Will it be shared amongst a group of bakers?
  • What environment is the oven part of?
  1. As an outdoor oven, is it near or far from the home kitichen?
  2. As an attached space oven, is there room for people to congregate around the oven and take part in the process?
  3. As a kitchen oven, how much space is available in the kitchen and how central to the kitchen will it be?
  • What are the building codes?
  1. Some regions have strict local codes.  Ask about them.  It may alter the plan radically.
  2. Where there are no specific codes, look into fire safety.  Clearances around combustion chambers are important.
  3. Using an existing chimney or foundation can streamline the conformation to codes.
  • Aesthetic considerations make the difference.
  1. I ask a lot of questions about this.  If I hear a cultural reference, such as Qubecquois beehive ovens, I look into the design and gather photos so I know we are on the same 'page'.   
  2. Many people associate brick ovens with the Mediterranean countries and even among those places there are remarkable differences in appearance.  
  3. Splicing an Old World look into a New World setting is all about well-defined aesthetics.

  • Once the above considerations are explored, the measuring and cost factoring can begin.

Wednesday, October 24, 2012

Tuning a Brick Oven

My design philosophy goes like this:
When a project is complete it is best if it is integrated into the home or garden environment so well that it appears to have always been there.  A design that shouts its presence will always be a stranger to the place.

This is achieved by picking up on the visual cues, materials, and vernacular of the location.
Visual cues might be the color scheme of the building or the angles of the roofs, patios, and walkways.  They would also include the cultural context of those details and the cultural tastes of the home or restaurant where the oven is located.
Materials include the existing stone, brick, wood, plaster, and plantings.

Vernacular, defined here as the native visual language of the place, is often where the challenge lies.  The house may be colonial, the kitchen modern, but the brick oven space may still be Tuscan.  Splicing disparate styles requires choosing the elements that most represent the desired mood of the space.  Color can be the key.  Materials another choice.  Lighting a third. Etc.

Since most people wish to have their project reflect their tastes in a very personal and unique way, working with the owner is essential.  One very useful approach I employ as the designer is a ban on artistic censorship.   If there might be an idea that works, it should be spoken.  Some designers, attempting to put forth  ideas they assume will be acceptable, censor some of their best instincts because they seem radical thereby losing the one brilliant idea that would make the project shine.

Going back to the philosophy, my litmus test for success is a perfectly tailored solution for the purpose and client that fits seamlessly into the space.  Almost everyone can recognize when that is found.

All projects shown are by TBO.

Thursday, October 11, 2012

Brick Oven Evaluation

Pompeii, Italy bakery oven 2000+ years-old
There are a number of ways to evaluate a brick oven, either historical, existing or about to be built.  The methods are based: proposed use, proposed budget, and proposed location.

French Commuity Oven
Grilling in the mouth
For my part, proposed use is the first question.  For bakers who want to move beyond pizza (don't get me wrong, I love pizza and have had many parties centered around my oven), the thermal properties of the oven need to include enough mass and enough insulation, below and above the oven to preserve stored BTUs for long periods of time.

TBO portable
Portable ovens for caterers fall into an entirely unique category covered in other posts on this blog.

Uninsulated ovens or ovens with semi-conductive shells such as cob ovens are great for short term baking.  The heat, even with a thin layer of insulating vermiculite cement on the exterior, leaves the mass of clay and sand quickly.  But they are great ovens, used throughout history to the advantage of many cultures.

building cob
All of us want to live within a tolerable budget.  For some that means the minimum investment.  For others, the dollar number varies according to the priority of the oven project in their cooking lives.
In order of least expensive to most: 
A 'pizza stone' in a gas or electric oven will make really good bread, okay pizza. 
Next, the use of a heavy pizza stone on or in hooded gas grill has been reported to make good pizza.  A cob oven, built for around $200 will give true wood-fired satisfaction and is the perfect entry-level oven for some wanting to get their feet wet in the artisan baking world.
Italian feast
Cast refractory ovens can range in price from cheap to pricey.  They come as 'kits' or fully assembled.  Each company constructs their cast oven in a different way, depending on the target buyers bank account.  Some cast ovens are made for bread bakers with lots of mass and plenty of insulation.  Others assume that pizza is the prime intended product and they provide a thin dome that heats quickly but doesn't have the mass for long baking projects.  Ask lots of questions when buying a kit.
Lastly, custom built true brick ovens are made to last a lifetime and more.  They are expensive because a mason is building them (or if you are courageous, patient, and exacting you may take on the project).
Three season room
Right in the kitchen
Even among true brick ovens, the design possibilities go from a simple barrel arch, a sprung arch, or a dome.  The oldest of these shapes is the dome or 'Pompeii' style oven, taken from the design of the 20+ bakeries in the uncovered remains of the city of Pompeii, Italy.

The location of an oven will tend to determine the frequency and way it is used.  An outdoor oven will lean towards the summer party event.  An oven off of a three season room will get much more frequent use given the shelter from weather, bugs, and easy access to the home.  An oven sited right in the working kitchen may be used daily.

As they say in election years, it's all about 'informed choice'.

Stone Turtle Baking and Cooking School

     "From Friday evening’s pizza party to Saturday’s wrap-up you will receive 2 full days of comprehensive instruction on wood-fired oven management.  But don’t let the work “intensive” scare you – this class is seriously fun!  All meals included, which is only fair since you’ll preparing and cooking them!
    Hands-on and strictly limited to 8 students."
    As described on the Stone Turtle website

        When Michael Jubinsky offers a brick oven intensive, get ready for a tour-de-force of wood-fired cooking.

        I visited the school the day before the intensive in October began and Michael was pre-heating the wood-fired oven and  measuring out ingredients for puff pastry that would be part of the welcome food. 

        Leafing through the book of recipes covered for the weekend, I was struck (silent and drooling) by the quantity and breadth of foods about to be prepared (and eaten) by the eight lucky participants.

        Having an oven of my own and having cooked or baked a wide range of food in the oven, I couldn't help but imagine the surprise that anyone would feel as meal after meal, meats, seafood, breads, desserts, and more were rotated through the changing temperatures of the wood-fired oven.

        Even as an experienced cook, I know I'd learn a full helping from a weekend with Michael.  His good-natured, but exacting approach to success in the kitchen makes him a philosopher/scientist chef.

Wednesday, October 10, 2012

Brick Oven Stoking

A wood-fired brick oven requires that we know how to stoke. 


  1. Add coal or other solid fuel to (a fire, furnace, or boiler).
  2. Encourage or incite (a strong emotion or tendency): "his composure had the effect of stoking her anger".
Let's choose number #1, shall we?
How much and how fast often stumps (no pun intended) the green (pun intended) user.
Firstly, seasoned (read: very dry) hardwood is most useful.

Crib or Log Cabin starter fire
Secondly, small and slow is better than roaring.  Wood can only release its BTU's (which are absorbed by the dome of the oven) in the presence of oxygen.  Over-stoking (read: rushing) simply produces smoke, soot, and wastes wood and BTU's.

A small log-cabin like stack of wood is placed under the throat.  Softwood kindling can be used here. When the fire is bright and clear, this log cabin can be pushed partway backwards because the flue is warm and will draw the smoke horizontally.

Larger hardwood can be placed on the fire at this point.  Now comes the easy but patient part.
Get the hardwood going but don't loiter around the oven (unless you have guests in which case you can enjoy the fireplace-like appearance of the oven at this stage).

Soon the fire will be quite hot and  you may roast or broil using the curling flames.
Periodically placing a couple of dry logs on the fire will keep the fire bright and heat the dome sufficiently.

At about 600 degrees F, carbon (soot) will burn off the dome interior.  Less wood is needed now because the temperature in the oven is forcing the release of a secondary volatile.


Black billows of smoke need not course out of the oven. That is an indicator of overstoking.
When the oven has reached the temperature you desire, you may push the coals to the rear of the oven, or spread them out to fully heat the walls.

A sophisticated method of evenly heating the oven was demonstrated to me by Michael Jubinsky of Stone Turtle Baking and Cooking School in Lyman, Maine.

He arranges dry logs around the exterior of his large diameter oven, starts the fire as above and at some point (around an hour after starting) the logs around the perimeter catch.  The oven then is heated from all directions.  In smaller ovens this may be tricky but worth a try with smaller wood.

If your oven is stoked properly, you will use very little wood but get a very fast temperature rise.

If for any reason, you get stoked by another person's behavior, spend some time in front of your brick oven fire.  It's very calming.

Tuesday, October 9, 2012

Pizza on the Fly

I  stopped in to see Ryan Carey, owner and pizza slinger of Pizza on the Fly on the last day of the Fryeburg Fair.
He and his twin brother and friends had been turning out 90 second pizzas all week.
Two years ago, I built the portable oven that he has been trucking around to big festivals all over New England every weekend of the summer.
Ryan (and his crew) impress me as go-getters willing to work a regular job all week and then work another 50 hours on the weekends.  Made me remember my 20's.
I enjoyed watching the 16" pizzas going in and then 90 seconds later coming out bubbling hot and perfect.
Pizza wisdom has it that the shorter time the dough bakes the more soft and crunchy the crust is.  A slice of their Tomato Basil pizza convinced me that they have the recipe down.

Thursday, October 4, 2012

Jim's Brick Oven Mussels

At long last, the spring blockbuster movie of Jim Davis, chef at Stonehurst Manor  preparing his now-famous 'Bang's Island Mussels in a portable brick oven that I bring to the Northern New England Home, Flower, and Garden Show every May.

Jim brought mussels and ingredients to my house the first time I fired up my original oven and I've been a fan ever since. Thanks Jim.

Bang’s Island” Mussels
with Tomatoes, Basil and White Wine (or in this case fine beer or ale)

2# Bang’s Island Mussels
(or Prince Edward Island Mussels)
1cup Grape Tomatoes
2oz. Fresh Basil
TT Chopped Garlic
½ c. White Wine
TT Salt and Pepper
2 tbl. Whole Butter
Olive Oil


Heat sauté pan and add oil. Add Garlic and allow to become aromatic, without burning. Add Mussels and toss in oil, the heat should instantly make some of the mussels’ pop open. When most of the mussels have opened, add tomatoes and season with salt and pepper. Deglaze pan with wine and allow the rest of the mussels to open. Add Basil, and butter, stirring slightly to allow the butter to whisk into the broth. Serve immediately.

Note: discard any unopened mussels, do not eat them.