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'.

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