Saturday, March 31, 2012

Brick Oven Work Space

We may think of the brick oven as an entity on its own.  However, traditional and current ovens that work best incorporate food preparation workspace very close to the mouth of the oven.
Ovens in Pompeii, throughout Italy, France, Germany, Spain, and elsewhere have built-in niches where the milder heat radiated from the oven can rise bread, or where products related to the baked food can be laid out.
This matches the current design of outdoor and indoor kitchen spaces that have ovens. Because there are so many foods that can use the qualities of a wood-fired brick oven, an ample workspace is not only recommended but, given the social magnet effect of brick ovens, is necessary for enjoyable cooking.

Monday, March 26, 2012

Brick Oven Cost

[This NOTE added on November 19, 2018]
I encourage all people interested in cooking in a wood-fired oven to explore the options that fit their budget, time, and ability.  If, after reading this post, you find that building one yourself, or building with less costly materials will get you an oven sooner, then check the posts relevant to your situation. If you have some abilities and/or materials and would like assistance from TBO in building your oven, please contact me.  My business is divided into two distinct parts: the complete craft of building brick ovens AND providing information and encouragement so that you have an oven sooner than later.  Either one works for me.  I also want the oven you get to work for you.  Ciao,
David Neufeld- True Brick Ovens

Please also check a post of September 19. 2016 for comparisons with other makers.

3000 year old oven in Pompeii
As this is one of the most viewed posts on this blog, I feel compelled to update it as new and important information is available.
Our experience with major purchases tells us that we can expect our cars and houses to need major repairs within fifteen years (max) of purchase.  Brick ovens built as they were built a thousand years ago, last forty times longer.  Except for high-tech insulation materials that conserve fuel, the ovens I build are like those ancient ones.
It's been  years since I attempted to give those interested in purchasing a brick oven a solid bead on the costs.
In those years, I have built many brick ovens and consulted on others.  The answer to the question is...

What exactly do you want?  NOT a true answer, I admit, but it is the most important question that needs answering.

Brewster Academy 54" Oven by TBO
Because I build custom brick ovens, made for individuals and their unique locations and requirements, answering a group of questions will lead directly and effectively to an oven with a specific price tag.  It will, more importantly, result in an oven that works perfectly.

To explore this and obtain a personal response from me, go to: and click on "Your Checklist".

As of Fall 2015, I began giving exact costs for various sizes cores.  
Pulling the face arch form to complete the core. Yeah, it's California.

custom cut bricks
Core ready for enclosure

An oven core consists of block insulation under the oven, the oven floor and dome, the mouth and face arches, the insulation over the dome, and the flue.

Cores cost $8000.00 for a 36" interior dome.  A 42" core is $10K; a 48" core is $12K.  Etc.  Larger ovens can be built in exact increments with associated increase in cost.  Because these are custom domes, I do not need to build standard sizes.
Recently, a customer compared the cost of my building the oven to a high-end kit shipped from (fill in the blank...other country).  My on-site build was competitive.  The result is a true brick oven built from U.S. bricks, by a U.S. artisan mason.

Outdoor oven, kitchen and terrace by TBO
Factors that alter the cost are: locations requiring sub-floor reinforcing, difficult to reach locations, and places where codes require specific modifications.  I've dealt with all these conditions easily.

Here are a few categories of ovens and uses to consider:
Brick Oven in Conservatory
  1. The residential or home brick oven.  Usually 36" interior diameter unless you have crazy-big parties; then 42" or bigger.
  2. The outdoor brick oven, often part of an outdoor entertainment and kitchen space.  My longtime company: North Star Stoneworks is able to build out from the oven and integrate it into the landscape.
  3. The indoor brick oven, a smart choice in rugged climates where rain, snow, bugs, wind, and local gangs or neighbors might be a problem.  These oven can fit into conventional kitchens by placing the volume of the oven in a bumped-out space adjacent to the kitchen. Code-compliant, stainless steel insulated chimneys allow for ease of running exhaust vapors.  Indoor ovens by TBO now have make-up air channels so negative draft issues and air infiltration is eliminated.
  4. Bakery brick ovens capable of producing hundreds of loaves a day and remaining at temperature for long periods.  These ovens have extra mass in the dome and extra insulation under the floor and above the dome.  They are used to cook large amounts of food ranging from pizza to roasts, bread to slow-cooked casseroles.
  5. Portable brick ovens suited for catering business that want to cook on site.
    Portable 48" oven for 50 Local Restaurant in Maine (2015)

The above five categories begin to determine cost.  The other factor is style.  Ovens range from exterior finish that is very simple to elaborate details such as stone roofs, special tile and brickwork, stone, and even frescoes.

What I can do for anyone inquiring (see website TBO Checklist) is respond to a detailed request that includes photos and desired features.  If after talking with you, we have a clear idea of the oven you want, an exact cost amount will follow.  Then you'll know the true cost.

Please note: Factories, like those that turn out hundreds of cast refractory shells that you can buy, are able to put a dollar amount on their stamped-out product because they are all identical.  The hidden costs of finishing the job and the longevity of the oven are not mentioned.

(Added on July 8, 2014)
Given the attention this particular post has generated, I'll tag another factor in cost onto the information given:
TBO 54"  at Pietree Orchard
Built right, a brick oven is one of the most cost-effective investments you can make.  Built wrong, it can be a heart-break.  That is why so many of the posts on this blog offer information on building an oven.  Even if you don't build it yourself, YOU need to know what goes into a successful brick oven project.  You or your local mason, however well-intentioned, may not have ever built a successful brick oven.  The technical details of brick ovens, while not 'rocket science', are specific to this device.  There are dozens of books, and Youtubes, for products that claim to be 'brick ovens'.
The builders of the ovens in Pompeii and throughout Europe and north America (representing more than three thousand years of experience) perfected the domed brick oven.  Every other design is a post-industrial version.  Enough said.  Good luck.

The earlier version of this post is shown below:

During home and garden shows I have hundreds of people talk with me about brick ovens.  Although many (mostly guys) wanted to build one themselves and I am happy to supply know-how (as past blog posts will show), the most frequent question asked was, "How much do they cost?"
This is a legitimate question for anyone. Naturally, the smaller the oven the less the cost. Because I, as a mason have had negative experience with pre-cast ovens, I build solely out of fire brick, I can say that compared to some pre-cast wood-fired ovens, my brick ovens are competitive.

But people want hard numbers, so I bracket the costs, pointing to small ovens (30" interior diameter) with simple finishes. Larger ovens, portable ovens, interior ovens, and more extensive projects like designing an entire outdoor entertainment space or room addition tend to be priced individually because the detailing is so specific.

Anyone checking the marketplace for pre-cast refractory kits and custom brick ovens will find the range begins at about $2k (excluding the really cheap stuff) and tops out in the $20K range.

Hand-crafted brick ovens take available common materials (fire brick, refractory mortar and insulating products, concrete block, brick, stone, and heavy countertop stone) and make brick ovens that are unique to your environment and desires.

I find that people who are already avid cooks see the wood-fired brick oven as the holy-grail of chefdom, and for good reason.  They may already have a $6000.00 range in their kitchen. This is where cost comparisons become fair.

What will you spend? Think of the genuine brick oven as in the price range of a used car; one that will never need fixing, or an oil change, the windshield won't crack, or the tires wear out. It will become the center of your cooking life and each time you open the door, great food will come out.

This is what I said two years ago.  Compare to the first part of this post for similarities and differences.

POST, POST Script:
Hundreds of products have emerged on the market as a result of exploding interest in brick ovens.  Each of these products attempts to give the consumer the 'brick oven' experience at the lowest cost.  This is good, in some ways.  Not everyone can build or afford a true brick oven.  Inventing ways of emulating the cooking qualities of a masonry mass is the job of industry.   It's been done with virtually every device ever invented.  As tempting as it is for me to become a 'dealer' for a company offering the manufactured wood-fired oven, I will continue to take pride and pleasure in building custom brick ovens in the tradition of true artisan masons.
Stay tuned for an announcement of brick oven building workshops that will allow people to have a brick oven built while hosting a workshop, thus saving them part of the cost, giving them a hands-on part in the process, and allowing others to learn the basics of brick oven masonry.  

Wednesday, March 21, 2012

Meet the Brick Oven Mason

There are number of ways you can know the mason who can build a brick oven.
#1 You can be that mason.
#2 You can invite the mason to your place.
#3 You can meet him or her at a showcase event such as a 'home and garden show'

If you live within driving range of Durham, New Hampshire you can meet me next weekend, March 24 and 25 at the Whitemore Center of UNH for the Seacoast Home and Garden Show

This is where I set up a booth and field questions from interested attendees.  Although a number of brick oven projects have resulted from people meeting me and talking about their dream of a brick oven, I especially enjoy meeting other brick oven owners and bakers, curious newcomers to the world of brick ovens and people who have experienced first-hand the cultures that have brick ovens at the center of their culinary life.

As a collector/archivist of historical brick oven information, these events have often led to a window into the deep impression that brick ovens have made on older immigrants.

Tuesday, March 20, 2012

Beautiful Food

Oven Roasted Lamb and Polenta
My posts usually feature brick oven info or lore and also brick oven restaurants or events.  I have claimed that one avenue to beautiful food is the brick oven. However, any foodie knows that there are many avenues and sometimes taking a side street results in unexpected treasures.
Pacific Catch
On rare occasions, I have been treated to beautiful food.  Where most restaurants (and home kitchen chefs) pay attention to quantity and expectations of flavor, beautiful food is both artfully presented and extraordinary in flavor.  These are the times when surprise bursts on your palate.
Pacific Catch Cabo Shrimp Taco
Two such moments in the past six months are:
Portland, Maine's Cinque Terre/Vignola Restaurant's Harvest Dinner at Grandview Farm and Pacific Catch on Chestnut Street in San Francisco.

Amazing Deserts at Harvest Dinner

Friday, March 16, 2012

Two Stage Pizza Dough Rollers

Generally, on principle, as a actually... Okay, if you're making many many pizzas or flatbreads, a two-stage dough roller is magic.

I first watched this being used in La Taverna Etrusca in Orvieto, Italy.  The proprietor took me out back when I showed him my biz card with the brick oven photo on it.  We also ate at his place twice because the pizza he made was not just thin; it was 'carta musica' or 'page of music' (that thin).
I showed this to a couple of caterers I've built ovens for and they had to have one.
Using part or all high-gluten flour, sold as Caputo now available from King Arthur as 'Bread Flour' allows the dough to stretch to near transparent thinness.

Of course, the alternative is rolling the dough super-thin by hand, which for home consumption is what I do on principle...generally.

Thursday, March 15, 2012

Wine and Cheese and Oh yeah, Bread

Not many things stick to human memory like food. The smells, tastes, appearance, and of course, the memory of where you consumed it. A lot like falling in love.
A year after entering Orvieto, Umbria, in Italy, the experiences return, in memory and action. Sensory input from that visit plays out in the food I prepare and the care I give the brick ovens I've built since then.
The wine and cheese tasted on that journey have redefined my palate.  The town itself is unique, set atop a cliff made of 'tufo' a soft volcanic rock that has been burrowed into since the time of the Etruscans. There are as many rooms below the street as above and nearly every house has its own wine cave.
In much of Europe, bread, cheese and wine are referred to as the 'holy trinity' of foods, no slight to the other trinity.

When I pull a fresh loaf of bread from the oven I try to have the red wine at room temperature as well as the cheese. Sharing them with friends completes the picture. We travel.

Tuesday, March 13, 2012

Pompeii Oven and Bakery Design

I visited the excavated city of Pompeii last March. It far exceeded my expectations. As one of the most visited sites in Italy, it was still possible to be on a street within this brilliantly designed metropolis and be alone.
Pompeii had more than two dozen bakeries operating until Vesuvius blew in 79 CE.  At the time, I had already built a number of 'Pompeii' style brick ovens and was curious to see the real thing. What I observed and came to understand, was that these bakeries were high-production. Doing the math, a city of 50,000 requiring daily fresh bread from say 25 bakeries meant that the ovens were baking hundreds of loaves a day. I understand that some wealthy families had their own bakeries.
The design of the oven openings is curious. Note that the flue occupies the entire area above the oven mouth. Yet, at each end of this open shelf space under the flue, there are openings.
I conjecture that bread handlers were setting rising loaves on boards in from one end and removing them from the other, or some other means of speeding up the management of baked product.  These side spaces may also have served as rising areas for breads prior to baking.
All of the surviving ovens I saw had this feature and none of the ovens built later in small communities and in private villas in other parts of Italy showed this same feature.

A currently-built brick oven bakery might employ this same design.

Sunday, March 11, 2012

Brick Ovens without Boundaries #5

I began life as an artist, then a gardener, then landscape designer and stone worker, now (without subtracting any of the aforementioned), a builder of brick ovens.

One boundary that I consider when planning a new brick oven is the larger context: How will it be used? To entertain? To produce pizza or bread? To be an integral part of everyday life?
The answers help determine the oven's size, placement, and even the cost.

Outdoor Entertainment Oven
3 Season Room Family Size

For example: An oven that will be used for large entertainment events, such as festivals, community gatherings, or backyard galas needs to be large, adjacent to the entertaining space, and often an adornment.  It may or may not be fired up frequently.

An oven for a family to be used often should be efficient, indicating a size in proportion to the number of people, well insulated so that it can retain heat for a long time giving the family many cooking options, and it should be conveniently placed for maximum use over the four seasons.

Caterer's Portable
And an oven for a caterer needs wheels. Beauty need not be sacrificed since part of the ambiance that a caterer brings to the event is set by the look of the oven.

In all these cases the oven is not tucked away in the 'back kitchen', which by-the-way, is a leftover from the days when servants cooked for the lords and ladies.
I've built all the above ovens.

Saturday, March 10, 2012

Brick Ovens without Boundaries #4

'Four Banal' in France
This series is intended to reference brick oven styles in different regions and at different times in history. Remarkably, the 'technology' of a brick oven hasn't changed in over 3000 years. The ovens built within the last century are nearly identical to ones a hundred or five hundred years older.

Greek oven
Therefore, the question exists: Why change now? Cheaply made modular cast-refractory ovens easily available by mail-order (drop-shipped) trade short term economy for long-term durability.  But, other than the cheapest cast refractory domes (and you might as well build a 'cob' oven for real cheap if you're going that route), most of the modular ovens cost almost the same as having a mason build one from firebrick once all the prep and finish work is done.

Oven and bakery in Normandy
This was my realization when I represented a modular oven company. Repeatedly, components arrived flawed or broken and I began to doubt the reliability of those products.  As a stone mason, I design and build stone walls, terraces, or garden houses to be standing for generations.  So should a brick oven.
Medieval oven in Kent, England

Cob and stone in Portland, Maine
That is also the reason I look to traditional forms and styles.  Once, in the not too distant past (admittedly the 1960's), I saw what happened when maverick house designers tried to be original (argh!).  The same desire to stand out by doing something 'new' continues today.  A grounding in classical styles is a good basis for reinterpreting tradition. Some of the most successful designs today are astute re-interpretations of classical styles.

Friday, March 9, 2012

Alternative Fuels for Brick Ovens

Walnut shells used in French oven
It is generally assumed in our forested country (U.S.) that dry hardwood is what you need to get a wood-fired brick oven to baking temperatures. However, there is a long tradition internationally of employing combustible fuels other than wood.
In France, even though the forests could supply oak, chestnut, and other hardwoods, I found the local baker using walnut shells, a by-product of the region's walnut crop.
Olive and grape vine trimmings
All over Italy, pruned branches from olives and other crop trees were bundled next to brick ovens for use a a primary fuel .  These thin and dry fuels burn quickly and hot and the bakers have developed methods of heating even a two meter wide interior oven with the minimum of fuel.
An apple orchard near my home sells pruned limbs for less than the going price for common firewood even though apple wood has one of the highest BTU to weight ratios. Apple wood also leaves the option of smoking foods at low smouldering temperatures.
A recent TBO oven fired with oak scraps
Many furniture shops throw out board ends of maple, oak, beech, and cherry. These non-varnished kiln-dried chunks of wood are perfect for the urban brick oven.
firewood drying for next bake
I recall entire multi-ton firings of clay roof tiles in Mexico fueled entirely on corncobs.
Whatever the fuel, it is best if bone dry. One method that assures this is to place the fuel for the next firing in the oven following a past firing (as long as the temp is down below 300F).

Thursday, March 8, 2012

Brick Oven Morning

A well insulated brick oven mass will still be 400F the morning after a pizza party. This has often inspired the whipping up of a fritata from the leftover ingredients of pizza toppings plus some egg and milk.  The above fritata is garnished with European kale, basil, heirloom tomatoes, goat cheese, and a sauteed slice of winter squash.
The following link will give you twenty more recipes to choose from.

During the garden season, optional additions gathered fresh from the garden accompany this colorful and delicious breakfast and extend the celebration for any guests who seem to be lingering from the night before.
As a gardener in northern New England, I have come to grow giant blue Hubbard winter squash not for their immense size (it's difficult to use that much squash in one go).  One year, when frost ended the growing season early, I plucked the youngest squashlings from the vine.  They at most the size of my fist.  When sliced and sauteed, they were sweet, tender, and had the texture and richness of avocados.  The above shown plate has a slice of one on the fritata.  Since then, I have experimented with immature fruit as ingredients in fall dishes with some success and a few surprises.
Fall in New England is also prime time for wild mushrooms, though I stick to the half-dozen that I am certain of.

Wednesday, March 7, 2012

Why Build an Old-looking Brick Oven

ancient wall in Tuscany
For many people, having a brick oven offers them a passport into the past.  A wood-fired brick oven is a piece of ancient culinary history.  That is why, when designing the facades and exteriors of brick ovens I build, I  pay close attention to 'aging' the exterior.
Stone facades, by the very nature of stone, look traditional and old.  Further methods of external treatment can enhance the illusion. 
2010 TBO oven
In creating 'The Tuscan Room" we began with some clear memories of Tuscany: colors, space proportions, materials.  We then found old beams and re-worked them to reproduce the sense of place and time.
On an outdoor oven, the brick face was stuccoed over and then wiped to reveal only parts of the brick as if time and weathering had worn the stucco away.
Traveling to the 'old country' supplies me plenty of visual vocabulary for imbuing both the brick ovens I build and the landscape design surrounding them with a sense of time.
Regardless of the history of any given home, a building that has stood and sheltered families for hundreds of years develops a presence of its own.
Observing the physical details of time that these buildings take on gives us a clue to designing places of meaning for ourselves.