Sunday, July 29, 2012

Kneading Conference De-brief

For two and a half days baking luminaries, aspiring bakers, wood-fired oven builders, and grain afficianados gathered at the Skowhegan Fairgrounds in Maine for an intensive exchange of techniques and products.

I brought my portable oven and had my eyes opened to the world of bread baking.  Firstly, it's not as simple as it looks, and secondly, the complex approach to making bread is worth it.

Thanks to Wendy Hebb, the director for pulling it together, to Michael and Sandy Jubinsky of Stone Turtle, Ciril Hitz, James MacGuire of Montreal, Richard Miscovich and Chris French of Johnson and Wales University in Rhode Island, Mitch Stamm, also of Johnson and Wales, and Jonathan Stevens and Cheryl Maffei of Hungry Ghost Bread in Northampton, Mass

Also thanks to the amazing caterers and all the attendees who baked in my oven and talked to me.
Admittedly, it was like a bread-baking geekfest... but don't we all hope to find ourselves among people who share our specialty interest.

These few photos are the tip of the bread loaf of more to come on specific skills and materials that interest brick oven users.

Monday, July 23, 2012

Talkin' Brick Ovens

In a few days I will be bringing my portable brick oven to the 2012  Kneading Conference in Skowhegan, Maine.

In addition to firing the oven up so that King Arthur Flour Company can bake in it, I will be presenting a talk on 3000 years of Brick Oven Baking.   Since I build traditional old-world domed ovens and bake in them, I have been drawn to explore ovens in Europe, Central America, and North America from which I learn much about the construction and use of these ovens. 
The Kneading Conference is fully subscribed at this time but I will post blogs on the happenings there as time and downloading permit.

Give us this day our daily bread (Urval, France)
These conferences are a great way to meet and talk to the experts and fanatics in the field of wood-fired ovens, bread baking, and heritage grains.

I personally look forward to learning a lot.

Thursday, July 19, 2012

Brick Oven Mistakes to Avoid #3

Two words: Dry firewood.

In order to fire up a brick oven to baking temperatures efficiently and with the least 'campfire syndrome' (smoke everywhere), you must have dry firewood.

Hardwood is the preferred and recommended type of wood for brick ovens since it does not contain resins and the coals maintain their heat and structure longer.  Granted, many cultures burn whatever they have on-hand, but in most temperate climates, hardwood trees can be harvested for firewood.

Hardwood takes at least a year to dry and often longer.  Splitting the wood promotes drying.  If the wood you use for your oven is very dry, you will have a little smoke at the start of the fire and then none for the entire heating up.  The wood will release its BTU's efficiently and with less than a laundry basket of wood you will be able to cook for up to 50 hours.

Previous blog post showed a French baker using walnut shells to stoke the fires and olive and grape prunings are used regularly in Italy.

If you find after one baking that your wood is sizzling and oozing water from the ends, you may be able to dry a quantity out by placing the logs in the oven after the oven has cooled down to 250F.  This effectively uses the last heat of the previous baking to dry out the wood for the next.

Brick Oven Ergonomics

Call this concern/potential mistake number two. 
Working with and around brick ovens is different from conventional ovens in significant ways.
1. You are working with a live fire.
2. You are managing the food with a peel (the long handled wood or metal tool often mistakenly called a paddle).
3. You are attracting a crowd of onlookers.

To accommodate these three conditions there needs to be ample space in front of the oven.

Having the firewood beneath the mouth of the oven makes feeding the fire easy.  Splitting wood into small sticks prior to starting the fire is advised and done somewhere else.  Dry firewood is best.

The peel will be swinging back and forth from the prep table to the oven mouth.  Imagine being able to do an in-place waltz in with a partner or Tai Chi with a stick.

People will want to watch and get involved.  The process of handling the peel and the food is just too irresistible.  Give your friends a chance to see and do by providing a staging area where 6-8 people can 'rubberneck'.

Wednesday, July 18, 2012

Brick Oven Mistakes to Avoid

I receive many emails from people who have built, are building, or are planning on building brick ovens.   This is great.  Occassionally, someone contacts me because the directions for the oven they built omitted essential aspects.

The next series of posts (with a break to report on The 2012 Kneading Conference will be devoted to helping home builders avoid very serious and costly mistakes.  I encourage anyone with some spacial understanding and the desire to bake in an oven of their own making to go for it.

Mistake Symptom One: My oven won't get hot.

6" refractory insulation below
The photo above was sent to me by a person who had followed a plan found on the internet for a brick oven.  The masonry work is very good, however the mouth is the same dimension as the interior!  There is no way that the oven can retain heat with so much air exchanging across the masonry.
There is also no insulation under or over the masonry.  This is essentially a fireplace, where all the heat is radiated outward.
Tear it down? Heartbreaking.  I suggested a number of other solutions.
The point is: avoid these costly mistakes.  Here we go...

Since the goal of a brick oven is to 'soak' the masonry with btu's, it would be sensible to do two things:

Keep the flow of cold air from excessively passing over the interior of the oven.

An average mouth opening that works for most ovens is 10" high and 20" wide.

cast refractory insulation over dome prior to outside insulation
And separate the heat-retaining masonry from the heat-sapping environment.

Insulate under and around the oven. Heat leaves the masonry primarily by conduction.  Insulation stops this.

Monday, July 16, 2012

The First Fire

'Curing' a new brick oven can be done cruelly or gently.
I recently completed the oven below and proceeded to light the first fire. (Note: having the owner or builder cure the oven is advisable since an overzealous stoker can undo many hours of good masonry work as well as burn down a structure)
A slow first warm-up allows moisture trapped in the masonry to escape at normal evaporating temperatures (below 250F).  High temps (500F) will cause trapped steam to literally explode inside the masonry blowing out sections or at least weakening them.

A second reason for a gentle first firing is assessment of the draft of the flue.  It is not necessary, and undesirable, to have a blackened oven face.  The accompanying photos show a reasonable first fire, an acceptable surface temp (350F given reflective heat from the live fire) for the interior brick, and the smoke path shown by the soot on the throat of the oven.

Infrared thermometers are very useful for this process as you can 'shoot' every location in the oven with pinpoint accuracy.

Wednesday, July 4, 2012

The Whole Enchilada

"The patio is finished!!! Yeah, it looks great, even the grass is growing in the yard behind it now. David did an awesome job with converting our backyard "rock" into something beautiful and useful. It looks like it always belonged there :) He is a true artisan."   Dan C.

Sometimes, as a landscape designer,  I am asked to transform the entire backyard.  The 3/4 stone and the stone steps and edging stones were added after scraping the area down to subsoil and leveling.  The gravel was compacted, covered with filter fabric, stone dust, and then brick.
This was one such opportunity.  Thanks to Dan and Debra.