There are few virtues a man can possess more erotic than culinary skill.
Aphrodite: A Memoir of the Senses
by Isabel Allende

Starting in November of 2009 Michelle at the Big Black Dog formed a group to bake its way through Healthy Bread in Five Minutes a Day by Zoë François and Jeff Hertzberg. I loved Artisan Bread in Five Minutes a Day, so I signed up with the group. Michelle first had us do a couple of warm-up assignments, which were my first attempt at blogging. The first "Official" post was on January 15, 2010, and it was followed by 41 more, on the 1st and 15th of each month. When I signed on I said I would bake the whole book, and like Horton (the elephant) I meant what I said and I said what I meant. I finished baking the book on October 1, 2011. Having completed that challenge, now I am just going to do some stuff, and post about it. As part of that stuff Michelle is posing a new, and different, challenge for us each month.

I am still baking bread, mostly the Five Minutes a Day kind, and if you would like to try the Five Minutes a Day bread method there are some links, with recipes, in the right hand column to get you started. Please give it a try.

But first, a word from my sponsor . . .
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This day be bread and peace my lot.
Alexander Pope

How can a nation be great if its bread tastes like Kleenex?

Julia Child

Everyone is kneaded out of the same dough but not baked in the same oven.
Yiddish proverb
(And some are only half baked.)

There is no love sincerer than the love of food.
George Bernard Shaw, via Sharon

Of all smells, bread; of all tastes, salt.
George Herbert

Thursday, July 28, 2011

Baking 5 Minute a Day Bread in a Wood-fired Earth Oven

There is a classic Tartar Sauce recipe, ostensibly from New Orleans in in 1879, the first step of which is to "Catch a young Tartar: for the old ones are very tough and devoid of juice."  So too, the first step in baking HB in 5 Bread in a Wood-fired Earth Oven is to build a Wood-fired Earth Oven

Some time ago I saw an article in Mother Earth News about making an Earth Oven.  The bit I saw referred to an earlier article, Build Your Own Wood-fired Earth Oven as well as a book, Build Your Own Earth Oven, 3rd Edition: A Low-Cost Wood-Fired Mud Oven; Simple Sourdough Bread; Perfect Loaves by Kiko Denzer and Hannah Field.   I got the book, and after cogitating for awhile, I decided to give it a try.

The book suggests building some trial, or experimental, ovens before setting out to make something more ambitious.  And the Mother Earth article is based on an earlier, less elaborate version.  The full-blown final version in the book is much better insulated, and more suited to frequent use for a wide range of cooking.  Since the full-blown version is relatively permanent, and sits on a waist-high platform, it needs a good foundation, which means digging down to the frost line, about 31/2 feet here.  That did not seem like too much fun, especially since it is in the 90's right now.  So I decided to begin with baby steps.  In this case that means first making  a small version, with an inside diameter of about 9 inches and an outside diameter of about 12 inches.  By comparison, the "standard" size oven in the book has an inside diameter of 22 inches. 

The earth for the earth oven is clayey subsoil, which we have in superabundance.  This is then mixed with sand, which makes a sort of concrete.
The base of the oven is bricks laid on a bed of sand. 
We (my Saintly Wife and I) then built a mound of wet sand, like a simple sand castle, on the bricks
Here you can see we added another brick at the back, for support. 
The final dome was almost as wide as the base, and a little taller than it was wide.

We then covered the dome with
wet newspaper, to form a separation from the walls of the oven.
Next, we started building, packing the sand/clay mix around the form.  It is important to press the clay firmly against itself, and not against the form, which might distort it.
After it had dried for a day I cut a door, which should be about 2/3 of the oven height.
Then, after another day of drying I removed the sand until I got to the newspaper. 
I then built a fire to dry it completely.   I had a little trouble keeping the fire burning, so I made the opening a bit taller.  This helped a lot, but I did get a bit of tear-out at the top of the door.
Here you can see the width of the walls.
   Once the oven was dry, it was time to try baking.  The book makes it clear that this is not really a functional oven--it is too small and thus lacks the necessary thermal mass.  The point of making it is to get a feel for the construction technique and the materials before trying a larger oven.  Still, I decided to give baking a try.  

I had about a half pound of Quinoa Bread dough left over, so I formed it into a boule and set it to rise.  Then I started a fire in my oven. 
 The way this oven works is that the fire gets both the bricks and the oven hot.  Once the oven is hot the coals are removed and the bread or pizza (or other food) is cooked on the bricks using the residual heat.  That is why thermal mass is so important.  I kept my fire going for about an hour, then let it burn down for about 15 minutes and pulled the coals out.   Here you can see my high-tech coal-puller, a strip of sheet metal, and my mini-peel, a spatula (it has to fit through the door, you know).
 Then I let the oven  rest for another 15 minutes to let the heat equalize, and popped in my risen loaf.  Since there was sand and ash on the oven floor I placed the loaf on a piece of foil.  I am not sure what the inside temperature of the oven was at this point, but the outside of the oven was too hot to touch (trust me).  My door is another piece of sheet metal, held in place by some urbanite.  
I was a little concerned that the bread might cook too fast, since the book notes that a pizza placed in a freshly fired full sized oven can cook in 3-4 minutes, but I needn't have worried.  My oven just did not have the thermal mass.  I checked it a 15 minutes, and it was baking, but slowly.  So I left it in for another 40 minutes, by which time it was done! 
The crust was not crispy by any means, the oven did not stay hot enough for long enough for that, but is was cooked and we had it for dinner.  

So, since this was a learning experiment, what did I learn?  
First that once we got to it the oven was pretty easy to make.  And fun.  I think I had too much sand in my mix, at least the finished building material seemed sandy to me, but it worked, and got hard once it was fired, and I got a bit of a feel for the material. 
And I learned the importance of door height to getting a good fire. 

So that is HB in 5 Bread Baked in a Wood-fired Earth Oven--Part 1.  
You will just have to wait and see whether there is a Part 2, which would involve making a full-sized oven, albeit one at ground level on a sand base rather than waist height on a foundation.

But I already have the bricks * * * . 


  1. Very Cool, Gus! I've always been intrigued with this idea but never quite had the oomph to give it a try. Looking forward to part 2!

  2. I want one!! Wow!! I've been contemplating making one of these but didn't want a big one. Yours looks like the size I would like to have. Will be showing this to hubby. Yet another project on his to do list. Oh, well, at least he can get good eats from it. Thanks so much for sharing.. M

  3. Oh my gosh! That's so wonderful! I wish we didn't have such a heavily landscaped area so I could do this. Maybe I can get a friend to do it and we can share!


  4. Building this small oven was really a lot of fun and the bread was great!